Starting from Scratch

Me (fifth from the left) with (clockwise) my mother, my father, his sister, her husband and my grandmother at a Thanksgiving dinner in the first house my parents bought in Michigan(Photo: my cousin, Viktors Miške)

My father was 42, my mother was 34 and my maternal grandmother was 70 when they emigrated to the United States with 5-year-old me. Five years earlier, they left everything behind in war-torn Latvia other than what could be crammed into my father’s sports car. The little money that they accumulated as displaced persons in post-war Austria was spent since the States prohibited bringing in so much as a cent. My mother managed to buy bolts of fine fabric and take them to a tailor before we set sail from Bremerhaven. And sew some USD into the lining of my new coat. We arrived at the train station in Lowell, Michigan in 1949 with not much more than the spiffy clothes on our backs. With less, actually, since we were obligated to repay what it cost to get us there by working, for all practical purposes, as servants indentured to our sponsors, a Lutheran minister and his wife.

Nevertheless, we soon had a new car that we owned outright and a spacious house with a mortgage that we had no problem paying and eventually owned outright, as well. All without seeming to scrimp. “Those damn immigrants,” the locals said, wondering how we could do it. (Technically, it was “darn” since the fine Christian Reformed folk of Grand Rapids, where we moved, never cursed.) In part, we did it by doing what has always been expected of any sort of immigrant. My father found a back-breaking job as a finisher in a furniture factory, and my mother took a position doing piecework—a compensation system designed to force people to work at break-neck speed—in a factory manufacturing brass fittings. Only after a devastating miscarriage did she teach herself accounting and get moved up to the office floor. Both spent most nights and weekends renovating our house, a duplex where we lived in one side and collected rent from the other. Which was possible because my capable grandmother assumed the day-to-day housekeeping and childrearing chores.

The other part, however, had nothing to do with being “good immigrants.” Immigrants can work incredibly hard and still not make it in America. What gave us the  edge, I have come to see, was that we, as well as our cohort, did not represent the sort of “huddled masses” that native-born Americans of that era assumed we were. Rather, we were what Ieva Zake more accurately described in American Latvians: Politics of a Refugee Community, “. . . a selective stratum of inter-war Latvian society—mainly upper and middle classes with a very high proportion of politicians, public figures and intellectuals among them.” We did not come to America for a better life. Apart from occupation by Nazi and Soviet armies and the constant threat of death or deportation, our lives were already plenty good. All we had to do was recreate them. This gave us a guiding image, something similar to what elite athletes hold in their heads: a vivid, multi-sensory re-experience of how it had been when everything was exactly right.

This stands in stark contrast to the vague imagery of the American Dream, which many now see as nothing more than a myth, anyway. While there are still those who continue to claim that anyone—even the poorest person—can rise to the middle class and beyond unless they are either lazy or stupid, research shows that most people are doomed to stay where they are. And that this is particularly true in that Land of Opportunity, the United States. According to a 2020 report on 82 countries by the World Economic Forum (click here to download), the US ranks 27th in social mobility. Which puts it a bit above the now-independent Latvia (31st) and slightly below the other Baltic states, Lithuania (26th) and Estonia (23rd). The top ten nations, in descending order, are Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria and Luxembourg, with Canada coming in as14th. Not by accident, these are all places with strong social safety nets. It turns out that rugged individualism does not work so well for those who have never known much economic security and who could do with a little governmental help.

Long before learning of this, I was bothered by how many Latvian Americans refused to see that their experience was not comparable to that of millions of other underprivileged people. Registered as Republicans, they found fault with the Democrats’ War on Poverty, declared by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, as well as the associated Economic Opportunity Act. Even my father, who changed party affiliation  once he decided that voting with the rich made no sense whatsoever for a refugee relegated to manual labor. He could not understand why his hard-earned tax dollars should go to those no worse off than he once was, particularly since he had managed to get to where he was then with no assistance of any sort. Which meant—four years earlier—buying a single-family house in the best school district in town while keeping the duplex as rental property. And, by 1964, supporting a daughter—that would be me—who was in her junior year at the University of Michigan and was palling around with the aforementioned rich. So when an able-bodied Black lady with lots of kids and no prospect of employment—what, back then, was unkindly called a “welfare queen”—moved into our duplex, he made it his mission to “educate” her. Preaching a course of action that he deemed would get her off the dole, he horrified my mother, who feared that this would not end well. I was less worried, correctly predicting that it would lead to little more than some spirited banter.

My father never succeeded in converting “Queenie,” as she asked to be called, but the Democrats did impose some constraints. Less than a year after my father died, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Some two decades later, however, my father lost a little of his moral high ground. My cousin in England died, and his son sent me a short memoir that he had helped him write. A passage about my father (“Uncle Viktors”) made me furious at first—why focus on that, of all things?—but subsequently just made me shake my head and smile:

My father’s brother, Uncle Viktors, was rather bohemian by nature and my father financed his studies at university. Once Viktors had to appeal for funds from my father when he was in Paris and needed money to get home, which made my father rather angry. At other times Aunty Lidija bailed him out. I loved him dearly.

Meaning that Viktors—not unlike Queenie—once neither had any compunction about living on other people’s money nor any talent for managing his own. Add that to the well-known fact that he was generally unsuited for physical work despite his fine physique and whatever he learned growing up on a farm, and you had an urbanite who—not unlike Queenie—relied  heavily on cleverness and charm. But, unlike Queenie, he was nevertheless able to radically transform himself and do what it took to survive post-war poverty. And move up in America after starting from scratch. What separated them seemed inextricably tied to the sort of life that each had previously known.

These days, I see the same struggles where I live in Maryland. Some,  no doubt, will—ultimately—be fine. Refugees from the Middle East, for example, who often come from affluent areas. The Syrian family that started a restaurant and gallery down the hill from me. They were not only able to withstand the destruction of their homeland but also the repeated ravaging of their new business, first by successive 1000-year floods, then a 100-year pandemic. (See To Leave or to Stay.”) I am less sanguine about those who arrive here from the poorer parts of the world. Those I come into contact on a regular basis since, being old and disabled now, I need to have all that I use delivered. People like the personable Instacart shopper who surprised me somewhat by texting in French from Costco. After engaging him in a doorstep conversation, I learned he had come here six months ago from the French-speaking part of Cameroon, a country  that has simultaneously  received a massive influx of refugees from the Central African Republic and sent over 600,000 others to Nigeria alone. 

The same holds true for many residents here, whether immigrant or native-born. Clearly, requiring those who have never experienced “up” to somehow pull themselves up by their bootstraps is absurd. There are numerous countries where social mobility consistently occurs. Why is America so stubbornly unwilling to learn from them?

Note: for a look at what it took for my family to get to where they could have that car (see photo below) and that Thanksgiving dinner in their own house  (see photo above), read my short story “Home Furnishings.”

 

Me, posing with our brand-new Ford sedan. (Photo: my mother, Elza Jurģis)

 

President Johnson’s commencement address at the University of Michigan stadium on 22 May 1964, also called “The Great Society speech.”

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