I have an illegal immigrant in my family.
Well, at least one, anyway... that we know about.
He isn't Latino, or Asian. He didn't smuggle his way here. Nor did he pay some human traffickers tens of thousands of dollars to get here.
In fact, we're not completely sure of how he got to America. But according to family lore, at least as far as my aunt Helena is concerned, what we think we know tends to make sense, and the dates seem to work. But we don't know for sure, because our family's illegal immigrant died in the late 1950's. As an alcoholic. And because he was an alcoholic, he was not fondly remembered by his children when they'd recount childhood stories to us.
My aunt, who died last year, and my Dad, who died the year before that, were his children. So the illegal immigrant was my paternal grandfather. My grandfather died before my father and mother ever met. And for years, Mom didn't know much about him either, because Dad, my aunt Helena, and their mother never talked about him, since his life with them had been so miserable. Eventually, Dad told us about the time he got home from work, as a college student back in Brooklyn, and opened the door to the apartment he shared with his family. And there was his mother, and his sister Helena, standing on the other side of a short, portly figure on the floor of their apartment's foyer.
It was my grandfather. Dead. My grandmother had arrived home first, and then shortly thereafter, my aunt. And then Dad. Dad closed the door, and the three of them stood silently, looking down at the man whose drunken stupors had become legendary in their Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park. Dad remembered that his sister and mother and he were numbed by a mixture of relief and grief - but not grief that he was gone. It was grief about how much the family had suffered, living with such a hardened alcoholic all those years.
Finally, if only to break the heavy silence, Dad asked out loud, "Well, I guess we've got to call somebody to take the body away?"
I'm not even sure there was a funeral. Nobody ever talked about there being one.
My grandfather was born in Finland, in a sliver of that Nordic country that ended up being invaded by Russia in the Winter War of 1939, about two decades after my grandfather ended up in America. My Mom has two silver spoons with which my grandfather's sister was able to escape as their family's home in Viipuri faced imminent danger from the Russian invasion. The town of Viipuri, still in Russian hands, is now called Vyborg.
As a young man, my grandfather set off from Viipuri as a sailor, or seaman, or deckhand, working on trans-Atlantic steamships and freighters. We have records of him attending the venerable Seamen's Church Institute on South Street in Lower Manhattan, along the docks that used to spike outwards from the Financial District. At the Seamen's Church, worship services were geared to maritime workers from around the world, working odd shifts, and lonely from months-long stints at sea.
On one of the voyages my grandfather worked, a freshly-loaded freighter from the Caribbean headed towards Europe, the deckhands were strictly instructed to stay away from a locked portion of the ship's hold, below deck. Which, of course, was like telling a bunch of teenaged boys not to do something. Before too long, my grandfather and some of his shipmates had broken into that forbidden part of the ship. And what they saw deeply distressed my grandfather.
There, in the locked part of the hold, were men. Black men, in shackles.
We believe this was sometime before or during 1916, which made me dubious at first. Slavery was still around? Well, apparently, an illicit fragment of it was, since it was a topic of grave concern for the League of Nations during the 1920's. Somehow, the ship's owners had arranged for these men to be smuggled aboard without the crew knowing of it, and somehow, somewhere in Europe, they were going to be off-loaded, probably to be shipped to yet another destination.
We don't know many details about that discovery, but back then, my grandfather knew exactly what was going on. And he wanted to be no part of it. Absolutely not.
The ship's next port of call was New York City, with which we believe my grandfather was already familiar from previous visits. He likely knew there was a vibrant Finnish community in Brooklyn, and that he could probably become culturally absorbed there without attracting much attention. So when they docked in New York, my grandfather jumped ship - literally - forfeiting his pay in the process. And he walked away from those caged human beings, off of the pier, out onto the streets of New York, never to work on ships again.
Eventually, after he'd married and become a father, my grandfather obtained his United States citizenship. Apparently, there was never any real problem with him not being a legal resident before then. After all, illegal immigration isn't exactly a foreign concept in New York City, even if the restrictions on new arrivals to America were relatively strict for the time.
My grandmother, who arrived in the United States years later, spent a night on Ellis Island because her American sponsor didn't show up to claim her. That was one of the legal ways people got into the country back then. Officials on Ellis Island herded the immigrants whose sponsors hadn't claimed them into a large cell with iron bars for the night. My grandmother could hardly sleep, what with the utter lack of privacy, and worrying about what would happen to her. Turned out, she made sure she was at the front of the cell the next morning - this big cage, probably similar to what my grandfather saw those slaves inside of - her face pressed against the bars. Finally, later in the morning, a sternly-dressed woman strode into the immigration hall at Ellis Island, having just gotten off of the boat from Manhattan. She walked right up to my grandmother, and asked her in perfect Finnish if she wanted to get off that island.
"Of course I do," my grandmother eagerly replied.
"Well then, just follow my lead," the anonymous woman ordered. She marched up to an immigration clerk, and said she'd come to claim my grandmother, and had a job immediately for her in Manhattan.
"Is this true?" the dubious clerk half-motioned, half asked in broken Finnish to my grandmother.
"Of course it is!" my grandmother retorted, completely unaware of what that job was.
|My grandmother Laitinen's first US employer|
used to own this townhouse on W. 11th Street
in Greenwich Village. I took this photo in 1986.
As they say, "only in New York," right?
At some point, obviously, my grandparents met in Brooklyn, got married, and had children. My grandfather never seems to have held down a steady job, and eventually came to be known mostly for his prodigious drinking, and for writing a regular column for the local Finnish newspaper, New Yorkin Uutiset. He wrote pieces about current events and philosophy under the pen name "X Seaman," since that's what he was. Years later, my aunt learned that the prestigious New York Public Library had some of his articles on file as part of their cultural heritage department.
Family friends who knew my grandfather in Brooklyn's old Finntown have told us that he wasn't as entirely bad as his family remembered him as being. And it's been suggested that one of the reasons for his drinking - despite the fact that Finns are notorious for their alcohol consumption - may have stemmed from his disturbing experience on that trans-Atlantic ship. As a Finn, back in the days when Finland was virtually 100% Caucasian, my grandfather would have barely known about slavery, and to him it likely would have been something that horrible people had done back in another time and place. Not on board a ship he was working!
So for all the agony my grandfather gave his family through his drinking, I've come to value his distress over having the concept of human slavery break into his reality. I sometimes wonder if, today, we whites would do well to let ourselves be a bit more agitated over something we figure only happened to somebody else back in another time and place.
Because while it may not be our reality now, it remains part of family lore for many African Americans.