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Out A Hospital Window

by Richard Poethig

Photo of mural Ang Lipi Ni Lapu Lapu (The Descendants of Lapu Lapu) by Johanna Poethig


Ang Lipi Ni Lapu Lapu (The Descendants of Lapu Lapu), mural by Johanna Poethig

My thoughts were on the health of my wife this afternoon as she lay asleep in a Weiss hospital bed in Uptown Chicago. My eyes wandered from her face to the scene outside her 3rd floor window. Through the branches of a tree I caught the sight of a bronze statue and behind that two flags hanging at half-mast. The massacre in Las Vegas was being remembered by the Stars and Stripes and the flag of the Philippines. The Philippine flag suddenly awoke me to the fact that the statue was of the Filipino revolutionary hero Jose Rizal.

Many images came to mind as I remembered our family’s fifteen years’ residence in the Philippines. We learned much Philippine history in those years, both past and present. In fact our growing children learned more Philippine history than U.S. history. They learned of Jose Rizal, a Philippine patriot, and his execution by the Spanish colonial government, which saw him as a threat to their presence in the Philippines. We became aware of the fact that the U.S. occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American war in 1898 was met with opposition from a Philippine revolutionary army, which wanted Philippine independence. The victory of U.S. forces brought the Philippines into the American orbit and, along with the U.S. presence, an effort to build a democratic form of government. Our presence in the Philippines over the next half-century provided a road for the immigration of many Filipinos to the United States for study, work, and, ultimately, citizenship.

Cover of book titled Empire of Care.

“Empire of Care: Nursing and Migration in Filipino American History” by Catherine Ceniza Choy

As I thought of our family’s good years in the Philippines, and of our learning experience, I found this reality coming to fruition in our presence at Weiss Hospital. Among the Filipinos who had joined the stream of immigrants coming to the United States, many had provided their skills in the health system of their newfound home. This was apparent as my wife received dedicated care from nurses and hospital attendants of Filipino background. Currently, as a resident of a Chicago retirement community, there is evidence that those of Philippine heritage provide a strong contribution to the U.S. health support system. We found in our health care experience that the presence and the skills upon which our medical system depends has brought peoples of many different overseas regions to the U.S.—from Asia, from Africa, from the Middle East, from Eastern Europe, and from Central and South America. A recent article in the New York Times, “Why America Needs Foreign Medical Graduates,” explains that almost a quarter of all doctors and residents across all fields, and more than a third of residents in subspecialist programs, are foreign medical graduates.

This fact our daughter Margaret responded to with this comment: “I can’t stop thinking about the fact that about 98% of the doctors, residents, therapists, medical students, nurses, patient care technicians, caregivers and housekeeping staff at my mom’s hospital were people of color and 70-80% were immigrants. And they were awesome. When are the Republicans going to wake up to this reality?” The New York Times article confirms Margaret’s observation, pointing to recent studies showing that “patients with congestive heart failure or myocardial infarction had lower mortality rates when treated by doctors who were foreign medical graduates….and that older patients who were treated by foreign medical graduates had lower mortality as well, even though they seemed to be sicker in general.”

Postcard of Johanna Poethig's mural, "Ang Lipi ni Lapu Lapu."

Postcard of Johanna Poethig’s mural, “Ang Lipi ni Lapu Lapu.”

Daughter Johanna, a visual artist, captured the reality of the Philippine immigrant experience in a mural in San Francisco that depicted the history of the Philippines and the Philippine immigrant impact upon the United States. The mural is on a 90-foot wall of Dimasalang House, a Filipino retirement community located behind the Moscone Convention Center.

The upper section of the mural tells the story of those who participated in the struggle to bring independence from colonial control. In the middle section are the Filipinos who immigrated to the U.S. and added their various professional and work roles to the history of the United States. In the lower corner of the mural is seated Lapu-Lapu, the Malay chieftain who thwarted the earliest attempt to colonize the Islands by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. The title of the mural “Ang Lipi ni Lapu-Lapu” tells the story of the descendants of Lapu-Lapu.

There is much history for us to learn from all of those who have made their way to our shores. We should cherish this history and add it to our own national heritage.

 

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Getting Labor Day Straight

Ernie_Henny_Zuccoti

Doll Images of Henny and Ernie 1930s working class parents at Zuccotti Park and the Occupy Movement

 

Labor Day comes upon us as the end of our summer vacation and the beginning of the school season.  There is very little in the celebration of Labor Day that tells the story of the history of the struggles that working people have gone through or the ones they are still battling.  Everywhere else in the world the struggles of working people are celebrated on May 1st..

May 1st actually began in the United States with the fight for the eight-hour day in Chicago and the Haymarket affair of 1886.  Already in the making was corporate power in alliance with the press and civic authorities, which sidetracked and suppressed the issues of the workers represented by the Haymarket event.   Labor Day in the United States, instead of memorializing the continuing struggles of working people, has come to represent the end of summer and the beginning of the school year.

As we approach Labor Day in 2014, it doesn’t take much common sense to recognize the gross inequities in the U.S. economic system.  The Occupy movement came into being as a 21st century witness to the loss of the economic equalization process that happened in the post-Reagan era.  The voices of the 99% were pointing to the tremendous imbalance in the sharing of the rewards of the productivity of the U.S. work force.  In the 1947 through 1979 period the family income of the lower 80% of the economy grew by 108% and the family income of the top 1% grew by 63%.  In the period of 1979 through 2007 the family income of the lower 80% of the economy grew by 16% while the family income of those in the 1% grew by 224%.  This great imbalance can be attributed, in part, to the loss of the bargaining power of the labor union movement.  It was the ability of organized labor during the mid-century period to increase middle-class incomes.

As we approach the 2014 mid-term elections, the power of the oligarchy in the United States to shape Congressional elections and legislation favoring their interests is unparalleled.  The celebration of Labor Day becomes a farce in speaking for working people’s justice in our economy.  This is especially true as we recognize the loss of the voices of the marginalized in our society. Conservative forces continue to eviscerate social programs related to the well-being of low income and middle income families, i.e., children’s education and health, child care programs for working mothers, affordable medical programs for low income people, and preserving the hard earned social security benefits for retirees.

In the political arena, legislative actions are already underway in some states to target vulnerable people’s right to cast their vote.  In other states and regions, the program and policies of the Tea Party and similar conservative groups are ardent in turning back the social justice gains of the last century.  The very people who are part of these conservative movements have gained their own status by the sweat and the perseverance of their own forbearers, who fought the very entrenched economic interests to win their fair and just rights from them. Thomas Frank illuminated this story in his 2004 book “What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.”

In the 1930s, the farmers and the workers of Kansas faced the depressed economy and fought those forces that would keep them in poverty.  This was the story for many Kansas families.  Jump ahead a half century: the offspring of these folk having forgotten their family’s struggles are now listening to voices that direct them to the moral issues of the times, i.e., abortion and gay marriage.  Lost to their attention are the new economic power players who would keep them from seeing the real social and economic issues of the day.  Working people are often blindsided by those voices calling for so-called moral values and vote against their own best interests.

New attention must be paid to Labor Day as it tells the story of the inequities which still exist within the U.S. scene, and it calls for a new reckoning with these inequities through the political process.  Let us get the meaning of Labor Day straight in 2014.

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Chapter 26 – Leaving New York Behind

“We’re off on the trip of our lives!”

Richard introduces Eunice to the Poethig clan at a raucous feast at his aunt and uncle’s apartment in Yorkville. Eunice introduces Richard to her mother and brother at Christmastime in Dayton, Ohio. They begin plans for a June wedding. All the time Richard is writing his senior thesis on “A Christian Doctrine of Work for a Modern Technological Society” and trying to tie down a job. An intriguing prospect is a new church development in a working-class, industrial suburb of Buffalo. Richard travels Upstate to meet with the organizing committee. The folks in the Town of Tonawanda invite him to organize their congregation, and Richard and Eunice agree. They finish up their studies, graduate, and head for Dayton to be married. The wedding on June 7, 1952, is a joyous assembly of people from Eunice’s and Richard’s lives. The couple returns to New York from a honeymoon camping trip in New England in time for Richard’s ordination at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church on June 27th. After saying goodbye to his father and sister, Richard and Eunice drive north out of New York City. As Richard watches the skyline change, he has a strong feeling that a new book is opening in his life.

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Chapter 19 – Saying Good-bye

Wooster’s Kauke Arch in 1947

Richard gets together with old New York friends Jerry Pospisil and Dick Frothingham at a rathskeller in the midst of the Christmas snowfall of ’48 that leaves New York at a total standstill. Before leaving for his final semester at Wooster, Richard is elected national chairperson of the National Student League. He travels to Ottawa to represent the Student League at the Canadian Cooperative Commonwealth University Federation (CCUF) convention. His recent co-op farm experience in Saskatchewan wins him connections among the CCUF delegates. He turns his attention to choosing a seminary. His course on Niebuhr with Robert Bonthius, Wooster’s religion professor, confirms his decision to attend Union Theological Seminary. Richard is accepted at Union and he leaves Wooster with the recognition of the college’s contribution to his expansion as a person and to his religious and political development.

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Chapter 13 – Reclaiming A Heritage

Richard returns to Wooster after his mother’s death emotionally drained. With the encouragement of his friends, he runs successfully for the Student Senate, wraps up the school year, and returns to New York. Richard’s job as director of  a Y.M.C.A. summer camp for 12- year-old boys keeps him busy; nevertheless, he witnesses one of his father’s epileptic seizures. Richard remembers the fun times he had with his father going to Giants games and “crabbing” on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. They had gotten along well, but Ernest would never understand Richard’s aspirations or his decision to go away to college. Back at Wooster in the fall of 1946, Richard throws himself into his academic work, four jobs, and campus political and social activities. He helps organize a chapter of the Student League for Industrial Democracy, which heats up criticism of his “socialist” leanings. He runs for president of the student body and loses in a run-off election. Moving on, Richard is elected as president of  “the Big Four,” representing the four major religious organizations on campus. Richard returns to New York where his leadership in the Student League earns him a job with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

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Chapter 12 – A Time to Live, A Time to Die

Henrietta Schoelzel Poethig, 1901-1946

Henrietta Schoelzel Poethig, 1901-1946

In September 1945, the war is over and former students, now veterans, return to the dynamics of rebuilding the post-war world. Richard learns the value of a liberal education at the College of Wooster, where the study of science and religion are complementary. He holds down three jobs on campus to cover expenses. In December, his father, Ernest, falls from a ladder at work and fractures his skull; the accident causes epileptic seizures. Henny, Richard’s mother, leaves St. Francis Tuberculosis Hospital to care for Ernie at home. Richard rushes back to New York to help. He takes his mother back to St. Francis, and, believing the situation at home to be stabilized, makes the decision to return to Wooster. During Easter break, Richard is urgently summoned back to New York.

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Chapter 11 – Going West!

Boarding the Broadway Limited at Penn Station in January 1945, Richard begins a new venture. Descending the train in the gloom of winter in Wooster, Ohio, is a sobering experience. Richard faces the uncertainty of college life and its requirements. There was housing and work to find and the intense pace of academic learning to tackle. Richard’s heavy New York accent marks him as an outsider among the (mostly female) student body at the College of Wooster. In the midst of his anxiety over his mother’s declining health at home, Richard breaks through on the academic frontier. At the same time, history was changing fast: President Franklin Roosevelt dies, the war in Europe comes to an end, and in the fall the campus spirit takes on a new vitality.

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Chapter 10 – A Turn in the Road

Richard’s attempt at working during the day and going to night college at the City College of New York fails. Restless in his effort to further his education, Richard determines to attend college full-time. But he is caught between two philosophies of life: his father’s hard work ethic which saw Richard’s responsibility to help meet the immediate expenses of the family, and his mother’s long view, which saw the need for Richard to prepare himself for the future. An uplifting experience at church points Richard in the direction of the ministry. With the help of mentors and friends at the church, he chooses an exclusive Presbyterian college in Ohio. At the same time, his mother’s health is failing and family tension mounts. Knowing the implications of his decision, Richard chooses to take the turn in the road that leads away from the past and into an unknown future.

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Chapter 7 – Getting Religion on the East Side

podcast artworkRichard’s grandfather, Richard Poethig, emigrated from Saxony, Germany, during the anti-Socialist campaign of Otto von Bismarck.  He sees organized religion as antagonistic to the cause of working people. For Richard’s mother, a religious upbringing was essential to life. Her tenement neighbor, Emily Masek, encourages Henny to enroll Richard in Good Will Sunday School, an East Side mission of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.  At Good Will, Richard learns about more than the Bible. He discovers the wider world on field trips to the countryside and the lower East Side casbah, and through participation in a model League of Nations, where the invasion of Abyssinia by Italy is up for discussion. In loyalty to his street friend Tulio, Richard plays the part of Italy.

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Chapter 6 – A Summer to Remember

Photo of Mr. McCreery holding the family dog Spot

Mr. McCreery and Spot

Richard’s mother, Henny, pays constant attention to protecting Richard and his younger sister, Erna, from her tuberculosis. One summer, through the help of a tenement neighbor, Henny sends Richard to live with the McCreery family on a farm outside of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. At the McCreery’s, Richard learns quickly about farm life. Children who grow up on a farm, he discovers, know more about the facts of life than any of his New York street gang. Richard finds the old swimming hole in Cherry Valley a great respite on the hot summer days. It was certainly more inviting than the garbage-filled East River, Richard reflects. During his visit to Cherry Valley, Richard encounters his first rattle snake on the McCreery lawn and takes an unexpected journey to the Stroudsburg hospital for an emergency appendectomy.

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