Monday, May 01, 2006

Smoke Signals Part Deux


This morning I woke up reminding myself to remind myself not to forget to go to the Immigration Rally taking place this afternoon at Union Square. I had to do all this reminding because my mind has been somewhat overextended of late and I have missed taking part in some events/actions because they slipped my mind.

Anyway, looking at today’s NY Times and come across this article about a woman accused of defrauding Garifuna and other immigrant communities in New York. It appears that the accused, Maria Elena Maximo, started out offering immigration support, computer and job assistance to Caribbean immigrants in the Bronx. The article alleges that Maximo gradually began defrauding some of her clients and/or improperly filing their papers with the INS.

There are probably a dozen stories like this written every year, and it clearly points out to one of the countless difficulties that immigrants face when trying to adapt to or securing residency in the United States. Unfamiliar with the language and laws of this country, and eagerly wanting to stay in the United States, immigrants often turn to people like Ms. Maximo to help them maneuver through the legal system. Members of immigrant communities in the US often end up turning over their life savings—and sometimes going into debt to pay for such services. Therefore when Americans are quoted as saying that immigrants are taking jobs that “we don’t want,” it’s not because they are desperate for money, but they are often desperate to make use of any opportunity to acquire something that some Americans take for granted, their citizenship. If you’d ask most Americans, like many immigrants there’s at least one other country that they’d like to, or be open to spending part of their lives, be it the “old world” (e.g. England, France, Ireland or Italy). I do not mean take for granted in the pejorative sense, simply that there’s a basic human instinct to live someplace new, different—maybe even exotic—but we only like to grant or concede that impulse to those who can afford the lifestyle. In a sense it’s ok for rich celebrities to travel the world as they choose, butchering languages, and presumably naively offending natives as they parody their customs, but for some reason it is inexcusable for hard working natives of other countries to come to the united states and adopt the otherwise ballyhooed ethos know as the “American work ethic.”

We all know that what ms. Maximo is accused of doing is wrong—we should also know that sympathy are not the only emotions to be extended to our brothers and sisters from different shores, or as in the case of “Mexican immigrants,” people who are repatriating territories that not too long ago was theirs. We should also know that people like Ms. Maximo are byproducts of a system that needs to be reevaluated and overhauled. Spending time trying to catch “illegals” and prosecuting people who are ‘illegally helping illegals’ shows how (1) outdated immigration policy is in this country, and (2) how absurd the legal framework for categorizing immigration “offenses” is in the United States. In my estimation the United States would have a more effective immigration policy if it improved its relationship with the world, and became a model citizen in multi-national organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank, rather than one of the many bad seeds trying to bear fruit.

There was another reason why ms Maximo’s story caught my attention. For the past few months I have been collaborating with a friend trying to develop a project that is part ethnomusicology, part cultural history of the Garifuna.

She’s hit roadblock after roadblock in trying to develop her project—but as far as I can tell once she hits her stride what she produces should be nothing short of amazing and will be one of the things that people have to revisit in the libraries for years on end. In the time that I have known her, I’ve heard about her attending countless events showcasing the talent brewing amidst the NY Garifuna community and seen her own attempts at getting her project out in the open for more support.

However it was not until today’s article in the Times that I saw a major paper cover something happening in the New York Garifuna community. And as if Maximo’s story is not tragic enough, her ascent is connected directly to the Happy Land massacre of 1990 in which scores of people died trying to get out of a club that erupted in flames. The reporters are doing their jobs and writers in pointing out that this same community that was literally burned in 1990, is now being burned, albeit figuratively, by one of their own—a person in whom they had invested their hopes and dreams.

Ironically, my friend’s hope and dream is to reverse this trend—change the narrative arc of the Garifuna from tragedy to triumph—from a dying past to a very alive and living future—so that the next time we see smoke emitting from their midst the world will know how to read their signals.

4 comments:

Alice B. said...

interesting post. i just linked to it on my blog.

Nyashazasha said...

Yes, the story from the NY Times is very troubling. Particularly since some might say the woman accused of defrauding the immigrants is a viper within her own community.

"We have to get our communities together."..."The key to our future is building trust within our own communities and exposing the sharks who live among us." These are the comments I hear most often from friends, particularly those who identify as Garifuna, Belizean, Caribbean.

But is Elena Maximo really a viper? Those of us who have not had the privelege of living among the Garifuna community in the South Bronx, and even those within, may never know. Maximo is known as a long time advocate for the Garifuna people in the Bronx, a teacher of language classes and a community organizer. She was also the main force behind efforts to bring political leverage to the NY Garifuna community by promoting a Garifuna census, according to a reliable source. http://www.labuga.com/jerry/jerry16.htm

So how is Elena's story, and the story of those whose lives have been, to be told? I guess this is the double edged sword we wield when we take it upon ourselves to tell history. But I still believe that this particular story of how Garifuna communities continnue to maintain some semblance of community, through the power of culture, is worth telling.

L-Roc said...

Maria Maximo is a CROOK!!! She lied and stole from her own people.

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