From Poland to Chicago to Oklahoma: Reflections on immigration and citizenship

Note: These remarks were originally delivered by  Alice Blue upon receiving the Tulsa Coalition of Hispanic Organizations Annual Thanksgiving Award in November 2010. Alice  is a Senior Planner with the Community Service Council of Tulsa.

I come to this gathering and to my work in our community as the youngest child in a family of survivors. My parents, Rose and Daniel Blue, of blessed memory, gave me their love, their name, and their history. When their lives were just beginning to unfold, they were swept up in a unique and terrible storm. They were Polish Jews in a fateful time and place, where their ancestors had lived for centuries. Hardly anyone came through alive. My mother’s parents and brothers were murdered. My father’s young wife was killed along with his sister and brother and their families. When my parents found each other and married in Bergen Belsen, their survival was a piece of rare good fortune. Jewish life in Poland had come to a terrible end.

But their survival was not the end of the story. Belsen was in the American zone, but that did not mean a speedy exit from the DP camp. My parents waited for visas, and continued to wait while the great wheels turned with great inefficiency. I am absolutely certain that they would have entered this country illegally had it been possible to go by foot from Europe to America. The only thing that kept them waiting was an ocean, and their faith that America would eventually do the right thing.

All of this has had a powerful effect on my own commitment to the Hispanic community of Tulsa. I have a sense of what immigrant households experience, the struggle to learn a language and a culture. My sister and I were raised in Yiddish, and we helped interpret the world for both of our parents. We lived in an ethnic neighborhood of people just like us, who were part of and yet removed from so-called “mainstream” America. We experienced the driving energy of our immigrant parents, who did everything possible to succeed in this country and to ensure that their daughters exceeded their expectations. I see that force  in our own community in the talent and drive and optimism of people who have come to Tulsa for a better life.

If there is heartbreak here, it is that we have a long way to go. America needs to be continually re-educated. Immigrants do not merely gain from this country. They offer ten-fold in their contributions to the economy, their spirit and resourcefulness, their  strength, and the way they enrich the culture in all its forms.  If Oklahoma is good for Spanish-speaking newcomers, they, in turn, are good for Oklahoma. What we need are leaders who address this community in helpful ways, recognize  its strengths, its norms and experiences, and work collaboratively to bring about a richer citizenship.

And beyond that we have to establish legal pathways so that real citizenship is an attainable goal. For a quarter of a century our country sent conflicting signals about securing the border and welcoming affordable labor. It is time to rationalize this conflict and enact meaningful reform.  I say this with a sense of fresh immediacy. Just last week, I sat with Hispanic teenagers looking toward the possibility of higher education. What good, they asked, would such an education be if they could never become citizens of the country that educated them. To paraphrase a great Zionist thinker, “ If we will it, it is not a dream.”

In the end, my parents gave me that kind of faith: not bitterness, but the strength to repair and improve.  We must recognize a moral imperative to mobilize; to make sure that we contest every form of injustice, and see to the security of every human being.

We must recognize that we are sisters and brothers, responsible to one another, citizens of one world. Whether a black man from Kenya, a white woman from Chicago, a child from Chiapas, a grandmother from Viet Nam. There is no difference between the value of our lives.

I am deeply grateful for the honor you have bestowed on me and I hope can be brave with all of you, so that we can be bound together as one community. Thank you!


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2 thoughts on “From Poland to Chicago to Oklahoma: Reflections on immigration and citizenship

  1. Alice:

    Thank you for sharing your family’s history. I just returned from DC where I took almost an entire day to visit the Holocaust Museum. I could not help but compare the horrendous history of the Jewish population and the various processes that led to the massacre and destruction of millions of precious lives. The point that kept coming back to mind is how an effective propaganda campaign can sway the attitude of people who are not necessarily evil and how gradually laws were passed to undermine the humanity of people.

    Again, thank you, Alice, for sharing your story. It is a powerful one.

    Pat Fennell

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