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As I Remember…
by Victor Saraiva
My first memories of anything American dates back to the Fall of 1963, when I, a little boy, was playing with my toys on the floor of a living room, thousands of miles far from any American shores. On that day, I remember my parents and some of their friends gathering in our home watching our television set which was perched high, beyond my reach. I remember the banging of drums, and the slow movement of a flag draped box, which today I know was a coffin, being drawn by horses; on that autumn day I remember seeing a little boy just about as old as I then was, saluting. I did not then imagine that one day I would be part of America. Anything American was foreign to me.
My next memory of anything American was when I received a birthday present from my aunt—it was an American bicycle, adorned with a small American flag. My aunt lived in a distant place called Massachusetts. I loved that bicycle especially its bright polished chrome that blinded me in the sun, it seems I can still smell its leather saddle and rubber tires these many years later, and still remember the feeling of riding it down narrow medieval streets paved with stones that easily released bits of dust and tiny stones as my bicycle careened across the irregular surfaces.
I remember holding the flag between my finger tips and marveling at its bright stripes and the beauty of a dark blue field covered with white stars; I remember the feeling of a special quality as the wind would unfurl its cloth to the cool breezes of every afternoon or evening journey. I grew to love that flag.
That summer of 1965, I also remember with clarity the discussions in the home of my fraternal grandparents that often would bring forth the topic of America. I especially remember a bright sunny Sunday as I sat on a small rug that my grandmother had made herself while listening to a popular comedic program on the radio. My grandfather, uncles and my father were distracting me from the program that my grandmother and I were intently listening to; slowly the voices of these grownups around me drowned out the program, whilst windows were closed to muffle the conversation, because words like freedom and democracy were being discussed and America kept being raised as a comparison to our homeland.
I remember too my great sadness upon learning that my father had made up his mind-- we would be leaving home and going to America; that he could no longer live in a country where one was afraid to speak his mind.
A few years before, two university students sat in an outdoor café in our nation’s capital and toasted to freedom; and were promptly arrested. Many years later I learned that their struggle inspired someone in England to found an organization to fight for their freedom—it became Amnesty International. Those students were compatriots, they shared the same citizenship as I; many years later I was to learn that their uttering of dissent was shared by thousands in my homeland, that struggled to free themselves from fascism until 1974.
Even though I was too little to know of such things then, I nonetheless remember my father’s resolve to leave because of strange words called ‘liberdade’ (liberty), and America. Today I know we did not only leave for economic reasons; we had all the comforts of a middle class family; we lived in a fifth floor apartment of a modern building with an elevator; I had my own room, to the rear of our apartment we enjoyed a veranda showing us vistas of whispering pines and eucalyptus that bathed us constantly with cool breezes of scented pine and eucalyptus oils misting the air that secluded us from the bustle of an expanding third largest city of Portugal -- one of the oldest of Europe: Coimbra, the university town of the famous melancholic ballads of Fado.
Every Saturday we would dine out at a favorite restaurant of my parents. I still remember being greeted by the waiters dressed in black pants, furled white shirts and black bowties who would place me in a highchair next to our table as they helped me get comfortable for our evening dinner. That customary dinner I still remember with fondness—it always felt like a banquet, and it was always accompanied by my favored malt or pineapple yogurt as a desert.
Less than two years later, on a breezy January day, I remember walking on the tarmac approaching what seemed to be a huge shiny airplane, glittering in the sunlight. I remember climbing a metal stairway that tired my legs, and of hours later awaking from sleep to gaze out the window next to my seat; of marveling along with my parents at the spectacle of millions of multi colored lights that lit up a city I would later come to know and love--New York. I still remember concurring with my mother as she said how beautiful it was.
We left behind most of our possessions except for those that my father had shipped by steamer and which arrived weeks later. Of all that we left behind, the most painful to me were my grandparents. We left the lands we owned, the forested lands my grandfather had inherited and were farmed for timber every few decades, we left behind friends, favorite pastimes, delicacies from the bakeries I loved, and the company of family. But not all things did I leave behind; Bonanza was still to be seen on television, and so was Shenandoah, and many of the cowboy films I so enjoyed, were still to be seen and enjoyed.
My memories then became nearly all American, in content and substance. I was enmeshed in its strange language that today I embrace as my own. I remember going to school and feeling the shock of massive disorder, as teachers struggled to quiet kids. I was struck by the fact that no one in my class seemed to know much about simple arithmetic. Shocked as well at not understanding why my teacher struggled for most of the day to control a classroom full of kids. She was black, all in our class were white, the year was 1967.
Several months later as I was enjoying my summer vacation, a neighbor came running into the backyard yelling that there was a disturbance, fires, ‘people were being attacked by the blacks.’ I turned on the television, I remember the televised scenes of people running in the streets of Newark and other cities, while smoke, and police blocked streets.
Our neighborhood was partly separated from the rest of the city, by its unique geographic outlay, limited by the banks of the Passaic River on its northern border, a swamp to the east, a network of highways to the south, and the length of elevated train tracks atop a stone embankment to the west. The train station served as a literal opening to the outside world, both in terms of transportation as well as to the rest of the city to the west.
In our largely immigrant neighborhood, which was entirely constituted by white people, I heard that the ‘Negroes had gone crazy, that they were setting fires, a revolution had started’. My neighbors were afraid, I saw it in their eyes, but in some I also saw something else, I saw hatred. Bands of teenagers, young men, and older ones started to band together; some carried sticks, and pipes and yelled that they were going to the train station to make sure the ‘Negroes kept out of our neighborhood’. This was my first true encounter with what today I recognize as racism; its ugly determination to judge others with the rashness of self-determined righteousness enmeshed in an irrational fear-hatred-- it brought home to me a side of America I did not understand, I still don’t.
Until I came to America, I had never seen a black person. I had no notions or preconceptions, but I sensed the hatred, the mistrust around me from others I knew as neighbors, teachers, and friends. I remember the fear of seeing the violence on television, mostly of police hitting people, and of fire hoses targeting black people; as a youngster I too became afraid. I feared the violence, but especially the hatred.
I remember when busing began and a sea of black faces arrived on yellow buses minutes after the early morning school bell had rung while I was seated at my desk. Some of the students were at the windows of our classroom and yelled; ‘they’re here.’
Its funny how we firstly remember with greatest distinction colors; black faces, yellow buses, but we don’t remember the hopes, the dreams, of fellow human beings. Most of these arriving kids were forced to sit in the back of our classroom because all the other desks were taken. I still remember some of their faces, some walked in with eyes down, a few with rebellious gait throwing out their chests, which today I know was adopted posture to mask fear. Those rebellious youngsters evoked similar fear in my friends, and in some of the adults at our school. Fear breeds fear, and hatred breeds hatred.
The year was 1968, and one early summer day before leaving for a trip overseas with my mother, I learned through a televised report about Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. The Kennedys were like gods in our household. My father always spoke with reverence about the Kennedys, and Robert represented a hope for the future that most people we knew shared in; that hope was also shared by friends I had at school, both white and black, and by some of the teachers. After Robert Kennedy’s assassination, the mood at school changed, it was mirrored in the hopeless visages of young and old alike.
My subsequent recollections were of the period that brought to me the notion of another distant place called Vietnam. I remember the nightly casualty reports on television; I remember Lyndon Johnson speaking on television; McNamara being questioned by reporters about Vietnam as he strode to the Pentagon from a parking lot. In those days, the war was far away, and I didn’t give it scant a thought that within a few years I could be a candidate for enlistment.
I remember Vietnam, as the name of a place, as the cause for a commotion and a war that was as distant and foreign to me as anything could be then. In the spring of 1970, I remember a classroom discussion that first introduced me to the developing American wound of Vietnam. My teacher was a middle aged Polish woman who had a brother fighting in the jungles of that exotic far-off place. One day she called for hands and separated the class into two sides; those who thought we should continue fighting in Vietnam and those who thought we should bring our troops home. As she asked each student for his or her opinion, I searched my thoughts. I hadn’t given it much thought, no one I knew was in the army. The only thing that I thought important was that peace was paramount; I knew even then that no matter what the disagreement between people there was always a way to resolve differences in peace. I knew too, that all people deserve to be treated as equals.
When my turn came, I argued for peace, as other kids in class booed me. Our teacher prodded to know why I thought that way, I remember her words being tinged with anxiety and masked anger. Those who opposed the war in a class of about twenty-five kids, were constituted by four or five. I remember saying that if people continue to fight so they can avenge those that had died, then we would fight forever, and in the end everything we loved would be destroyed; no war was worth that.
I remember the following year 1969, when NASA became a near daily mention. That day in July when Neil Armstrong stepped off the lunar module ladder onto the lunar surface, I remember my father saying how Kennedy had made this possible; how dreams are always possible if we muster the courage and the strength to see them through. I remember the awe I felt, on that hot humid night as I caught a glimpse of that white orb distant in the sky, knowing that now it had an American flag planted on its soil, and the footprints of someone from our planet Earth. Apollo 11 gave me hope, as America had given hope to my family; as once the Statue of Liberty had given hope to my fraternal grandfather who arrived after the ‘Great War’ to travel America during the 1920’s. He too had come with a different kind of hope, one to better his economic state.
My grandfather worked in the steel mills of Pittsburgh; he worked in the fishing fleets of the northern Atlantic out of New Bedford Massachusetts; and later when the Great Depression hit America, he worked in the fields of Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’; he traveled the trains with the hobos sharing their meals and their stories; and later seeing his dream evaporate before his eyes emigrated back to a nation that he once again called home.
To our family, America was always a land of hope and freedom. No matter how bad things were in Europe, no matter how desperate things appeared, across the ocean another land shined as a beacon of hope. To my aunt and uncle who were born in the U.S.A., that land was always their home. To my parents, and I, it became our adopted home.
By the time of my graduation from elementary school, I remember receiving my diploma as well as a small booklet that contained the Pledge of Allegiance, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. I remember reading the preamble; “We, the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Unbeknownst to myself or my peers, that booklet was a warning, a formal notice given onto us, as a generation, of our responsibility to support and defend the spirit eloquently presented in those documents; in ideal and deed.
I remember the incredulity and ignorance that I felt inside me regarding those words that I read which were foreign to me; although written in English, they were beyond me in scope and cognizance, yet today I know that all deeds that ultimately realize themselves begin with an idea, and when uttered, take the form of words. Today I recognize the importance of such words, of such ideas, as they are usurped by new ideas that do violence to the concept of the documents that were entrusted to me, to my generation; as they had been to previous generations of Americans.
I became an American citizen in 1995, but that was simply a formality. My American citizenship commenced when I graduated from elementary school, when I was handed the documents of the Republic. My citizenship continued to be concretized when I graduated from high school, after having breathed U.S. history. Later still when I graduated college and had grasped the concepts and ideals of governance, of humanity, of fraternity-- only after completing my college education did I comprehend the struggles of this nation that I now recognize as my own.
Today, I am haunted by memories that date back to my childhood. I recognize that around me fear feeds fear, and hatred feeds hatred. I read about nurses being reprimanded for expressing their concerns for their country; I read about college professors being afraid to voice their views; I read about the nation’s leaders espousing the use of torture; I read about people being ‘whisked away’ in the night.
I am haunted by memories from my childhood that mirror my adopted home. These memories instill in me a ‘feeling’ that America is no longer the same place. Long gone are those invisible ubiquitous beacons of hope, of ‘liberdade’, even if the Statue of Liberty is still to be found in New York harbor, and the Constitution still on display in Washington DC. The word is spreading across the world, in big cities and tiny hamlets alike, about this new America.
This new found wisdom is forming memories for thousands upon thousands, indeed upon millions of our fellow human beings, and will not soon be forgotten.
Memories take a life of their own, as fear beckons fear and hatred begets hatred. I know, because as I remember the far off shores of another country across the haze of time and memory, I recognize the same nights that mask the palpable reality of a nascent fascism, now falling upon this nation I struggle to recognize. Increasingly I lose sight of the hope that 'patently' formed the primordial fiber of its existence. Increasingly, my new home becomes more like my old one.
A New American Century has betrayed the ideals of a New World and transposes itself into Old. Memory, History, the Renaissance are betrayed; America falters, and the world holds its breath.
This essay was constituted in part from a chapter entitled “As I Remember”, from the book When America Lost Its Way, (not yet published). All Rights Reserved.
Posted May 15, 2006
URL: www.thecitizenfsr.org SM 2000-2011
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