I Have Seen the City and It Is Us - Umberto Tosi

Latinx Chicago poet, author, professor Sánchez
It's not easy being an American metropolis, forever hassled, baited and struggling to live up to the sometimes conflicting ideals of opportunity, freedom, enterprise, and cosmopolitanism. Urban dwellers like myself like to dream of their hometown being a center of creative arts, education, science, architecture, and enterprise.

On days when the sunlight glistens off the lake and the splendid downtown towers, when festivals and budding trees announce early spring, and when the trains run on time, we glimpse the shining promise of our urban work-in-progress. Just as often we watch it fail miserably. We note its corruption, squalor, and violence on sorrowful, embarrassing display. Then, with little fanfare, we've also watched it rise - with little credit given - stubbornly from all manner of adversity, storm, strife, blunders, chicanery, and disease. In so doing we confound the naysayers who fear and loathe our urban ways as unwholesome, elitist, sinful, criminal - we urban dwellers who pay most of the country's taxes and produce most of its innovation and wealth.

I write this now from behind invisible barricades - from Chicago, like most of America's major cities outside of Texas and the Deep South, is under an insidious siege directed by the corrupt, authoritarian, demagogue in the White House who finds it advantageous to make us the enemy. Trump's corrupted agencies prepare to deploy armed tactical paramilitary forces to American sanctuary cities - including Chicago - to back up roundups of undocumented people in ICE Enforcement Removal Operations (with citizens often caught up in these sweeps.) Meanwhile, his weaponized justice department threatens to cut off federal funds from local law enforcement agencies of sanctuary cities who's mayor refuse to help Trump's goons target people for roundups.

Meanwhile, Trump-stooge Attorney General William P. Barr's Department of Justice is reported to have quietly established a special section to strip citizenship from naturalized immigrants "accused of fraud." (Note: "accused" - not convicted of any crime necessarily) - echoing the restrictive citizenship laws discriminating against India's immigrants and 172 million resident Muslims supporting India's Hindu nationalist (and Trump ally) Narendra Modi.

Savoring the splendid diversity of Rogers Park
The news media - both mainstream and alternative - barely take notice of Trump's relentless war on cities and growing threats to immigrants millions of immigrants. But the fear is tangible in urban neighborhoods like the one in which I live - a neighborhood where I hear many languages on the streets and in markets catering to a rich variety of cuisines, home to working-class Latino, South Asian, West Indian, black, as well as East European, Irish, Italian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Jewish and other white European groups.

One can sense the fear here - as Trump's minions intend no doubt. I live in a busy, peaceful, diverse neighborhood here on Chicago's North Side where scores of windows, porches, and lawns display signs declaring "Hate has no home here!" Just as in the long-gone days of my Italian neighborhood childhood in Boston, many families are multigenerational, with the younger ones mixed and include members with a variety of citizenship status - most native-born, but many naturalized, or on permanent status, and some, yes, of tentative status. Immigration has always been a family affair, crossing borders and generations, assimilating gradually while cross-pollinating the richness of this country's culture as well. They get the message from Trump and his nativist followers saying, you don't belong here. You're not American when in reality, they are the essence of twenty-first-century America.

 Rogers Park churches stand up

On my frequent walks around this Rogers Park neighborhood, I spot an ominous proliferation of flyers posted in parks and local bulletin boards offering help numbers, dos-and-don'ts, and advising people of their rights and legal strategies if targetted by Trump's forces operating under questionable constitutional authority. Churches offer sanctuary in this sanctuary city, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot is stanch in ordering local authorities not to cooperate, by diverted or drafted into the Trump regime's efforts to target immigrants. Still, the Trump administration spreads dissension and fear with its relentlessly barbaric treatment of separating and incarcerating refugee children at our southern border, its increasing federal power and its penchant for overreaching constitutional restraints, foster's fears that the worst is yet to come

I shiver at the parallels with particular details of Hitler's Final Solution, which I recently reviewed in researching a period novel on which I am working. Roundups and death camps didn't spring up overnight. The Nazi's advanced their persecution incrementally during the decade following Hitler's rise to power in 1933. The blueprint for it didn't even originate with its notorious architect, Adolf Eichmann. He based it on a 1937 memo by a then 23-year-old underling in Himmler's department of Jewish affairs from an upper-class Prussian family named Otto von Bolschwing. He said years later that he had "nothing against the Jews," only wrote this notorious memo in a bureaucratic effort to impress his superiors (another footnote in the banality of evil.)

Bolschwing's "Jewish solution" memo did indeed impress Eichman and Himler. In it, Bolschwing pointed out that Germany's Jews were well integrated into the greater populace and would first need to be "separated" out in a process that would deny them their civil and economic rights and turn the population against them before deportation and elimination. "A largely anti-Jewish atmosphere must be created among the people in order to form the basis for the continued attack and the effective exclusion of them," wrote von Bolshwing to his superiors, which included Eichman. (After the Nazi defeat in 1945, Bolschwing, by the way, notoriously came under the protective wing of the CIA as an "anti-communist" spy and was resettled to California where he lived quietly until 1982, eluding belated Justice Department attempts to prosecute him as a war criminal.)

By Lake Michigan w/Chicago skyline.
Why do Trumpistas' continually exhibit such a special hatred for America's great cities  - ironically, their dear leader is the crass spawn of Queens, NYC himself? It's no secret that urban-baiting works as thinly disguised race-baiting and immigrant-baiting for the worst kind of demagogues who find it rallies white nationalist support without requiring them to own up to it. Neither is it any secret that Chicago, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and cities like it (that generate most of the wealth and pay the bulk of the country's taxes) vote consistently against Trump's Republicans.

Trump loves to rag on Chicago - political home of the man on whom he obsesses, former President Barack Obama. It's raw meat to Trump's MAGA base, along with is snide misogyny and nativism.

Surely, the Windy City's problems - though often exaggerated - are no secret: crime (which actually has trended downward), gun violence, corruption, de facto segregation, police-community relations, economic inequality ... But life for the Second City's 2.7 million inhabitants isn't much like its detractors would have you believe. Chicagoans, as midwesterners, aren't prone to boosterism. But this city is great. It is an international city, a global hub, a birthplace of ideas, discoveries, trends and movements that have spread around the world. On the individual level, it is lively and surprisingly well-run, from my perspective as a lifetime denizen of big cities on both coasts. It has a fabulous history that is part of the country's fabric.

It's no exaggeration to say that Chicago is still Sandburg's "city of big shoulders," a city of artists, musicians, of theater and symphony, jazz and blues, of great universities, of scholars and scientists, of disparate characters, legends and stories, of soaring innovation and architecture standing tall by its great lake. Most of all it is not a melting pot, but a creative confluence of cultures from everywhere, of immigrants from all over America and the world that may not always get along smoothly, but have always added to, never diminished, the city's greatness. Trump and his cronies hate on us most of all because of our style and accomplishments.

What has this to do with writing? A lot. One of the best demonstrations of the urban cultural ideas of diversity and inclusions is going on right now through April at Chicago's American Writers Museum (which I wrote about here, after it first opened in 2017.)  Its ongoing exhibit, My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today portrays the best of us. It is lively, illuminating and couldn't be more relevant. The exhibit has been crafted to celebrate the vibrant works of immigrant and refugee writers, and stimulate conversations on the culture and issues they bring to light, artistically, socially, psychologically and politically.  about writing influences, being multilingual, community, family, duality, otherness and what it means to be American.

The My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today exhibit and related program series of modern immigrant and refugee writing in America on our culture, history, and daily lives. The curating team includes friend and colleague, poet, novelist and blogger Dipika Mukherjee (one of our Authors Electric past members and fellow contributing writer for Chicago Quarterly Review.), along with Marie Arana, Ilan Stavans, Vu Hoang Tran, Chris Abani, Laila Halaby, and special advisor Viet Thanh Nguyen. The AWM has also put together a reading list of outstanding works by these writers to accompany the ongoing exhibit.

This month, the AWM My America exhibit features Chicago, Latinx poet, novelist and De Paul University professor Erika L. Sánchez. A New York Times reviewer called her poetry "wrenching explorations of guilt and shame, grief and misogyny." Her debut, young adult novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (October 2017), is a New York Times Bestseller and National Book Award finalist. Chicago's renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company is performing an adaptation of the novel that is set to run through April 4, 2020.

Sánchez grew up in the Latino, working-class town of Cicero, Illinois where she was born, just outside of Chicago. Her parents came to the United States without papers in 1978, guided by a coyote through the Baja California desert, and riding in the trunk of a Cadillac to bypass Border Patrol. “There was just a lot of danger lurking.” Growing up, she says that she felt the fear and pain of this experience, even though not hers directly. “We often inherit trauma from our parents or from generations, consciously or unconsciously," she says. "And the way I’ve dealt with that trauma is by writing about it…it’s something that I think about a lot: how can I transform some of that suffering, some of that trauma into art, into healing?”

“I love to read and I grew up fairly poor and I spent a lot of time by myself. One of the ways I looked for solace was through books. And so I lost myself in these worlds and I became really enchanted by these far-flung places and I wanted to see the world and I wanted to write stories.”

I can relate to what she also had to say about multilingualism - a familiar part of growing up for children of immigrants - having grown up in a tri-lingual household (Italian, Spanish, and English) myself. “I feel very blessed to be bilingual. I grew up with two very different languages at my disposal, which made my life much more rich and interesting. And having access to such a vast vocabulary has been so instrumental as a writer. I can draw upon so much. And I feel like both languages are beautiful in their own way…Spanish is such an important part of how I see the world and how I process everything, essentially, that it’s hard to separate that from anything else. For me, both English and Spanish are just intertwined.”

She adds, on being an American child of immigrants: “[An American] is someone who lives here and belongs here, in whatever that capacity means for that person. I don’t think there’s just one definition of being an American. We all have different ways that we manifest that identity. But for me, I realize that as a citizen I do have a world of privileges that other people don’t. But I don’t think that is a requirement to be American.”

On Morse Avenue, near the L-station
The flavors vary, but all the American cities where I have lived these past 83 years have the similarly polyglot natures, and - this contributes to their strengths in multiple ways - including the richness of their literary, theatrical, art and musical heritages that flourish there and add life to the wider culture as they mix within it. We are the Americans making the country great with our counterpoint and cacophony. Ninety percent of Americans now live in cities, mostly in big cities that are becoming more and more mixed as well as ethnically varied. We are more and more - not less -diverse in our neighborhoods and in our own families.

I started out in an almost exclusively Italian family and milieu. But we became more the more diverse from with over the decades. My four daughters are second-generation of Native American, Mexican, Irish, as well as Italian. My father grew up in Argentina and my mother was born in Rome. One of my daughters ordered a genetic background test last year that revealed still more complex lineage going back generations, from North African to Iberian to Han Chinese. Dig deep enough and we're all like that.

There is no such thing as "racial purity." No such thing as Aryan blood, we all know. Real racial justice and equality may remain more aspirational than a real, but - to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  - the arc of the racial multiverse is long, but it bends towards diversity.

Diversity is a hallmark of the new working class - whose meme isn't just Lunchpail Larry anymore. Think of the current pandemic of white nationalism as the final phase of a retrovirus that blinds its victims and renders them insane. While anyone can be susceptible, growing numbers develop resistance. Trump continues unchecked in his mad power but has never had majority support. The coronavirus isn't the only global pandemic. The right-wing virus of racist and misogynist authoritarianism preceded it. Time to wash our hands of it.

Trump will blow away like his grotesque yellow comb-over in a windstorm. Like other great cities, Chicago has survived far worse challenges. It famously rose from the ashes of the great 1871 fire. It has endured blizzards, riots, panics, and crooked politicians and gangsters even worse than Trump. It doesn't need to be made "great again." It will remain so long after Trumpismo becomes a soiled footnote in American history. 

We are the city, and the city is made of us. We are America after all.


Umberto Tosi is the author of Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes, covering the Silicon Valley 1995-2004. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine, West. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine. He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children. He resides in Chicago. (He can be contacted at Umberto3000@gmail.com


Jan Needle said…
Thanks for that, Umberto. We over here are suffering a similar blight to yours, and this essay has made me feel a whole lot better about it. Cheers!
What an interesting article - and rather alarming too.It really angers me to think how much people have forgotten about history.
On the plus side, I've liked Chicago a lot on the few occasions I've visited it - I like your photo by Lake Michigan. I still can't quite believe how big it is!
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Umberto,

I've not been to Chicago except at the airport, where we spent a night due to bad weather. It was on a layover from Mexico back to Toronto.

One day,I'd love to visit primarily for my love of blues and to see some of the iconic buildings.

Unfortunately, the US is not on my radar this year, even though I normally visit NY family annually. They will come see me in Canada this year.

I'm disgusted by the lack of balls of the GOP and that abomination posing as their leader. I have so many American friends who feel the same way, who are hurting and angry and don't like the direction. Their feelings of helplessness are palpable.

I hope things improve for your country, but agree, Chicago will be standing long after tRump rots in hell where he belongs.

Griselda Heppel said…
Fascinating post, Umberto, bo th about what’s going on in US politics today and showing the richness - economic, intellectual, literary, artistic, generally life-enhancing - that a diverse society brings to a country. Good for Chicago and other cities for standing up to central government's extremist measures. It’s one thing to want to deport convicted criminals who obtained US citizenship by fraud; quite another to go for people merely suspected of doing so. The story of Erika Sanchez’s parents sounds extraordinary, and her analysis of how their trauma transmits to the next generation rings tragically true; many children of holocaust escapees have said something similar.

One detail intrigued me - were Sanchez’s parents really guided through Baja California by a wild dog, or is a ‘coyote’ a term for someone who helps desperate refugees? Please say it’s the first.
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you, Umberto. It's easy to feel, here too, that we are all up the proverbial creek without a paddle and I needed your shot in the arm as a reminder that it's the people in all their glorious diversity that make cities (and countries) and not the other way round.

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