Moving to Houston and a job at the Chronicle in the mid-1990s, Kolker, a former globe-trotting journalist, found living in the city to be like “taking a round-the-world balloon tour of the countries that were now reshaping the United States.”
The grandchild of Ukrainian Jews on her father’s side and daughter of a Mexican-born mother, the author admits to a longtime fascination with the lives of immigrants, and this led her to start a new beat at the paper, reporting on the lives of immigrants living in her community. She was struck by a 1986 study that showed greater longevity among Latino immigrants than Native Americans despite greater obesity, less education and lower income. This was confirmed in 2010 by the Centers for Disease Control, which established similar results with West Indians, Asians and recently arrived Africans. What was their secret? Many of the people the author interviewed were friends, and she questioned them about those customs from the old country that they valued most highly. Their answers not only led to her writing this sparkling debut, but they significantly transformed her life. She includes explanations of not only how immigrants adjust to their new lives, but what they can teach us. Kolker focuses on six customs, many of which she adopted: a money club to which members contribute on a monthly basis without expecting interest; a six-week period when family and friends pitch in to allow a mother to rest after birth; assisted marriages involving family members who help find and vet a potential spouse; parent-supported tutorial programs; multigenerational families who live together, including adult children as well as the elderly; and family dinners amid a supportive community.
A welcome reminder that America was built by immigrants in search of a better future for their children.