While politicians construct immigration plans in Washington streets, many immigrants are constructing new lives for themselves on city streets. WORLD’s Tiffany Owens is visiting neighborhoods in four major cities where immigrants live—Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Atlanta—and seeing how settling into blocks with shared culture and language makes transitioning to life in America easier. The downside is that living and working in immigrant neighborhoods can stump assimilation and make it harder to learn English. Tiffany will eventually make some policy recommendations, but right now she’s concentrating on observing and showing you what she sees.
LOS ANGELES—The Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Calif., is abuzz with the first blooms of summer. Chipper crowds dine in outdoor restaurants. Little children scamper from their parents, around groups of teen girls chatting to each other and young couples strolling slowly hand-in-hand.
Chinatsu Osa, 32, stands near one corner of the street dressed in a worn white sweater and a long cotton skirt. On the cobblestone ground at her feet sits a vintage plaid suitcase holding a laptop, an amplifier, and a metal pushcart. A foot farther out sits a Hello Kitty tin box propped open, facing the audience. A slim crowd has gathered around her, watching and listening as she performs an Italian love song in an operatic soprano.
“It’s my dream to sing in front of thousands,” she tells me later, holding a cup of lemon tea. She left Japan nine years ago to make that dream a reality. Her mother thought she was bluffing when she left, confident she’d come back in a year. But she stayed, even though, at 23, she had to return to high school, learn English, and work at nightclubs to make ends meet. With no family and only one friend at the start, loneliness settled in fast.
For many immigrants, including Osa, the hope of getting an education is what draws them to the United States. “America is amazing,” Osa says, her face stretching into a grin. “Even if you don’t have money, you can get an education here. You can’t do that in Japan.”
She graduated high school and found a better job selling American films to Japan. In her free time, she went to auditions, eventually earning a spot in a music program at a local community college.
Now, every day, she wakes and practices piano and vocal scales. She attends class every day from noon until 5. At home, she makes dinner and watches opera videos on YouTube, memorizing lyrics in German, Italian, and English.
Tonight was her first night performing on the street this summer. Many listeners are supportive. A young woman once left her $20, and young mothers with children often stop to let them listen. Some nights on the pier, she’ll make $100 in 40 minutes. But others aren’t as encouraging.
“Some people make fun of me,” says Osa, whose goal is to study at UCLA and become a professional. “It’s tough, but I have to try everything.”