Singing with The Franco Brothers y Orquesta Actualidad, circa 1995

Thoughts on entitlement, community, and our country losing its way

I don’t know what percentage of my friends are here because they were brought here — properly processed or otherwise — but it’s not low.

I mean, how many of them were brought here by desperately hopeful people, or were born here to those desperate to remain? Which of them fled something we can’t imagine (or maybe we’re starting to, if we’re closely watching the skies)? But first and second-generation immigrants — hardworking, expressive, family-forward, loving, and forever straddling two countries and two realities — taught me everything I know about community.

So indelibly, in fact, that the word “community” has never really held much meaning to me since leaving San Francisco, and the reason for that is simple: white people, well, we aren’t fucking good at it. We come from individualist stock and we pride ourselves almost unnaturally on independence. Even our celebrations are so remote and stilted that everyone has to get drunk to say what they really feel. For godsakes, riverdancing? What even IS dancing that skips the hips and happens only from the knees down — the fixed grimace and side-pinned arms almost an apology for having been made a conduit of what is primally and essentially human.

San Francisco knows this (or maybe it has forgotten; I’m told it’s different now )— but it used to fiercely know this: the secret to vibrant community is diversity.

The other secret is deeply appreciating – of relishing — the place we call home. This occurs naturally in San Francisco — a city so expensive that its residents must constantly cling to it as if to the gunwales of a rocking boat. All but the very rich must frequently ask themselves if it’s worth it. They tally their liabilities. What do I love? What do I lose?

Immigrants are, overwhelmingly, people who have thought at length about what “home” means, and tuned a compass to it, often at agonizing costs many of us can’t understand or imagine — or won’t, because we have the luxury of not having to.

“Sure, America has its bullshit, every country does,” said my friend Manuel. I met him in Mexico in 1990, but he used to move back and forth (illegally) between Mexico and California, working crop jobs [sidenote: crop jobs, I am here to tell you, suck, and U.S. farmers will also tell you they cannot get legal residents to work them — not for any labor rate which would allow our fruit and vegetables to stay within 70% of the cost we expect and demand]. And he continued:

“I remember my first paycheck in California. I was doing lettuce. That is hard, hard work. But I take my money and I get my own little fridge, you know? And I buy this delicious steak, a couple of cold beers? I was in heaven. My little fridge. My perfect steak, my cold beers. In Mexico you have nothing. Everyone around you has nothing, there’s no future; you can never save, it is never enough. In the U.S. I didn’t have shit, not by your standards, but I felt rich. The simplest things were a luxury.”

There’s also something antithetical to community: entitlement.
Entitlement, by definition, holds no gratitude. It’s barely conscious, never introspective. Entitled people don’t look around them in wonder, feeling fortunate. They look around them and pull what’s theirs — or what just feels like theirs — closer to the chest.

Let me think of my old community. Just off the top of my head, there are my old neighbors on South Van Ness (from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Hey Henry! I see you, Arturo. Hola Anthony). We all kept the keys to each other’s cars so we could move them during the dreaded, costly street sweeper hours when one or more of us was working or sleeping.

I think of Mario, my old housemate, definitely here “illegally,” who worked two jobs at once and taught me how to make pico de gallo and ceviche the right way — with two kinds of onion, the red ones slightly marinated beforehand.

I think of the boys’ nanny, Karen, who left her own children to tend to mine, who drove to Western Union every week on payday to send her money back home so her own mother could pay for her daughters’ private school in Honduras. In my friend group, in my life, I know so many men and women who did this. Western Union on payday. Money home. Away from their family, for the love of their family.

I think of Foncho, whose rent was a bit high for me at the time, so he set about converting a walk-in closet into a bedroom and charging me $150.

The barbecues I was invited to, the bands setting up spontaneously in apartment courtyards, barbecue for everyone. Carnitas and lumpia the neighbors would bring over because they made too much; Carlitos’ aunt who instead of roasting her Thanksgiving turkey, instead slow-braised a delectable turkey salcocho over two days. It was the best thing I have ever tasted.

I didn’t ask what the gatekeepers of the U.S. were like when all of them, or all of their parents, came over, but this was a country that used to understand that our greatness came from our diversity. It used to proudly declare itself a melting pot.

I think of four of the five police officers I know — Latinos all, who may or may not have been blessed with an easy, “legitimate” passage at the border. Maybe they were born here, maybe not. Are they as “legal” as you and me? Well, that’s a pretty preposterous thing to contemplate when you realize how this nation evolved, yanking terrain out from under the Native Americans and stealing their shit and gifting them blankets infused with smallpox (see: community / white people / not fucking good at it, above).

For a country with such a legacy of land-grabbing and theft, we certainly are strangely prone to sanctimony about privileges we, personally, did NOT earn through any special acts of courage, toil, or accomplishment. We were lucky enough to be born here. We didn’t pull that one off alone, you know. Chances are, a few generations back our relatives were standing there in the salt air of Ellis Island having their names Anglicized or mispronounced and hoping they wouldn’t fuck things up in this new place.

Because, in fact, we did not earn this land through some kind of virtuous endowment or act of God. Quite the contrary: we took it by force. And let’s not forget the people dragged here forcibly on slave ships, because, having habituated ourselves into grabbing land and eviscerating populations, it’s no real stretch to just help yourself to another continent’s people and chain them to your newly purloined property.

Yet our population — and let’s be clear here. I’m talking about our WHITE population — remains mystifyingly proud of our legacy. That legacy, despite assorted stories of individual nobility and a worthy, and earnest, attempt at the creation of “a more perfect union”, is blighted at the root system by ruthless conquest and brutal subjugation.

No one person is more entitled to a good life than any other person. Every person on earth, faced with the covenants of providing for ourselves and our loved ones, wants, or should want, an opportunity for safety and for comfort.

In border towns, criminal gangs are literally lying in wait for new deportees. They brutalize, kidnap, and hold them hostage, demanding money from back home. These hapless people who plenty of us worked, lived, and went to school with get the bottom dropped out of their world; from day to night finding themselves abruptly hand-delivered by armed agents of the United Fucking States of Scared, Angry, and Irrational White People to some toxic opportunistic border town — plenty of them not even knowing the language — like chum for the exact types of people who ply border towns into sociopathic industry.

We are not more deserving. We enjoy luck of the draw. While we cannot have uncontrolled borders, wrenching families apart when there is absolutely no demonstrable advantage — economic or otherwise — is yet another symptom of America’s profound cultural sickness. A fever dream of misplaced aggression, a howling outward instead of a deep and chilling look inward. I never thought I could feel this disgusted with my fellow countrymen.

To all my friends who are threatened, disrupted, and impacted, I am so profoundly sorry this is happening to you, and to all of us.