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At the Tenement Museum

On December 5th Made in L.A. screened at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. The museum is featured in the film, in a scene that took place during Lupe's visit to New York as part of an effort to take the boycott campaign national. It is actually on of the most beautiful scenes in the film, because it is when Lupe realizes that she's part of a continuum, a larger history of immigration and labor struggles in the U.S.

Yet visiting the museum again I felt that the film shows only the tip of the iceberg of what this extraordinary institution has to offer. Bai Tan, an educator and museum guide, led us through the cramped, poorly ventilated and dimly lit rowhouses which the museum has carefully researched and restored to recreate the lives of the immigrants who lived here from the end of the 19th to the mid 20th century. Personal details of their lives help us understand not just how these immigrants lived and worked, but also who they were and what they felt. (The museum features an amazing virtual tour on their website, and even though you cannot feel the humidity, the dust and the darkness of the rooms, it is an amazing experience --click on the big photos below to see the tour.)

Inside the Gumpertz' home, we see where Natalie worked, sewing and caring for 4 children after her husband tragically disappeared after the economic depression of 1890, which had resulted in bank and business failures and had caused many to lose everything. Our guide described it as a desperate time when there were no social "safety net" programs to keep people from the depths of despair. Even worse, German immigrants like the Gumpertzes faced Germanophobia: a fear that Germans would colonize the US with their language, their songs, their culture. (Check out the wikipedia). Any resemblance with the current backslash on Latino immigration and the fears of Mexican "reconquista"?

Last summer, the New York Times published an interesting op-ed that drew parallels between modern anti-immigrant sentiment and previous backlashes against previous newcomers to this country. It was called "The Founding Immigrants". It began with a quote:

"Few of their children in the country learn English... The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages ... Unless the stream of their importation could be turned they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious."

A recent proponent of the border fence? No, actually this quote is from Benjamin Franklin, written more than 300 years ago and refers to the Pennsylvania Dutch. The parallels are striking and the Gumpertz' home brought that all home.

As we continued our tour, I was even more deeply moved by the story of the Baldizzi family, who arrived from Italy in the 1920's. Unlike the European immigrants who had arrived just 30 years earlier and lived next door, the Baldizzis' had a harder time coming to the US. Immigration was starting to be "illegal" and quotas had been established. The Museum documents their story: the Baldizzi wife obtained fake papers, traveled to France, boarded a boat to Canada and lived there long enough to get papers and come to the US, where she joined her husband who was living here "undocumented".


In the kitchen the museum plays a recording of the Baldizzi's daughter exploring a litany of memories: the "ice coins" they used to put in the gas to warm the water without paying, the sink/bathtub where they would bathe once a week, the board games they played with their father at night after the world quieted down. And the radio, that old radio that kept her mother company, playing soap operas that made her cry and cry, remembering the family she left behind -mother, father, brothers, friends that she knew she would not see again. And there I was with tears in my eyes, too.






 

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