A Cold Welcome: A Critical Analysis of Immigrant’s Experiences of Assimilation in Ariel Dorfman’s “From Heading South Looking North”

Immigrants’ migration to a new country face many challenges on their journey and their adjustment to the new environment. Sometimes the journey is so complicated that the images of their own experience become blurred or even disappear purposefully or by accident. Dorfman speaks of his family’s experience when he says:

Our family had descended from the train onto the platform in Grand Central Station, and there was no one there to greet us but the cold. We had crossed the South of the United States during the night. I have no memory, again, of that trip, except years later, when I read Thomas Wolfe and his long, shattering train ride home toward which the angel was fruitlessly looking, the home he said you could never return to, I felt a shudder of acknowledgement- I had been on that train, I had crossed the U.S. South leaving my own Latino South. So I do not remember the moment when I stepped for the first time in my life onto the concrete of the North, there in New York, holding my mother’s hand.

Dorfman’s traumatic experience of being unwelcome as an immigrant impacted his memories of the event in his life. He did not experience a warm welcome upon immigrating to the country. The stark contrast in the image of immigration that was existent in his mind prior to leaving his home country and the realities were disconcerting to him. He explains his feeling of being misplaced by the stealth of the night journey with his family and how this made him feel disoriented to the point where his story emerged from the similarities in the voyage of the many other immigrants’ stories. He describes the experience as something he has no memory of by rather something he has created a memory for. By taking the combinations of his sentiments after his migration with those of Thomas Wolfe Dorfman has created a common theme in the migration story. In retrospect when all things tend to be clearer, for him it is the creation of his own journey that empowers him to write this passage. He writes “I felt a shudder of acknowledgement” suggesting that for him the experience was surreal and unacceptable until the reality of a cold welcome upon his exiting grand central station finally set in.

Dorfman embodies the experience of migration when he draws the connection between his personal experience and the stories of others to create a greater theme that underlies the immigrant experience as a whole. Dorfman goes on to discuss how his new nation did not greet him welcomingly but also posed difficult challenges to people who found themselves as foreigners in a strange land. Dorfman writes:

That was the place, the house of death. That’s where I caught pneumonia one Saturday night in February of 1945, when my parents had gone out by themselves for the first time since we had arrived in the States-and I carefully use that verb, to catch, aware of its wild ambiguity, still unsure, even now, if that sickness invaded me or if I was the one who invited it in. But more of that later. To save his life, that boy was interned in a hospital isolated in a ward where nobody spoke a word of Spanish. For three weeks, he saw his parents only on visiting days and then only from behind a glass a partition.

Dorfman portrays his relationship with his new home as unpleasant. He refers to the “house of death” as one of the memories that shaped his sentiments to the new land forced upon him by migration. His lack of the mastry of the language in this new land added to his discomfort. The focus on the ambiguity of the new language highlights the need for assimilation in order for survival in the United States. It is a barrier that must be overcome so that problems that he experienced would no longer hold him back. He elaborates by talking about his uncertainty of how he became sick in the first place expressing his frustration and unhappiness about this new world. His negative experience in the hospital is exacerbated by the physical wall that the hospital created around him as a sick child but also the emotional wall that the lack of a mastery of english created when he was unable to communicate his feeling with the medical staff that spoke english. His frustrations with a facility become translated to the frustrations he faces as a non English speaker in an english speaking world.

Works Cited

Dorfman, Ariel. “From Heading South, Looking North.” The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. By Ilan Stavans. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2011. 1514-518. Print

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