Sunday, May 29, 2011

Dual Citizenship: Are Two Passports Really Better Than One?

By Donna Perezella

It's not that I don't want to have US citizenship anymore, that's really not my intent – it's just that I also want to be an Italian citizen. So when my mother, a child of Italian immigrants, heard about my quest for Italian citizenship, she naturally reacted the way that most proud Americans would, by questioning my patriotism.

But, that's not what it’s about at all. Becoming an Italian citizen, for me, is a way to connect with my heritage, to my roots that have become increasingly important to me. It is who I am, an Italian-American, and to be a citizen of both the United States and of Italy strongly reinforces that identity for me.

And while my explanation seems quite foreign to someone who spent her childhood and early-adult years outwardly embracing being an American while practicing her “Italianism” behind closed doors, for me it just felt right.

For I am the new generation, we who not only want to know our heritage, but want to become a part of it and for it to become a part of us. Unlike our parents and grandparents before us, who came to this country and were embarrassed to speak their native tongue in public, we flock to university language classes and foreign language schools to keep these languages alive.

Growing up, I had a close relationship with my paternal grandmother, who was brought to this country at the age of 28 to marry my grandfather, a widower who she barely knew from their village back in Italy. It would be an arrangement that would last for almost 50 years and my father was their first child together.


She was never very comfortable in this new country, so she held onto the language and traditions that she carried with her on that long and difficult ocean crossing from Naples to New York City. Because she left her own family behind, her fellow countrymen or paesani, who were also living abroad, became her new family. Sadly, she lived in the United States for 60 years without returning to Italy.

Although she died when I was in my 20s, it wasn't until about ten years ago, when my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer, that I would make a voyage of my own to Lucito, the town where both my grandparents had left as adults.

I still have my grandmother’s alien registration card, with the photo once sepia toned, now faded after almost seventy years, pages well worn and yellowed. I found it in my father’s desk drawer shortly after he died.

Signore Corrao has been my contact at the Italian Consulate since that day three years ago when I walked into his office and declared my intent to become an Italian citizen. The laundry list of items required for citizenship, however, overwhelmed me.

"Besides this,” he said, as he examined the copy of my grandfather’s birth certificate, dating back to 1888, with names and dates hand-written in a beautifully-scripted font, “you'll also need a copy of your grandparents' marriage license, your father's birth certificate, your parents' marriage license, your birth certificate, your father and grandfather's death certificates and your own marriage license," and then added after he came up for breath, "but don’t wait too long, they could change in six months."

But I didn't listen, I waited for almost two years and sure enough when I returned last year, the requirements had changed. The certificates of birth, death and marriage that I had sent my mother for on a wild goose chase through Waterbury's City Hall, all required an apostille, a special seal that certifies that a document is a true copy of an original. Maybe I was told that the first time, but I must have missed it.

And to make an impossible dream even more impossible, I needed my grandfather’s alien registration card, which I didn’t have, or the next best thing – an affidavit from US Customs and Immigration at Homeland Security stating that my grandfather had never become an American citizen, along with his application for alien status.

I couldn’t stop now – I had come too far. And along the way I made a very interesting discovery - I was not alone.

Every year, about 5,000 Italian-Americans apply for citizenship with Italy. Italian citizenship is based on the principle of jure sanguinis (blood right) by which a child born of an Italian father or mother is Italian. Because my father's parents were Italian citizens at the time of his birth, he himself was an Italian citizen. And that blood right was passed along to me.

I am just one of the many Americans who believe that while the process of dual citizenship may not be a particularly easy one, the rewards outweigh the challenges.

When I met Coleen well over ten years ago, her Irish citizenship was as natural as her flaming red hair. With both parents born in Ireland, this blood right automatically made her an Irish citizenship.

“Ireland's requirements are simple, which made the process so easy,” Coleen explains. “One must have either a parent or grandparent born in Ireland to be considered an Irish citizen. All I needed was my mother’s Irish birth certificate and a trip to the Irish Consulate here in Boston. And at the age of eighteen, I made it happen.”

These relaxed rules of dual citizenship in Ireland match the casualness and joviality so particular to this group of people. I ask her why it was so easy to become an Irish citizen.

“I think that back when I applied for and was granted Irish citizenship, Ireland needed more citizens,” she explains. “Years ago, they had experienced a great deal of exodus. It was just a matter of needing more citizens and recognizing the large number of Irish descendants living abroad.”

It is ironic that Coleen, a former Catholic who has since converted to Judaism, not only embraces her Irish citizenship, but also the many Judaic customs and traditions she enthusiastically partakes in with her Jewish husband.

Her husband, a devout practitioner of Judaism, was eligible for Irish citizenship when he married Coleen, but is waiting for citizenship for their two young sons before he proceeds.

Although she considers herself an American, Coleen tells me that she feels a kinship with the Irish people, and when visiting Ireland, it’s where her heart wants to be.

Growing up with Irish-born parents, Irish Step-Dancing lessons, and St. Patrick’s Day as an all-important holiday, she tells me she is most grateful for the extended Irish family that enriched her childhood and made her happy to be Irish.

Perhaps, that is why she speaks of one day taking her children and husband back to Ireland and living a year in the countryside surrounded by those she feels such a connection to.

“That is a gift that I would like to give my kids one day, the same one I had growing up,” she says.

And with an Irish passport, Coleen will have the freedom to give her kids a taste of her own treasured childhood.

Maya’s dad was born and spent his adult life in France. When he met his future wife, an Americans who was born in Ireland,they decided to make Boston their home. Just two years ago Maya, at the age of 19, decided to apply for her own French citizenship.

"It was around the time when I was going to spend the summer in France, living and working on a farm, that I thought it was a good idea to apply for citizenship," Maya tells me. "I was almost an adult."

She tells me the process of citizenship was fairly easy. She recalls having to bring both her dad’s and her birth certificate to the French Consulate. Her parents did most of the work as her dad was familiar with the process as he himself had become a dual citizen with the United States about six years ago. The whole process took just a few months and Maya believes that it was fairly easy because of her father's French citizenship.

The French government asks of its citizens living abroad to attend a one or two-day military training orientation, and for those residing in New England, it takes place in Rhode Island. Maya was told by the Consulate that this attendance was not mandatory, so she has yet to attend.

Although she is a French citizen living abroad, she continues to receive notices of elections, as voting in France is a duty and privilege that goes along with citizenship.



To Maya, having French citizenship, which also includes a European Union passport, has many benefits. She is thankful to have the freedom to live or work in Europe and loves the idea of traveling and staying within Europe without a time limit.

“French citizenship has opened up the world for me,” Maya tells me.

French citizenship is not wasted on her — she speaks fluent French and is nearing completion of a French minor at UMass Boston. She talks about the possibility of perhaps going to grad school at a conservatory in France, for their public universities are free to their citizens.

Despite her dual citizenship with France, American-born Maya considers herself to be an American first. But culturally, she does identify with France’s affinity to a Mediterranean diet and environmental friendliness — traits not so common to someone just twenty-one years of age, but more typical of one who has traveled and has a desire to know a world other than her own.

Both of Zofia’s parents were born in Poland and immigrated to the United States before she was born. At the age of five, she was automatically entitled to receive Polish/EU citizenship.

"My parents decided to grant me Polish citizenship because that is where our whole family is from, and they want me to make a choice after college whether to stay in the United States or return back to our roots in Poland," Zofia explains. “It is much safer to have dual citizenship because I have the choice of living there where the economy and job market are currently prospering."

She tells me that the process of receiving Polish citizenship was not troublesome, it just took time. Her application was processed through the Polish Consulate in New York who handled all communication directly with Warsaw.

"There is nothing that I can lose by having dual citizenship," she tells me. "I have the choice of living and working in other EU countries much more easily than if I just have American citizenship. With any EU passport, it is easier to study and take part in scholastic programs for a cheaper price."

I ask her if she considers herself to be Polish, American or both. She tells me that this is a common question people always ask of her.

"Growing up, I have always been around Polish activity here. For example, I attended Polish language and culture/religious education school in the Polish triangle in Dorchester from the age of five until my sophomore year in high school," she proudly says, with a hint of Polish accenting her impeccable English.

She continues, "Each year, we keep our indigenous traditions during the holidays. My parents have always strived for my brother and I to be surrounded by our Polish customs and traditions. Being around such activity and environment, I feel that this is the culture that I can most identify with. I feel that by spending every other summer in Poland since I was five, my childhood took place there. I have developed strong friendships and bonds. I have spent so much time with family there. If there is anywhere in the world I can feel at home, it is Poland. I really like how the lifestyle there is more laid-back and people are more carefree about their time.”

"La vita e’ bella,” Zofia says, and I do understand that for her the life in Poland is beautiful.

At five years old, Sagiv immigrated to the United States along with his parents and older brother. Applying for US citizenship as a family, Sagiv was sworn in as a US citizen just a few short months ago. Part of his oath was to swear that in case of war his allegiance would be to serve America, therefore giving up his allegiance to Israel in time of war.

By retaining his Israeli citizenship, Sagiv is obligated to serve in the Israeli army when he turns 18. There are benefits to this service to Israel. As most everyone is of draft age at 18, it is mandatory to serve three years in the infantry division. Serving in the Israeli army is prestigious; its commando units are comparable to US Navy SEALs. In Israel everyone goes to the Army and then to college.

Sagiv explains to me the benefits that the Israeli army provides. At just sixteen years old, he stresses the leadership skills that the army provides, and I can’t help but notice that he possesses the wisdom and maturity of someone much older.

When I ask him if he plans on serving when he turns 18 as his brother will be doing this fall, he tells me that it is not in his plans. He would prefer to go to college right out of high school; with his US citizenship he can avoid the Israeli draft.

“Most Israelis do take advantage of the benefits of the post-Israeli army,” he tells me. "The cost of college over four years in Israel is approximately $5,000. Many Israelis return to the United States with the BA from an Israeli university that is fully recognized here."

When I ask him if he experienced any difficulty while obtaining his US citizenship, he tells me it was very easy — his parents did all of the work. It was his parents that took the citizenship test along with all of the studying of US laws and governmental facts. As a minor, his citizenship was rewarded to him based on his parents’ efforts.
But what about the pros and cons of belonging to two countries, I ask Sagiv.

“The cons,” he tells me, “are technically just the legal ones. Because at times I feel a split loyalty to both the United States and to Israel, I can be both.”

Nelson, like Sagiv, was not US-born, but born in Brazil and kept his Brazilian citizenship while obtaining his American one. He first came to the US when he was just 14 years old and became a US citizen at the age of 17 through his mother's own naturalization.

"It wasn't difficult at all," he tells me." It could've been a little harder if I had to wait for five years as most people have to. However, my mother was able to become a naturalized citizen before I turned 18. So at the moment that she became a citizen, I was able to become one due to being her son."


Knowing the cost and work involved for citizens from another country, we talk about what his citizenship entailed.

"My mother did all the hard work, and thanks to her I didn't need to take the citizenship test, which nowadays, has gotten a lot harder than back then. All I had to do was fill out the paperwork and pay for the filing fee, that was it," he explains.

"It was definitely worth getting, even though the fee was sort of expensive, but just the fact that I was able to become a naturalized American was a huge reward for me. I finally felt like I belonged to this society. I felt proud of saying ‘I'm an American,’ even though I wasn't born here," he further explains.


For Nelson, like so many others in search of dual citizenship, the rewards have far exceeded the risks. For him there is the ease when traveling to a country that requires a visa from one of your citizenships and not the other; you can use your other citizenship to get into that country instead of having to get a visa, which can be sometimes troublesome.

Nelson considers himself and his lifestyle more American than Brazilian. His pace is more in line with America than it is with Brazil. He appreciates the fact that life is more affordable in the US than it is in Brazil.

"But culturally, I would say I'm more Brazilian probably because I was raised there, so I feel more Brazilian. However, I've heard from friends and relatives that I tend to behave more American than Brazilian, so I guess I'm both," he explains.

A funny thing happened on the way to writing and researching this article –my own journey towards dual citizenship took an exciting turn. Just last Thursday, I received an e-mail from the town hall in Lucito (Italy) where my final documents were sent before Christmas to officially register me as an Italian citizen. Apparently, my own citizenship was finalized last month. Both my birth and marriage certificates, identifying me as an Italian citizen, are currently making their way to me across the same ocean that my own grandmother traveled some ninety years ago.


For me, I am looking forward to experiencing what Maya, Zofia, Coleen, Sagiv, and Nelson have been experiencing since they received dual citizenship. I too, want to feel these same emotions and sense of pride.

I believe that Nelson echoes the sentiments of so many who hold dual citizenship when he says, "What I am sure of is that I'm very proud of having both citizenships and I wouldn't trade this for anything."

And neither would I.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

All Aboard the Caravan

by Greg Herrmann


Every summer seems the same, “inside a crowd, five billion proud, willing to punch it out.” The crowd is young and they eagerly await the wailings of the lead vocalists, followed by the violent thunder of the drums and the buzz of the horn section. As the blitzing screech of the violin competes to the sound of the electric guitar warming up to the audience, the sound of the rhythmic chords from the acoustic match with the undertones of the bass to create the perfect collision and coalescence of musical forces. This crowd is waiting in anticipation for the Dave Matthews Band to hit the stage and this summer will be no different, though it did not appear to be so, at first.

Following the band’s 2010 Summer Tour, the band and management jointly decided to take off the next touring year. The band would soon be celebrating a milestone, its twenty year anniversary, and they thought it was an appropriate time to take a break. Dave Matthews himself viewed the time off as an opportunity to spend with his young children; an opportunity not granted very often to his children due to the tenuous constraints of life on the road. Stefan Lessard, the band’s bass player, said the time-off would allow him to “focus on more personal projects.” Although it was a disappointing for most that Rolling Stone’s “boys of summer” would not be touring, it was welcomed by some fans as an instance to save some money. Yet, all was not what as it seemed…

In late January/early February of 2011 the Dave Matthews Band fan base became abuzz online. Emails were being sent out to select Dave Matthews Band fan club members advising them to save the dates of June 24-26, July 8-10, August 26-28, and September 2-4. The announcement was mysterious and rather peculiar considering the band’s publicized decision to take a one year hiatus. As the rumors began to grow wings so did the fan sites as new people joined (who caught wind of these mysterious announcements) to find out what was going on in the ‘DMB universe.’ As March rolled around the announcement finally went public. The Dave Matthews Band sent out an email stating that everyone should save the dates that they posted as the band announced plans for a four-stop, multi-day festival that would celebrate DMB’s twentieth anniversary. The venues were soon announced as Bader Field in New Jersey, Southside Chicago, Governor’s Island in New York City, and the Gorge Amphitheater in George, Washington. To go along with the big announcement, the band included a grand title for their Caravan adventure. What was going to be a year off from touring became a summer of fun!

The Caravan tour will feature a plethora of musical acts to accompany the Dave Matthews Band. Depending on which stop you go to, you will be treated to a diverse lineup of stars. Groups such as Gogol Bordello, The Flaming Lips, The Roots, Dispatch, David Gray, Kid Cudi, Emmylou Harris, Ben Folds, and many, many more will perform alongside the band. Although, what is a festival celebrating the twenty years of DMB without the very band that is funding the festival tour? Fans can rest assured as the band will be headlining all three nights of the festival. Fans will also be treated to a few select side projects from the band. Dave Matthews and electric guitarist, Tim Reynolds, will sit down at each festival and treat the crowd to an acoustic performance of a few of their hits. Carter Beauford, the band’s drummer will also be featured in a special all-star musical collaboration. Needless to say the DMB fan will not be left wanting. The musical lineups also beg the question of the possibility of guest appearances by the band with other musical acts.

The Caravan tour also features something fairly new to the sporting and entertainment world. With this tour comes the introduction of payment plans that allows one to pay for one of the three-day festival pass. Patrons can pay the $195 entrance fee, plus fees for the three-day festival pass or a three-day VIP pass for $825, plus fees. This puts the power into the hands of the fan, allowing an individual to tailor their payment plan option into their own unique experience. The payment plan involves a system of preset payments that occur in three increments. Each payment is for $65, plus fees for the regular ticket and $275, plus fees for the VIP ticket. The payments being upon first purchase of the ticket and two more payments are spaced out a month apart from each other after the initial payment. This payment plan option allows the concert-goers to work out a more feasible plan, which might otherwise be unprepared. Still, the payment plan beckons additional questions. First off, should someone be attending these shows if they can’t afford the ticket, up front, in the first place? Second, are these payment plans in direct response to the economic decline the United States has seen within the past years? And lastly, is this just the beginning of many other types of events, products, etc. to include payment plans as an option? One thing is for certain, the avid DMB fans will make it there one way or another! Additionally, the fans should not have to worry about getting there. Many of the festivities will be held in remote locations such as Governors Island (located off of Lower Manhattan). Lodging and transportation to each venue will be offered through advertisements. A premier package is currently being sold that will cater to the fans looking for the ultimate experience. According to the band’s website, “premier Travel Packages are designed to enhance your Caravan experience even further and include three or four-night stays at select hotels, shuttle transportation to and from the festival each day, a limited edition souvenir item and dedicated event staff at the hotels and Caravan site,” (www.dmbcaravan.com). The website has links set up for folks to gain access to free ferries and buses to the four locations across the globe, although many of these devoted fans will likely get together and make the trip on their own accord.

How devoted is the fan base, you ask? Yours truly has been on a lifelong DMB-trip and can vouch first-hand that the community is beyond explanation. The fans have a connection to one another and have a tendency to look out for and take care of each other. They have been known to raise funds to allow less fortunate friends to travel to concerts and enjoy the experience. The band encourages this environment and helps promote these communities by advertising stories on their band’s official website. One fan website in particular, AntsMarching.org (created January 9, 2001), was “put together as a fan site dedicated to the Dave Matthews Band that would provide an accurate tour archive of their shows, a news information site dedicated to the band, and message boards for interaction from fans in one location,” says Jake Vigliotti, co-owner and administrator for AntsMarching.org. The site is still active and continues to be a source of community and friendship for fans of DMB. AntsMarching.org was one of the first to be featured as a supported website of the band and a popular one at that, as fans continue to join in order to follow the band. Jake Vigliotti says of the situation, “all bands lose and gain fans throughout their playing time, but the amazing thing about DMB is that they have managed to keep a very dedicated fan base for a very long time. Fans seeing shows in 2011 have seen shows in 1993. It's not uncommon to find fans that have seen over 100 shows. So as the band continues to find new fans, they also have an incredible retention record.”

So what’s it to you? The band is only playing in New Jersey, Chicago, New York, and Washington State and you live nowhere near any of these locations. Well, if you are any sort of Dave Matthews Band fan then you wouldn’t miss it for the world! “You're going to get a chance to hear perhaps 70-80 different DMB songs in 3 nights. That has high appeal to people,” says Jake. Who can blame them anyway? Fans like Craig Parks are getting ready, “so pumped [for Governors Island].” Others are a bit skeptical on the matter such as Ricky Hartsell, “these shows are going to be such a pain in the ass. The more I think about [it] the less I even want to deal with it.” Regardless of your opinion, the options are virtually limitless and available for anyone to jump on board the Caravan and ride on through twenty years of musical history in a three-day weekend with whispers of “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die!”

Friday, May 13, 2011

Diaspóra na nGael: The Irish Diaspora


by Douglas Murphy

When traveling around Ireland, as I have done many times in the past, I cannot help but remark on its beauty and the friendliness of its people.  My brother and I scheme over beers about our future plans to retire there and open a small business.  It would just be something to make a living off of, not a killing off of.  We’d go someplace like Castletown Bere, a small town on the Beara Peninsula.  It has a beautiful landscape, a few good pubs, and it isn’t too far from some of the smaller cities.  It would be a slow life, but a good one. 

I often remark too, though, on a stark reality that is both incredible and saddening: that at one time, over 170 years ago, there were millions more people living there than there are today.  In 1840, there were 8.5 million people in Ireland, compared with only about 6 million today (this is considering the entire island.)  While most countries’ populations had been steadily rising, Ireland’s had been steadily falling.  In the 1920’s, it was less than half what it had been a century earlier.

We’ve all heard of the Great Potato Famine of the 1840’s, and know that many died, and that many also left the country as a result.  But how can one explain the 80 million people worldwide that consider themselves at least partly of Irish decent, with 41 million of them in this country alone?  How can such a small country have had such a huge impact?

Facts and figures can’t completely explain this epic diaspora, and they certainly can’t help one understand what the mindset was of those who departed—by choice or by force—with many never to see their homeland again.  In most cases it was simply survival or economics; but there were other powerful influences as well, and the overall picture paints a centuries-old national disaster. 

The stage is set

I spoke with Patrick O’Sullivan, an amateur historian living in County Cork, and found that the diaspora had really had its beginnings all the way back in the middle of the 17th century.  England had ruled Ireland for several hundred years, but their power had been waning, and the Irish were becoming more self-governing.  The re-conquest of Ireland at the hands of Oliver Cromwell was exceptionally brutal, with estimates of between 15% and 25% of the population dying during the several years of conflict.  Massacres of soldiers and townspeople were common, and the “settlement” led to incredibly harsh conditions for the survivors, with many oppressive penal laws being instituted.

Most lands held by Catholics—85% of the population at the time—were confiscated and given to Protestant English settlers that set up plantation-style fiefdoms.  Catholic landownership, already low, was thus reduced to a paltry 8%.  The Irish had essentially become tenants in their own country.

Catholics were not allowed to enter professions, hold public office, buy land, or live in towns.  They were not allowed to teach or be educated, and Catholicism was banned completely.  “They had hedge schools and rock masses,” Patrick told me.  “They had to gather in secret to celebrate mass, at a rocky outcropping somewhere, something that resembled an altar.  If they were caught, they were, at worst, hung…at best, they were sent off (to prisons in Australia.)  If you were an Irish man or an Irish woman trying to educate Irish kids, teach them to read or write, you would risk being hung or imprisoned.  That’s where the hedge school came from—from hiding behind the hedgerows (in fields.)”  Especially targeted was the Irish language, and even up into the 1920’s speaking it was a criminal offense.   “They wanted to kill the Irish language off,” Patrick explained.  “They pretty much did almost succeed.  It’s only made a comeback just recently.  ‘Oppressive’ is an understatement.  They were kept uneducated.  They had nothing.  They (the English) did everything they could to keep the Irish down.”

The Penal laws were so severe, that people were hung for very small crimes.  “If you were poor and got caught stealing a loaf of bread,” Patrick told me, “that was enough to get you maybe 10 years in prison.  You might get sent off to Australia in a prison ship.  They served their sentence in Australia, but back in those days you couldn’t hop on a flight, could ya?  You were gone forever.”  Many Irish were deported into slavery or indentured labor to Caribbean plantations (especially in Jamaica, Montserrat, and Barbados), or to Australia, New Zealand, and the English colonies in America. 

With the Penal laws began significant emigration from Ireland, over and above those forced to leave.

an Gorta Mór

The Great Famine ushered in one of the most defining moments in Irish history, demographically, politically and culturally.  Massive unemployment, extremely poor living conditions, and then the failure of the potato crop—the principle sustenance for a majority of the Irish at the time—over several years caused a humanitarian crisis on a momentous scale. 

From 1845 to 1849, up to one million Irish died.  Many died from starvation, but many more died from diseases like cholera, measles or tuberculosis that ran rampant through a weakened, malnourished population.  (To put the numbers in perspective, imagine that the state of Massachusetts suffered a massive crisis, and every inhabitant of Boston died.)  To exacerbate the situation, when families could not pay their rent, they were evicted from their meager cottages, and their homes were set fire to and demolished before their eyes.  The middle of the famine saw the height of evictions.  Although there are no eviction records for the famine years, 250,000 evictions were recorded for the years 1849-1854. 


A shocking fact of the famine was that Ireland was, throughout the crisis, a net exporter of food.  “There was plenty of food in Ireland,” Patrick told me, “it’s just that it was all on the English landlords’ land.  There was plenty of food being produced, but that was all going to England.”   

In light of the disaster at home, as well as the persecution and the lack of freedom they had to endure, the emigration of Irish increased dramatically.  From the famine years until 1914, an estimated 5 million Irish traveled to the U.S. alone.  Leaving for the United States became known as the ‘American Wake’, as the majority would never see Ireland or their families again once they had left.  America became the dream for many, as word came back about the great opportunities to be had there.    

“The links got stronger and stronger.” Patrick said.  “Even though a lot of them (the Irish) got to the States, and were poor and badly treated when they got there, they didn’t have an army or a military or a whole race trying to beat them down, persecuting them.  There were signs, ‘No Irish or dogs,’ but at least they didn’t have a gun to the backs of their necks.”

Early 20th Century

With Ireland’s independence—conflicted as it was with the Civil War that followed—emigration continued as it had before, though the nature of it changed somewhat.  Ireland experienced a creative awakening that was like a dam bursting, and many felt a great desire to see the world and experience new things.  “As the world became more modernized,” Patrick explained, “word came back…different experiences…all the stories coming back from America…’come to us’, they said.”  

And come they did.   Although politically free, the Irish continued to emigrate to the U.S. throughout the century, though in fewer numbers in the latter half due to unfavorable U.S. immigration laws.  Economics still played a major role for the Irish deciding to emigrate, but there was also an undeniable desire to simply live a different life than what they had known previously. 

“We can’t all live on a small island”

Brian Lenihan, Minister for Foreign Affairs, infamously made the above statement in 1987.  There was a debate at the time about Irish emigration, and whether it was an economic necessity to avert an economic crisis, or simply a national tragedy.  Ireland’s unemployment rate was particularly high at 17% nationwide, and some counties reported rates as high as 30%.  In 1988 alone, it was reported that 70,000 had emigrated—a huge increase over previous years. 
   
To talk about Irish emigration in more recent years, I interviewed Michael O’Dea, an entrepreneur who spends his time between the U.S. and Ireland.  As a young man, he traveled extensively, and he came to the U.S. in the late 80’s because he “just had to see it.”

“There are two hundred-odd years of connection between the two countries,” Michael told me.  “For the people, it wasn’t good enough not to be able to touch it.  ‘I want to go see the place.’  I had heard so much, people that had been away, stories about different places.  All the cities were so big, and the trains and cars, and the craic (Irish for “fun”) you could have.  I got there and wanted to see more of it.  I wanted to see as much as I could.”

A lot of the Irish he knew here at the time hoped to go back to Ireland when things got better there.  But they felt things never really improved, and so they stayed on.  One of their chief complaints was the political system in Ireland.  “The political system in Ireland has never truly improved,” Michael explained.  “It is an extremely corrupt and divided sort of society.  We got rid of them (the English), but they did leave a legacy here.  English lords still have land here.  I mean look, Blarney Castle is still owned by an English lord.”

“In the States, you can ‘live the dream,’ as they say,” Michael continued.  “You’re not as interfered with when you’re trying to achieve something.  You have a far better chance of being left alone to do it in the States.  If you try opening a bar in Ireland, there’s not just red tape like everywhere else.  Everybody going would have his hand out looking for a back-hander (kickback).  There’s an oppressive cloud.  There always has been.”

Celtic Tiger

Even during the time of Ireland’s boom years, from the middle of the 90’s to the recent economic crisis, emigration still continued—albeit at a much slower pace.  Ireland’s great economy attracted a lot of returning emigrants, as well as many Eastern Europeans, causing a small surge in the population.  The few that did emigrate at that time were mostly unskilled workers who hadn’t benefited from the boom.  They were seen as young kids who were just bored.  Many left without having gotten their leaving cert (high school diploma), and were less likely to be politically aware, or to want to stay in the U.S permanently.

Now with the boom years behind them, and unemployment reaching 14% in Ireland, there is a fear that the push to emigrate will surface again strongly.  Most European countries are particularly aware of their aging populations, and that is very true for Ireland as well.  They have a great need to retain young, skilled workers as their economies mature.               

Perhaps today, however, there is not as much fear of a permanent loss in their population.  With travel and communication so much more available than in times past, the links that bind the Irish to Ireland can remain strong no matter how far they travel.  “The dynamic has changed,” said Michael.  “There are thousands of people who are back and forth a lot.”

At the end of our interview, Michael said “We’re already into a two hundred-odd year history.  As much as Americans perceive their ancestral homeland as Ireland…I think the Irish feel at home in America.  And what they have achieved in America is incredible.”

You Just Got Poorer: 8% Fee Hikes for All Students Next Semester

Let’s get this clear right from the start: You will be paying at least $800 more for school next year in the form of increased fees. There’s nothing that can be done about it at this point. Chances are good that you haven’t even heard about it, before now.

UMass Boston is a “working” campus. Here on the south end of the Red Line, you won’t find kids with trust funds, or Greek houses, or any of the wild parties that Hollywood promised us. We’re a campus of mothers, who are trying to get their degree and raise kids at the same time. We’re veterans, who went through hell to get the GI Bill, and still have to hold down a job to make ends meet. We’re kids who were born and raised in Dorchester, and we’re transplants from the Midwest who moved to the Hub for one reason or another. Every day, spring and fall semesters, summer and winter sessions, classes are packed with students that are here for one reason – someone told them that if they wanted to get ahead in life, they needed to get an education.

Once we’re done with classes for the day, we pack it up and head to work. You’d be hard pressed to find a student here at UMB that doesn’t have some kind of part-time or full-time job they’re trying to hold down in addition to going to school. Do we really have any other choice? The cost of going to this “affordable state school” starts at a fifty thousand dollar minimum for a four year degree. That’s assuming it only takes a student four years, which is a heroic feat unto itself for those who are trying to make rent, bills, and school at the same time. That’s also before books, parking, or any other expenses. Not many scholarships are paying out more than fifty thousand dollars these days, so most of us are sucking up those costs in loans. We’ve been raised on the ideology that academic excellence is rewarded with financial success, and we’re finding out that it’s actually rewarded with a decade of debt in an unstable job market.

Theoretically, we’re a “state school.” The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has set aside funds to make sure that students who don’t have the benefit of wealthy families can get an education that lets them compete on an even footing with our Ivy League peers. In 1985, the Commonwealth funded a full 75 percent of the cost of running the UMass system. Today, that number has dropped to less than 15 percent, and the bulk of that shortfall is being extracted directly from the student body. In short, we’re a public school that has been nearly shut off from public funding, and it shows. The University is planning on increasing the student population from around 15,000 to over 25,000 in the next ten years – if the state won’t pay for the new science center, residence halls, and academic buildings, then UMB needs to find more students to foot the bill.

And that’s why you need to pay about $800 more in fees for school next year.

The Board of Trustees has failed us. They have not impressed upon state lawmakers the necessity and fiscal wisdom of maintaining a well funded educational system. Our Ivy League peers in Cambridge and along the Charles are largely out-of-staters who will not stay in Massachusetts once their education is complete. Statistically speaking, students attending one of the UMass schools will overwhelmingly choose to stay in-state once they graduate. We are the ones who will contribute to the economic stability of the Commonwealth, returning eleven dollars in tax revenue for every single dollar that was paid into our education, in the long run. We’re the ones who will draw in businesses with a highly skilled labor pool. We’re the ones who are getting the shaft, because things like “Film Subsidies” for Hollywood seemed like a sounder financial plan than investing in education. Apparently, movies about Harvard are more valuable than academics in Quincy, Lowell, or Amherst. Instead of fighting the battle in the Statehouse, the Board has been content to pass expanding costs onto students, slowly yielding to a creeping privatization of the University system.

The faculty is not entirely immune to the pressures, either. It’s true that they have a union, and even non-tenured members participate, but work is by no means guaranteed, and in times of recession, pay can be cut. The union had negotiated a 3.5% pay increase for instructors for next year, (and given the level of inflation, that’s barely breaking even,) but they’re still going to have to fight to keep that raise. Professor John Hess, a member of the faculty staff union who was kind enough to speak to me about the situation at hand, put it this way: “The State doesn’t want to pay for it. They want UMass Boston to fund it. They’re trying to divide us because they’re going to say the only way they can pay for the raise is by charging the students. This is how they drive the wedge between us.” It’s easy for us to be misguided in our anger, and blame the assistant professor who makes $30,000 a year, instead of Executives that have failed to secure funding, and grant themselves six figure raises. “It’s disgusting,” according to Professor Heike Schotten, that “this is being funded on the backs of the students.” The outgoing president of the UMass system made over $500,000 a year, and the incoming president will make over $600,000. Most students couldn’t name either one, or recognize them if they bumped into them into the hall.

Even though the faculty has the rights and privileges a union brings, don’t be fooled. Those can be stripped away in the blink of an eye. As a commonwealth with a super-liberal reputation, the Statehouse still voted to pass a bill to deny collective bargaining rights for municipal workers on the 29th of April, effectively knee-capping unions. What happened in Wisconsin can easily happen here, and if the trend continues, it’s only a matter of when, not if.

There is power in solidarity, but let me tell you, it’s something this student body does not have. We’re overworked and tired, and we’re not paying attention to the rug that’s about to be pulled out from under us. This past Wednesday a group of students stood for four hours at the front of the school’s dining hall during peak hours, trying to educate their fellow students about the impending increase in fees. While KatieGovoni’s paper clothing – made from the bills that she has to pay each semester – drew a lot of stares, relatively few were willing to commit to trying to save themselves nearly a thousand dollars next year. How can we expect to come together to fight for our common interest when most of us won’t even fight for our individual interests?

Whether it’s apathy, or ignorance, or impotence, there’s not a damned thing we can do about the erosion of the quality in our education given the current level of student involvement. We’re watching the university turn from an engine of knowledge, where ideas are created and traded, into a “degree mill” that cranks out graduates, as long as our bank accounts hold out. As long as we one of those degrees falls into our hands, most of us don’t seem to care.

Don’t let it happen. On May 11th, there will be a rally after classes end to inform and organize students and faculty. The students organizing this don’t bite. They’re nice folks who are just like you, and they’re trying to save you a lot of money for the rest of the time you’re in school. Stop by and talk to them.

Then, on June 8th, at UMB, the Board of Trustees will meet to decide how much more we ought to pay for our “public” education. Come tell them that we can’t afford to spend our first decade after graduation digging ourselves out of debt when we have mortgages to pay and pensions to invest in. Show up to tell them to take it back to the Statehouse and do their jobs as our advocates there. If they won’t listen, then we need to reach out to the faculty union and go to Beacon Hill to represent ourselves. Our actions, or failures to act, may well decide the shape of public education in the Commonwealth for generations to come.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Community without a Home


I came out in 8th grade. I was outed to my parents that same year. I remember, my mother called me into the kitchen, and there on the table was my yearbook open to one of many signatures. One of my friends signed off her message “to my best gay friend ever!!!!” and my mother read it. That was a tense ten minutes, but an honest ten minutes.

My parents were accepting as was the town I grew up in. Even the all-male Catholic high school I attended was accepting. Admittedly, there were moments when I felt imperiled because someone blasted the word “faggot” right in my face. Luckily, I was equipped with two powerful weapons. One: the knowledge that my parents, sister and friends would support me. Two: because I was out of the closet, I could response to such comments with, “yes, what about it?”
           
I didn’t realize how lucky I was. Sure, it was a struggle at times. Puberty is always a struggle. Perhaps it was a little bit more challenging for me because every guy I liked was (typically) heterosexual.

For obvious reasons, around this time in my life the “sexuality” topic started making frequent appearances. So, in order to understand myself better and meet open guys, I joined my school’s gay straight alliance and encountered my first transgender (trans hopeful) person…
           
Person, guy, girl… I’m typically a strong speaker, but the terminology surrounding that friend was ambiguous, difficult, impossible and made me bungle.
           
“Can I address the GSA with my typical, ‘hey guys,’ if he… if she is in the group? Is that offensive?” I wondered things like this whenever he and I were in the same room. At the time I called him just by his given name.
           
You’ve probably noted two inconsistencies here. One being, how can there be a transgender person going to an all-boys Catholic school? He wasn’t transitioned yet and wasn’t going to go through the process until after graduation. The other inconsistency is summed up pretty well by something someone asked me in a meeting which was the inspiration for this article.
           
I said in the meeting I was the student-leader of the GSA at Saint John’s Prep. He said, “a GSA… at a Catholic school?!” I’ve already said this a few times, but I will say it again – I grew up in an environment that fostered my development as a person regardless of my sexual orientation. I really have to thank the headmaster at the time for sticking it to the various pressures (student, parent, teacher, Catholic institution) and sticking with Always Our Brothers and Sisters.
           
My point is this: when she [I will use this pronoun from now on] was in the room I was confused. I wanted to be tolerant and accepting and understanding, but I found myself thinking “how could you want to do this to yourself?” I admit, I more than once thought it was silly and unnecessary. Furthermore, I knew intuitively that making the transition would bring a lot of pain on her. My reasoning was pretty simple; I thought I’d had a pretty hard time of it (I hadn’t yet realized my luck) and I was “just gay.” I wasn’t in the “wrong body.” I wasn’t going to “spontaneously change genders.” I put this is quotes because I remember saying it. This was before I had an accurate appreciation for the breadth and width of the transition.

In order to overcome this character flaw I approached the issue from the only avenue I was equipped to approach it from – intellectually. I researched. I studied. I read blogs, essays, journals, medical dictionaries, psychology publications, and anything else I could get my hands on. But even with these I could understand.
           
After a while I just got used to it. It took me time. But for a while I reacted how much of the public reacts; I feigned tolerance, avoided eye contact, and got out of the room. Like I said, it took time. It took knowing someone to really make me understand. I think the same strategy can work to end much of the intolerance out there.
           
That was high school. So, as if it wasn’t hard enough for her at that time, she had to deal with her family’s seemingly ambiguous treatment of her. Now it’s all well and good – but there was a time when I was seriously worried that she might be booted from her home, booted from school, scalded by her friends, and disowned. She, like me, was lucky because none of these things happened.
           
Luck. Lucky to be born into an accepting family, in an accepting town with liberal views. Lucky to know what I wanted and who I was so young. Lucky, even, that my parents got a hold of my yearbook and read the entry.           
           
But is it all luck?
           
Equipped with the experiences I had in high school and oozing with existential questions like these, I began the epic quest for a college.

I loved Catholic school, but I’d wanted more in my life than just upper-middle class white boys. So, I chose an educational experience with a high level of diversity. I left home and moved 25 minutes from my hometown in Danvers to Dorchester to attend the University of Massachusetts Boston. This is the second best decision I’ve ever made, second only to choosing Saint John’s Prep High School.

UMB has a student body of nearly 15,000. Nearly all of these students work part time, many work full time, many have families and responsibilities at home. All juggle academics with “the real world.” Teachers and parents have been telling me about “the real world” since I was in preschool. This is the first time my education and “the real world” have been so inextricably interwoven.

Because of this huge diversity and because we are in such a tolerant epicenter of the US, there are all kinds of people at UMB. This is why we have such a proactive, vibrant Queer Student Center who, last semester, opened the personal narrative of transgender youth up to the school.

It was a warmish room in the Campus Center, with a projector-screen, a collection of uncomfortable chairs, a neglected podium in the corner, and some food platters on a counter in the back. After people filed in, introduced themselves, and got comfortable the stories began pouring out. These were the kind of stories that you don’t want to listen to. Their are so overpowering they actually do damage to your image of our “great country.” Unlike tearjerkers in movie theaters, these were real events that happened to real people in “the real world.”

Their personal narratives could not be anything but depressing given the subject of the meeting:  transgender, homeless youth. I wrote an article for the Mass Media on the topic and on the meeting specifically. When I turned the piece in, I described it as “the most depressing thing I’d ever written.” My editor at the time agreed. Here it is with some edits:

Many of their stories start the same way despite differences in race, gender, sexual preference, and age; upon coming out or being found out, they were all disowned.
           
One UMB student described his home life. First he was kicked out, then allowed back in after a couple week at which “the transgender issue” was strictly avoided. “I didn't know how to feel myself.”
           
After a series of comings and goings from home and climactic fist fight with his mother. Finally, words all-too-often heard by those in the LGBT community were spoken, “you're not part of the family anymore.” He was without a home for an entire summer.
           
Driven by some buried parental instinct, after the summer and after the irrevocable phrase was spoken, he was called back. Lacking any other place to go, he returned. But his parents “halted everything.” That is to say, during this period he was undergoing the process of hormone therapy to become in body who he was in mind. “Living as a female,” he said, “wasn't going to work for me.” So, while it was embarrassing for his parents to have a “daughter who was living on the streets,” they were still unwilling to accept him for who he was.
           
Others in the discussion had similar stories.
           
After being booted from their home and removed from the family the real horror story begins – they found themselves in a world without a ceiling and usually without food.

Another transgender (male to female) spoke about her experiences. Her mother died from Multiple Sclerosis and her relationship with her father was weak and inconsistent.

“One day he’d be like, ‘I don't mind helping you out.’ The next day, ‘get the fuck out.’” Now homeless since 2005, she described her whole experience.

She went through “the whole nine yards” of vagrancy. In desperation she “started prostituting in the middle of being homeless.” Prostitution gave her a house, some money and even a friend or two. Unfortunately, there were drugs and because of these, she spent a year in prison.
           
By the time she was released, she’d “stopped using.” But, she was still without a home.
           
While “house hopping,” she met the man she is currently engaged to. They sat together during the meeting, bonded by their protracted battle against homelessness.
           
What about the shelters and halfway houses?
           
She described a shelter called “the Shattuck.” Before entering the proprietors patted her and her fiancé down to make sure they weren't carrying drugs or weapons. During this, the staff member groped her inappropriately. Nonetheless, “we [had] nowhere to stay tonight.” They found a spot to lie down.
           
“They pretty much wanted to separate us,” she said, describing how she and her fiancé were treated. She had had enough. Infuriated by their treatment, she called the police and reported the abuse. The police did nothing. She described the attitude of the police towards them as, “you're fagots, so whatever.”
           
Another in the group said that he sometimes “felt more comfortable on the street” because so few shelters stop discrimination even when it’s manifested violently.
           
As if the struggle to find a shelter wasn't enough, they must struggle to find an “appropriate shelter.” Ideally, this means a place free of harassment, but typically the only option is to find a shelter where they “can hide within the crowds.”
           
There are some reliable shelters. Mark, a program director of Waltham House, stated the importance of taking a “step out of our comfort zones […] and advocating for these things that are not common practice,” such as the protection of typically ostracized individuals in hopes that he can create a “safe environment.”

Mark added, “in addition to being kicked out of home […] they're also running from the people who are supposed to be helping them.”
           
Another member of an organization seeking to improve conditions of this large population put it well, “poverty had no color, no preference.” Yet, it does not follow that those fighting poverty are open-minded.

A study done by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force recently published a report appropriately titled, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. The survey, as the title suggests, gathered large quantities of data from transgender individuals and compiled the information in one single massive study.

Originally, when I was looking at reports in high school, I had almost no faces to put with these numbers. Sure, I had the one friend whose transition went relatively smooth. But, this report tells the story of people far less fortunate.

Let’s begin with children. Try to take into account everything they’re going through at the time of their transition or their decision that they wish to transition. In transgender respondents between kindergarten and 12th grade, 76 percent reported harassment; 6 percent reported expulsion (due to their sexual identity); 35 percent reported physical assault of some kind while 12 percent reported sexual assault specifically.

As if this wasn’t enough to upset you, these numbers can be broken down even further. Ethnicity and which direction of the transition (that is to say, male to female or female to male) also are accounted for. Even among this group of abused, there are subdivisions which clearly demonstrate a stronger bias against people of color. For example, the number of physically abused among blacks is 83 percent, 7 percent higher than the average.

But, perhaps the most criminal number is that seemingly small 6 percent. None of the other numbers give any identification as to whether or not administrative help was granted. Within the study itself, a girl who identified as gay said, “shortly after I came out in high school, I began receiving threats in my locker. The usual idiocy: ‘damn dyke, no one wants you here,’ or ,‘fucking fag’.” I would hope that such abuse, if reported, would result in the expulsion of those who wrote the note. The unique nature of that 6 percent is its demonstration that the administration of some schools not only fail to stand by gender-non-conforming students, but that they actively abolish them through expulsion. 

There is a related statistic for adults, or at least those who have held jobs. 47 percent report “an adverse job outcome such as being fired, not hired or not promoted” due to their sexual preference or identity. With a number like that, it’s not surprising that transgender individuals experience unemployment at twice the rate of “typical Americans” with “people of color up to four times the national unemployment rate.” Even if a sexual-non-conformer does manage to get a job, “90 percent of those surveyed reported harassment or mistreatment on the job.”

I’ve been told (and I’ve now looked it up) that it is, in some places, illegal in to be homeless. Many small city ordinances and state laws make it illegal, for example, to lodge in a public place, or a private area without the previous permission of the owner. Yet, it is two to four times more difficult for transgender identifying individuals (according to the numbers just conveyed) to get a job, make a stable income and find a stable place to stay. This is ignoring further discrimination in housing markets and apartment rental.

Do they have a family to go home to? “43 percent maintained most of their family bonds, while 57 percent experienced significant family rejection.” Thus, laws targeting the homeless are laws targeting transgender individuals more than anyone else.

“22 percent were denied equal treatment by a government agency or official; 29 percent reported police harassment or disrespect; and 12 percent had been denied equal treatment or harassed by judges or court officials.”

There is no end to the numbers – the statistics are staggering and there is no good reason, nor any viable excuse for the story the numbers tell.

I guess “the real world” my teachers told me about when I was younger isn’t such a nice place. It puts people in boxes, pushes them into a sweeping tide of drugs, poverty, prostitution, and pain and watches them float away with a smirk. Well, it’s not so much the world as the people who occupy it.

There is no good reason for the following statistic: “41 percent of respondents reported attempting suicide compared to 1.6 percent of the general population.”

I am lucky. I continue to gain greater appreciation for how lucky I am. But I shouldn’t have consider myself lucky. There is no reason that the way I grew up has to be the rare exception to a rule of oppression and abuse. The real world isn’t such a bad place and the most aggravating enemy opposing equality is apathy. Continuing studies like these and their publication is a crucial factor in creating a country of understanding and tolerance.