Chicago’s Global Immigrants: Beyond the American Dream

December 15, 2009

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Since the days when stock yards and steal mills bustled on Chicago's West and South Sides, the region has been a magnet for immigrants from around the globe. They came to be Americans and live the American Dream. The region has transformed from these early days of boot strap commerce and so have the dreams of many immigrants who continue to come. They still dream about building a life here but they don't stop there. As part of our Chicago Matters: Beyond Burnham series, producers Jack Doppelt and Edie Rubinowitz tell the story of four remarkable Chicagoans who are redefining the American dream by staking a claim to the future of the country they won't leave behind.

Related:
Immigrant Connect Chicago: Sharing Stories Across Immigrant Communities

Valdus Adamkus was born in war-torn Lithuania. He spent his early years in a German refugee camp. He moved to Chicago after World War II when Bridgeport was home to Chicago's Lithuanians.

ADAMKUS: I grew up with the democracy, with the understanding what a free man is, what freedom is, what an open society is, and what a free press is.

Being a part of this community meant being active in Democratic movements back home. Adamkus has just finished two terms in the highest elected office in Lithuania – President. He's back in Chicago to reconnect with the Lithuanian community that had supported him all these years.

ADAMKUS: This is I'm signing the European Union's constitution.

He's staying with a friend from the old days who lives in a townhouse in Bloomingdale. He's showing us pictures.

ADAMKUS: This is with the Queen Elizabeth in Lithuania, and this is in my office working. That's the Queen of Holland, Beatrich.

He remembers the day he came to Chicago in 1949.

No family here, little money, and he spoke almost no English.

ADAMKUS: It was a shocking experience. It looked a dirty city, the streets, I mean, the wind were blowing and just, carrying the newspapers and all kind of a dirt, especially among originally what I saw in Bridgeport, the old wooden buildings.

He needed a job, any job. So he worked the night shift in a Ford factory at 75 cents an hour. He remembers his punch card number-303, and he remembers the electric drill.

ADAMKUS: I could not hold the drill, it was jumping over there. First time in my life, the blisters came in after first night or second night. On the third night, I mean you came into work. Blood was running all because the blisters were just simply opening up.

After only a few weeks, he was about to give up.

ADAMKUS: If that would not be an Atlantic Ocean, I would have walked back to Germany which was destroyed after the World War II. That bad.

But he stayed. He lived in Bridgeport, then in Marquette Park, among a Lithuanian community that had two daily newspapers and three radio stations. He was active in the community and the protests against the Soviet occupation of Lithuania.

ADAMKUS: I even prepared, in '58 I believe what we call a Lithuanian youth petition to President Eisenhower asking for the support to the Lithuanians actually being exiled in Siberia.

He took classes, graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology and became an engineer. In 1970 he took a post at the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency. By the 1980s he was regional head. He led the fight against dioxin poisoning in Lake Michigan. In the end, he served as regional director under six American presidents. He had become a somebody in the U.S. But for Adamkus, the American dream was only half a dream. The other half was in Lithuania. He recalls that first trip back.

ADAMKUS: That decisive moment after 27 years of absence from Lithuania, came to Lithuania in 1972, July the 9th.

He was with the EPA at the time. President Nixon sent him to Moscow as part of the first delegation on environmental cooperation. While he was there, he decided to figure out a way to get from Moscow to Lithuania's capital in Vilnius, a stretch of 500 miles of Iron Curtain.

He sought permission, went through channels.

ADAMKUS: After a couple of days, the answer came, definite no. So I said, 'No, we cannot give in just on one bureaucrat's no.'

Finally word came. He could go to Lithuania for five days. While he was there, the president of Vilnius University who was high up in the Communist party structure took him outside for a walk. They talked about smuggling in literature and about freedom.

(Lithuanian national anthem)

Little by little as the Soviet Union thawed, Adamkus began going back as an environmental envoy. When he was there, he talked openly about environmental issues, and between the lines about Lithuanian independence. His name became known.

ADAMKUS: The Adamkus in Lithuania became the household name. I didn't have to introduce myself. Sometimes I (laughs) heard stories about me in Lithuania, I mean, I couldn't believe it myself.

In 1990, Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union. And the Lithuanians in the Chicago region were intensely involved.

Adamkus' church is Blessed Matulaitis Lithuanian Church in Lemont. Father Anthony Saulaitis recalls just how active the community became in Lithuanian politics during the independence movement—with a distinctively American touch.

SAULAITIS: They did their best to do the American way of making buttons and banners and stickers and everything else which were unknown in Soviet times.

And they shipped them off to Lithuania. In 1992, Adamkus took a short leave of absence from the EPA to manage a campaign in Lithuania's first presidential election. His candidate lost. Chicago politics was a readily exportable commodity. Soviet-controlled Lithuania had been so corrupt that by the next election six years later, the country was looking for an outsider, and it would be someone from Chicago. Again, Father Saulaitis remembers:

SAULAITIS: The situation was ripe for someone who would be an honest person. He has no reason to steal or to cheat because he already had a house, a car and a television.

Filmmaker Arvydas Reneckis had just immigrated to Chicago from Lithuania. Here's what he remembers of Adamkus the Chicagoan.

RENECKIS: If you know the sign of Lithuania, it's a grand duke on a white horse, you know. To me, as I saw him, he was the one (laughs) who was riding that horse.

The campaign hadn't yet begun when Adamkus boarded a plane for Lithuania in 1998. At 71 years old, the American citizen didn't know that he himself might be enlisted to run for president. But he was, and after a few months of campaigning, he won. He served as president for 10 years, and he now lives full time in Vilnius. He is a European statesman from Chicago.

ADAMKUS: In Chicago, I did not have to fight for the right to be Lithuanian. Instead Chicago helped me to foster and develop my national identity. In this city, you can be an American and a proud Irish, Italian, German, Polish or Lithuanian at the same time.

And he'll tell you, he couldn't have done it without Chicago.

Sam Pitroda will tell you the same, but he is leading a different kind of revolution.

In Chicago, he's virtually unknown outside the Indian community. In India, he's a national icon. Just check Google or Youtube.

[sound from two Youtube stories, first in Hindi]

Satyana-rayan Pitroda came to the United States in 1964 as a graduate student at the Illinois Institute of Technology. His name changed when he got his first paycheck. It said “Sam Pitroda.” From that point on, he's been known simply as “Sam.”

During the 1970s, Pitroda became a wealthy American executive for Rockwell Industries. On one particular business trip to India he tried to get in touch with his wife back in Chicago, but the phones wouldn't work. He got to thinking.

PITRODA: I had seen the importance of telecom communications in the U.S. especially for someone like me who had never used telephones before coming to America.

He envisioned a plan to jumpstart a telecommunications revolution by bringing public telephones into every village across the subcontinent, no matter how remote. With just the right combination of arrogance and ignorance, as he puts it, he went straight to the top, to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He was offered a ten-minute appointment.

PITRODA: And I said you can't really do anything in 10 minutes so I said if she's really interested, she should give me an hour, and people said, ‘Are you crazy, why would the prime minister of a country give an hour appointment to some guy who's just hanging around here from Chicago who thinks he wants to fix India's telephones?' so I said, 'Fine, then I don't want to talk to her.'

He got his hour and what emerged was a lifelong commitment to give back to India what he had learned and developed in Chicago.

PITRODA: You know, it's a romance with a nation. I mean, many times I tell my wife that when I was in my 20s I fell in love with her, and when I was in 40s I again fell in love with India.

In 1985, Pitroda and his family moved back to India. He committed himself to public service. He refused to accept money for it and had to give up his American citizenship to do it, as India doesn't allow dual citizenship.

PITRODA: I was convinced that information and communication could transform India in a big way.

India went from a nation with 2 million telephones in the early ‘80s to one that now has 500 million. It was a communications revolution...

PITRODA: ...and I had an opportunity to be a part of it, to help drive some of this.

But his life was about to change. Pitroda's family moved back to Chicago so his children could finish high school here. In 1990, Pitroda, who was still in India, had a heart attack. The next year, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, as his mother had been years earlier. After 11 years, it was time for Sam to return to Chicago.

PITRODA: I had no money, I changed my nationality so I didn't have a visa, I had a tourist visa. I couldn't work on a tourist visa. I had children ready to go to college.

At 53 years old, he started over as an immigrant. He had gone from someone with an expensive car and driver in India to someone who worried about retaking his driver's test. And he was broke.

Life was tough. But nobody knew any of these things; none of my friends knew, even my immediate family did not know any of this, so I had to just, you know, survive and rebuild my life.

ambi: No problem, no problem, whatever you want....I just came yesterday, yesterday morning, fade under here - just like this….probably how it is. I had four meetings, same place, same time, always...

This is Pitroda now, perpetually in motion. He's built a thriving software development company. He's in Schaumburg for a summit convened by the Indian Institutes of Technology. People see his silver mane, black mustache and beard from across the room, and flock to get a minute of his time.

ambi: We've gotta get going, Sam, that's what I've been saying, but I'm ready…I was in Canada a month ago…we had some good meetings….I think we have to check because Indian pm is going to be in the U.S. so we could use a couple of days in between. Sam, do you remember Marcia, we met in Denver?

He's once again a successful American businessman. And he's still tied to India. In fact, he was just appointed to a cabinet level position as India's education czar. That's what he's talking about to this group.

PITRODA: The government of India has decided to spend $67.5 billion. They've decided to build 13 new national universities, 6,000 new schools.

In India, he's gone from transforming the telecommunications industry to re-envisioning India's educational system. His base now-Chicago. Green card holder here, citizen there. Entrepreneur here; celebrated public servant there.
PITRODA: When you leave a place, you get many advantages; one is that you can see it from distance; the view is very different than you see it when you're there. You are detached from the local nitty gritty, politics, perceptions, mindset, which says it can't be done.

Zelalem Gebre works as a parking garage attendant in Chicago. On a relatively quiet Sunday night, he makes change and small talk with drivers as they come and go. When they greet him, he flashes a warm smile.

Gebre was a prominent journalist in his home country of Ethiopia. On July 4TH, 2006, he came here knowing few people, little English and just a few things about his destination.

GEBRE: Mmmm, I know about Chicago a little bit, like Chicago Bulls and Chicago basketball. When I was eighth grade or something I learned about Mr. Lincoln in the history but I don't know the detail in Chicago all about that.

He knew no more about Chicago than Chicagoans know about Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital and Gebre's home. But he knew politics. He knew politics too well.

[Ethiopian music]

Gebre was the managing editor of Menelik, one of Ethiopia's few newspapers that wasn't government controlled.In early 2005, he published a story about Ethiopian pilots seeking asylum in Belarus, something the government didn't want the public to know about. He was jailed for three days, and beaten by police. When he emerged from jail, his right hand was mangled. One policeman told him – he had gone too far.

GEBRE: We have to cut this hand because you write in the news and you write false statement things, and after that he beat me.

Not long after that, Gebre was in the newspaper office working on a basic crime story when he got an anonymous phone call from someone in the government.

GEBRE: Who are you? Just I am just asking him. I am not telling you anything about my name, I'm just telling you, just you have to leave from this country, he say.

The next day, the leading government newspaper featured a wanted photo of him, his boss at the newspaper and two dozen others. Fourteen of them would be rounded up, tried for treason and imprisoned. Gebre escaped. He left the newspaper office and never returned. He hid with his aunt in southern Ethiopia for three weeks, until the government got curious…

GEBRE: When they suspect something, they searching that home. So at that time, she asking me, please, 'Can you leave from this place and go somewhere?' Ok, I'll leave.

He left Ethiopia on foot for Kenya. It took three days. He went straight to the police with a copy of the newspaper in his hand. His wanted photo was his ticket to safety. He stayed a year. He couldn't go back, he couldn't go anywhere else, until his refugee papers were finalized and he was whisked off to Chicago.

ambi: el tracks announcer

Now, Gebre lives in a sparse, one-bedroom apartment in Edgewater, in the shadow of the el tracks. So close he can hear the train announcement in his kitchen. A poster on the wall features an Ethiopian woman in traditional wrap headdress – and a bikini. It reads – “Ethiopia – 13 months of sunshine.” He misses that sunshine but seems to have created a new life here. He says he likes the winters and snow. He leafs through his photo album. It's now full of pictures of his Chicago friends… and the family he left behind.

There are his two adopted daughters. He stops on a photo of his brother who became a target of Ethiopian authorities after Gebre left.

GEBRE: They ask him every day about me but he doesn't tell them, and sometimes he tells them like he's not here, but they don't believe him so they suspect him every time and they ask him every day.

Gebre considered returning to Ethiopia, even though his life would be endangered if he did. He called his family back home. They told him it was too late.

They kill him in front of his home and his daughters.

He blames himself for his brother's death. The guilt follows him. He says he takes strength from the name his father gave him.

GEBRE: My name is called Zelalem – Zelalem means everlasting when you translate into English, so I am a really strong guy.

ambi: Gebre at the Ethiopian Diamond Café – play under Yigsaw until the end of the first sentence, then down

That's Gebre, reading poetry, at the opening of the second Ethiopian Diamond Restaurant on Howard and Clark.

Restaurant owner Almas Yigsaw:

YIGSAW: He tries several things, and he wanted to do a program every month here, like reading poem and you know developing some kind of talent show here.  So every month we meet; a couple of times he developed a show where people reads about different stories. And also, recently. And we lost a hero, like a good musician that everyone loves – and they talk about him and they wrote poems about him and they had a candlelight here.

He's part of the Ethiopian Free Press, a group of journalists in exile who publish stories about events back home. Their web-based stories are blocked in Ethiopia. He has a facebook page and keeps in touch with others in the Ethiopian diaspora that way. He's created an extended family here.

GABRE: So that's how I get to know Zelalem, very closely here.

Gebre hopes to bring at least some of his family to Chicago.

He calls Ethiopia almost every week, speaking in Amharic. He's talking with his two teenage daughters – Selam and Radette. He hasn't seen them since the day he left the newsroom offices.

They tell him of their struggles in Ethiopia. There's no rain, people aren't working. He tells them life here isn't easy either. Gebre knows if he doesn't bring them here, their lives won't improve at all.

His ambitions are those of India's Pitroda or even Lithuania's Adamkus. And like theirs, his ambitions take him far beyond the American dream. He wants to take journalism classes and start up his own radio station in Chicago for Ethiopians.

Music - Luna de xeluja

Maricela Garcia has transnational ambitions, too. And you could say the American spark that lit her fire was small but powerful- plastics.

One warm Saturday many years ago, she got invited to a Tupperware party, was served tea and cookies, and had an epiphany.

GARCIA: And all of the sudden, I thought, huh, this is what I should do with the weavings from the women's co-ops in Guatemala, organizing house meetings to talk about the situation in Guatemala, get them signed on some actions to stop the war and sell those beautiful weavings so I can send the money back to Guatemala. It was really wonderful because it worked.

It worked so well that Garcia had a three-month waiting list for people wanting to host the house meetings. And then, instead of talking about the weather and plastic containers with lids, she says women were talking about life and death issues in Guatemala.

Garcia founded a human rights group called Casa Guatemala. She's now with the Chicago office of the National Council on La Raza, a job that keeps her traveling to D.C., training community organizers from around the country. After decades of activism, she's now able to influence policy back home.

This could be any business meeting at an airport hotel, complete with water bottles and a projection screen but for the two flags – one Guatemalan –one U.S. on the back wall. Garcia and other Guatemalan activists invited their foreign minister and government officials to Chicago to talk about supporting Guatemalans abroad.

ambi of Garcia

Garcia is emphasizing how hard it is on families under American law to go to and from Guatemala.

She says it wasn't easy getting the Guatemalan politicians to come to the U.S., but now they're starting to realize the importance the diaspora play in politics back home. An estimated 1.6 million Guatemalans live in the U.S., and they matter.

Garcia left Guatemala in the early ‘80s because she had to. She was a student activist in college and her life was at risk.

GARCIA: I probably didn't know when I was in high school that when I started how dangerous it was to work on behalf of human rights, to the point that many of my classmates who were also human rights activists were killed or kidnapped and very few of us were able to leave the country.

When she immigrated, Chicago had the largest population of Guatemalans outside Guatemala. Garcia attended Truman College and waitressed in Uptown. She improved her English, using Sue Grafton mystery novels. She went on to Northeastern Illinois University - - and was naturalized. She got married and had two children here. And in Guatemalan tradition, she buried their umbilical cords in her Chicago backyard.

GARCIA: Where I come from, there is a story that wherever your umbilical cord is buried is where you belong. And so, when I buried the umbilical cord of my children in this country, I felt that we all belong here.

But Garcia's own umbilical cord is buried in Guatemala.

GARCIA: And I think that that calls me sometimes. To look back and to try to make a tremendous contribution there and that's where I think is a reality for many immigrants that home then is both places. The tug of war between her cultural roots and her current identity came to a head. when Guatemala emerged in December 1996 from a generation of civil war. Peace meant that Garcia and other Guatemalans had a chance to return for good. A production crew from Univision came to her home, and sat her down for an interview at her living room table.

GARCIA: And Is this an opportunity for many Guatemalans to go back to Guatemala, that's what she asked, and I couldn't answer the question because all of the sudden, I wasn't a refugee anymore. Choosing to stay here after the war made me an immigrant. And just that change at that moment made me think profoundly about the identity. Now I choose to stay here.

ambi: kid sounds…I love to come to this place in Lincoln Park, the botanic garden.

The Lincoln Park conservatory is one of her favorite sanctuaries.

It's one of the places that remind me of home. I remember the rainy days of Guatemala. It's just really beautiful, the banana trees, the plantain trees, the papaya trees, the orange trees, the coffee trees, all of that reminds me of home.