Steven V. Roberts: 2010 National Book Festival

Uploaded by LibraryOfCongress on 12.10.2010

>> From the Library of Congress in Washington DC.
>> And so that being said, I'd like to welcome you.
My name is Alison Starling, I work at ABC 7 and anchor
of Good Morning Washington, nice and early.
I'm the ABC affiliate here in DC.
[ Applause ]
>> Thank you very much.
So happy to be back out here
for the National Book Festival once again this year,
and it's only fitting
in this historical occasion near the Washington monument near the capital
that we're celebrating here the inspirational
and motivational stories of immigrants who have come
to our country and sacrificed so much to be Americans.
But first, you should know that for our presentation today,
we have sort of a special set up.
You are a special guest today and that's because of instead
of the typical forum when the author comes up
and gives their presentation and simply takes questions
from the audience, instead, today,
our author somehow convinced a world famous journalist to come with him
and actually do the interviews for him.
We don't know how he managed to do that.
We'll have to find out.
I am happy to introduce two people here for you today, the author
and the interviewer, and they happen to be a couple.
First we have Steve Roberts
who has been a journalist for more than 40 years.
He was a journalist with the New York Times and with US News.
He is of course a well-known commentator, a lecturer,
a professor and an author.
This is his second time at the National Book Festival.
He was here as well in 2005 for his memoir,
his childhood memoir called My Father's House.
Secondly, you will be seeing the interviewer,
and that is his wife, Cokie Roberts.
As you know, Cokie is an Emmy--
[ Applause ]
>> Yes, applause for Cokie.
She is an Emmy award winning journalist and commentator as well.
She is with the National Public Radio and ABC news.
She and her husband write a popular nationally syndicated newspaper
column together as well.
They have two children, they have six grandchildren,
at least one of which I know is here today, Regan.
And they also in 2000, Steve and Cokie published,
From This Day Forward, which was an account of their marriage
and other marriages in American history.
And you know what, it's been 7 weeks at the Times bestseller list.
It's a book that I personally enjoyed very much and in it,
this is one of my favorite quotes.
They say marriage has enlarged our lives, not encircle them.
It has opened new doors, not closed them.
We are better people together than we are separately.
Today, they are here to talk about Steve's new book
about the immigration experience and the search for the American dream.
That book is called From Every End of this Earth.
I hope you will help me to welcome Steve and Cokie Roberts.
[ Applause ]
>> Thank you so much.
We're so thrilled of you to come.
Thank you.
>> Thank you very much.
>> Thank you.
[ Applause ]
>> Now I think someone is supposed to come whisk this lecture in array.
Otherwise-- [laughter] here we go.
Withstand it, okay, thank you, thank you very much.
What a great, what a great day.
I mean Dr. Jim Billington is with us right here,
The Librarian of Congress.

[ Applause ]
>> And well, and Jim and Laura Bush together saw a vision of a day
like this 10 years ago of bringing hundreds of thousand--
hundreds of thousands of people on a hot day to the National Hall to talk
about books, buy books, and listen to authors talk about books,
and what a great thing it is.
So, my job here today is basically to say to Steve,
so tell me the one about.
[Laughter] But first, I know that you like to talk
about why you wrote this book in the first place.
>> That's true and thank you.
What did you say your name was?
[Laughter] We just had our 44th anniversary
and I'm still getting used to it.
[ Applause ]
>> Although you know the best line about Steve's best line really
about marriage is not in the book but it is
that you can tell a good marriage by the number
of teeth marks on your tongue.
[ Laughter ]
>> From biting it.
[Laughter] Candor is vastly overrated,
but I grew up in a family of immigrants.
My grandparents are immigrants from Russia and Poland.
I grew up in a town in New Jersey, Bayonne,
New Jersey where [laughter] everybody I knew had a grandmother
with an accent.
>> I did too, they just had Southern accents.
>> That's good.
[Laughter] And I grew up-- Bayonne was about 80 percent Catholic
and about 19 percent Jewish which is what we were.
I thought Protestants were tiny minority group, I-- some weird sect.
Imagine my surprise when I went to Harvard.

[Laughter] All these names on their building, Eliot, Weld, Winthrop,
so short, so crisp and they ended in consonants, I--

but it left me with a lifelong interest in immigration.
As Alison said, I did a book about my own grandparent's immigration
to America and-- I then started teaching--
and all through my writing career I've written about immigrants,
but I started teaching at George Washington University
and I started getting these stories in a writing class of my students
from Ukraine and from Vietnam and from El Salvador
who are living today the story my grandparents had lived 100 years
ago, and that was really the inspiration for the book.
Almost all of my writing over the years has ruthlessly exploited my
family, and having used up all
of that material, I turned to my students.
And in payment for exploiting them, I actually dedicated the book
to my students [inaudible], some of whom are here today
but that was really the inspiration for it.
>> And you found that they really are--
there are some things that are very similar
to your grandparent's immigration in the early 20th century
and some things that are very different.
>> Well, my friend Jamie Morris who just preceded me made the point
that historically, immigration was a very lonely process.
When my grandfather left Bialystok which is now in Eastern Poland,
he was out of touch with his own sister for 50 years, 50 years.
There was no Skype, there was no cell phone, there was no internet,
50 years she was behind the iron curtain.
And the truth is today, there are still things
about immigration that never changed.
Every immigrant in the history of the world leaves something behind.
They leave their graves of their ancestors.
The air never smells the same anywhere else.
The food never tastes quite the same.
So this pain of separation is common to every immigrant story
in the history of the world.
In the 13th century, a Persian mystic named Rumi wrote something
called The Song of the Reed.
And he said when a reed is plucked from a reed bed and you blow
through it, it makes a very plaintive sound which is the sound
of the pain of separation that the reed feels
from having been separated from the reed bed.
An immigrant from Afghanistan said to me,
"That's how I feel having left out my-- Afghanistan.
I'm the reed who's been plucked
from the bed playing that plaintive sound."
But in other ways, the situation is very different.
I have a student who owes a-- brother married a woman from Brazil,
she was from Brazil and the woman's family couldn't come to America
for the wedding so my student in her bridesmaid's dress
and a digital camera and a laptop went to the wedding,
took all these photographs, put them up on the web
and the bride's family back in a tiny village
in Brazil watched the wedding in realtime on it--
surrounding a laptop in their village.
My grandfather didn't get to do that.
So, some things never change but other things are very different.
>> And-- but you do still have people leaving.
Your grandparents left essentially because they were persecuted as Jews
in Eastern Europe and you found a family
for whom a very similar story, they weren't necessarily persecuted
but they certainly couldn't fulfill their life's ambitions
in Ukraine as Jews.
>> This is actually a family whose son was a student of mine, and Nick
and Sarah Stern [phonetic] grew up as young Jews in the Ukraine
at a period when anti-Semitism had actually gotten worse, not better.
Because Nick's mother was a doctor, he couldn't aspire to be a doctor
because all Jews by edict of Stalin had been prevented
from going to medical school.
So he became an engineer.
It was about the only profession open to young Jews.
And so did Sarah, she became an engineer as well.
They met in their first job.
And you know, immigration starts with an active imagination.
It starts with a sense of there is another life
out there for me, somewhere else.
>> And I said to the Sterns, where did that spark
of imagination come from?
So Sarah said, well, we had a family friend who had moved to Israel
and she wrote a letter that my mother read to me
and the letter said, you know, here in Israel,
we eat oranges the way you eat potatoes.
And that orange became a symbol of another life.
Then she said, I used to watch Italian movies,
the Russians would never let in American movies but they would let
in movies made by Italian communists like Fellini and Carlo Ponti.
So she said, I would watch these movies and I never listen
to the plot, I look at the apartments.
[Laughter] Now my grandfather, the sainted Avram Rogowsky,
when he came to America and went back in the mid 60s,
he decided when he saw Russia that the great chink in the Soviet armor,
what would pull down the entire Soviet empire was plumbing.
>> He was right.
>> And that if Russians could see American bathrooms, they would arise
as one and revolt against the Russians.
[Laughter] Now of course he was basically right.
>> He was basically right.
>> Of course.
He was a nut ball but he was right.
But the Stern story was similar, it was the apartments, it was the way
of life that they saw on these movies and then finally they decided
to immigrate and it was very difficult.
>> But how would-- Sarah's apartment was like?
>> Well Sarah's apartment, she lived in an apartment
where 28 people shared 1 bathroom, 28 people, and they were well off.
Her parents were professional people.
So there were certain other impulses to immigrate and they finally got
up their courage to immigrate but at that time, it was a system,
the Soviets were just starting to allow people to immigrate but they--
you had to get invited by some relative from abroad.
The fiction was it was family reunification.
So you had to have a letter from cousin Morris
in Brooklyn saying I want the Sterns to join me.
There actually didn't have to be a cousin Morris,
but you had to get the information to HIAS,
the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society in Vienna
who could file a phony application for you.
And you had to get the information out.
But the Soviet censored this information.
They wouldn't let it out.
So Nick was a pretty smart guy.
He wrote down on little tiny pieces of paper all
of the vital information they needed for the application
and he had Sarah sew the little pieces of paper into the elastic
of his boxer shorts and they would give the boxers--
every time a Jewish family left Ukraine, they would give him a pair
of Nick's boxer shorts and say here, bring the boxers to HIAS in Vienna,
tell them to look in the elastic for our information.
It took them 20 tries.
As Nick says, you know, there are a lot of guys
in Vienna walking around in my underwear.

[Laughter] So they finally got out.
They breached the border there, headed for Vienna,
they stopped for a coke and Nick runs off the train
and he buys the first bottles of warm Coca-Cola he's ever had
and he gives them to his kids and I said,
"Nick, what did it taste like?"
He said, "Steve, it tasted like freedom, tasted like freedom."
They get to America, it's the worst day of his life.
Some of you have ever been to Russia, you know,
the plumbing is such-- keeps coming back to the plumbing.
The plumbing is such that the water never rises in the toilet bowl,
you flush the bowl and all the water goes out.
He said a Ramada Inn in Kennedy Airport, his first night in America,
he flushes the toilet, the water comes back up.
He says, oh my God, I've broken the toilet.
[Laughter] They're gonna send me back to Ukraine."
He spends the entire night madly flushing the toilet,
he never gets the water down.
They finally get to Saint Louis
and he becomes a very successful engineer.
Just to give you a sense of where this family is today,
I interviewed them in their penthouse apartment
on Central Park West, which is only one of their houses
because they also have a condo in Florida where, as Nick says,
Sarah's closet is bigger than the apartment she grew up in.
>> So the American dream still lives?
>> American dream still lives.
>> But, you know, you talk about how we go through in this country
and we certainly have seen it now these spasms
of anti-immigrants [inaudible].
And right now it's mainly against Hispanics,
and you have a wonderful Hispanic family.
>> What we're seeing is against--
>> You want to move the mic up--
>> -- two groups in America.
>> Can you move the microphone up a little bit up here?
Up higher.
>> Is that a little better.
Okay. I'll hold like-- I'll hold it.
Look, there are-- there are two groups in America today.
They're subject to tremendous prejudice and persecution, Hispanics
and Muslims, we all know that.
I'm sorry to say having looked at this issue for many centuries,
over many centuries as a historian, this is a very American phenomenon.
Jamie Morris who was here just before me talked about the Statue
of Liberty and we love to talk about the Statue of Liberty,
love to tell the stories about the nickels and dimes
that built the pedestal and we get teary-eyed
about our own immigrant ancestors.
The fact is, however, throughout our entire history as a country,
we have also had spasms of anti-immigrant feeling,
and what is happening today unfortunately is totally keeping
with American tradition.
In 1750s, 1750s, the group
that everybody was attacking were the Germans,
1790s it was the French.
In the 1840s the Know Nothing Party prospered as a political party
in this country by attacking Irish Catholics.
In the 1880s, we passed the Chinese Exclusion Act
to stop Chinese from immigrating at all.
In the 1910s, there were-- Italians were considered non-white
in many parts of this country, and in the 1920s, we hanged Sacco
and Vanzetti as much as anything for their nationality
and their immigrant statuses for their political views.
In the 1940s, we then turned 120,000 loyal Japanese-American citizens.
In my humble opinion, the haters were wrong then
and they're wrong today.
[ Applause ]
[ Cheering ]
>> And they're not just wrong because of sentiment,
and they're not just wrong because of some romantic notion
of our wonderful ancestors.
They're wrong on the fact because the fact is
that immigrants give far more to this country than they take away.
They contribute more.
[Applause] They contribute more economically, they contribute
to our vitality, they contribute to our entrepreneurship.
The day this book was published last October, two Americans,
two Americans won the Nobel Prize for Physics, one born in Canada,
one born in China, both of them did their work in America.
One did the scientific work that created fiber optics,
the other did the scientific work that created digital photography.
Now you tell me how many Americans are working in jobs today
because those two scientists were welcome in America
and didn't do their work somewhere else?
[Applause] So-- but if you look at the history,
if you look at the history, going back to 1750,
the language is exactly the same because what the assumption is
that America is now perfect and that the next we have to pull
up the drawbridge to stop the next group, the Germans, the French,
the Irish, the Jews, the Italians, the Japanese, the Chinese,
the next group is gonna corrupt our culture and degrade our character,
profoundly misunderstands the nature of America,
the genius of America is we're never perfect, we're never perfect.
>> Striving for a more perfect union.
That's right there.
>> And if the haters had their way,
most of us in this room would be back in Bialystok in Poland
or wherever your family is from as mine is.
And the story I tell that illustrates--
this is about a Hispanic man named Pablo Romero.
Pablo is born in a small village in rural Mexico.
He had to drop out of school when he was 10 years old.
There was no school left in his village and in any case,
his parents needed the money so he went to work
and his father brought him to America as a farm worker
when he was 13 years old and he worked in the lettuce fields
of Salinas, California for 7 years and then he was drafted
into the American army, it was the best thing ever happened to him.
He went to Germany and he earned his high school equivalency
and he really impressed his commanders who said,
"I'm gonna come back looking for you in Salinas, Romero.
And if I find you back in lettuce fields, I'm gonna kick your butt
because you can do something more than that."
He came back to America and through the help of some--
of all things benevolent, government bureaucrats helped him enroll
in a community college.
He went to school at night every night while working
in the lettuce fields.
He went-- did go back to the lettuce fields, went to community college,
then they kicked him out of the library every night at midnight.
After 2 years he gets the scholarship to UC Irvine.
He's studying at UC Irvine, still hasn't been to high school and one
of his Hispanic professors said to him, "Romero,
you should consider going to medical school."
He said, "Medical school, I haven't been to high school."
He said, "Romero, how many Spanish-speaking doctors are there
in Salinas, California?"
The answer of course was zero.
>> He got-- he applies to medical school.
Can't get the Case Western in Cleveland by himself,
he had a trucking license so he gets a trucking assignment
to drive a semi-trailer to Cleveland.
Gotta be the only kid in the history of Case Western Medical School
who drove to his interview driving a semi-trailer.
[Laughter] They took him.
He decided not to go but he did enroll at UCSF University
of California San Francisco Medical School.
In his senior year, he failed a test.
He was horrified.
He went to the-- went to the professor
and said, "I knew this stuff."
And the guy said, "You people, you people can't do the work
and your test proves it."
He is aghast.
He said, "Show me the test."
The guy shows him the test, two pages had stuck together.
But because this professor saw Pablo through the lens
of you people, he failed him.
When Pablo pointed out the problem, the guys agreed to review the test,
put a big A on it, threw the book at Pablo and said,
"Get the hell out of here."
He was so embarrassed.
Today, friends, Pablo Romero runs a neighborhood medical clinic
in Salinas, California, where 90 percent
of his clients are farm workers.
He today takes care of the children and grandchildren
of the people he worked in the fields next to all those years.
I do not know.
[Applause] I do not know a better American than Pablo Romero.
[ Applause ]
>> So we have time for a few questions.
The microphone is on-- at the front of each isle,
if anybody has a question.
Do they wanna-- want to raise.
Steve, one of the things that you found was the feminization of--
>> Yes.
>> -- of immigration.
>> This is a very interesting phenomena.
As I said to Cokie, there are some things that are very different
about modern immigration and one
of them is the feminization of immigration.
A majority of immigrants today are women.
Historically, this was not true.
But two very interesting things have happened
to make this more and more possible.
First of all, it is far more possible from a cultural
and social point of view to-- for women to immigrate by themselves.
Historically, women needed men.
They needed a brother, a father, an uncle to watch over them.
Today that's not true.
The second thing that's happened is economic opportunity.
Historically, a lot of the jobs that are open to immigrants were jobs
for muscle and for brawn.
Today, with the switch to a service economy,
women in many ways are more marketable than men.
My mom who just died a few weeks ago in suburban hospital
in suburban Maryland, here, many of you know it, every single person
who took care of my mother in that hospital was a foreign-born woman
of color, every single one.
And if you took those women from Jamaica and Trinidad and Rwanda
and the Cameroons out of suburban hospital or any hospital
in Washington today, it would collapse overnight.
>> Surely.
[ Applause ]
>> So thank you very much.
You guys are communicators for a living
and you obviously have some pretty powerful building pulpits
if you will.
So, how do we move the titanic away from the iceberg?
How do we-- we keep telling these stories of great immigrants
that are doing great things here and yet we still have this hate which,
you know, we live-- we have freedom of speech so we have this kind
of challenge going on, but there are boundaries, you don't get to--
you all fire in a crowded theatre.
So, how do we collectively do this?
>> Good question.
>> Well, look as I said to you, I don't know how many
of you heard the question but he asked about the fact
that today there still is this tremendous sense
of animosity toward immigrants.
Look, as I said to you, there's nothing new about this.
We have to understand that there's--
we've gone through this for several reasons.
First of all, there is this impulse to xenophobia
in our country, it's very deeply inbred.
Secondly, it's worse in times of economic stress
because then people say, well, foreigners are taking our job.
It is not true, foreigners are not taking our jobs,
foreigners are creating new jobs.
But it is an easy thing to say.
All I can do is say-- to try to tell these stories, I'm not a pol--
writing-- I haven't written a political book,
I've written a book of stories.
It's just stories, but I hope people will understand the contributions
Americans are making everyday to our well-being,
and that's all I think we can do but I think it's a useful thing to do.
>> But the other thing that does happen
that you've certainly seen is intermarriage, you know.
And the people who were once the other are now your son-in-law and,
you know, and that tends to change things.
>> Very much so.
The moment of greatest stress in many immigrant families is
when their children get married, and particularly their girl children,
because that's when they define who they are
and who their parent's grandchildren are going to be.
But as Cokie said, in many ways,
those moments bring us more together than separate us.
>> So you have a question over here?
>> Yeah, you guys-- you guys started off talking
about a little advice for marriage.
And Cokie, you've had a distinguished career and I'd
like to ask you both how has having your--
the career where you have so many responsibilities, so many challenges
and you've really climbed up that ladder,
how does that strengthen your marriage
and what are some advice you might have
for some newlyweds facing those things?
[ Laughter ]
[ Inaudible Remark ]
>> Well, you can start by buying our book.
>> Go for it.
[ Laughter ]
>> It's for sale, we just signed a couple.
Go ahead, girl.
>> No, no, no, you go.
I'm dying to hear.
[ Laughter ]
>> Everybody needs an editor.
I just married mine and brought her along.
But I really think that the, you know, Cokie is Catholic, I'm Jewish
and so we have our specialty, your interfaith marriages and I think--
but look, I came to believe that all marriages are mixed marriages.
Let's start with the marriage between a man and a woman.
Anybody who has been married more than--
anybody who has been married more than two weeks knows
that gender is far more a significant difference
than ethnicity or religion.
And even same sex couples, the fact is the same issues arise,
issues of tolerance, issues of mutual respect and issues
of taking pride and justice in accomplishments, and one of the--
our greatest accomplishments we take pride in are our six grandchildren
and it's a particular pleasure
to have a 9-year-old grandchild sitting here and listening to us
and the faint hope that someday she'll grow up
and actually remember who we were.
[Laughter] Yeah?
>> Could you comment briefly about the success of Vietnamese
in the United States and also--
>> The success of what?
I didn't--
>> Vietnamese.
>> Vietnamese.
And also just a comment that the congressional seat formerly held
by Cokie's parents is now held by a Vietnamese republican.
>> That's true.
The Vietnamese are a great success story in this country.
Few people are more hard working
and few people struggle more to get here.
The fam-- the Vietnamese family in my book tried to escape
from Vietnam sit-- you know, a dozen times and he finally escaped.
They were floating free on the open sea.
The engine had conked out in their boat and the mother [inaudible]
and the family said to me to save my two children.
The next thing I was going to do was have to slit my wrist
and feed my children my blood.
Now, it didn't come to that because they saw land the next day.
But in that period, in Southeast Asia, if you washed up on the shore
of Cambodia, you'd be killed.
And if you washed up on the shore of Thailand you'd be safe.
And you could imagine the moment when my student's father stood
in the [inaudible] with that boat and called out where are we?
Literally it was a life and death question.
Fortunately, it was Thailand
and then eventually the family found sanctuary
in the Philippines before they came to America.
And that child, my student was born in the refugee camp
in the Philippines and her name today is Thai Phi
for the two countries, Thailand
and the Philippines that gave her sanctuary.
Her family is not unusual, the struggle and the tenacity
and the courage that her family showed to escape from Vietnam
and survive that hardship is just one tiny chapter
of this marvelous story that immigrants are writing everyday.
>> Thanks.
>> We're getting the sign saying over time, so we're gonna have
to say thank you and goodbye but--
it's been very, very nice to be with you.
Thank you.
[ Applause ]
>> Thanks a lot.
[ Inaudible Remark ]
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