COMING TO AMERICA
Trevor Little, first year writing UNC Asheville student
The Sculpture and What It Represents
The sculpture “Coming to America” that Dwyane Barton has constructed is a visual representation of what immigrants have to go through before and after they arrive in this new land. The structure seems unorganized at first, with no real path and no real premise. Upon further investigation and deeper thought, one can see how each piece reveals something about the subject. For example, one of the pieces include posters of Superman and Wonder Woman. These can represent the idea that by pursuing the American Dream, one can become the iconic Superman and Wonder Woman. That is, someone who is unstoppable, has relentless ambition, and represents what makes America great. Another piece of the sculpture that stood out is the sign that states “Do Not Enter”. This can represent the fact that although one can attain that Superman or Wonder Woman status, there is a large amount of oppression towards immigrants in this country. As Leslie Hahner puts it, “Immigrants [are] seen as a threat to nationalism”(Hahner, 2017). Because immigrants have not been raised in American culture, there is the idea that we should be wary of these people, that they will somehow sabotage our way of life and the ideals that define America. Therefore, we persecute these people unjustly. This must stop. We must acknowledge that we are all after the same goals, and discrimination is not the way to treat people who are different from us.
Personally, I loved the idea of the sculpture as well as what it represented. Although one could get lost within the sculpture itself, the pieces making up the sculpture combined with interpretations one could get them are very eye-opening. Furthermore, one could tell that the sculpture itself is open to a personal exposition about what each piece represents, allowing for a more personable and tangible experience that the viewer can connect with. It brought me an acute awareness through art of what immigrants have to go through both before and upon arrival to the United States. Artwork that represents an issue can be even more powerful than a paper about the subject. I feel that this sculpture can resonate with the viewer, and bring out the harsh reality of what immigrants face to pursue this idea of the American Dream. Barton believes that not enough is told about those not of white-descent, and he wants to correct that through his organization Hood Huggers as well as using art to bring oppression to the surface (Barton, 2018).
What are Immigrants Striving For?
Before diving into why people from all over the world strive for this “American Dream”, we must first understand what it actually is that they are striving for. The “American Dream” has had different meanings for different people at different points in history. But throughout history, it has one common idea in mind. C.D Conde’s quote from James Trusslow Adams’ Epic of America puts it the best. He says, “it’s that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” (Conde, 2009). It also states that it is “a social order in which each man and each women shall be able to attain the fullest stature of which they are innately capable and being recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth and position”(Conde 2009). So much of the world, both today as well as in the past, is based on a social hierarchy. It is through these ideas that one believes they can make from their life what they put in without higher authorities holding them back, which is what makes America different from other countries.
Reasons For Leaving and the Hardships They Face
America is extremely unique. As John Bodnar puts it, “America was built by immigrants” (Bodnar, 2014) who saw their own unique opportunities, and a chance to forget about a possibly horrid life back home. These reasons still exist today. Some see business opportunities, a place where one can get rich and live off their own income without having to worry about a government to submit to, while others see a chance to “flee from the religious persecution and political turmoil” they were facing within their own country (Bodnar, 2014). Other immigrants are forced to America against their will to do the work of those who would buy them. No matter what angle one looks at this from, America was built and made by the people who came for their own unique reasons. Here, immigrants believe they can create their own unique opportunities without restraint and reach an ultimate goal, which is getting to the top of social hierarchy through hardwork and perseverance.
To get to that ultimate goal, immigrants have to go through many hardships. And even then, this ultimate goal is never realized for most immigrants. Most of us know about sea sickness, poor quarters, minimal health regulations, and other risks of the past. These same problems have continued even up to the present day, and new ones have emerged. Among these include that immigrants’ “goals and expectations must be evaluated to ensure they are realistic…. and are based on the resources brought, the willingness for adaptation, and the opportunities available” (Segal, 2005). Once an immigrant arrives, there are more challenges. They need to find a place to live, a place to work, and possibly face public scrutiny and oppression because of their difference in background. Most live in poverty, and in many situations whole families have to work in order to get food and have a place to stay. Ben Huh in his 2013 Ted Talk has his own recollections of personal experiences as an immigrant. He recalls “living in a one-bedroom apartment with my parents” (01:48) and “remembering the smell of rotting soda” (12:58) from “working as a janitor making $2,000 a month (12:08-11).
No matter these hardships, even more immigrants come over today than in previous generations. According to the U.S Census Bureau, the number of immigrants in the US has skyrocketed from just under 10% of the population in 1970 to over 40% in 2016. Their graph not only shows the amount of people that come to the US seeking opportunity and a second chance, but also the risks that they are taking. It also shows the percentage of immigrants as part of the U.S population. This has only jumped from 4.7% in 1970 to 13.5% in 2016. The only logical explanation to this is the fact that there are more illegal immigrants in America now than ever before. This shows that immigrants today are taking even bigger risks to come to America such as apprehension or deportation (Migration Policy Institution, 2016).
After seeing these points, one might be asking themselves, “If so many people are coming over, what is being done for these people both on a local and national level?” The harsh reality is that very little has been done nationally to help those who come to this country. In fact, more has been done to alienate these people than to help them. The Chinese Exclusion Act, slavery, and the wall proposed by President Trump are very clear examples about how immigrants are treated as less than equal to those already living here. Leslie Hahner states, “new immigrants were depicted as less fit for citizenship given their country of origin, poverty, English illiteracy, unskilled labor, and natural criminality” (Hahner, 2017). Those depictions still exist today. It is because of this misconception that immigrants are put into hard blue-collar jobs that risk their health as well as their well-being. According to Pia Orrenius, immigrants are more likely to work in riskier jobs than non-immigrants. Between 2005 and 2006, 18% of foreigners had work-related fatalities. She also states that for immigrants, “The rate during 2003-2005 corresponds to an average of 5,691 work related deaths annually” (Orrenius, 2009). These statistics are still apparent today.
According to Eitzen, there is much ethnical occupational inequality even in recent years. He states, “They are more likely than natives to be food-preparation workers, sewing machine operators, parking lot attendants, housekeepers, waiters, private household cleaners….” (Eitzen, 2018). The jobs that he lists within his piece are typically low to minimum wage jobs. This is often not enough to sustain one person, much less a family. Because of this, many immigrants are often forced to live in impoverished neighborhoods with high crime, low standards, and low opportunity. Their health suffers because they do not have the money necessary to live a healthy life, causing early deaths.
At the local level, Asheville has been seen as a sanctuary city. This is defined as a place for illegal immigrants to seek refuge. In 2013, the Asheville City Council passed the Civil Liberties Resolution that include policies about how to deal with illegal immigrants. The policy states that, “The City of Asheville opposes any efforts to transfer federal immigration responsibility to state and local officials” (Caulder, 2015). The city also plans to “play a leading role in the protection of civil liberties and to consistently promote tolerance and respect for all persons” (Caulder, 2015). However, this is not always the case.
Although Asheville tries to be a sanctuary city, we cannot ignore the fact that there is still oppression in Asheville. There are many examples here of oppression that correspond with the national issue of immigration. Even after President Obama signed an executive order to allow child immigrants who spent a large amount of their childhood in the US to apply for employment authorization with no fear of deportation, these people are still denied citizenship and equal opportunity (Garcia, 2015). There have been examples and personal accounts, especially within The Center for Diversity Education exhibit named Mi Historia, of immigrants not receiving these executive rights. There are examples of “workplace raids, denial of driver's licenses, license checkpoints, and deportation programs that have had devastating effects on Asheville as well western North Carolina” (Garcia, 2015). Furthermore, “70% of [immigrants] deported under S-Comm in Buncombe and Henderson County either had no criminal record or were convicted of misdemeanor offenses like traffic violations” (Garcia, 2015). From this, one can see this idea of Asheville, as well as America, being a safe haven on the outside, but oppressive and unfair on the inside is what makes many immigrants wonder if it is worth it to pursue their ambitions here.
So is it worth it to pursue the American Dream? Is the hardship worth the reward? These questions are very subjective and are dependent on the individual’s judgment. As the statistics show, not many immigrants ever reach that ultimate goal. It is only the people who reach it that are idolized. They serve as examples and give immigrants hope that anything is possible. But what is not revealed is that so few people make it this far, and even die in the attempt. However, the high risk can potentially equal a high reward, which is why they still strive for it. It is up to the individual to decide if they think it is worth the risk. In US society, we must be willing to acknowledge that immigrants are no different than the people who have already made their home here. We are a country rich in diversity. We are a country founded upon immigrants as Bodnar states, and this is an idea that we have lost within our society. America has developed an image, both locally and nationally, as an attractive place of refuge to those currently not in this country, but ugly to immigrants who make it here. We must accept that we are all after a common goal, and no one person or group of people should be excluded from pursuing the American Dream. Treating everyone as you would want to be treated has been a lost pillar in US society, and it is because of this that Dwyane Barton has made this sculpture, to raise awareness of the cruelty that immigrants face both on a local and national level.
Barton, Dwyane. Burton Street Community Walking Tour. February-March 2018, Asheville, NC
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