Here: A Biography of the New American Continentby Anthony DePalma
Anthony DePalma has been bureau chief for The New York Times in both Canada and Mexico. Here is his fascinating "biography of a continent:" an exploration
A completely original, passionately rendered portrait of the nations of North America and their complicated relationships with one another, by a New York Times journalist who has lived in all three countries.
Anthony DePalma has been bureau chief for The New York Times in both Canada and Mexico. Here is his fascinating "biography of a continent:" an exploration into and meditation on the two very different nations that begin where America ends, and on the nature of our relationship with them. It is also a very personal account written by someone who has lived in all three countries and spent years trying to understand how we got to be who we are. How did our three nationsall nations of immigrants, sharing borders and intertwined historiesdevelop such different world views and senses of ourselves?
How do weaccurately and inaccuratelyperceive each other? Who are we now, separately and as a continent, and where are we going?
DePalma considers these questions both as a journalist and through the lens of his own immigrant American family's experiences, offering illuminating re-examinations of key historical events, vivid contemporary reportage, and thought-provoking, often moving stories of individuals, including those of his own relatives, along the way. "By way of this expedition beyond the ends of America," says DePalma, "I came to understand better who I am and how I got to be here. I hope readers discover the same."
Author Biography: Anthony DePalma is currently international business correspondent for The New York Times, assigned to explore the increasing connections between North and South America. Before joining the Times he was a freelance writer for The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, Columbia Journalism Review and Woman's Day. Born in Hoboken, he currently lives in Montclair, New Jersey.
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I have come to believe that this is a mighty continent
which was hitherto unknown.
Columbus's Journal of the Third Voyage
May 30-August 31, 1498
We can only imagine how the hearts of the early Spanish explorers raced and their imaginations ran wild as they first set foot on the mainland of North America in the early sixteenth century. They knew little about the mysterious place where they raised the flag of their king. Frightened Indians in Cuba had spoken only of a great and bountiful land nearby. This bolstered the Spaniards' belief that they could reach the forbidden shores of India or even China, which they had been searching for when they had set sail from Spain.
Nor can any person today know the keen disappointment the conquistadores felt as they came to the realization time after time that they still were far from their intended destination. No matter what opportunities and wonders presented by the new world they stumbled upon, their initial misunderstandings proved hard to correct. For decades to come, European maps of the mysterious continent badly miscalculated distances and misinterpreted the relationship of one land mass to another. Great portions of the maps were left blank, or were filled in with inland seas, gigantic offshore islands, and other fanciful features that were based more on imagination than fact. On a few of those inchoate maps, North America was simply called America Septentrional, an ancient Latin wordreferring to the seven stars of the Great Bear constellation, otherwise known as the Big Dipper, which mariners used to find the North Star that guided them across treacherous seas. Thus, for a time, the entire continentor at least the part of it that was knownwas treated as nothing more than a signpost.
At first the western world little understood or appreciated what had been discovered across the sea. For at least fifty years after Columbus's maiden voyage, North America was merely in the way. To the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, and the determined navigators who followed him, the undreamed-of continent was little more than an obstruction, an impediment to be circumvented on the way toward a more practical destination. Even when fragmentary reports of the continent's true breadth conflicted with earlier beliefs, myths were sustained. Well into the sixteenth century, European cartographers drew maps with India attached to Mexico. And California often was portrayed as an island for a century beyond that.
This continental confusion only marked the beginning of what would become a long history of misconceptions about North America, some of which persist today. In large measure, the mystery is due to the evanescent nature of the continent. Say Europe, and an idea comes to mind, a vision broad enough to encompass different languages and unique cultures, all connected by geography and history. Africa evokes a similar reaction. So too Asia, and South America. All of these continents, and all of the countries they contain, share borders that have at times been armed and hostile, and even these conflicts have helped create a sense of the broader place as a venue of war and a proscenium of power.
North America, as a notion, has not conveyed a single, strong image. We understand it is there, we know North America is a continent, and with scientific knowledge grounded in the observation and measurement of half a millennium, we know the boundaries of America Septentrional. But the way we have known it would, in Spanish, be defined by the verb saber, which refers to book learning or observation, and not conocer, which is used for those things we know intimately, as we know a friend or a special place like home. We know North America exists, but we do not know North America.
One reason for such enduring purblindness is that North America is a concept beyond geography, a shared set of values obscured for too long by political shortsightedness and cultural myopia. What binds together this centuries-old idea of America are not maps but ambitions, and the knowledge that we who live here have inherited the precious chance of starting afresh. What divides us are the different forms taken by this process of beginning anew. As will be seen later, Canada, Mexico, and the United States represent different versions of the new world, but each started with a break from tradition and an interruption of history lasting long enough to create a new history. That is the essence of what it has meant for every immigrant who came here, including my grandfather. After his three-and-a-half-week voyage across the Atlantic at the turn of the last century, he rarely talked about Italy. It was almost as though he had dumped his memories of the old country over the side of the great steel ship that had brought him here. When he touched the ground in this, his new land, he had only space enough in his heart for new memories. He left us two small photographs of himself and my grandmother, who came to America by his side, as proof of his beginnings. Little else physically connects that old world to this new one.
I never had the chance to ask my grandfather why he came to the United States, but I think I have an answer. In all likelihood, it may be as simple as this: I am an American because of pencils, cheap wooden pencils that replaced the vague dreams of a quiet man who left the only land he ever truly knew for some place he had only heard of, a place across the sea that offered him an opportunity to remake his life.
Let me explain. My grandfather was one of the 2 million Italians who fled their shacks and shanties in the poor south of Italy that is called the mezzogiorno and sailed for the United States between 1900 and 1910. Had he decided a bit earlier to leave his windy village of Molfetta, with its thirteenth-century seminary and its groves of gnarled olive trees on the sunny coast of the Adriatic, I might today be a different kind of Americana Brazilian, say, or an Argentine, because in the late nineteenth century, many desperate Italian immigrants favored those countries as destinations, not the United States. Had he hesitated and left after the peak years of American immigration, when Northeast cities were already packed solid and "wops" were not wanted even for digging ditches, he might have headed for Halifax's Pier 21 on Canada's Maritime coast, or the ancient port city of Veracruz in Mexico, and today I might see the world from a wholly different perspective.
But he left at a time when steamship lines stuffed so many of Europe's men and women into the dismal holds of their ships that they needed charge only the equivalent of $10 to cross the Atlantic, a time when a factory in Hoboken, New Jersey, in the shadow of Manhattan, was willing to hire greenhorns and put them to work assembling the wood, graphite, and paint of penny pencils. Hoboken, then a busy port city in New York Harbor where the greatest ships of Europe docked, was already one of the most crowded spots on the continent, with more than 70,000 people squeezed into a single square mile. Most of its streets ended at the water's edge, as they did in Molfetta, and both cities drew their vitality from the sea. For many immigrants, Hoboken was their first stop in the new world, and their last. They elbowed their way in and, once they found work, stayed put. All that they sent back to Italy was word for others to follow.
My grandfather, Ignazio, had been a policeman in Italy and a one-time seminarian. He arrived in America with a new wife and no money. The American Lead Pencil Company on Willow Avenue and Fifth Street gave him a job, and he worked there long enough to earn a pin and a pat on the back when he retired. Although he lived in the United States for over fifty years, Ignazio never bought a house or became an American citizen. He sang in tinny operas in Hoboken's vaudeville theaters but never learned to speak English, and never gave up the snappy felt hats or the crooked black cigars that made him look for all the world as if he might still be promenading along the boulevard in Molfetta. I regret that I never asked him why he decided to give up everything and cross the ocean if, in the end, he was going to keep his new homeland at such a distance. But it was really just a mask he wore. Inside, he had abandoned Italy. After he set foot in America, he never went back, not once. His oldest son, my father Anthony, was born in Hoboken and lived there, beside the river, his whole life. He spoke Italian at home but English on the streets, and he went to work lugging coffee and bananas and bales of red chili pepper out of the dark bellies of ships that came to the Hudson River piers in Hoboken. He never went to Molfetta either.
I was the youngest of my father's four sons. In all, with two sisters, there were six of us. No one learned more than a few words of Italian at home, but neither did we ever have to battle winter's wrath from the frozen deck of a steel cargo ship. While I was still a child, I watched the pencil factory hammered to bits by a wrecking ball to make way for a middle-class housing project. And I saw Hoboken change from homey to seedy to chic after the shipping lines left and the historic piers rusted and gently collapsed into the brown waters of the Hudson. My father gave the Sisters of Charity responsibility for teaching me how to learn, and he sent me to study with the Christian Brothers, who introduced me to serious reading and purposeful writing. My father cleared the way for me to be the first in our family to go to college, and he saw me go on to become a foreign correspondent and bureau chief in Mexico and Canada for The New York Times.
I've been told that the journey from the pencil factory to The New York Times is a quintessential American tale, a concrete realization of the magnificent opportunity of the American continent. Maybe, but every American family I know has a similar story. We are a country of immigrants, in a continent of newcomers. All of usAmericans, Mexicans, Canadianshail from someplace else. We are all descendants of people with vague dreams and unclear hopes of somehow making life better for those who came after them. The American continent gave Ignazio, and through him my father and me and my children, an opportunity he never would have had in Molfetta; that much is clear. But if it was because of the American Pencil Company that I am an American, then what has being American meant for what I have become?
To understand better, in 1998 I became the first in my family to see Molfetta since my grandfather turned his back on the city nearly a century before. A masonry shop on the waterfront still bears the name DePalma, as does a local auto dealership, and more than 150 listings for the family name appear in the local telephone book, although I do not know any of these people. Before we had a chance to see any more of the town, another car rear-ended mine near the hospital when I slowed to let an old woman cross the street. I couldn't find anyone who spoke English. But the young man driving the new Ford Escort that rammed us called an uncle whose fluent Spanishhe had worked more than a decade in Venezuelawe were able to understand.
Amid the swearing and the cursing in Italian, which was easy to understand, the uncle explained that his nephew was in a lot of trouble. We resolved things amicably, but the accident forced me to consider how coincidental my tie to America had been. What if my grandfather had sailed for Venezuela, as had the other driver's uncle? What if he had heard that a textile plant in Montreal hired Italians? What if he had never left Molfetta?
I suppose that had Ignazio not crossed the Atlantic, Molfetta could still have provided a chance to succeed, but such success would likely have occurred within well-defined boundaries. Perhaps today I would have been chiseling away inside the DePalma masonry shop near the waterfront, or preparing to build a new apartment building on a few acres of olive groves my grandfather might have left us, the type of legacy many people in Molfetta seemed intent on leaving. My family probably would have changed its income but not its standing.
From this perspective, the ability to seize opportunity and be transformed by it is the factor that defines what being an American has meant for what I have become. Many things separate those of us in the United States from our North American neighborssometimes culture, sometimes language, and almost always worldviewbut the one that has been most central to forming the characters of the three different nations in North America involves this most fundamental of North American traits. We share the desire to get ahead, but our opportunities for doing so differ markedly among these three nations that have for so long offered this path. I have met many successful people in Canada, the sons and daughters of immigrants from all over the world. But with few exceptions, Canadadespite its similarities to the United Statesoffered them only a remote degree of the bounty of opportunities they would have found had they lived in America. True to its British roots, Canada still puts great stock in having the proper training and the right connections, a club mentality that imposes rigid expectations of behavior and outcome. William Thorsell, longtime editor of The Globe and Mail in Toronto, posited that background, not merit, was what really mattered in Canada. "In New York they ask what you earn," he once wrote in an editorial-page column in The Globe, but in Toronto, "they ask where you live:" Canada's generic universities are not expected to transform students but to turn out graduates who are better-paid versions of their parents. Since the end of World War II, more than 60 percent of top Canadian executives have come from upper-class backgrounds, almost twice the percentage found among American executives. Similar figures are not available for Mexico, but the fact that a handful of families control the country's largest corporations makes clear that economic opportunity there is largely reserved for those who already have status and power.
Many values are not shared equally by the three American nations, as will be seen in a later chapter. But there once was a time when we were not so unlike each other. High-energy particle physics has a concept known as broken symmetry, which is useful to understanding the development of the American continent. At the start of the known universe, in the very first instant after the Big Bang fireball, a state of perfect symmetry existed in which everything looked alike and behaved the same way. But as time passed, the raw material of the universe cooled and began to collect in different ways and with a great diversity of natural properties. The unifying symmetry that had briefly existed was lost.
A similar sequence of events took place on the North American continent. The landing by Columbus was the big bang that changed, instantaneously, the known world. At first, America was perceived as everything that Europe was not. But then the voyages of Jacques Cartier, John Smith, and the other explorers and all the settlers who followed them brought a range of horizons into view. The symmetry of America was finally broken when the Europeans, applying their own beliefs, attempted to change the nature of the continent. For five centuries, that process continued. Then, rather unexpectedly, officials from each countryeach motivated by his own set of exigencies and responsibilitiestook steps in the 1990s to begin the reintegration of the three nations of North America. And with it came an unprecedented wave of opportunity that washed across the continent. This shift changed the way we work in, live on, and think about the American continent. It also brought us into more frequent conflicts, the inevitable consequence of our intensified closeness. But overall, the people and events outlined in the following chapters have begun to restore some of the symmetry that was broken half a millennium ago. We are seeing that our most substantial differencesthose based on the quality of the opportunity for transformation that living in North America providesare leveling off. We are creating a new history.
* * *
The power and importance of these changes do not, by themselves, ensure that we are aware of them. Like one of Mexico's earthquakes whose epicenters lie far from where they are felt most intensely, the forces shaping North America today gather strength largely out of our sight.
For all their closeness, Mexico and Canada are almost unknown to many of us. When The Times first sent me to Mexico in 1993 and then to Canada in 1996, my understanding of our neighbors was, I think, typical of most Americans' views. I had been across both borders, as have been many Americans, and I thought I knew all I needed to know about the nations that begin where America ends. During a trip across the United States in 1974, I stopped in El Paso and walked across the bridge to Ciudad Juárez, before that city had sunk completely into a hellhole of drugs and violence. I was twenty-two then, and I savored the day, poking my head into side streets and around strange corners. I haggled over the price of a striped blanket, certain I was being cheated, and ate in a cheap restaurant where I tasted the fire of Mexican chilies for the first time and knew I'd live to regret it. As an expedition to a foreign country, it wasn't much, but it was enough to allow me, like many other Americans, to say that I knew Mexico.
On another voyage across the continent a year later, with a new wife and a small dog, I drove west as far as our Volkswagen could carry us. When the wobbly VW met its match in the Rockies, we turned north into Canada and headed back east from there. We drove, often in stunned silence, across the empty expanses of a country far larger than we had ever imagined, a fragment of wilderness on our borders that reminded us of how recently we had all arrived. The roads and cars and even the faces of the people we met all seemed familiar. But every place-name was new, the money strangely colorful, and the gasoline then priced indecipherably in imperial gallons, all making us feel strangely at home yet at the same time quite out of sync with our surroundings. About Canada itself we knew almost as little as Mikhail Baryshnikov, who, less than a year before we were there, had defected in Toronto. "What did I know about Canada?" he wrote on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his fateful decision. "I have to be honest. I knew precisely three things: Canada had great hockey teams, it grew a lot of wheat because the bread we ate every winter was thanks to Canadian wheat, and Canada was where Glenn Gould lived and worked."
One part of Canada I felt I did know well, and the place influenced my sentiments about the whole country and about North America. It was a small village on the banks of the St. Lawrence River that I had visited as a child. Every summer the family next door made the trip north, to the province of Quebec. One year we joined them. We drove an entire day in my father's black Buick to get to the village of Beaupré. There, beside the river, inside an enormous gray basilica dedicated to St. Anne, my neighbor Nicky pointed to a spot high up on one of the huge columns at the church's entrance. There hung the brace that he had strapped on every day after polio had sapped the strength from his legs. Doctors had told his parents he would never walk without it. His family took him to Canada seeking a miracle. They felt they had found one in Beaupré, and the tangle of leather and steel on the church column, the desperate materials of dreams and hopes that encircled it like some terrible ivy, was the proof.
Nicky lived next door to me, but he was far more than just a neighbor. In later years, well after he had begun to walk using only a cane, it became clear that his illness had shaped my life as profoundly as it had his. Our closeness meant I agreed to live within a world defined by his wheelchair and brace, while he tried to ride piggyback on my experience of the world. Often it was a compromise. We played baseball, but using the cards of a board game. I'd bounce Spaldings off the wall of the sweater factory across the street with a high enough arc to give him time to move his wheelchair to catch them. We spent a lot of time just talking, and we satisfied our curiosity with books that could transport us in ways that Nicky's wrecked legs could not. It was not at all a typical childhood in Hoboken, where the son of a longshoreman might have expected to follow his father and work on the docks or perhaps become a policeman or someone who worked with his hands, not someone who made his living with words. It was not the life Nicky and I had looked for. We lived the way we did simply because we had been thrown together by fate. Living side by side, whether we wanted to or not, had influenced the choices we made and the things we did. Being near each other made us more like each other.
In a similar way, when I arrived in Mexico and Canada, I looked for signs of how much living by our side had made our neighbors come to be like us. Again I was surprised. A Mexican taxi driver once remarked that Americans live in a fantasyland because they foolishly expect lines to be straight and laws to be obeyed, including traffic lights and stop signs. It didn't take long after I moved to Mexico to find out that precious little there sticks to plan. Like the great gray Metropolitan Cathedral in the heart of Mexico City that is sinking unevenly into the mud and occasionally has to be jacked up to keep from collapsing, Mexico seemed to be forever making adjustments to keep itself straight, although it was never quite clear just what Mexicans expected straight to be.
Resemblances were all I expected to find in Canada, but once there I detected differences in some of our most basic beliefs. There were pleasant surprises: The strong sense of public concern in Canadian life meant that I never saw in Toronto a vandalized subway car, vending machine, or public phone. Some differences were just unexpected: The Catholic schools in Ontario were publicly supported, and mail wasn't delivered on Saturday. And some differences were downright disconcerting: I had to worry about publication bans, closed-door meetings, and sky-high taxes to support a social safety network in which a hypochondriac could see five doctors in one day for a runny nose but somebody needing a heart bypass had to wait five months for the operation.
The United States, Mexico, and Canada were shaped by the same process of discovery, settlement, development, and eventual separation from the European powers that had given them life. The places from which most North Americans initially cameSpain, France, and Englandshared a Western culture that was well defined and firmly established by the time the first explorers arrived. We not only share our history with Mexico and Canadaour history is their history, and theirs, ours. This reluctant continental trinity is both united and divided by our shared history, making each nation a part of the other and keeping each one unique. The factors that contributed to those dissimilarities were as numerous as the misconceptions we three nations have imposed on each other. But one difference stands out most prominently. New France was a creation of Versailles, run from Paris by those loyal to the crown. It held no attraction for dissenters, and neither did New Spain, which obediently stuffed the Spanish king's coffers for three centuries until Mexico shouted for and won its independence. From the beginning, the United States was settled by angry people who mistrusted the governments they had left behind in Europe and, at least initially, all governments. The colonists did not fight the American Revolution to win their freedom but rather to protect the freedom they already had won. On the way, they also managed to defeat the old world's attempt to recreate itself in North America.
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