Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 19, 2017

24 Years Under Western Skies; Poor Immigrant

I pity the poor immigrant

Who wishes he would’ve stayed home.

—— Bob Dylan

It’s a day to celebrate. 24 years ago today, I was an immigrant, and arrived in Los Angeles, a city full of fellow immigrants. I didn’t change countries, I simply moved from another part of the United States.

No, I don’t wish I’d stayed home. I am home.  I’ll get to Nobel Laureate Dylan’s lines later.

I remember the date of my arrival not because I changed locations, but because it was the start of my full-time association with the person regular readers know as The Counselor, already an L.A. resident when I arrived. In the ensuing years, she’s been with me on the majority of the travels I describe in Under Western Skies. As here, in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon:

MV Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2963 (640x480)

She gets the credit for steering us to Chaco, and a lot of other iconic places.

It’s a truism here in the U.S. that “We’re all immigrants.” That’s almost universally true, excepting the surviving Native American population, just under 1% of U.S. citizens. The rest of us came from somewhere else, or have ancestors who did. The Counselor and I both knew grandparents who emigrated from other countries.

Traveling the American west for these 24 years has helped me understand more fully how nearly every village, town and city is an immigrant town. Here in the more recently settled portion of the country, some towns were established — or really began thriving — not long before my grandparents were born. Today, cities of the western United States are booming, spreading up the mountainsides and into the forests like Denver is, or, like Phoenix, sprawling across the desert, filling with immigrants from near and far.

More illustrative of the perils of the immigrant experience, though are the many towns that had only a brief existence, and are empty and crumbling now — ghost towns — like Bodie, California.

Bodie boomed with gold mining in the 1870s, briefly swelling to hold as many as 7,000 people. Today, none remain.

All those individuals were immigrants. Many left established homes elsewhere in the U.S., others were newly arrived from an uncountable number of countries. Gold meant money, and the gold was in the west: Go West. When the gold or silver or timber gave out, they moved again, looking for the next chance.

Some towns have thrived. The oldest city in the U.S., Santa Fe, was founded by immigrants … from Spain. Here in Los Angeles, another onetime Spanish town, I’ve met people whose families settled here five and even six generations ago, but they came from somewhere else, too. Cities around the world are magnets for people, steadily swelling them for the promise of jobs and opportunity. Every city is taxed with providing housing, water, transportation and schools for them as their numbers grow. Yes, Los Angeles is crowded.

IMG_8498 LA traffic Brad Nixon (640x480)

There’s something inherently human about resenting new arrivals and the stress they place on traffic, prices, competition for jobs. But it’s a mistake to resent them; we are, indeed, nearly all immigrants, whether we arrived a year ago or our ancestors settled in Santa Fe or Savannah, Georgia in the 17th Century. I have Dutch ancestors who settled in New Amsterdam in the 1600s, before it became New York.

The place was not originally ours.

I think that’s part of what Dylan meant about “poor” immigrant: being shunned initially, and then resenting the next wave of newcomers who threaten whatever we think of as “ours.”

I’m happy to be an immigrant, and think of a young English woman who got off a boat in New York City with five little children, knowing no one in the entire United States except her husband,who was off working in an Illinois coal mine, hundreds of miles away. How would she fare?

I grew up to know that young woman — my grandmother — and those five kids, my aunts and uncles. Six of the tens of millions of people who’ve come here. Many of them headed west and kept going, to Nebraska or Oregon or Arizona or here in California: wherever there seemed to be an opportunity.

More are coming, many of them here in the golden west. Many of them are, indeed, poor, with little money. It’s essential to remember that’s how we do things here — and how all but a handful of us got here, ourselves. I hope they can be as lucky as I, and feel that they’ve found their home, as I have.

It’s a joyful anniversary, despite the somber tone of what I’ve just written, and I’m happy to be here, a successful immigrant.

Thanks, Counselor, for the great idea: Move west! Best thing I ever did. Let’s keep going.

De-Na-Zin Marcy Vincent 4332 (504x640)

© Brad Nixon 2017. Bodie, California photo © Willard Nixon 2017, photo of me in the De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico © Marcy Vincent 2017, both used by kind permission. “Poor Immigrant” © Bob Dylan.


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