An extended family lives in the six-room apartment with attic. There is no air conditioning. In winter, the attic is unheated, and it has no electricity. It’s the bedroom for the ten-year-old boy.
His two sisters share a bedroom with their two adult aunts. The parents have the second bedroom, and the last bedroom is shared by one uncle and the grandfather. Another uncle lives in the house; whichever one gets home last sleeps on the couch. There’s one tiny bathroom for ten people.
If you live in my part of New Jersey, and I describe this scenario to you, you will think I’m talking about Riverside. It’s a just-over-one-mile-square town, so small it has no school bus. There are churches of all kinds all over the place as well as many bars. It’s a working-class town. Like many working-class towns, it found its downtown of small shops abandoned by shoppers seeking big-box and mall convenience. Until this year my children attended school there.
Several years ago an influx of immigrants (legal and illegal) came from Brazil and settled here. Riverside already had an established Portuguese community. The Brazilians have not been welcomed in town. Instead, they are hated by those who already live there. There is hate crime, vandalism, and a lot of attitude. There are also many Brazilian businesses in what were empty stores.
They’re not all illegal. Many of them came here the right way, but there’s that Guilt By Association. They want to work hard, and they do. They want to support their families in Brazil. Some of them want to bring their families here. We had the opportunity to meet many wonderful people when Middle Sister participated in Brazilian martial arts (capoeira) classes. Despite the language barrier, they were friendly, helpful to the students, and welcoming to children. They asked me about Catholic schools, saying that when they become parents, they want to send their children to one. And I suspect that in some cases, some of these guys here illegally were victimized by people who spoke their language, took their money, and promised them the moon, the stars, and a green card they didn’t know was fake. Now they’re stuck.
I wasn’t talking about Riverside, though, when I described the scenario in the beginning. I’m only one generation removed from that story: that was the house where my mother grew up. That wasn’t Riverside but it wasn’t all that different.
You’ve gotta start somewhere. There are no easy answers. But Riverside is a town divided right now. It’s ugly. It’s tragic.