by Heather Shayne Blakeslee
In 1912, Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo made a gift of 3,000 cherry trees to Washington, D.C., as a sign of the close relationship between Japan and the United States. For centuries, the Japanese have revered the fleeting beauty of the cherry blossoms, which bloom in early spring and then fall away in two weeks’ time.
With the gift of those immigrant trees, our nation’s capital also adopted the tradition of celebrating the cherry blossoms, a stand-in for the ephemeral nature of our own short, and sometimes beautiful, lives.
The peace with Japan was also ephemeral. A little over 30 years after that original gift, our countries were at war. Now, we count them again as a close ally. Regardless, every year, whether we saw Japan as friend or foe, the cherry trees bloomed. It is a sign of spring and a symbol of a permanent mingling of cultures and traditions that endures today in the seat of our democracy. An average of 1.5 million people travel from all over the country and world to see the incredible spectacle of those 3,000 Japanese trees in bloom.
Philadelphia also celebrates those little pink flowers in its own Fairmount Park, but a late-March ice storm this year did its damage. The weather whiplash of early warm days in February followed by an icy snowstorm at the end of March means many fewer blossoms joining this year’s spring celebrations of renewal, hope and community.
Another sort of ice storm, one that won’t melt so easily or quickly, is also casting a pall over spring celebrations in Philadelphia, dampening the crowds of people who would normally be out celebrating in the streets.
For a decade, the Carnaval de Puebla celebrated Mexican culture, bringing the community together to take pride in its history and traditions, as well as the contributions that Mexico’s people—many of them now Americans themselves—have made to our city and country.
Thousands of people usually travel to Philadelphia from all around the country, and from Mexico, to attend Carnaval de Puebla. But not this year. The chill of the federal immigration crackdown has forced organizers to cancel the beloved event.
Philadelphia is a sanctuary city. Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, also known as ICE, will not be called if police suspect someone they have stopped may be here without documentation. Mayor Jim Kenney has said we will continue to welcome refugees with open arms. This past year, the festival’s carnavaleros were invited for the first time to march with the Mummers during New Year’s celebrations, a heartening sign that Philadelphia’s signature parade may yet become as diverse as its people.
But for the organizers of Carnaval de Puebla, the risk is still too great for those traveling to attend the festival. It’s simply too dangerous for the community to come together to celebrate this spring. A mundane traffic stop or unexpected trip to the emergency room could end with upended lives and families torn apart. The mood this season among the Mexican-American community and among many hopeful immigrants, dreamers and refugees is not joyous or celebratory—it is fearful. For our country, that is shameful.
Just like the greatly diminished set of cherry blossoms this spring, the fragile and fleeting nature of community and of peace is on full display. Perhaps the cherry trees—immigrants themselves—are standing with fewer blossoms in solidarity. As a nation of immigrants, so should we all.