That’s the typical question I receive from Detroiters when they learn I am a newcomer. “Wow!” they add once they learned I moved from California.
My friends from my former town had a heart-wrenching farewell for me also. At times, their “Wow” expression was followed by words of warning: “Sylvia, there is little respect for diversity in Detroit.”
Before her passing, my friend and producer/director of public affairs at San Francisco’s ABC7-KGO TV, Ginny Poon Yamate reminded me of the painful story of Vincent Jen Chin, the Chinese American beaten to death in 1982 by two white auto workers who had been laid off by Chrysler. “He was mistaken for Japanese,” she added. “And they blame Japanese automakers for the American car companies’ financial problems.”
I, of course, learned about the sore history of Black migrants from the south and the multiple violent conflicts marking the history of whites and African Americans this city has witnessed. My new Latino friends narrate countless cases of families who sleep uneasy because a midnight doorknocker carrying La Migra* badge may separate parents from children forever. The travel guide to my new hometown was sounding like the rogue wilderness adventure type.
So, I surprised myself the other day when, waiting for the pedestrian signal at the corner of Griswold and Michigan Avenue, I heard this inner voice saying: “I like it here.”
I wonder if that voice was inspired by the pleasant view of the beautiful new urban Lafayette Greens Garden.
Or perhaps it was from looking at the group of skateboarders sidewalk-surfing in historic Capitol Park.
Maybe it was the group of mostly women at the Wright Museum remembering their pain and soul searching for hope in modern race relations.
Perchance the sight of hundreds of little tents at Grand Circus Park where Occupy Detroit’s young voices keep reminding us that we are part of the 99%, all looking for a fair covenant.
But, then, I heard this voice once again as I walked into the Mexican Fiesta Hall Center on Halloween and strode through the Day of the Dead altars arranged by families in Southwest Detroit to remember their late loved ones. The elaborate and detailed décor of each exhibit transported me to these strangers’ once-fully-lived lives, allowing me to “snoop” at pictures that told me of a part of Detroit my California friends knew little about: two young girls and their grandmother smiling at the camera while picnicking on the green lawn of Campus Martius Park; the newlyweds posing in the middle of the street in front of the ornate Fox Theater; the intergenerational family lined up with the priest at the door of Holy Redeemer Church.
They spoke to me about a history of hard work and aspirations of Latino-Detroiters who have made Mexicantown a place of pride for all Detroiters. And they spoke of diversity.
The coexistence of cultures in Detroit may be different from what I have experienced in other places I’ve called home in previous lives. But the striving for a hearth, where natives and newcomers can build and find a common ground to call their own, is grand in all these places—including Detroit.
*La Migra is the popular term used by U.S. Latinos/Hispanics when referring to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency enforcing deportation of undocumented individuals in the United States. To date, 5,000 children have been placed in foster homes because their parents were deported to their countries of origin. An additional 15,000 children are awaiting placement.
Photo credit: ifmuth