Immigration: Both Promise and Peril
by Jorge R. Rogachevsky, Professor of Spanish
It was 1963, I was nine, and I reacted to my parents’ decision to move to the U.S. with both excitement and trepidation. What I knew of the U.S. came from the exported TV shows that presented a utopian vision of suburbia, plus the received mythology of a land of promise and opportunity; hence the excitement. This was the era of JFK and the Alliance for Progress. Even down at the farthest reaches of the Americas, the promise of the handsome prince from Camelot had seeped into the popular imagination, as evidenced by my eldest aunt’s collection of John and Jackie clippings.
But trepidation also set in, perhaps spurred on by the remembrance of an afternoon playing with my toy soldiers in the kitchen while my parents listened to radio reports of JFK’s threats, and discussed possible nuclear devastation. The trepidation turned to full-fledged anxiety one November afternoon, a week before my father’s scheduled flight to the U.S. to work and save money so we could follow him later. I returned home and was met by my father and the radio, this time announcing JFK’s assassination. I couldn’t help wonder if my parents weren’t making a big mistake. Weren’t we in part planning to leave Argentina because of political instability? I could still remember the afternoons a year prior when the radio announced the overthrow of President Frondizi and discussed possibilities of civil war. My anxiety was not assuaged when two days later we watched the live satellite feed of Jack Ruby gunning down Lee Harvey Oswald in the Dallas Police headquarters.
Jorge Roghachevsky, left, with his brother
and father in Argentina, before emigrating
to the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Jorge
Despite the dark clouds and ominous thunder of the November surprise, the plans were too far set, and later that week my father set off on the preliminary move that would culminate in my family’s full resettlement the following March. On a spring solstice we landed in a newly renamed JFK Airport and headed to our one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. Nothing looked like the suburban utopia of the TV shows, the second time I felt my parents had perhaps gotten it wrong. But to my almost 10-year-old imagination the land of promise and opportunity didn’t fully disappoint. I had doubted one of my father’s letters that informed us that one could buy ice cream at the store to keep in the freezer and eat year-round. But there was the gallon of ice cream in the freezer of our Brooklyn apartment on that cold late-March afternoon.
So, from the earliest, a jarring marriage of promise and peril, desire and doubt came to define my emotional connection to my adopted country. This ambivalence has never abandoned me. I owe much, not least my life, to my parents’ decision in those unsettled months of 1963, when political, economic and family turmoil consolidated the decision to look for a better option. Despite getting some things wrong, they did get one thing fundamentally right. Argentina was devolving into the political chaos that led to the Dirty War of the late 70s emotional connection to my adopted country. This ambivalence has never abandoned me. I owe much, not least my life, to my parents’ decision in those unsettled months of 1963, when political, economic and family turmoil consolidated the decision to look for a better option. Despite getting some things wrong, they did get one thing fundamentally right. Argentina was devolving into the political chaos that led to the Dirty War of the late 70s and cost the life of 30,000 Argentines, most of them young. I could easily have been swept up into the torture chambers of a fanatical military that implemented the warning of General Ibérico Saint Jean, military governor of the Province of Buenos Aires: “First we will kill all the subversives; then we will kill their collaborators; then . . . their sympathizers, then . . . those who remain indifferent; and finally we will kill the timid.”
But my appreciation of the safe haven afforded by U.S. society is coupled with rage, knowing that the Argentine military were the darlings of successive U.S. administrations. It was Henry Kissinger who, in October of 1976, just seven months after the coup, counseled Argentina’s Foreign Minister to get the killing done quickly. Kissinger had good reason to back the fascist butchers, as they consolidated right-wing military rule in the Southern Cone, building on the U.S.- and Kissinger-engineered 1973 military takeover in Chile that overthrew the elected government of Socialist Salvador Allende. Kissinger’s Argentine buddies would go on to train the Reagan Administration’s mercenary contra army in Central America.
Over the years I have learned that my childhood emotional intuition about the U.S. was right. Not only was there a fulfilled promise of year-round ice cream, but also access to education, and professional employment, and the American dream of upward mobility. At the same time, the moral peril of contributing to a Jekyll and Hyde society is inescapable. I have learned over the years that the U.S. is a very troubled society, one that easily suppresses uncomfortable information, in the same way as I learned on a visit back to Argentina in 1989 that in the late 1970s our closest family friends lived across the street from a shuttered garage that only received steady traffic in the middle of the night, and from which occasional screams could be heard, but decided it was best not to think about it.
So I sit here in my comfortable air-conditioned study in my comfortable quasi-suburban home in Arlington, Virginia, just a couple of miles from the Pentagon, knowing that under the guise of fighting terrorism the U.S. has repatriated the policy of summary and arbitrary detentions, torture, and even disappearances that it exported to Latin America in the 1970s and 80s. And my moral trepidation turns to a sense of potential peril when I reflect on the fact that the machinery of repression that is being conformed has as one of its targets the immigrant population to which I belong. Is it paranoia or prescience that informs my unease when, for example, I see Pat Buchanan, former presidential candidate and well-respected political commentator, caution a nation wracked by economic crisis and social anxiety that the immigration influx from Latin America “is an invasion, the greatest invasion in history”?
So I wonder if it’s time to pack my bags again.