One of my favorite museums in New York is the NYC tenement museum. The dark hallways, cracking linoleum, narrow staircases, and the musty smell of aging wood and sweat. They all bring up memories in me of visiting my uncle in his apartment on Canal and how it looked, felt, smelled so much like the turn of the century tenement preserved there. I love community museums like this one, and MOCA, born from the desire of second-generation immigrants to tell the story of their parents to themselves. We long for an origin story, a narrative that can explain not only how we came to be here but also where we are supposed to go, what our values are, what we are supposed to hold dear. It is a people’s history. The black and white photographs of our ancestors evoke a melancholy in us, and our muted images of the past seem similarly tinged in yellow – the “immigrant experience” is something that many of us have never directly lived through. It is only in the anecdotes and random fragments of stories from our parents and grandparents, many of whom are unwilling or unable to remember and transmit everything to us. It leaves us only the ability to imagine, to re-create, but not to know in the way that you know what it is to get into a playground fight, or run 5 miles, or shout at a sibling, all that is in your direct experience. It becomes easy for us to become nostalgic for something we’ve never lived through.
I don’t know if this is tragic or uplifting, or comical. I don’t even know if it’s necessary for us to preserve and create these stories for ourselves, because that is what they are – fictions, albeit based on research and artifacts. For all we know, they are not actually what transpired. At the same time, there is nothing so moving as a narrative, especially one that explains the origin and creation of YOU. And in being moved by immigrant narratives we transpose these origin myths onto others, the current immigrants from all over the world. It doesn’t seem quite right to me to do that, in some ways. Just because American workers throughout the twentieth century fought for the right to form unions doesn’t mean that current workers, particularly from other countries without that history, share that desire. In whose voice are we purporting to speak when we talk about the current immigration debate?