When I think of the 4th of July, I think not of fireworks that flash and fly across an American night, but of those that kiss the sky over Slane Castle in County Meath Ireland, after a long day of music.
My first concert at Slane was in 1982 for The Rolling Stones “farewell tour.” Seriously. Warming up for them were the J. Geils Band, The Chieftains, and George Thorogood and the Destroyers. Two years later, I was back, to see UB40, Santana, and Bob Dylan and the sweet surprise of Van Morrison joining Dylan on stage to sing “Tupelo Honey.” As I recall, Bono showed up as well.
But on June 1, 1985, America came to Ireland when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band made their Irish debut. The previous summer, I was in the United States, when the Born in the USA tour was in full swing and was lucky to have been upstate New York at the same time as Springsteen. I saw him perform at Saratoga Springs and again in September, when a trip to Niagara Falls with an American cousin also included a Springsteen show in Buffalo.
I knew Ireland was in for a treat, and when tickets went on sale, I also bought one for my little brother – it was his first concert. A seminal moment in his musical education.
Imagine for a moment, close to 100,000 of us making a pilgrimage through the sleepy – and disapproving – village of Slane to see The Boss. Between assurances of increased security and a promise – as yet unfulfilled – that this would be the last rock concert to disturb them, the residents had been placated. Even the weather cooperated with the kind of sun-drenched day we Irish pray for. Some said it was the hottest day on record in Ireland. Everybody was young, even the weather-beaten old farmers who let us park on their fields. When the band burst on stage with a thunderous “Born in the USA,” everybody was Irish, even Bruce. When he turned his baseball cap backwards and bragged, “I had a grandmother from here,” the crowd erupted.
Although we basked in his pride, the reality was that our weather was rarely that sunny, and thousands of us would be forced out of Ireland as economic immigrants, collectively the “brain drain” of the 1980s. Across the water, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister; farther afield, the Berlin wall was still standing; and, in Ireland, divorce was still illegal and condoms had barely become available without a prescription.
But on that glorious day, in spite of the economic and political truths of Ireland, and the ever-diminishing possibilities before us, a defiant Springsteen held us aloft, and we believed in America.
While I have lost count of the Springsteen concerts I’ve attended, I have always been able to count on him to stand up for people like me, for immigrants who are seeking America. Sometimes it seems as though the very idea of America is unraveling, especially in Arizona. I remember last summer, waiting to see what would happen to the Immigration Bill and a last-minute amendment that would increase border controls that included unmanned drones. Unmanned drones.
And then last week, I read in the Arizona Republic that our State Superintendent of Instruction, John Huppenthal, the person charged with overseeing the education of our children, many of whom – like mine – are the children of immigrants, wrote this in 2010 before he was elected: “We all need to stomp out balkanization. No spanish radio stations, no spanish billboards, no spanish tv stations, no spanish newspapers. This is America, speak English.” He goes on to say that Mexican food is OK, as long as the menus are “mostly in English.” He also described as “lazy pigs” people who receive public assistance and even compared the work of Susan Sanger to acts committed by the Nazis. Mind you, this was all written anonymously, posting comments on a blog, hiding behind the username Falcon9.
Huppenthal has since “renounced and repudiated” his remarks; however, he will neither resign nor bring his re-election campaign to an end. He cried. He’s sorry. I’m sorry, too. I’m sorry he was placed in charge of the schools we send our children to every day. I’m sorry we don’t have an educator at the helm of the Arizona Department of Education – a good one – someone who takes seriously the notion of “in loco parentis,” someone driven not by hubris but by humanity.
Bruce Springsteen once told a reporter that he wasn’t cut out for the traditional school system:
I wasn’t quite suited for the educational system. One problem with the way the educational system is set up is that it only recognizes a certain type of intelligence, and it’s incredibly restrictive — very, very restrictive. There’s so many types of intelligence, and people who would be at their best outside of that structure get lost.
The Boss is on to something, but we know that Bruce Springsteen will never be the Superintendent of Instruction in Arizona. For now, that position belongs to John Huppenthal, who vilified immigrant families and the working poor behind his anonymous pseudonyms.
There are 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already in these United States, trapped within a terribly broken immigration system. Of that number, many are children, here through no fault of their own, and America is the only country they have ever known. They pledge allegiance to her flag every day. They wait, their spirit intact even in the face of one devastating disappointment after another.
In A Nation of Immigrants, John F. Kennedy writes that “Immigration policy should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible. With such a policy we can turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscience.” Half a century later, such a policy remains elusive.
Tomorrow, as we celebrate America’s birthday, how do we hold up our immigrant children? Not with the anonymous online ranting of someone who would be elected to run their schools, but with Bruce Springsteen’s proud and public celebration of the undaunted immigrant spirit:
~ Bruce Springsteen, Recipient, Ellis Island Family Heritage Award,2010
I am proud to be here today as another hopeful wanderer, a son of Italy, of Ireland and of Holland and to wish God’s grace, safe passage and good fortune to those who are crossing our borders today and to give thanks to those who have come before whose journey, courage and sacrifice made me an American.
Happy Birthday, America.