Junot Diaz’s Drown is a collection of stories that tell of the contemporary misery and urban despair that can grow from poverty and “uprootedness” from one’s own cultural setting. Diaz’s protagonists are immigrants from the Dominican Republic, many of whom are coming of age in a polarized America. Their stories are even more relevant and poignant in the light of recent proposals of immigration reform and challenges to the American Dream.
This paper argues that immigration is a foundation of the American Dream, and that recent clampdowns in immigration quotas and other immigrant-unfriendly measures threaten the American Dream. The current backlash against immigrants is actually a historical recurrence. However, as Diaz shows, the vast majority of immigrants into this country come with hopes of having a better life and of contributing to their new country. Therefore, to ensure that the American Dream continues, the United States government should avoid the panacea of immigration clampdowns.
The first part of this paper looks at the intersections of race and immigration in American history. This part discusses how, contrary to prevailing notions that all early immigrants were “white,” early immigration was characterized by the population diversity seen today. The next part of the paper then looks at the protagonists in Diaz’s Drown, arguing that the issues faced by the characters – poverty, uprootedness, racism – were quite similar to the ones faced by the earliest immigrants to this country. In the conclusion, this paper argues that the United States has long benefited from this cycle of immigration, assimilation and change.
Immigration is therefore an intrinsic part of the American Dream and as such, it should be allowed to continue.
Race and immigration: a historical perspective
Conventional wisdom states that immigrants see the United States as the land of opportunity. Indeed, immigrants flocked to the United States supposedly in search of a better life. And while anti-immigrant activists decry the lack of assimilation and “American identity” today, historical examples have shown that assimilation takes time and even generations, even for the European immigrants in the earliest days of this country,
In Colonial America, conventional wisdom maintains that the population of 13 colonies was comprised overwhelmingly of white immigrants and settlers from England. However, demographic studies have long challenged this claim. Over one-fifth of the 1790s population — an estimated 800,000 people — was African-American. Furthermore, the African-American population consisted of both slaves and freemen (Pagnini and Morgan: 411). In addition, population surveys conducted in the late 18th century often did not take into account the substantial Native American population who were living in independent settlements.
More recent demographic studies further challenge assertions of a homogenous white, British culture in colonial America. While early estimates stated that up to 80% of the white population in the 1790s was English, more recent scholarship believe that a significant number were actually represented people of Celtic, German and other European nationalities (Pagnini and Morgan: 415).
Though all would be considered “white” by today’s standards, not all immigrants enjoyed social acceptance.
By the 1800s, one-third of the American population was composed of immigrants and their children. These figures show that there was actually much diversity at the dawn of America, and that immigration was an intrinsic part of the American Dream from the very beginning. Even more important, not every immigrant prior to 1900 was considered “white.” Variations in European ancestry may seem trivial today, but in the 1790s, there was much tension and dissent among the people of various European descent. Americans who were of English extraction were very critical of how ethnic diversity was threatening the culture of the new colonies. Many even sought to limit immigration and criticized the newcomers for maintaining their own ethnic enclaves and clinging to their own language.
Even prominent Americans such as Benjamin Franklin decried the “Palatine Boors” for their supposed Germanizing of the Pennsylvania province and for the group’s refusal to learn English (Edmonton and Passel: 122).
Race and immigration were very much intertwined, even at a time when all immigrants to this country were supposedly “white.” In the case of Italians, for example, the new immigrants were derided for their dusky skin, their large families and loud manners.
Americans of English ancestry expressed doubts that such people would ever assimilate well into the United States. Today, however, is it even possible to conceive of an American society without the contribution of German-Americans or of Italian-Americans?
These historical examples have strong implications for immigration today, for Ysrael and Rafa and Yunior and the myriad other characters in Diaz’s stories. It is also interesting to note that while Diaz writes in a voice that is strongly and uniquely Dominican-American, he writes of situations and insights that would be familiar to all immigrants, either today or in history.
The new immigrants in Diaz’s Drown
In Drown, Diaz brings the reader into the world of the new immigrants. Because the stories are set in intimate settings – within families, households and relationships – the reader becomes privy to the lives of the characters. The author creates worlds where Rafa teases his younger brother as a “*****” for crying. In “Fiesta 1980,” the reader feels almost like a voyeur, witnessing the painful event of a father’s leaving and the disintegration of a family.
Diaz’s description once again highlights the cyclical nature of immigration and the American Dream.
Historical examples have already shown that previous “white” immigrants were discriminated against based on their skin color and lack of English skills. This discrimination encouraged many immigrants then to cluster into their own communities. Today, more than 200 years later, the cycles of discrimination built on skin color and language, and the resultant de facto segregation, continue.
And yet, one of the wonders of Diaz’s stories is the familiarity of the lives of many of his characters. What little boy today would not be able to relate to an older sibling’s sometimes vicious teasing. With the divorce rate hovering at 50% of all marriages, many families would certainly feel the power in Diaz’s understatement in “Fiesta 1980.” The complicated feelings of longing and resentment expressed by Yunior for his absent father in “Aguantando” stir strong emotions and perhaps even recognition in many children growing up with absentee fathers.
In many of his stories, Diaz squarely addresses issues regarding the rising crime rates among immigrants. Today, anti-immigrants have a tendency to deride newcomers for bringing in disease and crime to their new homeland. Again, these ideas have been expressed in the previous waves of immigration. For Diaz, the problem of crime cannot be disentangled from the poverty that often results from the racism and lack of opportunities prevalent in the lives of many immigrants. In “Aurora,” for example, the protagonist turns to drug dealing after a lifetime of hopelessness. The anti-hero is deprived of positive role models throughout his life and was raised in poverty. Given these factors, is it such as surprise that drug dealing is the only way for him to make a living?
Diaz deals with pre-conceived notions regarding inner-city immigrants in “How to Date a Brown Girl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie.” The narrator imagines the reactions of a suburban mom to the fact that her daughter is dating a dark-skinned inner-city boy. However, as this story shows, white middle class residents of the suburbs need not fear the city-bred immigrants, as there is an underlying “sameness” to all aspects of family life.
In summary, Diaz’s stories are set in the cycle of immigrant struggle. Many of his characters are undergoing the same struggles that were previously experienced by European immigrants since the dawn of this country.
It would be difficult to deny the massive contributions that German and Italian-Americans have made to this country, even in spite of strong opposition to their presence.
Today, immigrants such as Diaz’s Ysrael and Yunior are undergoing the same struggles, facing similar vicious opposition. On a wider scale, the struggle of these immigrants would be familiar to many immigrants around the country. Many of them come to this country to contribute their talents and ideas. On a personal note, for example, my girlfriend’s father Farouk is a West Indian immigrant from Trinidad & Tabago. After years of taking night classes, he earned his associate’s degree in Electrical Enginnering. Today, Farouk is an engineer working with EMC. He is earning a good salary and holds seven patents with EMC.
Diaz’s stories are an argument for keeping the American Dream open, for Farouk, for his characters and for the vast majority of immigrants who choose to come to the United States. After all, much of the progress of this country stems from its historical openness to immigrants. Thus, to safeguard the American Dream means to keep its ideals open to all.
Diaz, Junot. Drown. New York: Riverhead, 1997.
Edmonston, B. And J. Passel, eds. Immigration and Ethnicity: The Integration of America’s Newest Arrivals. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 1994.
Pagnini, D. And S.P. Morgan. “Intermarriage and Social Distance Among Immigrants at the Turn of the Century.” American Journal of Sociology 96(1990):405-32.
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