Monday, December 20, 2010

Tale of an immigrant family from long ago

(The picture to the left is of The Flight Into Egypt by Giotto di Bondone, depicting the Holy Family's escape from Herod's tyranny. It was painted between 1304 and 1306, and it is located in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy)

They were descendants of immigrants who themselves became immigrants.

Soon after the baby arrived, a dream came to the father that the little family would have to leave their homeland if they were to survive. Even the life of an innocent child was in danger in their homeland.

So the three of them—father, mother and child—left their tiny village and embarked on a treacherous journey through the desert wilderness. They were very poor and had little more than the clothes on their backs.

They traveled by day and by night, ever fearful they might be captured or attacked, until they finally crossed the border. They brought no documentation with them, only their humility and the father’s willingness to work hard to support his family.

He was a trained craftsman, good with his hands, and his work was valued even if he was paid so little he could never hope to rise out of his poverty. With his teenage wife tending to their baby, he went out among the people to earn bread and shelter for them.

He heard the whisperings among those in this new land. They called him and his family foreigners, outsiders, and even illegal aliens, as if they had come from the moon and their very existence was something less than human, a violation of not only the law of the land but also God’s law.

“They’re just here to take our jobs, to feed, house, and clothe themselves at our expense,” he heard one of them say.

“They don’t even take the time to learn our language,” said another.

“Why are they even here? Is their own country not good enough for them? Perhaps they’re spies,” said yet another.

“The way people like these spawn they’ll soon be everywhere, expecting their new offspring to be treated equally just because they were born here, like so many little anchors for their illegal parents. Anchor babies, that’s what they’ll be.”

Some of these whisperings came from the very people who benefited from his labors. They would say these things as soon as they walked away from the worksite and rejoined their neighbors and friends. Local leaders heard the comments, too, and saw an advantage in such fears, prejudice, and suspicions. So they began to talk among the crowds and, being leaders, talked loudest of all, loud enough for everyone to hear.

Even the priests joined the chorus, invoking God’s judgment from their pulpits, condemning the strangers for breaking the law and taking advantage of people’s hospitality.

The father and mother, already homesick, longed for their faraway families and friends. They knew many did not welcome them in this strange land, but they also feared for their child’s life if they returned home. Did their little child have any idea of all the troubles that surrounded them?

The father remembered how his ancestors had been immigrants to this very land many generations before and had prospered here, but then a new leader had turned them into slaves and they had left. Now he and his wife and child had returned because their own land had become hostile. When would it all end? Where was there a refuge?

Eventually the father, whose namesake had been a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams, had yet another dream, and this one told him the time had come to return home. So he and his wife packed their belongings, wrapped up their child to keep it warm, and journeyed back to their homeland. They had to be careful. Dangers still lurked, but at least they were home.

And back in the strange land where they had sought refuge, some indeed missed them. “He did good work,” one said. “You know, they never really bothered anyone,” another said.

But these voices were quickly drowned out by the leaders and their priests who cried “Good riddance!” and then looked for others to condemn.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Strike by Georgia inmates Invokes the Old and the New About the South

(To the right you see a late-career campaign poster from James K. Vardaman from the early 1920s, one of my prized possessions of Southern political memorabilia)

A nonviolent strike by inmates at seven Georgia prisons has evoked one of the South's long-held and darkest traditions while incorporating the latest technology at the same time.

The inmates at Smith State Prison in Downing and elsewhere across the state told the New York Times that they were able to coordinate their protest through use of "contraband cellphones" that allowed text-messaging as a means of communication. Inmates were able to purchase the cellphones from guards and other sources, often at exorbitant prices.

The key issues behind the strike are inmate demands that they be paid for work they do in the prison system and that deteriorating living conditions be improved. They also want more focus on rehabilitation, such as educational programs. The Georgia Department of Corrections' response thus far is a lockdown at four of the prisons.

The familiar story of miserable conditions within Southern prisons has become the stuff of Hollywood, with movies such as I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang and Cool Hand Luke depicting a South with plenty of uniformed sadists always ready to use their power and fulfill their darkest needs to chain, beat, and whip those helpless to oppose them.

Beyond their use of cellphones and complaints about prison conditions, the inmates and their insistence that they be paid for their work reminded this writer of an age-old issue in the South: private profiteering from prison labor.

It evokes a South that's perhaps not as "new" as we'd like to think. Using prison labor for private profit was a key issue in turn-of-the-(20th) century Mississippi, where--irony of ironies--one of the South's most notoriously racist politicians, Gov. James K. Vardaman, pushed through major reform legislation that ended convict leasing and improved conditions at the state's notorious Parchman prison.

"I am more interested in the salvation of men than I am in hoarding gold," Vardaman said, protesting "money coined out of the blood and tears of the unfortunate convicts."

Conditions were indeed bad. Investigators found inmates doing farm labor for the privately owned land of prison officials, sick inmates confined to a ward where broken windows exposed them to freezing temperatures in the winter, and, in one case, an inmate forced by a guard to kill another inmate.

As retold in Albert D. Kirwan's book, Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics, 1876-1925, Vardaman told Mississippians that even a "low-bred, vulgar creature, congenitally corrupt, inured to physical and moral filth" deserved "kindly treatment, a decent bed to sleep on, and sanitary surrounding."

He decried prison conditions "rivaling in brutality and fiendishness, the atrocities of ... Torquemada."

Vardaman, a striking figure on the campaign trail with his long black hair, white suit, and black hat, provides a classic example of Southern contradiction in politics. Known as the "Great White Chief", he was a horrible racist when campaigning, even supporting the lynching of blacks. As an office-holder, however, he was remarkably progressive for his time and even acted to prevent the lynching he supported as a candidate. He supported restrictions on child labor, fought the all-powerful railroad companies and other big corporations, created a state textbook commission and thereby ended the American Book Company's monopoly. Vardaman even increased educational funding for blacks.

However, Vardaman's racist diatribes on the campaign trail--imitated and perhaps even exceeded by his understudy, Theodore G. Bilbo--will forever mark and darken whatever positive achievements he attained.

Nevertheless, some of his reform spirit as regards prisons might be worth re-visiting these days as governments continue to look to private prison-operating companies to do the work that they themselves should do, and, as I've written before, another "dark piece of the Old South that's still there" threatens to resurrect itself--even if it never really went away.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Immigrants in Maxo Vanka's Murals Speak to a New Generation of Immigrants Today

(The accompanying picture is one of Maxo Vanka's compelling murals, and it depicts the cost of war for immigrants who suffer discrimination and prejudice in their new homeland yet are willing to fight and even lose their lives for that homeland. It is a fitting picture for this post, filed on December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, and the day after the celebration of St. Nicholas, the namesake for the church where Vanka's murals are preserved.)

Veteran readers of this blog know of my admiration for Croatian artist Maxo Vanka, whose breathtaking Depression-era murals are preserved at the St. Nicholas Croation Catholic Church on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pa.

The Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka (SPMMMV) recently announced that it has secured a $50,000 matching grant to fund the first phase of a project to preserve and restore the murals, which vividly depict the lives of peasant immigrants to the region who did backbreaking labor in the steel mills, factories, and coal mines to realize the American dream.

SPMMV is also preparing for the May 2011 presentation of A Gift to America, a play by David Demarest that deals with Vanka's work and the haunting murals that cover practically every inch of wall space in the church.

Thus far, more than $235,000 has been raised toward the project, which seeks to preserve an important piece of immigrant history in this country. A second phase of restoration has a fund-raising goal of $350,000.

Although this blog focuses on the U.S. South--and by extension the Global South--the stories told in Vanka's murals reflect the lives of millions of newly arrived Southerners from south of the border--the loneliness, the hard work, the exploitation, the prejudice, the struggle to preserve traditions and yet adapt to a new home.

To get an idea of how close to home Vanka's murals hit let's consider the recent plight of 350 Filipino teachers who came to Louisiana to teach in the public schools but found themselves virtual slaves of the labor contractors who brought them there. The contractors buried the teachers in such bogus debt for fees, travel, and other "expenses" that they had to live in substandard housing with little hope of ever emerging out of their indentured servitude.

With the prompting of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, American Federation of Teachers, Migrant Heritage Commission and Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, the Louisiana Attorney General's Office intervened and succeeded in rescuing the teachers and is in the process of getting them proper visas for their stay here.

The Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers also secured a victory recently for migrant workers when it got a major tomato industry leader, Pacific Tomato Growers, to agree to observe the organization's code of conduct. That code insists that workers have access to a health and safety program and grievance resolution procedures.

The CIW is building a long track record of success in its ongoing fight for immigrant worker rights.

Maxo Vanka would be proud.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wal-Mart vs female employees, and Wal-Mart vs. retail workers in South Africa

Wal-Mart greeter Betty Dukes' nine-year-old discrimination case against her employer has finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and a decision is expected any day now as to whether she and thousands of other female employees actually have a basis for a class-action claim against the company.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer and strongly backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, claims lower court rulings accepting the class-action suit are wrong and that allegations of a systemic practice of discrimination against women is ridiculous. Dukes and others say many female workers at Wal-Mart not only get the short end of the stick in pay raises and promotions but are subjected to discriminatory and insulting treatment by management at the workplace because of their gender.

Remember: this is the same Supreme Court that in January opened the floodgates to the corporate financing of American politics, so Betty Dukes and her colleagues are up against a Goliath indeed.

Meanwhile in South Africa, leaders of the 150,000-member South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU) have threatened to go on strike if Wal-Mart is successful in its efforts to take over Massmart, which has discount retail stores spread across the continent with plans to open dozens more.

Wal-Mart is positioned to take majority control of Massmart shares if shareholders agree to it, setting the stage for a major invasion by the virulently anti-union, Arkansas-based retailer to spread the gospel of Sam (Walton, the company's founder) to Africans: cheap goods provided by a cheap multi-billion-dollar company whose low-paid U.S. employees often have to depend on Medicaid and Food Stamps to survive.

It'll be interesting to see how a stand-off between corporate Wal-Mart and a union with strong connections to government in Africa might turn out.