My name is Yannick, and I’m a Project Assistant for An Immigrant Alphabet: an art project sponsored by Al-Bustan, currently living on the exterior of the Municipal Services Building. As part of my job, I encourage people to view the installation and to join a dialogue on immigration and the themes of the artwork. One of the ways I do this is to invite passersby to contribute to any one of a number of large chalkboards that I roll into the square. One of these is simply 31 open spaces beneath a prompt which reads: “Write a Message of Love in Your Language.”
The prompt was initially conceived as something that would catch the attention of people walking by, and start conversations about language, and culture. Often I’d encounter resistance: English speakers would object, “But I only speak English!” To which I would urge them: “Well, that’s your language, then – put it on!” Sometimes this was a great opening into conversations about culture and how invisible or unconscious our own culture can seem when it feels ubiquitous and constantly affirmed.
But far more often I’d see people hurry to the board, excited to add their own language, their own messages. Sometimes this led to moments of education: some generous passersby teaching me about languages, scripts, and ethnicities I’d never known about before.
Between September 2017 and the end of February of 2018, we collected more than 750 messages of Love and Friendship, written in more than 55 languages. I find those numbers both really impressive and surprising, but in fact, I should have expected this outcome. According to a 2015 US Census Bureau Report, there are at least 146 languages spoken in homes across Philadelphia. That’s comparable with similar metropolitan areas, such as Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago, and not far behind some of the most linguistically diverse cities, like New York, Washington, and San Francisco, but each city, in turn, is dwarfed by the national total. Across America, the Census Bureau has recorded at least 350 languages spoken.
Our little data set was meant to be essentially a conversation starter, but it inadvertently became a reflection of a broader truth about America: our national fabric is woven out of colors that are enormously, endlessly, and essentially diverse.
On March 5th of this year, these messages took on a new role.
A few weeks earlier, knowing that the official proposed deadline to end the DACA program was approaching, I spoke with the Al-Bustan team, and we agreed to make our documentation of these Messages of Love available to a number of organizations that were planning rallies in support of DREAMers and immigrants. After some coordinating, Al-Bustan Public Education Manager Megan Madison worked with the Aquinas Center to transform a selection of the entries we had collected into signs bearing Messages of Love for our DREAMers. We then brought these signs to the site of An Immigrant Alphabet, Thomas Paine Plaza, where a rally was being coordinated by PICC, Juntos, Aquinas, Africom, New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, and VietLead.
At 11:30am on March 5th, a crowd began to form, holding signs and chanting: “Refugees are here to stay!” and “Immigrants are here to stay!” Speakers from the various organizations addressed the crowd and appealed for broad support of all immigrants in America, and resistance to political deals and solutions that would pit one group against another (restrictions to legal immigration in exchange for amnesty for DREAMers, for instance). I spoke briefly, inviting the gathered crowd to use our Love Board as a way to send more messages to DREAMers – which they did.
I’ve spoken before about how fortunate I feel to be able to represent the Immigrant Alphabet, and the 18 North East High School students who created it. I truly believe their experiences have the greatest potential to change minds and move our national debate on immigration in a more humane direction; I am grateful that they have been willing to share those experiences, and it is a privilege to have the task of amplifying their voice. Because of all of this and more, it was a great joy to have the chance to send a message back, however small, of love and support: to show the student artists and all DREAMers that there are many Americans who stand with them.
The Immigrant Alphabet will remain at MSB until early summer, and Al-Bustan will continue spending time on the square, handing out the chalk and fostering conversations. The Love Board will be there, and as ever, all passersby will be invited to write messages of love in their language, to whomever, and for whatever purpose. As for me, I will be dedicating my words to the DREAMers—and together, whatever we intend, everyone who contributes will be helping represent another experience: the American story. It is a story that immigrants and DREAMers are undeniably a part of, and as our board reflects the broader diversity of America, so too I hope it gives immigrants a window into an America they can recognize: an America that feels like home. Because on the other side of that window, the truth is clear. America has always been a multilingual nation. It is ever-growing ever more so. Speakers of hundreds of languages call America home.
Refugees are here to stay.
Immigrants are here to stay.
Project Assistant, An Immigrant Alphabet