Signs, Tragedies and Why We Tell Jokes

CHANGE: It Can Be for the GOOD!!

THIS SIGN NO LONGER EXISTS.

What went through your mind when you first looked at the above photo. If you have lived in California for many years, you might be familiar with this signage. I was not. THIS WAS A FIRST FOR ME.

Today in the LA TIMES it was reported that this last “immigrant crossing” sign next to the 5 Freeway near the Mexican/California border has become obsolete and thus has been taken down–by someone. They don’t know who. I believe that’s okay. The article stated that fences had been erected over the years to protect people from being hit if they decided to run across the freeway–another reason the signs were no longer needed. Also, the number of people crossing the border illegally has dropped dramatically in the 21st century, a 83% drop.

History Behind the Sign 

The sign has always been a source of controversy. That makes sense to me.

Many see it as an offensive caricature of people from Mexico fleeing to the US. Justin Akers Chacon, a professor of Chicano Studies at San Diego City College related that critics of the signage felt that the imagery dehumanized immigrants, likening them to animals. I agree.

Historically, the signs warning drivers had no image. Drivers had to quickly read: Caution watch for people crossing road. Then artist John Hood was asked to add the drawing. HIs take on what he created: “It doesn’t mean they are running across the freeway. It means they are running FROM something else as well. I think it’s a struggle for a lot of things–for opportunities, for freedom.” Thus even the artist who created the sign has a more open position on the immigration argument.

Different Views  

Everard Meade, director of the Trans Border Institute States: “The thing with these symbols is that the response is 50-50. Some people see that sign and think, ‘My god, this is a sign that represents how our immigration policy has failed, and we put people in vulnerable position such that we have to have a road sign so people don’t run them over on the highway.”

Pedro Rios, director of the U.S. Mexico Border Program for the American Friends Service Committee advocates for migrant rights. He pointed out that Operation Gatekeeper pushed would-be-immigrants routes east over the mountains and through deserts. “Ironically, this pushed migrants into less-populated areas…it means that fewer migrants died crossing in the San Diego region, but more were in peril in the less-visible treacherous crossing routes.” Obviously, the arguments pertaining to border crossing continue.

My First Encounter

Being new to California and not living near the San Diego border, I had never seen one of these signs until today, in the newspaper. But when contemplating what to write about today–it communicated to me HOW OUR REACTION TO THINGS CHANGE. And often for the good.

Growing up in Chicago in the sixties there were a series of horrible murders--3 women at Starved Rock National Park, a teenage female found in Montrose Harbor and two sisters also found dead and frozen during the winter months. Jokes were actually told about these incidents. I won’t recount them, but they were gruesome. And people laughed. But comics often go to the scene of the crime, so to speak, to soften the horror and thus DEAL with the harsh realities of other peoples’ lives.

What did drivers say when they saw those signs along the Freeway? Maybe they were more alert to not hitting a human being, but maybe after a while the sign meant NEXT TO NOTHING, DID NOT TOUCH THEIR LIVES, just like the horrible jokes I remember DID NOT TOUCH MY LIFE. Maybe the signs even created some jokes. We use humor to push the tragic away.

So Why Do We Tell Sick Jokes About Tragedies? 

Psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos worries that sick humour’s popularity is symptomatic of an unhealthy culture which has been desensitised to the suffering of others.

“One of the reasons we laugh at tragedy is that it makes the enormity of the issue easier to deal with,” she states. “But we do live in a society where tragedy has become something that we’ve become conditioned to laugh at.”

Sigmund Freud addressed this in his essay HUMOR. He argued that sick jokes were the mechanism by which the ego “insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world”.  

Comedian and writer Erma Bombeck once said: “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”

Psychologist Peter Mcgraw in an article tried to uncover the reasons as to why sometimes tragedy can result in laughter. The core of the theory? That the amount of time that elapses since the tragedy and how closely the tragedy hits home, and how severe it is affects the aspect of humor.

  • distance can be measured in both time and space so that small tragedies, or mishaps (what the authors call benign violations), are more likely to generate humor if they happened to you or to a close friend.
  • but large misfortunes are funnier when they are inflicted on other people–and not you.

Fences and Walls  

Maybe the sign in the photo above was looked upon by most drivers in the San Diego area as a necessity of that time period. Maybe some drivers were angered and upset by the image and touched by the humanity of the situation. Maybe the sign instigated joke-telling as people made their way north on the freeway without a care in the world. “Did you hear about the …etc etc. (I actually don’t know any of those jokes and if I did I would not print them.) And I am horrified that in my youth I laughed about someone’s misfortune. I’m glad the signs are gone and I hope we now think or people fleeing other countries as not that far from our own immigrant ancestors who came to this country for a better life. I’m sure once they got here there were jokes to tell: maybe jokes about sinking ships and nasty workers on Ellis Island. But then–they were here, they were free, they could begin a new life.

Found this Ellis Island Joke:

Yehudah Tzvi Windweher arrived at Ellis Island and asked his friend “What would be a good American name for me? I want it to be Jewish, but more American.”

His friend replied, “Sam Cohen, that’s a good American Jewish name.”

Yehudah Tzvi began his long walk up a massive flight of steps leading to the immigration office. With each step he said, “Sam Cohen, Sam Cohen,” in an earnest effort to learn his new name. When he finished carrying his luggage to the top of the flight, he was winded and tired.

A large immigration officer caught Yehuda Tzvi off guard when he said, “NAME?” in a booming voice. A flustered Yehudah Tzvi replied “Shoyn fargesin” (“I already forgot” in Yiddish).

The immigration officer replied “Sean Ferguson, welcome the United States of America!”

Me, Amy Tan & Millions of Others: Children of Immigrants

Me, Amy Tan & Millions of Others: Children of Immigrants

Amy Tan and Her Brother

Melting pot. Founded by immigrants. Liberty and justice for all. Sometimes words lose their meaning when repeated over and over again. Hymns, songs become rote. We hardly know what we’re saying or singing IF we grew up hearing those words. It’s the proverbial TAKING SOMETHING FOR GRANTED. Not so for recent immigrants who still might cry hearing the National Anthem or when they finally attend the ceremony to become an American citizen.

I attended one once–as the godmother of a child adopted from Ecuador. Every new citizen there was emotional. Had I taken my citizenship for granted? Yes.  Whether it’s our ability to speak English or rely on our last name or the color of our skin–many of us who have assumed our PLACE in the USA often have little thought as to how WE have been so blessed. TIME TO CHANGE THAT!!

WAKING UP…FAMILY HISTORY, KNOW HOW GOVERNMENT WORKS 

My husband researches family history on Ancestry.com. I admire how he reads articles and finds past relatives, connects with others who share a tangential relationship so that slowly his family history and mine have grown and many questions about WHY WE ARE HERE answered.

But I’ll also settle for a few basic explanations:

  • I’m a U.S. citizen because three generations back, my great-grandparents from both my mother and my father’s side, traveled on some crowded ship with their few possessions to claim a place here in the U.S.
  • I appreciate and understand how fortunate I am, because as a sophomore in college I took a GOVERNMENT class, a requisite taught by my professor Ann B. Matasar PhD. The class woke me up to my good fortune. Homework included studying Supreme Court decisions like BROWN VERSUS THE BOARD OF EDUCATION.
  • We also had to read a daily newspaper–the Chicago Tribune. Dr. Matasar was vehement and rightly so: “If you are going to live in this country, then you have to take up a from of citizenship and know what is going on–what your rights are and if they are being trampled on.”
  • YES. BRAVO. You cannot live in a country like the United States and not understand how it acts and works day to day. I never lost the habit.

AMY TAN: NOVELIST (The Good Luck Club), AMERICAN CITIZEN

A first generation Chinese American, writer Amy Tan grew up in Northern California. Her father was a Baptist minister, guided by the principles of his Christian faith. Her mother was guided by the old ways, by the vicariousness of curses and luck. Thus Tan states in her latest publication, a memoir, Where the Past Begins, that she is a product of the contradictions in her upbringing. Both her father and brother died when Tan was in her teens.

Tan: Who we become has so much to do with the experiences we had, and how we survived. My strong need to find a purpose in life probably comes from my father. It was not a question of who he was, but who am I? What are the qualities that he had, that he provided for me, and what didn’t he provide? What am I still looking for? What am I still rebelling against?

When your father dies when you are fifteen, the “you” who you were at that age is still there. I wanted to think about how I saw my father from those rebel teen years until now, as someone who is well beyond the years he lived.

AMY TAN ASKS WHY AMERICANS VOTED AS THEY DID 

My father was, to me, a model of great values: an honest person, a kind person. We grew up not knowing that my parents had an immigrant status. I just remember them getting their citizenship and crying in jubilation. It was a moment of great relief: the danger of them losing their life here was over. 

“You don’t know how lucky you are to be here, what we had to do so you could be here” — that was always my father’s message, and I didn’t know what it was based on. There were illusions to great sacrifices made on our behalf. I didn’t know what kind of life they’d had in China or why they left.

THEN THE ELECTION HAPPENED…

But everything about the election called into question everything for me. I was so disillusioned that it was essential to look at everything and say: How could this have been? Who were the kind of people who would’ve voted for this person? 

What if my father were alive — is this the man he would have voted for, and why? It was not to demonize voters so much as I simply couldn’t understand how this attitude could have become the defining one for our country for the next four years — one I considered before the election, and which has borne out post-election, to be a very racist, white supremacist agenda.

In a recent interview, Tan states unequivocally that she now looks at community differently. She wants to find commonality with people.

I’m more grateful when I find [those] people — I don’t even have to ask them what their politics are, you can just tell by the kind of things they care about. If they are concerned for poor people, and immigrants, and people with uncertain status, you know where they stand.

WHAT ABOUT THE WORD LIBERAL?

“Liberal” is not a nasty word. I wish “liberal” could be changed to “compassionate,” meaning we share responsibility; we share pain; we share in our flaws; we share in the ways we’re destroying the environment but want to make amends. It has more to do with recognition of a lot of the good things in people, and appreciating that those qualities are there — in more people than not.

THOUGHTS FROM TAN ON IMMIGRATION

In a way, I think it’s good my parents didn’t tell us kids that our life here was in jeopardy. We were born here, so we were American citizens, but if our parents were forced to leave, we of course would have had to go with them. I see this today in people I know who are undocumented—I asked a good friend of ours the other day, “What does your six-year-old child know?” She said, “He doesn’t know. He’ll say, ‘Why can Uncle So-and-so go to Mexico and we can’t?’” And she says, “We can’t for now, but maybe later.” Meanwhile, they’re hoping they don’t get deported. If they were, what a shock that would be to that child.

ANOTHER WAY TO SAY IT

We are an immigrant nation. Yet there are many in this country who forget their origins, who gin up on the fact that their ancestry stretches farther back than others. Possibly they have forgotten the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence or they have never read the Constitution. Their idea of owning property and contributing to the national welfare only applies to certain people.

Researching their roots like my husband does just might help. Knowing what others endured to provide us a PLACE HERE is profound. So are the words of our founding fathers. It’s a sad fact that recent immigrants to our country know more about the rule of law, the Constitution and the true meaning of the words in the Pledge of Allegiance than those who hunger to kick them out, take their citizenship from them.

Can you trace your ancestry back to a country, a year, a place? Whether you can or not, each one of us must honor fellow citizens. It’s trite but true, we are all in this together. 

Thanks to AMY TAN and NPR for the Photo of Amy and her brother.