Monday, November 30, 2009

Lovely to Me (Immigrant Mother)

Sweet music video: "Lovely to Me (Immigrant Mother)" by Taiyo Na, beautifully filmed in Philly's Chinatown and Love Park.

Thanks to Swarthmore's Migration Project ( for the heads up on this.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Voices joined in prayer for comprehensive immigration reform

60,000 strong. And in Philadelphia, with a distinctly Irish tenor.

Last night, St. Laurence Parish in Upper Darby hosted a prayer vigil for immigration.

Members of the Indonesian, Irish, African American and Latino community carried candles in a procession that started at the Irish Immigration Center in Upper Darby, then crossed West Chester Pike to the church for an hour of prayers, testimonies, petitions and hymns.

75 people heard
the testimonies of two immigrants -- one currently undocumented and one who had gone through the long process of documentation -- as well as petitions in English and Spanish for the welfare of the nation and families. They intoned prayers and blessings for the legislators facing the task of crafting comprehensive immigration reform in the upcoming months. Then, they prayed the "Our Father" in Gaelic, and sang the concluding hymn to Our Lady of Knock-- the 19th century apparition of Mary in Knock, County Mayo, Ireland (approved by the Catholic Church in 1971) and beloved of the Irish immigrant community.

After praying together, many of the participants returned to the Irish Immigration Center to be part of a "listening party" -- a national teleconferenced town hall meeting.

The teleconference outlined immigration reform legislation that Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) proposes to present to Congress. Those gathered for the national event were asked to listen, and then share their thoughts and concerns about the proposed legislation.

"We need everyone on this call to take action with your churches, your families and your organizations so that we can deliver a strong message to President Obama and Congress that, hey, it has been a year... We want you to keep your promise to our families," Gutierrez said.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) were also part of the teleconference -- which drew more than 60,000 participants across the nation, according to Reform Immigration for America (the organization which organized the teleconferenced event).

"[The legislators] shared with the listeners their positive hope that we can move ahead," said Msgr. Hugh Shields, vicar for Hispanic Catholics of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

He acknowledged that a number of undocumented immigrants who knew about the prayer vigil and the teleconference were reluctant to attend either event for fear of possible repercussions. Many fear detention which would separate family members or strand minor children in the country alone.

"Immigration reform would enable them to come out of shadows," Msgr. Shields said."

Photos by Sarah Webb for the Catholic Standard & Times

Sunday, November 15, 2009

How to make an immigrant quilt

Let’s be clear – I don’t sew.

I don’t own a sewing machine -- and even if I did I’m not sure I could figure out how to turn the thing on, much less get it to do what I’d want it to do.

I’m not a good candidate to be making a quilt.

But – God help me – I am making one, and have been, on and off, for the past 13 years.

Before you ask, no, I’m not finished yet.

I told you – I don’t sew.

Years ago, in Guatemala, I was forced to take sewing class – costura – at the Colegio Maya. It was one of the only classes I ever took that I came this close to failing. Sra. Alonzo hated me. God’s truth. I insisted on talking while I sewed. My stitches wandered, and I was indifferent to their meandering. And I think I once told her – more or less – that her class was an unwelcome remnant of musty 19th century educational thinking.

My brothers (taking handicrafts like all the other boys in those days of gender-segregated classes) were coming home with cool things like lamps and magazine racks they had made; I carted home samplers and twee crocheted doilies only my grandmother could love.

I tried to persuade my parents to get me out of the class. My father sat on the school’s board of directors and my mother was the hip young artist the school administrators consulted to determine just how many inches above the knee our miniskirts were allowed to be. But no dice. Even after the appeal and the sympathetic looks I still had to attend the stupid class. And mind my manners while I was at it.

Mrs. Alonzo glared at my hopeless cross stitch, pursed her lips at my imperfect chain stitch and cleared her throat every time I chose the fat crochet hooks and thick yarns that speeded the delivery of completed (if utterly graceless) projects.

As we sewed, outside the windows of our classroom a war of insurgency and counterinsurgency raged.

When I first moved to the States people didn’t believe me when I told them I’d never experienced a school fire drill. Our Colegio Maya drills prepared us for crossfire; for the military vs. guerilla shootouts that frequently took place in that part of Zone 10 during those years.

We watched our classmates’ fathers killed in front of the school during recess; saw one of our bus drivers go down in crossfire as he escorted us from the playground into the school; even witnessed one of our teachers collapse at the news that her son had been caught by the country’s politically-driven violence that left no family untouched.

Inside, we stitched in silence.

We never talked about what we saw outside the school’s door – not even the afternoon after C’s father was killed in front of our eyes. Instead, we focused on samplers that evoked a gentility long disappeared from the country.

I’ve come to think of that sewing class as emblematic of the country during those years – enforced silence and an obtuse pretense that everything was as it should be.

Still, I cried when my family had to move to the United States (see “Hope is the thing with feathers” blog post of Dec. 14, 2008 to read why we moved). Though I have been an American citizen from birth I had only visited the States on vacations every so often and I understood, even from those short visits, that I was an American without the slightest idea about how to feel or be American.

But when my mother took us one summer day to enroll in Downingtown High School (a huge school it would take me weeks to find my way around and which I’d never really understand how to navigate) I was gratified to learn that here, at least, sewing classes were not mandatory.

You could fast-forward through the next 15 or 20 years of my life (years in which every poem and story I wrote was about Guatemala’s bloody unfolding history and every political cause I embraced had at its heart a hope for justice in that country) and see very few moments in which I picked up needle and thread willingly.

Once, shortly before my daughter was born I crocheted just long enough to produce a small baby blanket for her. Another time, I managed to finish a short hooded capelet which she wore a handful of times as a toddler. That’s it. I even eschewed hemming pants – that’s what safety pins are for, isn’t it?

Strangely, some of my best friends turned out to be people unusually skilled with the needle.


I loved watching them work. For a couple of years running I spent nearly every morning at Robin’s house, watching him graph patterns, cut strips of fabric, piece them, and put together into quilts. Some carried well-known pattern names like Log Cabin and Tree of Life, others were original patterns. They were all exquisite (to see his work go to

Irrationally, I found myself wanting to create a quilt too, and started collecting my daughter’s outgrown clothing to that purpose.

Robin was encouraging – after he got over his shock at the sheer folly of it.

I had no sewing machine and so proposed to make a crazy quilt – a type of quilt popular in the Victorian era in which the pieces of fabric were randomly placed and set off by decorative stitchery. I think he understood that it was the very randomness of the crazy quilt that appealed to me.

Still, he warned me, it's not as random as it seems.

Unheeding, I went ahead.

I chose absolutely the worst possible fabric to serve as the backing block, and within seconds of sewing the first piece on it, it went radically and permanently out of square.

I kept going anyway.

I added a piece of an antique woven Nepalese cap my mother had presented to me when my daughter was days old, then a piece from a very downtown-New-York toddler’s outfit one of my brothers had bought for her, followed by a scrap of organza collar from a ridiculously pouffy little girl’s dress only a mother would have the nerve to buy for her kid.

I sewed them on with satin stitch and chain stitch and blanket stitch, and stitches without proper names because they were really “make-betters” on stitches I had tried but mucked up.

I wasn’t producing art (or even straight seams) like Robin or another quilting friend, Donna – but I could live with that.

As I kept going with this first block, providence seemed to encourage me.

My brother-in-law went up to the attic of their family home and found a piece of a quilt that their deceased mother or grandmother or grand-aunt had started and abandoned years ago. Guess what? It was a piece of crazy quilt, with the old leaded silks and taffetas and shirting fabric simply basted on to a seed-bag backing block.

When I held it up to the square I was working on, it was almost exactly the same size. If my block had actually been square, that is.

For about two or three weeks after the discovery of the Saunders quilt piece I dreamt about the finished crazy quilt. I loved the idea of piecing together these bits of lives in cloth and putting them in a quilt for my daughter.

At that time I hadn’t yet seen the movie “How to Make an American Quilt,” which is, in essence, an extended riff on just that. I had heard about the movie however, from Robin, who railed at the last scene where Winona Ryder wraps herself in the lovely quilt just completed for her and literally drags it through the dirt.

Several more weeks passed after the discovery of the Saunders piece, and my usual sewing animus reemerged.

I wondered whether I should just sew the two blocks back-to-back into a crazy pillow and be done with it already.

I don’t remember when I officially laid the project aside.

My mother died suddenly of an aneurism we never knew she had.

My husband, daughter and I moved to Pennsylvania, where our lives, for a while, seemed like the miscarriage I had soon after moving – a promise so compromised it could not be sustained.

My father got pancreatic cancer, and died after two years of a battle that rent my heart.

Through it all, my daughter grew, and outgrew clothing. But instead of cutting them into pieces to incorporate into the crazy quilt, I carted the clothing to donation bins.

I didn’t know where I had put the two existing quilt blocks, or even whether I had packed them and brought them along with us on the move.

Providence seemed to have lost interest in this particular quilt –and anyway, I wasn’t sure I believed in providence anymore.

People vanish from our lives. Quickly, when a bullet or aneurism takes them. Or slow and excruciating, like the long dying of those who disappear during a dirty war, or in cancer. We train ourselves not to talk about these deaths – as in that long remembered sewing class of mine – for fear that our voices will tear.

Or that we will fray into nothingness as we consider our losses.

Each death is a piece out of a fabric that started out whole. What do we do when we are surrounded by the pieces?

People are fond of saying that God writes with crooked lines, I prefer to think He sews with them.

His grace sometimes punches through our lives with an unbearably sharp needle, but then, great generous blanket stitches bind our frayed edges. Backstitches advance us even as we seem to be going back. And His wandering, loopy chain stitches link us to the strong fabric that remains in our lives.

I found those two quilt blocks a few months ago.

My daughter didn’t remember them, and for an hour or so, I regaled her with the provenance of each piece on the block I had created. I mused about the sayings I had stitched-in back then – redes from a different religion, from the radically different life I had led.

And still, I recognize I had been searching then, like now, for recognition of the moments when the numinous touches our lives. For the moment we find ourselves in still center of the labyrinth, and look, there's no minotaur there but a pair of wings.

I speculated, as my daughter examined the two pieces, about the fabrics used in the block basted together by the Saunders women– onto which I had stitched the names of my daughter’s grandparents and great-grandparents.

Then, like now, family is the spine, the ribs, the invisible frame that enables us to stand. No matter that I had never met these members of my husband’s family, no matter that in my own extended family there is some scar tissue along with the supporting bone. I wanted those Welsh, Mexican, German, Guatemalan, Greek and American names all there where my daughter could run her fingers over them and know that, along with her unique gifts, this is the stuff she is made of.

A crazy quilt – light and dark, smooth and coarse, rich fabrics and poor, straight lines and crooked.

Random only on the surface.

“Are you ever going to finish the quilt for me?” she asked.

“Can’t I just make you a pillow?” I asked in answer.

“No,” she said. “You can’t.”

I don’t think I say yes to her, but in the next few days I start on a new block.

Then another. And another.

Each piece I add has history and memory: the salmon silk onto which I sewed the old blocks and on which I built the new is from a formal gown my mother wore in Thailand to meet the king. The rough yellow silk cut into leaf shapes was hand-woven in the San Marcos region of my mother’s homeland (the Guatemala that so shaped my youth).

The feather-shaped pieces of sophisticated Italian silk used faced and reversed in the wings of one of the birds on the end pieces is from my father’s tie, and the white-on-white cutwork feathers on the other bird are from handkerchiefs that once belonged to my grandmothers.

I think of a Dorothy Day quote as I sew the memories on: “We cannot live alone. We cannot go to heaven alone. Otherwise God will say to us ‘Where are the others?’”

Each piece I add has a present: my daughter’s school ribbons, a piece of the beaded Indian silk she wore for my older brother’s wedding, symbols from the manga she currently reads and loves. A machine-embroidered Virgin of Guadalupe from one of my pillowcases. Pieces from a scarf that belongs to my husband made into the trees of his woods in central New York. Milagros representing the prayers I’ve taught myself to remember, and the ones I’ve made up in gratitude.

Each piece I add has a future: I plan to take the quilt top to the aunt of one of my husband’s Mennonite co-workers who routinely adds batting and edging to finish pieces like this into proper quilts. I set aside yards of backing fabric for it (kente cloth my father bought years ago in Zaire for my mother) and conjure images of new faced with old, of a whole made from pieces.

I start to embroider on one of the blocks (an oblong, actually) the words of a William Stafford poem I’ve found by chance, by providence, recently: “There’s a thread you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change.”

How much a wayfarer I still am.

I’ve made an immigrant’s quilt for my daughter, and sewn into it the messiness, the incertitude, the striving and suffering and faith that pace every pilgrimage.

I don’t know when I’ll finish – I told you, I don’t sew.

But I have learned to piece together.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Take action: Health care legislation and immigrants

The Justice for Immigrants campaign of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference is asking for us to write to our legislators asking that immigrants be included in the Senate's health care legislation. Here is a sample letter from the campaign:

Dear Senator:

I write to ask that you include immigrants in any health-care legislation considered by the U.S. Senate.

Specifically, I ask that you support permitting undocumented immigrants to use their own money to purchase health-care coverage in the new health-care exchange. Allowing their participation would help control the costs of health-care to all Americans, since immigrants are generally younger and healthier than U.S. citizens and do not access health-care at the same rate as U.S. citizens. To proactively prohibit these immigrants from purchasing health-care for their families is mean-spirited and contrary to the general public health.

I also ask that you support lifting the five-year ban on legal immigrants accessing Medicaid. Legal immigrants, who work and pay taxes, should be able to benefit from the programs they help pay for. Many poor legal immigrants cannot afford health-care on their own, even with the aid of subsidies, because of co-payments and deductibles that are required. For many of them, Medicaid is their only true option.

Senator, it is important that health-care coverage is available to all, including immigrants, so that our communities are healthier and everyone shares in the responsibility of controlling health-care costs.

Thank you for your consideration of my views.

If you don't have your senators' contact information, please use the "contact Congress" button on the sidebar of my blog.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Zenkaikon, Eyeshine and Cielito lindo

I know a number of people who routinely attend cons: Worldcon, Fairiecon and any number of other Sci-Fi-fantasy-Star-Trek-and-video-gaming conventions around the nation.

Until this weekend the only conventions I had ever attended were annual meetings of the American Association of Museums, Investigative Reporters and Editors and several press associations – not exactly sober affairs, but still imbued with a veneer of professionalism.

But my daughter’s been looking forward to Zenkaikon – the premier Philadelphia-area anime and manga convention – for the past six months, and last weekend was my initiation into a very different world of “cons.”

Let me just say that AAM and IRE could learn a thing or two about throwing a party.

But first things first.

Anime is Japanese animation; manga are Japanese comic books more akin to graphic novels than to most Marvel and DC creations. It has been my daughter’s dream, for some years now, to grow up to be a manga artist/writer/editor. From her first attempts let me tell you, she’s got the chops.

Anime and manga devotees – particularly those in their teens and twenties – often dress up as characters from anime and manga and games such as “Kingdom Hearts,” and sometimes act as those characters – breaking spontaneously into songs associated with them, or performing full-fledged skits. All of which is known as “cosplay.”

With me so far?

Anyway, cosplayers don’t only congregate at cons (there’s a contingent that goes to the annual Sakura Sunday celebration in Fairmount Park so reliably that they’ve been given a stage on which to perform by organizers of the event) but the con is clearly their natural habitat.

Of the thousands of people at Zenkaikon Nov. 7 and 8, I’d guess 85 percent were cosplaying. The rest were artists selling drawing commissions and handmade t-shirts and ceramics, vendors of mass-produced merchandise … and parents. We recognized each other by the amazed look in our eyes. Who knew that so many young people shared our children’s delight in this art form?

The staff at the Radisson – the venue for the event – didn’t know what hit them. A lot of them looked perplexed throughout.

The thing is, there are a lot of anime and manga buffs. And they all lined up early to enter the con. Since the Zenkaikon organizers were understaffed and a little unprepared for attendance to double this year, the lines stretched across much of the Radisson’s property. For hours and hours.

Irritating, but nothing those of us who commuted into Philadelphia during the SEPTA strike hadn’t experienced for the past week.

Only a whole lot better.

Somehow, these young people knew something we SEPTA commuters didn’t. How to enjoy the wait. They called out each other’s character’s names. They smiled and waved and performed for each other. They evinced an easy camaraderie and a ready friendship with each other that, frankly, stunned me. They asked politely if they could hug each other – and then did. I’ve never seen so many people hugging while in line. Or anywhere, for that matter.

And in the two days we were there I saw only one instance of obnoxious behavior -- when one girl cosplaying character from the wildly popular “Naruto” series (fittingly, dressed as one of the villainous characters) shoved another while waiting in line to get an autograph from voice actor Johnny Yong Bosch.

It’s not that I think they all behaved like angels, but at least none of them threw themselves down at the front of the line and refused to budge until the police was called -- like one middle-aged, otherwise sensible-looking woman did at Suburban Station during the SEPTA strike.

At one point during the con my husband and I were standing outside, watching our daughter play a cosplay version of “Duck, Duck, Goose” with a group of other kids. I fretted as my daughter ran around in a long and voluminous dress convinced that any second she would trip and hurt herself and have to be carted out in an ambulance. She didn’t. But we struck up a conversation then with another parent standing by watching her own child in the group.

“I just can’t believe it,” she said to us. “My daughter has Asperger’s [a form of high-functioning autism] and usually doesn’t interact with others well. She spends a lot of her time alone, in her room. But look at her….”

We watched her daughter, not cosplaying, but engaged, having fun, interacting easily.

“I’m shocked,” the girl’s mother said. “She’s out there, making friends.”

None of the dreaded teenage love of social hierarchy was in evidence at this con, and little of the cliquey standoffishness those years are known for. These kids acted more like family and friends than a group of strangers -- tweens and teens and twentysomethings -- who hadn’t met until that day.

Maybe it was the costumes that did it.

And I find myself wishing – however quirky the context -- that this were the way of the world: exuberant and enthusiastic, accepting of difference and warmly convivial.

I’m not sure I can yet count all the gifts that this unusual weekend granted me.

I had real conversations with teenagers and twentysomethings who were articulate and creative and smart and kind. They give me hope that their generation will not muck up the world as badly as my generation did. Maybe, in fact, they’ll mop up our mess.

I was there for my daughter’s first live indie, edge-rock band mini-concert. I saw the look on her face the moment she realized that Eyeshine ( had just become her new favorite band.

And then, as I stood in line to buy Eyeshine’s CD for her, and have it autographed by the band members, I realized that they, too, were not what I had anticipated. Talented. Charismatic. And amiable, rather than emo or surly which I note with some surprise I seem to have expected. I forgive them for finding it so astonishing that someone as old and unhip as me would like their music – if they forgive me the slide into generational prejudice about imagined attitude.

And in the end, the weekend was all about how expectations confound.

As we get older we seem to expect always to see the worst of human nature – particularly in large crowds, particularly surrounded by those whose enthusiasms we don’t share or quite understand.

Moreso if they stand a little bit on the edge of convention (yeah, pun intended).

Sometimes we’re reminded unwittingly, people are just better – more generous, tolerant and loving – than we imagine they are.

The last lesson of the convention? I’m checking out of the Radisson on the second day and the distinguished and dapper concierge asks me why I’ve chosen to stay at the hotel that weekend. Remembering the looks of perplexity bordering on panic I’ve seen on some of the hotel staff’s faces during the con, I hesitate to admit that I’ve been there for that.

But I do admit it.

Accompanying my daughter, I hasten to add.

“Say it with pride,” the concierge says to me. “Think about all the trouble they could be getting into instead of being here, enjoying themselves. I know at their age I was doing much worse things.

“And you’re here with your daughter,” he says. “You’re here experiencing this with her. Isn’t that a great thing?”

It is.

Friday, November 6, 2009

How many Septa regional rail workers does it take to help passengers off a burning railroad car?


At least that's what I heard last night from a passenger who was aboard the Septa regional rail train that caught fire on its way from the Overbrook station into 30th Street station on Wednesday morning.

You can read the full CBS 3 report of the incident here:

Here's a snippet:

SEPTA officials confirmed that several minutes before flames erupted, smoke had been detected inside the train at the Overbrook Station stop. However, after disconnecting a power supply and moving passengers out of the first car, the train was permitted to continue its trip.
Then a mile down the tracks, the first car was fully engulfed in flames.
"Obviously had an open flame been detected at any point, the procedure would have been quite different. The train would have been completely evacuated," SEPTA's Assistant General Manager for Public and Operational Safety James Jordan explained.

Well, that doesn't quite mesh with the story Barb from PNC (who was actually in the second car of the burning train) tells.

People were indeed moved out of the first car into the second, Barb tells me, but no announcement was made about why.

They sat somewhere between Overbrook and 30th Street stations for what seemed a long time.
The passengers waited, crammed into the second and subsequent cars --many of them standing since there weren't enough seats.

But then the amount of smoke billowing in to the car started to alarm them. (From the cell phone photo Barb showed me, they were soon to be engulfed by smoke.)
Did the conductors make an announcement then -- either to direct the passengers or allay their fears?

Nope. According to Barb, not a word made its way to the passengers from any Septa staff.

Eventually -- Barb couldn't give me an estimate of how long it took -- the passengers became alarmed enough to start pounding on the windows, and after some effort, popped open the emergency window and started exiting the second car of the train.

Barb saw the Septa personnel already standing on the railroad bed, well away from the train -- her car's conductor with his hands firmly planted in his pockets.

The Septa staff didn't move from where they were standing, even as they watched the passengers emerge from the emergency window, she says.

The drop from the emergency exit window to the railroad bed below was unexpectedly long. Even Barb, who is fairly tall, couldn't be reached by the up-stretched arms of the passengers who had exited before her. She had to trust that she'd be caught after she dropped. She was.

"The passengers were such Good Samaritans," she says to me.

They helped the elderly passengers evacuate through the emergency windows by carrying them over sill and dropping them onto the sea of passengers waiting to catch them.

You notice, of course, that Barb's account is all about the passengers waiting to catch each other as they evacuated from the smoke-filled car. Not a single member of the Septa personnel moved to help them, Barb says.

What's more, they said nothing to any of the passengers after the self-evacuation, Barb tells. Nothing, that is, until the buses came to retrieve the passengers from Overbrook to take them into Center City. At which point, Barb tells me (with plenty of both irony and outrage) the Septa staffer in charge yelled at the passengers to "behave like adults."

As this Septa strike has played out, I haven't overheard much sympathy for the striking workers from my fellow passengers waiting on the platforms at 30th Street or Suburban stations. Still, I haven't heard all that much grousing either.

I've observed that the regional rail trains drive extra slow through the stations that would normally be served by the striking Septa union workers -- then resume normal speed once they're in territory where the services don't overlap. Septa regional rail personnel are part of a separate union (because of federal regulations dating back to World War II, I'm told) and if they want to show support for their sister union members by chugging through the overlapping stations at a turtle's pace, I'm not going to begrudge them -- at least I'm riding, and if it tacks an extra 30 minutes onto my ride, so be it.

But that sort solidarity takes on a much more sinister look when Septa personnel stands apart ("Hands in pockets!" Barb tells me a second time, for emphasis) as panicked passengers struggle to get out of the rail car adjacent to one that is burning.

How can you see people in this sort of situation and not lend a hand?

I don't know. You'll have to ask Septa.

Image of fire alarm from wikimedia commons.