Author: Joonsuk Kang
Program of Study: PSD Statistics

Two years ago, I moved to the United States. As a newcomer to this land, I have been deeply interested in the histories and stories of other newcomers, or immigrants in general. One of my favorite authors is Jhumpa Lahiri, who writes fiction about Indian immigrants’ life. Her characters suffer from the incomplete sense of belonging and struggle with identity crisis, all of which resonate with me. For the same reason, Pilsen caught my attention the moment I heard about it. It is now a predominantly Mexican neighborhood, but there had been Irish, German, and Czech immigrants before it was characterized by Mexican flavor. It has long been a gateway to the States. I felt compelled to visit Pilsen.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago says, “German and Irish immigrants settled in this neighborhood in the 1840s.” As a matter of fact, however, before this there were American Indians. Chicago Potawatomi were living in Chicago when French explorers/immigrants came to this area in the late 17th century. Even the name Chicago is derived from the Potawatomi word shikaakwa meaning onions.

The modern history of Pilsen begins with Irish and German immigrants. Irish immigrants were the first to come after the Great Famine in the mid 19th century. It is recorded that there was also some presence of German immigrants. You can feel the vibe of the Irish age from the St. Pius V Catholic Church, which was founded for and by Irish immigrants in 1874. Then there came Czechs who named this area, Pilsen, after the name of the city Plzeň of Czech. They also built another great church: St. Procopius Catholic Church. If you are versed in architecture, you would find pleasure in comparing the styles of these churches.

Today Mexican Catholics are the majority in these churches. On Sundays, St. Pius V has four masses held in Spanish and two in English; St. Procopius has two in Spanish, one in English, and none in Czech language. The Mexican dominance is also true outside the churches. Mexicans, who are great painters as well as religious believers, transformed plain walls into amazing murals. 

Increíbles Las Cosas Q’ Se Ven (2001) by Jeff Zimmerman; © Señor Codo / Wikimedia Commons

The Increíbles Las Cosas Q’ Se Ven (Oh, The Things You’ll See) Mural, located at 19th and Ashland, was the most impressive mural to me. From right to left, the painting shows Mexican immigrants who were blessed by the Virgin of Guadalupe when crossing the sea; the immigrants working hard to make a living in various industries; their descendants prospering as scholars, medical doctors, chefs, and saying “Sí, se puede” (Yes, we can). It is a three-page pamphlet of the American Dream.

America has been considered as a nation which embraces immigrants more than any other nation and is entitled to be called a melting pot. But the exhibition Nuestras Historias (Our Histories) at the National Museum of Mexican Art refutes it. It is pointed out that “Mexico has always been multicultural, as it is the only true ‘melting pot’ society in North America, whereas the U.S. is best compared to a ‘patchwork quilt’ of ethnicities.” In fact, we witness a serious segregation in the city of Chicago and the matter is worse nationwide. The immigration policies have become stricter under the Trump administration. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents were recently spotted in the Pilsen neighborhood, possibly to enforce law. While laws should be enforced, the reality is that laws do not always lie just within legal boundaries. One of the side effects has been family separation. 

Anti-immigration sentiments and white supremacist violence is what we really should be concerned about. In July 2019, President Trump tweeted that “Progressive Democrat Congresswomen…go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested placed from which they came.” Needless to say, these congresswomen are all U.S. citizens as U.S. Constitution specifies eligibility of the positions. And three out of the four congresswomen targeted were actually born in the United States. Stirred up by his racist remark, his supporters ferociously chanted “send her back” at a rally.

Sending immigrants of color back to “from which they came,” whether they were born in the United States or not, is not a new idea. In face of the Great Depression, 0.4 to 2 million Mexican and Mexican-Americans were repatriated to Mexico; sixty percent of those are estimated to have been birthright citizens. Now what would happen if the next economic recession comes as predicted by many economists? Global economy is slowing and the market’s consensus on gloomy economic forecast is shown as an inverted yield curve. I have belief in this country that it will not end up repatriating its citizens again for no other reason than race or ethnicity. But one in doubt is legal residents who are not U.S. citizens. It goes without saying that illegal residents would be in such a harsh environment. They are already under attack and the related policy is at the very center of current political debate.

Illegal immigrants are not the only target of U.S. immigration policies under President Trump, who politicizes immigration and keeps producing more than a few racist remarks. His former lawyer Michael Cohen testified that “while we were once driving through a struggling neighborhood in Chicago, he commented that only black people could live that way.” American people should pay closer attention to the essence and details of the current immigration policy and be alert to the possibility of their president depreciating their proudest values, such as equality and openness.

As the mural Declaration of Immigration says, the United States is “a nation of immigrants” where “no human being is illegal.” Just as Pilsen flourished with the flow of immigrants, the United States became a great nation with the help of their contributions. No one can deny the economic and cultural contributions of Mexican immigrants to the development of the United States, but they are under severe attack today. And it’s not only about Mexican people or Mexican Americans. It’s about all of the people who decided to move to this country or whose ancestors ventured to come to this land in pursuit of a better life. Embracing and celebrating diversity is what made the United States stand at the center of the history. Even the policy against illegal immigrants is not a black and white issue. The concept of legality is based on consensus of the citizens who live in this country, meaning that its boundary changes over time. Looking back, we see not a little absurdity in our history: black people were owned by white people; women were not allowed to vote; gay couples were not legally blessed. And now the legality of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is threatened. Some of the benign immigrants may turn illegal in a day or even be forced to leave this country. When the authority brandishes legality, the purpose should not be to unjustly expel the members of society.

Declaration of Immigration (2009) by Yollocalli Arts Reach; © Joonsuk Kang

My friend Fabricio and I took an Uber from Hyde Park to Pilsen. It was UberPool, so another rider was added on our way. The driver not noticing the added rider got lost on his way to Pilsen. He later realized the situation and made a joke “why you Argentine and ‘rich Chinese’ take UberPool, not UberX?” (all the curse words omitted). Well, I did not feel good about that. To be fair, my friend told the driver where he came from–Argentina–while I did not, mostly because the driver did not ask me. He later apologized for calling me “Chinese” when I told him I am not from China, but not for the phrase “rich Chinese” who is not supposed to take UberPool. Outside the sheltered university campus, I confronted the harsh reality of being disrespectful for ethnic and racial diversity. I safely returned to the campus haven, but I hope this community and country where I have started my new journey will head toward better embracing and promoting diversity.


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