Richard Alba is distinguished professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His teaching and research focus on immigration; his latest book is Strangers No More: Immigration and the Challenges of Integration in North America and Western Europe, co-written with Nancy Foner. Before participating in a panel discussion about the legacy of the 1965 immigration act, Alba talked about why his family ended up in the Bronx, his favorite place to retreat to, and American ideals.
Q: Who was your childhood hero?
A: I grew up in the ’40s and ’50s in New York City, in the Bronx actually. For a boy of that era, an American boy, baseball was the ultimate in American life. And I was a small boy and I wasn’t a big hitter, but I was a very fleet and agile fielder. My team of course was the Yankees. So my child hero was the shortstop of the New York Yankees, Phil Rizzuto. He had a vowel at the end of his name and I had one at the end of mine—which contributed to my adulation.
Q: How did your family end up in the Bronx?
A: I don’t know. My family has a kind of broken history, I have to say. My father died in the U.S. military at the end of World War II. I was very young. There’s a lot of family history that I never got because the family was disrupted, my mother remarried. My mother was Irish-American and she grew up in Hell’s Kitchen. It was then a kind of slum-like neighborhood where a lot of Irish congregated. My father was the descendant of Sicilian immigrants, from a very Italian area of Brooklyn. Like a lot of young people of the time, they were very ambitious and wanted to move up and wanted to be more a part of American society. Where I grew up was really a second or third area of residence for families often coming from working-class and ethnic backgrounds. It was racially exclusive—I had no idea what that meant at the time—but it was ethnically mixed among whites. There were lots of Irish Catholics, Eastern European Jews, and others. I grew up in what was thought of as a melting pot, though I didn’t understand how exclusive a melting pot it was until I was older and more socially aware. And now, interestingly, it’s become entirely Latino. It couldn’t maintain racial exclusivity in the ’60s given civil rights legislation. So it became an area where somewhat upwardly mobile Latinos live, but also an area marked by more social problems than I knew about as a child.
Q: When have you been the most nervous in your life?
A: (Laughs.) Oh god. I’m a nervous person, frankly. It’s a hard question to answer. I still get nervous before I talk in public, though I’ve done it many times over.
Q: What’s the first line of your obituary?
A: (Laughs.) That presumes I’m going to have one. Well, I’m torn because, you know, there’s of course the ambitious intellectual side of me that wants to be recognized for intellectual achievements of one sort or another. But also there’s the more personal side that still believes in the supreme value of being a decent person. I don’t know which one I’d prefer.
Q: Where do you go to be alone?
A: Into a book. I don’t have trouble feeling that I’m kind of alone. That’s always been a part of me—feeling enclosed in my own world, my imagination, and not worrying about what’s around me. I’ve just always been a very introspective person.
Q: What is the first word you think an immigrant should learn when he or she gets to America?
A: Well, of course, the real first word is “America.” I’ll assume they know that because they came here. We’ll go by “hello.” Well, I suppose the first word is really “where” because immigrants need to find things. But I must say, having learned other languages, just being able to ask the question is actually not very valuable. You need to be able to learn the answer.
Q: Where and when did you learn how to swim?
A: That was a common skill in the part of the Bronx where I grew up. My family circumstances were very modest. We rarely went on a vacation. But there were swimming clubs. They were racially exclusive—as I said, I really didn’t understand that till later. In any event, almost all the kids I knew belonged to the same swimming club and the families did, too. So I had to learn to swim. I think I learned at the YMCA. I was an eager swimmer and I was young, maybe 6 or so.
Q: French fries or onion rings?
A: French fries, for sure. For one thing, they’re more nutritious. Potatoes give more calories than onions. I think they’re more varied—there are lots of different kinds of french fries.
Q: What does it mean to be American?
A: Well, ideally, it would mean having a range of potential identities to choose from. I grant that not everybody has that option. But I think that’s, in a way, the American ideal. People have the freedom to determine who they are and who they are is not as determined as it is in other countries by the family that they came from.
*Photo by Jaclyn Nash.