by arnoldo garcía
I asked him if he knew the name of the mountain range visible in the distance, as our jet-plane sauntered along towards the runway. He said, “No; I’m not from here.” He smiled a sheepish smile adding in self-defense, “But I do come here once a week.” Our plane turned into the headwinds, gained enough speed and lifted up gracefully towards the east, grazing the mountain range without a name with the tip of its wing. I am coming from Oakland to Atlanta through Salt Lake City, where I will learn the names of the original peoples, the natural world and her landscapes, her languages.
Oakland is a city of migrants. I came to Oakland, too, from a long tradition of migrants.
On the way to the Oakland airport, we drove by new corridor of housing, commercial and semi-industrial development that’s been underway for more than a decade. Gentrification, in a word. These new developments are the surface of the root causes of displacement. East Oaklanders – mainly of color, working class – are having to move far away to afford rent and also find work. And who’s replacing them? Mainly white but professionals moving into the inner city to save the environment, to live the neighborhood where they plan on living in walkable neighborhoods, with local shops and neighbors. Capitalist stability trades human lives for the center.
As the plane reached higher and higher altitudes, the quilt of cities and agriculture fields below, the quilt sewn by working class hands emerged in all its beauty, in full, wide angle. The curvature of the earth is the best place to put your hands – where humanity has held onto, cradled its head to sleep secure in the cosmos, on her shoulder. I remembered or realized that the migrant knows her place, where she’s from, where’s she’s going, and where she’s at.
When you look closely, migration is the human way of life, the human story of life and its deepest struggles and dreams. When we migrate, we dream of return, of home because we are not welcomed where we now call home. Migration is local, regional, national, trans-territorial, international; yet the impacts are always in my neighborhood and in my community, wherever I come from and go to.
Root causes, different yet the same everywhere
We say that the root causes of migration are political and economic instability and conflict. Instability is stability for some communities. In East and West Oakland, there is a lot of political and economic instability for those who live there now. Those moving in are working towards stability; this means some of their poorer, working class neighbors will have to move or choose to live in increasingly stressful situations.
My African American neighbors eventually sold their home to a young white couple with a growing family. The housing price boom was good to both of them. But did they want to leave? The last straw was when their son was killed by the violence that plagues young men of color wherever they live.
One night a bunch of Oakland police raided their home in the middle of the night. Our dog, who usually barks at anything that makes noise or passes by the house only, growled this time. She too was very scared of the police in riot gear, the heavily armed men in black, appearing as menacing shadows in the night to arrest a young black man for violating his parole.
My neighborhood in east Oakland has gone from majority African American, Latino, Asian and some whites to majority Latino, Asian, African American with a growing number of whites – more than I have seen in the last 20 years.
This is one of the faces of metropolitics – managing growth, smart growth the government declares it, at regional metropolitan levels. The metropolitics of smart growth is about dispersing poverty throughout a region, among other things. It turned out that the majority of under-utilized and abandoned commercial, industrial and housing districts were where majority communities of color live: East Oakland, the Fruitvale (also known as Jingl-Town), West Oakland, China Town. Or San Francisco's Bay View Hunter's Point, which had the highest percentage of home ownership of any other district in The City.
Smart growth turned out to be the same old growth that led to our segregation and abandonment. That is, this time dispersing, displacing the poor from the urban center to the suburbs, where the jobs they can do are located and leaving our neighborhoods, corner grocery stores and other community amenities behind. Wherever people of color go they still have a hard time affording the rent and other amenities.
Smart growth believes that the poor will benefit from living in the midst of stable working people, middle and upper classes. It means making it safe for the stable working people, the middle class, to move into the city, abandoned by capital and community over the years, now revitalizing, thriving with transit villages and downtown housing, cinemas, boutiques, microbreweries, fancy cocktail bars and transportation. And that the middle and upper class will be good for the inner city, because suburbanization will recede, saving the environment, bring investment into the inner city – but for who? Instead of smart growth, just growth, healthy growth, jobs, homes, services, schools, clinics, hospitals, bowling alleys, art galleries, neighborhoods where we live, work, study, worship, play.
In easterly Oakland, the new housing, condos, expresso café shops, tequila bars, the beautiful placita, a growing diversity of clothing and other stores and restaurants that provide amenities are popping up – but they’re not for the people who have lived here for generations and are now disappearing.
The expensive but tasty coffees and pastries, the wi-fi hot spots, the occasional boutiques, the new houses, even the old houses, are not for us, not for day laborers, not for the young black and brown men and women, the perennially unemployed who are forced to hustle, sell drugs or sex for the cheapest price. Not for domestic workers, not for the transnational mothers cleaning homes and taking care of someone else’s children while his and hers languish alone in apartment buildings, on street corners or exist in a neighborhood in another country.
Working class immigrants and people of color, the working poor and their families, double up and triple up, to afford rent and food. Sometimes unscrupulously, neighbors call in the inspectors to force renters to move out for housing code violations or for illicit going on’s next door, the plight of the poor or working poor, who face homelessness. In the suburbs, it’s not much different. In addition to doubling up, they also rent converted garages and work two, three jobs or make the long drive back to Oakland or San Francisco to work for minimum wage jobs to survive far away from their old homes.
“Where do the people go?”
In NNIRR’s documentary, Uprooted: Refugees from the Global Economy, Francisco Herrera sings the blues in English and Spanish, asking “Where will the people go? A donde vamos?” when they are forced to abandon their homelands, their communities, their neighbors and family. They go where they can survive, which usually means where their families can be together. Because only together, where everyone works even two or three jobs, can families survive. Family reunification means emotional and economic stability. Without comprehensive stability, migration usually enters into the picture. Migration is not just about crossing international borders. It’s also crossing metropolitan borders, defined by city, district and regional borders.
Day laborers, immigrant workers, are working at landscaping, janitorial, day-wall construction, washing dishes in the back rooms of restaurants, cooking, cleaning tables and houses, making rooms up at hotels, sweeping sidewalks, cleaning up floods at people’s homes. They are street-vendors and pushcart workers selling ice cream, tasty local fast-food from taco-trucks and mini- kitchens on wheels. They are almost former migrant farmworkers who are leaving the fields forever, if they’re lucky, and try surviving in the city.
Why do they move into the inner city, where life is hard, unstable, filled with risks and empty of sufficient and needed services, such as health care, social services, decent schools, safe neighborhoods free of police and passer-by violence? Why do they leave the intimacy of their lands and communities, where they are different, where they are vulnerable?
The short answer is the same reason workers and middle class people become international migrants – to go to where their national and regional investments and resources have been abducted to. They are involuntarily displaced and forced to choose where they will survive. Not all become international migrants; some become regional migrants, commuters finding work close by in their metropolitan regional economy. Some move away to other regions, some of them into international regions, transterritorial regions straddled by global cities separated by geography, united by migrants and capital mobility.
The New Urban Regime?
Saskia Sassen, the renoun radical urban planner, in her theoretical work calls this state of affairs the new “urban regime,” a new relationship between high-skilled, high wage workers and white collar professionals who can afford to pay and need the services of low-wage, lower skilled workers, usually but not exclusively immigrants. The new urban regime is also about global cities that share a transterritorial and transnational economy. The urban regime is also one way of describing the relationship between international migrants and the local and regional economies.
Migrants serve and provide services that otherwise metro-communities could not have or afford to have without the infusion of low-skilled, lower waged workers who also serve national poor and working class people and the upper and middle classes. Yes, the poor among the poor, the working class among the working class also needs the migrant laborer to survive. Competition at the bottom is fueled by those at the top who bid and underbid for the services of the working poor, the undocumented and documented, the citizen and non-citizen who live day to day, week to week, stabilizing the regional and national economies, the neighborhoods.
This is the deep demographic shift, the demographic revolution, taking place in the U.S., casued basically by neoliberal policies and social, political and economic restructuring where services, investments, jobs, capital, infrastructure and the labor power and skills needed follow suit.
Immigrants open cuisine restaurants, dry-cleaning shops, offer domestic and childcare services, high-end tailor stores, clean yards and create dream landscaping yards; drive taxis and bicycles transporting people and business deals downtown. They are paid survival wages. They revitalize the inner city. This is the U.S. version of “three for one” remittances programs, when foreign governments at the federal, state and local levels match one dollar each for every dollar a migrant sends to their home community. Three for one is actually six for one – their remittances that aren’t sent abroad play the same dynamic, development role in revitalizing urban and suburban centers.
When immigrants do this, especially undocumented immigrants, they are forced to leave a gaping hole back home. The situation back home is also a victim of this “new urban regime.” If the local or regional economy does not serve this relationship between high-skilled/high waged labor and low-skilled, lower waged workers, it too is abandoned as its industries and workers are forced to leave.
The businessman commuter flies in and out of cities – maybe through no fault of his own – doesn’t know where he is from, where he is at or where he is going. He doesn’t know the names of mountain ranges and landscapes, made by human labor, that he is flying over. He says he comes here once a week, has never learned the names of the places or their languages. He’s a local of the sky, where you can see everything but are are from nowhere.
This is the first time I fly into Salt Lake City and rush from one plane to the next, like a true commuter, with no time to look around, drink coffee, talk a bit with someone who knows where she’s at, knows the names of the mountains and who the Ute were, how the Wasatch got their names, maybe.
I want to know what languages she speaks, why her dust is so salty, ancient sea, oldest ancestor, elder sister whose mountain range acts as a couple of hands that cup to hold the moving sea of the last terrestial big bang. What are her names and why have they been changed? What are our names and why have they been changed? What have we lost and what have we gained in this latest terrestial big bang known as globalization, neoliberal capital development, structural adjustment that de-adjusts our communities, destabilizes us for generations?
This is why we're going to Atlanta, to think out loud and in private about as many problems and solutions as possible, together. Immigrant rights are none other than plain old rights, human rights, for everyone. We are all immigrants, todos somos inmigrantes. Well, many of us are and many believe they're not. And that's the root of the problem.
I am watching the movie on the plane “Breach – based on a true story.” Isn’t all art, cinema, movies, film, poetry, fiction, non-fiction, analyses, narratives, history, political struggles and organizing, community stories, our daily bread and tortillas all based on true stories? That is the true story of the human imagination, human migrations.