Monday, April 26, 2010

Hugo Alfredo: The Invisible Immigrant Who Gave

Let me begin my stating my understanding of who is an immigrant. In recent years, this term has become code, in the dominant discourse, for referring to people of color who have come to the U.S. Belgians, Scots or Swedes are not envisioned. However, in actuality, Native Americans are the only people in this country who are not immigrants, and perhaps, they too migrated here from somewhere else long ago.

But today I woke up to the beautiful and tragic story of Hugo Alfredo, an immigrant from Guatemala. I do not know how long he has been in this country or had been homeless. What I know, from watching ABC this a.m. is that he attempted to help a woman who either was or seemed to be in danger from a man pursuing her. She apparently got away from her pursuer, who then turned his rage on Hugo, stabbing him several times, before taking off. A video camera records Hugo giving chase but only for a few feet, when he collapses on the sidewalk, face down. Individuals pass by him, with no movement towards him. Finally, one guy actually stops and rolls him over, seeing his wounds. It's not clear who called the police, but for one hour Hugo lay on the sidewalk dying. He is going back to Guatemala to his family in a box.

When Ju-Ju reported this story on Good Morning America, she ended with a line and flip delivery that led me to turn off the TV: "A Good Samaritan Who Needed a Good Samaritan." Clever line but no feeling evident in it.

I'd like to think that if I had passed this man on the street that I would have done something. I'd like to believe that about myself, especially if he's face down. I don't think I would have gone over and touched him, out of fear (of germs, of his reaction, of what I'd find). I have certainly approached strangers, adults and children, who seem highly distressed, to see if they need help. But there is this veil, sometimes opaque and other times sheer, that hangs between homeless people and most of us with homes to go to (even if in foreclosure). When the homeless are sprawled on the ground and if we look at their faces, we assume sleep or passed out. But face down on the sidewalk, I believe I could not have done nothing. I believe I would have called the police to report a man face down, perhaps in medical distress. That's all I can do, believe. I wasn't there and so I do not know what I would do. The man who extended himself to at least turn Hugo over may in fact have been the one who called the police.

Hugo, a Central American immigrant, did not have a home, but he had a generous spirit, a humanity of grace. To those who want to scapegoat and traumatize immigrants of color, we can ask, where is your humanity? Does Hugo's humanity reach yours? To those of us who believe we would have done something, we can ask ourselves, how can we lift that veil a little higher?

I hope we get to hear from the woman to whom he made his offering. But even if we don't, Hugo's sacrifice stands as a reflection to us all.

Photo courtesy of AP, F. Franklin

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Appreciating Little Signs of Progress

Most of us want to do big things. We’re led to believe that is what matters. Make a splash, grab a headline, make a lot of money, cure AIDS, turn 100 heads as we walk by. Make a difference. It’s why I’ve always loved the saying by Mother Teresa:

“We cannot do great things in this world, only small things with great love.”

And so it is with our growth. We look to make great leaps and that’s fine. Shoot for the stars, it’s the only way you’ll get there or even close. And at the same time, so many important moments come in tiny steps, a certain look of compassion, the one time, when you don’t respond the way you almost always do, a day when you eat more fruit and green vegetables. As a therapist, you are not always the vehicle to a certain outcome. Sometimes, that outcome is far away, and what you can contribute is to the quality of the process, a different experience along the way, or maybe one new opening in the mind and heart of another. You are contributing, and others will too, maybe down the line, another therapist will see the outcome.
I believe that all of us know a great deal, even if we do not always have access to what we know. Much of what is needed is to remember, keep remembering, and to practice, and keep practicing. And so recently, I noticed one of those small steps in my own growth -- nothing earth shattering, and yet something in which I find pleasure, a sense of goodness.

In certain neighborhoods, certain regions of the country, strangers acknowledge each other as they cross paths, as a matter of human courtesy. Most times, especially in big cities, strangers may look at each other as they pass and that’s it. Every now and then there’s the exception. In the past, when I have extended myself to be the exception, and the human being ignores me, I have felt one or more of these feelings: foolish, devalued, miffed. Courtesy and respect were BIG in my household growing up -- it’s downright rude and disrespectful to not return a greeting that is respectful. When my friendliness was not returned I wished I hadn’t extended myself.
And yet, I didn’t like the tit for tat attitude either. There is something valuable about extending a friendly greeting, period, the feeling of good will. . I aspire to get to that place, where I may be disappointed that a greeting isn’t returned, but that I don’t feel diminished by it and I don’t regret having extended myself.
A few days ago, I got a glimpse of it. No one else was on the sidewalk when I and a Black man, who looked like he may have been from the Caribbean, approached each other.

“Good morning,” I said.

He looked at me, his eyes rather piercing, and his face like stone, as we passed each other. I wondered about him. I did not feel foolish or regretful. I felt good. I spoke because that’s how I wanted to be in that moment. It’s been easier for me to know the satisfaction of taking a stand on big things, to represent my vision, my values, whether or not it will change anything. It’s been a matter of principle.
But even in small things, I am practicing to see the value of being who I am unconditionally.

Photo courtesy of Bernadine Tolbert

Sunday, April 4, 2010

MLK Jr. - reflections on the anniversary of his murder

I can remember this day forty-two years ago like it was yesterday. I was in my high-rise dorm room when the voice of my friend Jimmy Mac, a cool dude with wire-rim glasses from Harlem, came through the phone. "They did it," he said. "What?" I said. "They killed him." "Who are you talking about?" "Martin Luther King." "WHAT? They KILLED HIM? They KILLED him!" That gentle giant with black eyes like that of a doe, willing to get his and others' heads bashed in in the name of love and turning the cheek. I could not take it in, but told Mac I'd be downstairs in a few minutes to join him and others who were going downtown (Boston) to be together with other Black students in the area.

I am still not over it. The issue of race took on a new philosophy and role in my life. But that's another blog.

What I didn't appreciate at the time was how radical Martin Luther King Jr. was, not just in terms of his non-violence stance (which truthfully didn't seem that radical to me at the time), but when he began to address the immorality of Vietnam and of class oppression, and suggested that the ghetto was a colony. This progression in his thinking, his voice, his actions doesn't get much play, and he had just started to support the Black sanitation workers on strike in Memphis when he was shot down. Bill Moyers recently did a show on PBS about King and the state of class and race nowadays. He and Michael Winship also did a piece in King lost a lot of support when he widened his lens and protest, including flak from the N.A.A.C.P. So sad. It reminds me again of how lonely it can be to take a stand against injustice, and yet as he said "There comes a time when silence is a betrayal."

Not long ago, there was concern that the sculpture of him for the memorial being built in Washington looked too forceful (my word). Or is it that it looked 'angry'? His face, his hands needed to be toned down, smoothed over. This is what society wants to do over time with social justice heroes, render them innocuous teddy bears so they can be loved. I think about this not only with Martin Luther King but Muhammad Ali. These Black men did not go gently against injustice, and they were willing to risk status and lifestyle in taking their stands. Muhammad Ali gave up his heavyweight title, his ability to make a living in is profession for years, and Martin Luther King gave us his life. These men had the courage and integrity to speak up and lose the support of many.

The cost of integrity can be high. This post-modern notion that everything can be negotiated pleasantly with appropriate empathy and good will is itself a sanded-down notion. There is sacrifice, burning, and heartbreak in speaking truth to Power.

I give thanks to these brothers and others who bear witness to such strength. Though I cannot be them, they hold me up in the little steps I take to speak up at times when silence is preferred and well cultivated.