The first was a woman—I’ll call her “I.”. She was clearly interested in the artwork, staring intently at one of the 26 banners that adorn the Philadelphia Municipal Services Building. “There’s a caption at your feet, too,” I offered, pointing to the accompanying letter and definitions, written by the Northeast High School students who had authored An Immigrant Alphabet. I introduced myself as working with the project and spoke briefly about the students, and the process of making the piece, and its scale.“It goes all the way around the building, so you can treat it like a gallery,” I invited. She nodded, still a little tense; “Thank you.”
Interested in the artwork, I concluded, but not in a
conversation. I explained that I would be happy to answer any other questions and moved to give her some space. “This is a great project,” she said, by way of parting. “I came from Pittsburgh, so I’m really happy to see this.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I didn’t ask her to clarify. As an on-site project assistant, much of my job consists of little judgment calls like this: gauging interest, guessing how much someone might care to know, explore, or discuss. I try to give everyone at least the basic details, to invite them to the content and what Al-Bustan and the students
of Northeast High are doing in the plaza. Some people respond viscerally, emotionally, and I explore that if they are willing. Others are more eager to talk and want to contribute by filling out surveys to share their stories and opinions.
“I.” was not looking to talk. Later, I found her again at one of our display boards, several long racks of postcard-sized versions of each letter in the alphabet. Next to her, a man puzzled through the cards— “J.”, for short. I stepped over to offer him information about the project and the students, but he cut me off:
“—such a shame what they did to Argentina and Brazil,” he said, pointing to one of the banners, where a student wore an Argentine Football jersey. It was the kind of loaded statement that experience teaches you will be followed by an explanation regardless of reply, but this being what
I am technically paid for, I took the bait; “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Well, how they banned immigration from certain countries so that everyone could have light skin,” he explained. “They only wanted Europeans. That’s why so many Nazis went there, after the war. They all like fled there, and that’s why everyone in Argentina is like, blond hair and blue eyes, you know? It’s like, bittersweet in a way because that’s why people there are so beautiful.”
I struggled to think about where to begin addressing such a problematic narrative of history that was flattened, distorted, and uninformed. Fortunately, someone else started for me. “I’m sorry, but it is not that black and white,” said “I.” from the postcards. I realized she too had been stunned into stillness as “J.” spoke, but now she became animated. “I am Colombian, and I can tell you it’s not so simple as all that. The history of Europeans in South America is really complex, and involved.” The man
started, a bit taken aback, but began heatedly debating with “I.” Eventually, she grew so frustrated that she simply turned and walked away, visibly upset. “J.” turned to me embarrassed as his friend, “M.” walked over to join us. “I feel bad,” “J.” admitted; “I didn’t mean to upset her. But they really did that, in Argentina! You can look it up!”
I pressed him to think about where he had heard that information, how he had verified it, and about some of the points “J.” had been trying to make. We fell into talking about borders, immigration, and politics. I mentioned a teacher from New York City, who had visited the plaza and shared stories of ICE agents coming to their high school to look for students, or mothers picking up their kids. “M.” spoke about fear, and the ways we oppress ourselves. And then we I saw “I.”, walking determinedly back across the plaza towards us.
“I’m sorry, but I had to say this,” she interjected at “J.”s shoulder, as he turned, “Argentina has the largest Jewish population in South America, largely because they opened their doors to refugees fleeing the war.” “J.” admitted that he was surprised to learn that, and apologized for earlier. There were many apologies, in fact, passed around the group as we “talked about talking about these things,” one of those odd meta-conversations that people tend to use to ease through difficult subjects. There was more time to explain what was meant, and what was felt, and room for those things to coexist.
“It’s hard to talk about these things,” “M.” admitted, to a chorus of nods, “and to do it out in the open like this. In the middle of the plaza.”
“And especially to do it with strangers,” someone added.
“Yeah, it’s very strange.” We shared a laugh, and then a long pause.
We shook hands, and kept talking, splitting off and chasing different topics to and fro. “I feel like my mind is being opened to a lot lately,” I overheard John tell Ivana at one point, as we had split into separate discussions. Eventually, Maurice had to go, and we all seized the chance for a break, shaking hands and saying goodbye. “I’m sorry, I just had to come back,” Ivana offered once more.
“I’m glad you did,” John said, and they shook hands once more and parted تبادل means “exchange;” combined with words like آراء or ثقافات it becomes a dialogue, a sharing of ideas, viewpoints, etc. But perhaps just “exchange” is really more useful to us, as “dialogue” sometimes can feel like too low and too high a bar simultaneously. “I mean, even this isn’t really a conversation,” Maurice explained at one point; we knew very little about each other, about where we were coming from or what we stood for. We were touching on many hard topics, without the time or context to go too deep.
When I was first hired as a project assistant, I wondered what kind of conversations I would be having on the plaza—wondered what kind of conversations I should be trying to facilitate. There is a kind of tension between wanting to document people’s viewpoints and wanting to inform a discussion; people often don’t feel comfortable speaking freely if they feel that you want them to ‘learn’ something or to support a particular agenda. And yet, if our ideas pass each other without making contact or being challenged and changed, it feels like a wasted opportunity.
What happened on the plaza that day may not have been a proper dialogue, but as far as I’m concerned, it was a good start. Not every discussion on immigration, race, and heritage needs to be the General Assembly at the UN. Instead, if a few strangers in a large plaza can trade a few thoughts and perspectives, and each walk away with something new, then perhaps they have made their next difficult conversation just a little more possible.
Project Assistant, An Immigrant Alphabet, Nov. / Dec. 2017