Saturday, November 1, 2008

Go fly a kite

Today, All Saints Day, people in Guatemala are flying kites at cemeteries (see for a great little video of the festivities in one Guatemalan town) as part of the two-day religious celebration of All Saints and All Souls that is a particular favorite for Catholics in Mexico and Guatemala.

If you wait out the video’s introduction of the year’s Queen and Princess of the Kites, you’ll see the amazing kites themselves – pieced from tissue paper and mounted on light wooden armatures. They are part catechetical picture-book, part sampler of the textile motifs found in the traditional garb of the town, and wholly Guatemalan.

You’ll see the blue and green-painted mausoleums of the cemetery, the sea of marigolds adorning gravesites, and the atmosphere that, despite being a Solemnity of the Catholic Church, can hardly be described as solemn.

For many years I think I saw this tradition as a marvel of folk art – the need to create that finds expression in ordinary people and everyday materials and turns into something extraordinary. But now, eight years after the death of my mother and four after the death of my father, I see in it something else.

It is like visual prayer, this kite flying.

The armatures, enormous and unwieldy, seem incapable of flight, and yet they soar high above us – where we envision the heavens, the communion of saints and Church triumphant, to be.
It is the community as a whole that gets those kites into the air. Some of it is skill, sure, and experience from past years. But most of it is faith that the kites can fly, and that by grace they will fly.

The same can be said of something that is happening in the Philadelphia area tomorrow, on All Souls Day. The first Spanish-language Mass to be televised across the region will take place at 6:30 a.m. on Telemundo WWSI-TV 62.

This, too, has been a community effort: Catholic entrepreneur Jorge Fernandez; the network’s general manager Clara Rivas; Msgr. Hugh Shields and Anna Vega, both from the archdiocesan Office for Hispanic Catholics, have had this in the works for a long time. Cardinal Justin Rigali is the celebrant of the Mass --and it is a joy to hear the Archbishop of Philadelphia’s beautiful Spanish during the liturgy.

Getting this Mass on the air has been as much a labor of faith and shared commitment as getting those huge Guatemalan kites in the air. Both leave me a bit in awe of the sheer devotion they evince: to God, to the vitality of the pilgrim Church on earth, to traditions and heritage.

And ultimately, for me, there is no way to talk about heritage, to talk about these days of commemoration of the departed, without talking about my parents. That’s them in the photo at the top of this blog entry. It will be their gravesite I will visit at St. Joseph Parish cemetery tomorrow after the All Souls Day Mass.

In keeping with the Guatemalan and Mexican cultural traditions I inherited from my mother, I will bring yellow and orange flowers that resemble marigolds to place around their headstone. In keeping with the Catholic faith I also inherited from my mother, I will read: “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.”

I will talk to my parents at their gravesite as if they were in front of me, and tell them how much I miss them. Then, I’ll come home and cook the foods they liked, to remember what we’ve shared across tables both literal and symbolic.

Two days later, I will enter a voting booth in the exercise of a right I inherited from my father; my citizenship earned by his blood.
I have been accused of turning everything into an argument for reforming our existing immigration laws and quotas, but in truth I cannot think about my parents without thinking about the ways lives are being shaped by our broken immigration system.

My father’s father, Leander Panayotis Vourvoulias, was born in Turkish-occupied Smyrna (what was then called Asia Minor) in 1894. He was the son of a Greek barber. According to a very skimpy bio that was written about him many years later when he was winning an award from the Consular Corps as Consul of the year, he had a college degree from American college in Smyrna.

It is unclear how my grandfather ended up in Havana, Cuba working for the National Bank of New York, but that same bio says he spent time in Chicago training in a bank before he moved to Cuba.

What is clear is that it was fortunate that he was in the Americas when his younger brother, George, was of the age to be forcibly conscripted into the Turkish army. My grandfather secured documents that allowed his brother to emigrate first to Cuba, and later, after coming to the U.S. via Key West, to Chicago, Ill.

It was to Chicago my grandfather also eventually returned, with my grandmother, for a year or so before moving to first to Colombia, and later to Mexico. My father was born in Chicago, in that sliver of time they lived in the U.S.

If this were happening today, my grandfather would never have gotten a visa to enter the United States as anything but a tourist. Because he would not have had an advanced degree or a post as an “outstanding professor or researcher” or be possessed already of managerial or executive status with his employer, he would not have qualified for the first two categories of employment-based visas issued in the U.S.

He might have qualified under the third employment-based preference, which gives first priority to those with bachelor’s degrees, second to skilled workers and third to unskilled workers. But the total annual quota for all three of these categories under this preference is only 40,000 visas a year.

If my grandfather’s story were happening today, even if he had lucked out and gotten a visa and then applied for either permanent residency or citizenship, our family history would be quite different.

As a citizen, it would take him 6 to 12 months to get papers to have his wife join in Chicago legally; if he were a permanent resident, it would take him five years, or longer.

Today, as a citizen, my grandfather could expect to wait seven years, or longer, to be able to bring his brother out of harm’s way. As a permanent resident, he wouldn’t even be allowed to try.

Let’s face it, if today’s quotas had been in effect during the great waves of German, Polish, Italian and Irish immigration of the past two centuries, the majority of us would not be able to claim American citizenship.

Skilled laborers like the German and Italian stonemasons responsible for some of our most beautiful architectural structures would have ranked penultimate on the visa quota list. And forget the unskilled laborers who built the infrastructure and kept us in food – the nation would have welcomed with open hearts only those who were already privileged, educated and white-collar.

As we do now, with our existing quota system.

It should not be lost on anyone with immigrant roots that the 14th Amendment – the one that says you get to be a U.S. citizen if one of your parents is one (jus sanguinis) or if you were born in the United States (jus soli) – has been the target of anti-immigrant rhetoric during this electoral cycle. Two early candidates in the race advocated eliminating the jus soli right for children born in the U.S. of undocumented parents. They still advocate it.

On All Saints/All Souls, I hope more than just Guatemalans fly some prayers up to heaven.

I hope that in commemorating our beloved departed we can hear clearly the stories they have for us – stories of love and faith and family, of how we are all immigrants seeking sanctuary, saved by amnesty and in search of Promised Land.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this post a lot...sorry it was only on your "front page" for a day. Guess elections rule over Leander. He would, of course, agree that this is the way it should be! But it certainly makes me wonder how it would have been had he come to America in this day and age...and what a day and age it is.


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