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Jay Paterno: Border Story

by on August 26, 2010 7:00 AM

This summer the ongoing battle over illegal immigration exploded across the political sphere. The intense passion on either side is understandable.

Whether you are a white American at an anti-immigration rally or a recent immigrant at a pro-immigration march, it is easier to project your fears onto a faceless, nameless horde of people unlike you when you believe they have different values.

But when you look at the individual stories, you may be forced to realize that most people on both sides come to their positions honestly.

Most Americans are generations removed from their own immigration experience. My own story is of great-grandparents coming here. A sailor named Cafiero who jumped ship in New York, a great-grandfather Paterno came to America and opened a barbershop in Brooklyn. On my mother's side were Germans named Heinz and Pohland who came to western Pennsylvania.

My family's immigrant story is a few generations old, but others' stories are still only beginning.

In her song "No Gringo," the artist Vienna Teng puts a modern illegal immigrant story to music but with the tables turned. A family from Chicago has reached the point of no return, and their one chance is to illegally find work in Mexico—only to find the wall keeping them out. There are physical and psychological barriers, walls, razor wire, a different language and culture as well as signs stating "No Gringo."

It is a song that puts words to the journey they face. In the song you feel the sorrow in leaving their home behind and the blistering travel toward a better life. The immigrant's path described in the song is the same one taken by many people today—only heading south rather than north.

On Tuesday, when I spoke with Vienna Teng, we talked about the song. Her own parents legally emigrated here from Taiwan for higher education. But this song came out of something different from her family's story.

"'No Gringo' came out of wanting to put myself into the shoes of someone having to immigrate illegally. It was more about the journey, but meant to be a political song. In the debate there was an arrogance that people will always want to be coming here and we will never be in the situation that we want to go where the work is, that the shoe will never be on the other foot. That, we can't imagine."

"The whole nativist attitude has been foreign and alien and different. You represent something fixed, an anathema to what the us is all about."

What this song brings home is that behind the debate there are children's lives and families' futures at stake. Through melodies that are beautiful, haunting, and desperate the story is the thread that pulls at your sense of the human condition described within the song.

It reminds us that there but for the grace of God go I. It is easy to forget that through the differences we are all people who have aspirations that the lives of our children will be better than the lives we have.

"No Gringo" asks us to walk a mile in someone else's shoes.

Often, we avert focus from an individual story. We turn our backs on countless faces that look different, choosing only to see a foreign culture and language. But in one of Christ's most famous parables, it was the "Good Samaritan"—someone alien—who stopped on the road to help the wounded traveler.

These families may be breaking the law, but that does not make them hardened criminals. Many live a reality so tough that an unknown, uncertain future can only be better. They leave their homes and what they know to make a brutal overland journey through desert and mountains guided by shady characters ferrying them north.

Many come here dreaming of lives and jobs that many Americans would look at as a nightmare.

Here in central Pennsylvania we are many miles from people in places like Arizona, Texas and California living with this every day. They have a big stake in any outcome.

Even though the song focuses on the immigrants, Vienna Teng realizes that one cannot just focus on one side of the issue over another. All stories must be part of the process.

"Immigration policy is not easy to solve, but it requires empathy on all sides, not just for the immigrants but also for the people here and their side of the story."

Imagine what it is to lie awake at night knowing your family's only chance is to trek hundreds of miles to a new country that will not welcome you. But also imagine the fear that someone foreign is making their way north to take your job and your means of providing for your family.

Only by being aware of the different sides of the story can we hope to understand how a solution can be reached. Each view has validity to the people holding them, and this song reminds us that there are real people on the front lines of this every day.

State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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