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Charlotte Observer (NC)

'America' Still Resonates; Immigrants Can Still Relate To Song Written A Half-Century Ago

Special to the Observer

20 January 2005
Copyright © 2005 Charlotte Observer (NC). All rights reserved.

Remember those very coolly choreographed numbers from the musical "West Side Story" and that song Rosalia and Anita sang called "America"? Well, I was listening to it the other day, and guess what? It magically stands the test of time.

The song was written around 1956, which means it will soon turn 50. That's half a century, and a song that popular for all this time, in these troubled, fast, short-attention-span days, could easily be called a classic.

Art transcends when it captures a particular moment of a particular culture and transcends it to that universal level where everybody can appreciate it. Nowadays, every immigrant in this country, whether they like this music or not, can relate to the lyrics.

The first part is about babies crying, tropical diseases, money owing and bullets flying -- the kind of bad things that happen in a Third World country, not in a place like the United States where there is a shortage of flu vaccine, everyone's drowning in debt, and bullets only kill soldiers in Iraq and kids in poor neighborhoods. That part is the counterpart to tropical pleasures like warm breezes, pineapple trees and coffee leaves that are mostly found in tropical Third World countries.

Then you have that ever-changing chorus. Let's check the high points of each chorus cut.

The first one: "Everything's free in America ... for a small fee in America." That, to me, is an absolute truth. Everything this country offers as free involves, at the very least, a difficult, time consuming process that, aside from getting you on a mailing list of things you don't need, wastes a lot of your time. And as one of your forefathers, Henry Ford, stated: "Time is money." So nothing is free in America.

The second chorus: "Automobile in America ... very big deal in America" It's impossible, now more than in the 1950s, to go anywhere without a car or public transportation, while in the Third World we still indulge in the pleasure of walking.

The third chorus strikes me as the coolest: "Immigrant goes to America, many hellos in America, nobody knows in America, Puerto Rico is in America" That's a two way innuendo in the classic Broadway tradition. Puerto Rico is an American country, and there are also a lot of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Colombians, Salvadorians, us dreaded Mexicans and other Latinos, so we feel at home in this America and make it our own.

The fourth and last chorus refers to a vital issue, security: "Comfort is yours in America Knobs on the doors in America." In the small villages of Latin America, where everyone knows each other and furniture consists of a simple table, some chairs, some hammocks, a refrigerator and, unfortunately, a TV, nobody locks the doors because there is no need to. Everyone has the same things, and not many people who want anything else stay there. They go to the big cities, or to America, to face usually miserable living conditions, slave wages and unfair treatment so they can go buy all the stuff they didn't know they needed, like "washing machines" and "Buicks."

By now you're thinking, what's my point? If everything is not all right in America, I, and all the other immigrants can go back home.

Well, I know of no place where everything is all right. If such a place existed, everyone would try to get there and somehow the place would stop being that nice, that open, that free. Now do you get my point?

Immigrants often share one of the two views -- we are either on Rosalia or Anita's side, and there's nothing wrong or inexplicable in that.

Some of us came here to escape and live in the illusion of this parallel reality, but most of us just want to take some of the good stuff this land offers -- like the sense of security no matter how bad things are going or the realization that hard effort will actually get you somewhere better instead of back to the same old place -- and take it to our country, which still seems like a nice piece of paradise, with ripe bananas in our backyards, a cool breeze blowing through our hammocks and the ever present danger of stomach disease every time we drink tap water.

Observer community columnist Hernan Mena of Winston-Salem is associate editor of Que Pasa Hispanic Newspaper and a recent immigrant from Mexico.

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