I am working today on Maria Beotegui's story. Maria is an Argentine immigrant to South Florida. As I try to relate the story she told us on our visit to Biscayne Bay, I think about what she and her family have brought with them from Argentina to the US. Maria, her mother and her brother are all National Park Rangers. Theirs is a quintessentially American story of struggle, difficulty, hard work and ultimately - success. Maria's passion is bringing the rich world of Biscayne Bay to urban youth in the Miami-Dade area, many of them immigrants or children of immigrants. As I will note in her story, Maria understood at an early age the differences in culture between the fast-paced world she lived in here and the Argentine culture she left behind. She notes how striking it was, on a visit back to Buenos Aires to visit family when she was a youth, how happy people seemed to be despite living with so much less than people do here in the US. This is not the first time I have heard that theme expressed. My own son Sam said as much when he returned from a church youth group trip to Matanzas, Cuba when he was 16. He marveled at how open, how loving youth were in Matanzas - both with each other and with their new American friends - and yet how little material wealth they had in comparison to their visitors. Maria's goal is not only to understand this difference so she can relate to her young constituents in Miami, but to help her own children find honest happiness in their own hearts in the midst of this bounty of material wealth in the US.
Maria also talks about her South Florida landscape as being "family". She says "I love nature anywhere I go. I really don’t feel out of place or uncomfortable anywhere in nature. But if you are with your family, it's different. That’s how I feel at Biscayne. I am with my family. I know the names of all the trees and I’ve known them all my life, and the salt water here it flows through my veins. I've gone swimming in the water, I’ve looked under the rocks. It’s a big part of me, of who I am, and I can’t imagine being too far away from it for too long. Like family."
In a time of fear, where we are considering all outsiders as a threat, I try to remember the look in Sam's eyes as he talked about his journey to Cuba. It was hard for him to believe that people could welcome him so openly, so lovingly. I think it really changed him, and he's a better, kinder person for it. Perhaps it's because the Cubans Sam met, the Argentinians Maria visited, felt like they had very little to lose. What they had, no outsider could threaten - love, laughter, family. As we look toward immigrants with a wary eye, I think it is important to remember that our suspicion is perhaps filtered through a burden of stuff that we are worried they may ultimately take from us. If we stop for a moment and think about what they might bring to us - love, laughter, family - maybe our better nature might win out over our fear.
In a Pew Research Poll taken earlier this year about half (51%) of the respondents say immigrants today strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents, while 41% say immigrants are a burden because they take jobs, housing and health care. The share saying that immigrants strengthen the country has declined six percentage points since last year and I suspect would be even smaller in the wake of the Paris attacks and the exodus from Syria. We are scared that immigrants are somehow going to take something from us. We measure their benefit in terms of hard work and talents, but I think we forget what else they bring with them, particularly from Latin cultures - the sense of happiness that comes from feeling like we are all part of a family. We care for each other, we get to know each other, and we give each other help when it's needed. That's what family is all about.
This week, the French were our brothers and sisters, and we stood in solidarity with them as they struggled through tragedy, just as they did for us after the 9/11 attacks. But it was not long ago that the French were not particularly revered in this country. Remember "freedom fries"? But just as we embraced them, we stiff-armed Syrian refugees who, arguably, have suffered even more greatly from terror and loss. I envision America to be a place where visitors from other places can arrive here and marvel at how happy people are, whether we are well-off or not. I am not certain it is that kind of place today.
Moving into this year's Thanksgiving week, I hope we all can remember what to really be thankful for - people - who love us, laugh with us, help us when we are in need. I am thankful for my family, for my friends who are like family to me, for the place where I live. Like Maria, I feel connected to it just like family.