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A Candid Take On The Evolving Immigrant Experience

Nov 5, 2009

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In his wide-ranging, expertly curated anthology, Becoming Americans, Ilan Stavans collects four centuries of immigrants' stories, laying the works of comparative newcomers like Eva Hoffman, Felipe Alfau and Gary Shteyngart alongside the writing of early settlers, from religious dissidents fleeing persecution to slaves like Phillis Wheatley and Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, who were kidnapped and delivered to the New World unwillingly.

The narrator of Chang-Rae Lee's novel Native Speaker observes that, for someone who wants to take advantage of immigrants, "The most important thing was that they hadn't been in America too long." This axiom is borne out in "Journey to Pennsylvania," Gottlieb Mittelberger's 1674 expose of the travails of German immigrants who traveled to America on credit and were sold into indentured servitude. Their story becomes all the more powerful when laid aside accounts of later brutalities.

A harrowing passage from Edwidge Danticat's memoir Brother, I'm Dying recounts with relentless, heartbreaking candor the story of her 81-year-old uncle's death in Homeland Security custody five years ago. Although Joseph Dantica had a valid visa — one with which he had entered the country from Haiti many times before — he applied for asylum on arrival in South Florida, whereupon his medications were confiscated, he was quizzed suspiciously, and, despite suffering from throat cancer and being able to speak only through a voice box, he was locked up in Miami's notorious Krome detention center. So shocking is the account of his neglect, mistreatment and decline that it would be implausible in dystopian fiction; even as Dantica vomited through his tracheotomy hole before falling unconscious at an asylum hearing, the government's medic insisted he was faking.

Yet Becoming Americans is not merely a chronicle of hardship and injustice. Stavans' anthology goes a long way toward contemplating the breadth of the American immigrant experience. For every tragic story collected here, there is one of joyful liberation or of perplexed amazement or, more commonly, of excitement followed by a long, slow adjustment tinged with hope, fear and regret.

Eventually, as happens in "Fiesta 1980," taken from Junot Diaz's Drown, you've been in the States long enough that when your aunt arrives from the old country, you throw her a welcome party.

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