SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2009       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Renata Wilczynski

Welcome To America And Meet The Others

I am an immigrant from Poland. I came to the United States through a refugee camp in Italy. My husband and I crossed the border, that is, flew from Italy to St. Louis, MO, legally with the green card numbers in our hands, where we were sponsored to come by Catholic charities. When we came to the U.S. we didn’t know how to speak English and I was scared to even live here after I had watched some gang affiliated movies that were filled with many unspeakable crimes. We stayed in St. Louis for six months, working at a Polish- speaking factory. Then we moved to Chicago because there were more opportunities for a better job there than in St. Louis, since it had become clear to us that here we were considered to be Others, because we did not speak English. In Chicago, where the Polish population is larger, we found a job where I cleaned and my husband was a security guard.

The place where we worked was located in the middle of a black neighborhood on the south side of Chicago right by the I-94 freeway. Every night the air was filled with the smell of acid coming from the nearby paint factory. Also, almost every night you could hear gun shots coming from behind the railroad tracks to the back of this workplace.

It was a large area with an eight foot fence around it divided into three different yards. The biggest yard in the back had a huge gate from the railroad track for the train delivery. We had thirteen dogs in there so after five when the store was closed the dogs guarded the place for the whole night and in the morning they went back to their huge dog house in the backyard. There, on the left hand side, was also the biggest warehouse of the place starting and ending in the front yard. This was the lumber department. It was the warehouse where we had our small room to live in.

On the right hand side of the backyard was another, smaller yard with roofing materials and the kitchen and bath warehouse in it. The front yard was connected to other yards and it had a customer parking lot with entrances to the lumber and roofing departments, and of course the main entrance to the store which was on the right hand side from the street entrance. Whoever entered the store could smell the fresh- made coffee that was always there. On the left hand side from the entrance there was a doors and windows display, and on the right hand side there was the sales representatives’ counter, where the incident happened.

After a year of being there I started to go to school for ESL classes, because the owner wanted me to sell products in the warehouse. For many customers it was strange to see me behind the counter and not with a mop. There were many Polish customers that I was taking care of, but I also tried to handle the English speaking ones. I did not distinguishing customers because of their skin color, but it was quicker for me to speak in Polish.

I was always very ambitious and I liked to do everything perfectly. When I was cleaning it had to look perfect, and when I was selling products I wanted to be the best sales representative there, and quickly I became the best one in the warehouse. The owner of the company loved it and my manager too, but there were some people that hated me for this. Some African American girls who had worked longer than I did as sales representatives did not like me, along with their customer friends.

There was once a situation where a black customer, a friend of one of the black girls working there, went behind the counter and took a power tool to see it. I nicely told him that he was not allowed to do that, but he could ask one of the girls to hand it to him. He went crazy! He was screaming at me that I was racist and that I should take the mop I used to clean with and go back to Poland.

This incident happened in 1990 right after the big migration from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, where I had come from. Back then the communist countries had a very high level of education, and free universities, so many people that migrated to the U.S. were highly educated. But because of the language barrier they at first they worked at low wage jobs taking the places of lower class Americans.

I was an established customer at a place where I bought building materials for my construction jobs. The place was owned by a very nice Polish Jew, who opened up credit accounts for the contractors who lived in our black community. He hired many black people to work at the warehouse and some of my black lady friends worked there too. The rest of the employees at his warehouse were from Poland. One Polish couple that he hired were put to work as a cleaning lady, and security guard. After a while the cleaning lady ended up working behind the counter. It was ok because there were other Polish women that worked behind the counter too. After only two months, when the supervisor (who was also a head cashier), quit her job, they took the new Polish girl and promoted her into that place.

When I saw that she was the one that got promoted, I thought it was unfair. She had just started to work there only a couple of months ago, and yet she got the job, instead of my friends who had worked there way longer than she did. One of my friends deserved to get that job.

One day I went to the store and went behind the counter to check out a new power tool. She then had the nerve to tell me to get away from there and that someone would have to help me if I wanted to see some merchandise. I got mad like no other because this was my neighborhood, and no one should be telling me what to do on my turf, especially not some immigrant that can’t even speak English right. I told her to take the mop that she cleaned with and get herself back to Poland where she belongs. Of course her white manager came right away to tell me to calm down and stood up for her. I don’t know why, but she was his number one worker. No one knew why. The white privilege, there is too much of it everywhere.

African Americans were very disappointed back then, because of the loss they had encountered. It was only three years after the death of Harold L. Washington, the first African American Mayor of the City of Chicago, and the one person they could count on. They were also afraid their jobs would be taken away by incoming immigrants, which was probably the reason that I was treated in this fashion. They already had had enough of white people, and when more white immigrants were coming they decided to take a racial stand against them, seeing as it is easier to be racially discriminatory against people who can’t speak back.

This incident hurt me because I thought I was good, and this guy brought me down emotionally, saying that I am not worth anything, and that I should just leave and go back to where I came from. It was the first time that I was scared just for being different. I had experienced a few situations in which people made me feel that I was the “Other”, but those were only uncomfortable emotions not ones filled with fear. It was especially frightening, because everybody knew that we lived there at the warehouse and if anybody wanted to get back at us we could be an easy gun target.


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