Every July Fourth we have a party on our back deck. We call it the "Defend the Roof Party." Armed with large glasses of gin, we are ready to put put any fire that might erupt as a result of the fireworks bombardment by our Mexican neighbors.
It’s an endless siege, the Alamo in Chicago. Firecrackers in dumpsters, bottle rockets going everywhere, M-80s in the back alley, astonishingly noisy and colorful things blowing up over the garage, sparks raining down on everything.
And you should see the kinds of fireworks their parents shoot off! (Was that a gun?)
But here’s the deal about the Defend the Roof Party. We don’t really think the Mexicans are going to burn our house down.
Of course, we can’t be sure about their intentions.
We don’t know many of the Mexicans around us; they keep to themselves, encouraging our instinct to do the same. (Most days, life seems complicated enough without diving into an intercultural dialogue, does it not?)
But in more than 10 years of living in this neighborhood, I’ve never been threatened by a Mexican, never once been panhandled by a Mexican, never had any reason to feel the slightest bit of antipathy toward any of my Mexican neighbors. It’s a ridiculous generalization based mostly on a thousand shallow interactions at tacquerias, but my observation is that Mexicans—I can’t tell the legals from the illegals—are a hard-working, unassuming, cheerful lot.
At least that’s how I’d describe Jose, the cook at the corner Irish bar, whose greatest crime is his regular attempt to sneak a slice of cake to Scout for dessert.
I can understand the fear and rancor in people who live near the Mexican border and have their houses ransacked by hungry, thirsty immigrants. And I’m sure I’d feel differently if I believed it was my job that illegal immigrants were taking (like everybody else, I turn into the Hulk when I perceive that someone is threatening my livelihood). And maybe I’m willfully ignorant about the terrible strain illegal immigrants are putting on the health care system.
But Dear Lou Dobbs: Why should I care if Jose doesn’t want to learn English? His young daughter will learn it by accident. If illegal immigration is the widespread, soul-sucking problem you say it is, why would you have to prove it, over and over, night after night? Is it possible that the reason we can’t seem to pass sensible immigration reform is that there is no solution to the problem of a rich country jammed up against a poor country with a long border between them?
I was seven in the summer of the Bicentennial in 1976. During the school "units" surrounding that, I remember honestly scratching my head when my teachers talked about freedom. What, exactly, were kids in other countries not "free" to do? Could they not eat ice cream? Could they not play cowboys and Indians? Did they have to set the table and clear the dishes?
I still think about what it is we’re supposed to be free to do here in America, and I still sometimes wonder. People are afraid to blog for fear of losing their jobs; corporate nondisclosure agreements trump freedom of speech; more and more, our lives seem to be organized by Microsoft Office and run by mutual fund investors who don’t even know they own CNN as part of their Moderate Risk portfolio.
So this mad, spontaneous, lawless neighborhood fireworks festival expresses freedom for me, as my friends drink and laugh and the Mexicans light fuses and run. Yes, we’re a nation of laws. Yes, a country probably needs some amount of cultural cohesion. Yes, it would be more convenient if we all spoke the same language.
But tomorrow isn’t a day to celebrate laws or social theory or convenience. Tomorrow the main thing is freedom, right? It’s Independence Day, is it not? So tomorrow, the main idea is:
You do your thing, and I’ll do mine.