Coming to America

I have a confession to make. Most of my ancestors came to America undocumented. They were without passports or even a green card, and they didn’t go through immigration processing.

That’s because most of ’em got here in the 18th century.

The ones we can document, anyway. Tracing the family tree backward through the generations, one sometimes hits a dead end. We’ll learn that William married Amanda in some Appalachian holler during the Andy Jackson administration but find no clue where Amanda came from or how long she and her folks had been here. My family were not exactly, um, aristocrats, so record-keeping was haphazard. But I do know that one branch can be traced back to some of the original Pennsylvania Dutch, arriving ca. 1710. Two of my great-times-four grandfathers fought in the Revolution. Generations of my foremothers bounced west on buckboards, gave birth in long cabins, and dug gardens in the virgin wilderness.

The latecomers included my mother’s mother’s grandparents, who arrived from Ireland shortly after the Civil War. And the absolute last guy off the boat was my father’s father’s father, William Thomas of Dwygyfylchi, Wales, who arrived ca. 1885. He married Minnie King, whose father Fielding King had marched through Georgia with General Sherman in a Missouri infantry volunteer regiment. We haven’t traced the generations of Kings back very far, however, so we have no idea when they came to America.

Anyway, this means none of them went through Ellis Island, which didn’t open for business until 1892. A few years ago, when Ellis Island became a national monument, the feds ran print ads with historic photos of Ellis Island immigrants. The captions claimed that the Ellis Island people “built America,” which pissed me off because that wasn’t true. By 1892 all of our major cities were already established; the intercontinental railroad was completed and running; the Midwestern fields cleared from the wilderness by my ancestors were well-tilled and filled with rows of corn. The Ellis Island people just filled the place in some, as far as I was concerned.

Well, OK, they filled it in a lot. Fifteen million immigrants arrived in America between 1890 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Earlier waves of immigrants had mostly come for the virtually free farmland, and they fanned out across the prairies and plains. But a large part of the fifteen million remained in cities and took factory jobs. They brought with them talent and industriousness but also crime and poverty and other problems that overwhelmed the cities. This in turn brought about a growth in government and a shifting of government programs from local to state to federal. For example, beginning in the 1910s the states, and eventually the feds, established “welfare” programs to relieve the destitution of immigrants; in earlier times, destitution had been dealt with by local “poor laws.”

Eventually they and their descendants assimilated to America, but it’s equally true that America assimilated to them. This is a very different country, physically and culturally, than it would have been had immigration been cut off in, say, 1886. The newcomers had not shared the experience of carving a nation out of the wilderness and fighting the Civil War. For a people often discriminated against, the Ellis Island-era immigrants were remarkably intolerant of African Americans and shut them out of the labor unions, making black poverty worse. And early state and federal welfare programs provided services only to whites. Immigrants literally took bread out of the mouths of the freedmen and their descendants, exacerbating racial economic disparities that we’re still struggling with today.

Much of American culture as it existed in the 1880s — the music, the folk tales, the way foods were cooked — was washed away in the flood of immigration and survived only in isolated places like rural Kentucky, where the descendants of colonial indentured servants still pretty much had the place to themselves. Here in the greater New York City area I am often dismayed at how much people don’t know about their own country. There are second- and third-generation Americans here who don’t know what a fruit cobbler is, for example. And as for knowing the words to “My Darling Clementine” or “Old Dan Tucker” — fuhgeddaboudit.

On the other hand, there are bagels. It’s a trade-off, I suppose.

I bring this up by way of explaining why I am bemused by some of the negative reactions to yesterday’s immigrant demonstrations. Yes, I realize there’s a distinction between legal and illegal immigrants nowadays. There is reason to be concerned about large numbers of unskilled workers flooding the job market and driving down wages — we learned a century ago that can be a problem. But the knee-jerk antipathy to all things Latino — often coming from newbies (to me, if you’re less than three generations into America, you’re a newbie) who aren’t fully assimilated themselves — is too pathetic. They’re worried about big waves of immigrants changing American culture? As we’d say back home in the Ozarks, ain’t no use closin’ the barn door now. Them cows is gone.

(I can’t tell you how much I’d love to confront Little Lulu and say, “Lordy, child, when did they let you in?”)

Near where my daughter lives in Manhattan there’s a church that was built by Irish immigrants. It is topped by a lovely Celtic cross. Now the parishioners are mostly Dominican. In forty years, if it’s still standing, maybe the priests will be saying masses in Cilubà, or Mandarin, or Quechuan. Stuff changes. That’s how the world is. That’s how America is, and how it always has been. Somehow, we all think that the “real” America is the one that existed when our ancestors got off the boat. That means your “real” America may be way different from mine. Fact is, if we could reconstitute Daniel Boone and show him around, he wouldn’t recognize this country at all. I think they had apple pie in his day, but much of traditional American culture — baseball, jazz, barbecue, John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” — didn’t exist in Daniel Boone’s “real” America.

Latinos, of course, already are American, and in large parts of the U.S. Latino culture had taken root before the Anglos showed up. This makes anti-Latino hysteria particularly absurd, because Latino culture is not new; it’s already part of our national cultural tapestry. And who the bleep cares if someone sings the national anthem in Spanish? As Thomas Jefferson said in a different context, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. I’m sure the anthem has been sung in many languages over the years, because the U.S. has always been a multilingual nation. Along with the several native languages, a big chunk of the 19th-century European farmers who fanned out across the prairies and plains lived in communities of people from the same country-of-origin so they didn’t have to bother to learn English. And many of them never did. It’s a fact that in the 19th century, in many parts of the U.S., German was more commonly spoken than English.

Yes, maybe someday America will be an officially bilingual nation, and maybe someday flan will replace apple pie. Flan is good, and there are many multilingual nations that somehow manage to make it work — India, China, Belgium, and Switzerland come to mind. Even much of my great-grandpa’s native Wales stubbornly persists in speaking Welsh. Multilingualism doesn’t have to be divisive unless bigotry makes it so.

What’s essential to the real America — our love of liberty — is the only constant. And, frankly, it’s not illegal immigrants who are a threat to liberty.

27 thoughts on “Coming to America

  1. There is a certain distinction between illegal aliens and pioneers, although El Presidente Boosh, like most socialistas and capitalistas, does not make it in new cartoon, “Our First Mexican President.”

  2. I wonder at two signs of spanish speaker’s influence. One is that virtually all packaging now has at least a little spanish on the label. You don’t hear righties screeming about the freemarket freely taking this step. And on the other hand here, you don’t hear businese complain about the thousands of dollars required to redesign the labels that we heard when there were new content labeling standards required by the government.

  3. From the NYTimes today: In Chicago, there was solidarity in diversity, as Latinos were joined by immigrants of Polish, Irish, Asian and African descent. Jerry Jablonski, 30, said he had moved to Chicago from Poland six years ago, flying to Mexico and then crossing the border. He now works a construction job.

    “Poland is my old country,” Mr. Jablonski said. “This is my new country. I can make everything happen here.”

    Of course, when more than a million people march in the US, it’ll draw a few radicals. I notice GrandWizard Malkin’s singling them out, to prove something or other, along with the rest of the hatesphere.

    As well, they don’t know their history, associating May Day with the Soviets. They apparently weren’t given the updated program, as they rattle the old bogeyman instead of the new.

  4. Couple of weekends ago I attended a writers/journalists festival in Las Cruces, N.M. themed “Re-imagining the Border.” I wanted to know something about the people on the border as opposed to the “objects” of derision mouthed by law-and-order pendejos.

    One of the things I haven’t heard much about in the MSM concerning the border with Mexico is that the narcos have bought officials on both sides, and thus hold the border in a death grip.

    Chuck Bowden has written extensively about border issues (“Down by the River”), and will soon have an article in Mother Jones. He suggests that 60-80 billion $ worth of drugs come across in a year. If true the implications are staggering. He said the Mexican government is dependent for its survival on this money, but whatever the case, the influence of the drug money is likely predominant even over all governmental authority.

    So even if the desperate folks without jobs or money from all of the “Americas” (thanks largely to NAFTA) are stacked up like cordwood at the border unable to cross, the governments of Mexico and the U.S. will continue to ignore the violence and injustice perpetrated by the narcos.

    And I am talking violence and terror are on par with Iraq or anywhere else. There are men and women in Juarez (across from El Paso) who disappear–never to be seen again, or are found burned and tortured discarded as litter around the city. This has been going on for years, but likely is out of sight and out of mind for most gringos.

    It is a very complex issue and until one is able to value the humanity of the men, women and children dying in the desert trying to cross for survival, then there can be no functional understanding of the problem.

  5. In my limited trips around the world, I’ve noticed most countries teach their children 2 or 3 languages. That’s a healthy thing to do. I just wish I could learn more than one. Unfortunately I’m language disfunctional.

  6. As an American Indian, I vacillate regarding the immigration issue. However, the issue that irritates me the most about the Latinos coming over the border is the catering to them and their language. Once American Indians were set off on their respective reservations, the Indian children were taken away from the parents and sent to boarding schools so that they could learn English and become a white person. Laws were passed making the speaking of any American Indian language illegal. The children in boarding schools were punished if they uttered even one word of their native tongue. Even as late as the early 1950s when I was a very small girl, I remember relatives who had served time in jail for speaking their own language. Now, I do not suggest that we do the same to the illegal/legal immigrants; but, don’t ask me to learn another foreign language. Been there, done that. Also, I think there is a lesson to learn from the American Indian experience–Look what happened to the native people who learned the language of the invaders rather than making the invaders learn their languages.

  7. I admire the immigrants. I’ve been an immigrant myself, several times, illegally, too, in Europe and in Asia. However, that they are taking jobs Americans would do is true. My sons searched for jobs and the jobs were held by Mexican laborers. All that about “jobs no American will do” is a lie put out by the corporate creeps who are ruining our country and who are ruining everywhere else besides, which is why the poor people want to come here. Our corporate warriors destroyed the chances of democracy in Nicaragua, Columbia, Honduras, etc. They approve, apparently, of poverty in Mexico and poverty here, too. One more thing: I loved the way the corporate media (both broadcast and cable channels) covered the marches. In no way do they cover OUR marches like that and with the obvious approval they did yesterday (May 1st). When 10,000,000 people throughout the world marched against the Cheney-Bush War, you didn’t see the Corporate Media cover that, did you? Do you see them cover anything anymore? So when they cover, with approving and sympathetic voices, the immigrants’ parade, you might suspect they are cheering low wages for workers.

  8. As with most complex political issues, little more than rhetoric is available for the average citizen to evaluate in order to fully understand the consequences of the numerous proposals being discussed. Immigration brings together a never before seen constellation that stands to change much of what Americans have come to understand about our economy, our political affiliations, corporate interests, globalization, trade agreements, the influence of unions, and many other ramifications yet to be identified or calculated.

    Some choose to look to our past in hopes of finding a palatable position. As a country of immigrants, this approach seeks to simplify the issue with a more of the same mentality…we’re all immigrants so we should increase the numbers for legal immigration in order to avoid the growing undocumented population. The unanswered questions are how to determine that number and does that number simply increase the number of documented immigrants while failing to stem the tide of undocumented entrants. Supply and demand are seemingly the crux of this model.

    At the other end of the spectrum are those who prefer a zero tolerance approach. In this construct, those here illegally are returned to their country of origin and the borders are secured such that the influx of illegal’s can be halted. The dialogue of this group generally focuses on the legal considerations and they frame the issue as a question of fairness to those who play by the rules in seeking to immigrate to America. Simply stated, they want enforcement…such that we implement and apply the existing laws before changing them.

    Characteristically, the issue is polarized by intense passion on both extremes. This passionate posturing makes it increasingly difficult to carve out a compromise. Many politicians have taken positions based on their perceived constituency sentiment that allows them little room for flexibility. Regional economic considerations coupled with the potential impact to certain corporate and business segments create an incoherent patchwork of conflicting considerations. Navigating this difficult terrain is likely to foster more political stalemate than innovative compromise.

    While Washington plays politics, Americans cannot ignore the fact that there are currently an estimated 12,000,000 reasons to resolve this issue. It’s time for politicians to set aside the rhetoric and complete the daunting task of a thorough evaluation that will provide the necessary, albeit frightening, calculations and considerations. Despite voices to the contrary, these 12,000,000 people are here to stay. Unless we get about the business of accepting this reality and moving forward with a coherent and tangible policy, we will soon find ourselves with an additional 12,000,000 reasons to solve this problem.

    more observations here:

  9. Once American Indians were set off on their respective reservations, the Indian children were taken away from the parents and sent to boarding schools so that they could learn English and become a white person.

    I’m really sorry American English didn’t pick up more words and phrases from the native American languages. We’d be much enriched by it now.

    There’s an interesting parallel with the Welsh, who were pushed into the “fringe” of Britain by the invading Angles and Saxons and then contained by King Edward I’s castles. They stubbornly fought with the English for centuries over language. In the 19th century in particular the English went all-out to eradicate Welsh and replace it with English. The young David Lloyd-George was beaten by a schoolteacher so severely for speaking Welsh he was deaf in one ear the rest of his life. Finally about 20 years ago the English relented and allowed Wales to be officially bilingual, and now all road signs are in Welsh and English and Welsh is taught in schools. Only about a quarter of the Welsh still speak Welsh, however, and most of those are concentrated in the north.

    Anyway, what’s interesting to me is that Welsh (and other forms of Celtic and Gaelic) didn’t seem to much influence English, even though both languages were spoken in Britain for centuries, whereas many English words pop up in Welsh, albeit with innovative spellings. This tells us who dominated whom.

  10. It is a very complex issue

    It is indeed, and from this side of the border there are many big and valid reasons to be concerned about large numbers of people entering the country illegally. But it seems to me we’re arguing about all the wrong things, like the national anthem in Spanish, for pity’s sake. We need to approach the illegal immigration issue rationally and compassionately and stop the bigoted hysteria.

  11. I haven’t read all the way through yet, but

    Maha, I just want to say that I love the name Minnie King! Fielding King sounds very distinguished.

    Hey, have they ever announced the winners that we voted on regarding favorite blogs?

  12. Maha, there are quite a few words of Gaelic origin in English – see e.g:

    Also, many Gaelic idioms have made their way into English, e.g. “to let on” (probably more common in England than North America), “to put up with”, “the both of you” (as opposed to “both of you” – interestingly, this is more common in the US than England), also verb forms like “a-running, a-walking” etc, and I could probably come up with a few more if I had time.

    Anyway, as a legal immigrant it’s hard for me not to feel annoyed at the sense of entitlement illegal immigrants seem to feel – like it’s racist to expect Hispanics to obey the same immigration laws as everyone else. I had to spend 6 years in bureaucratic limbo, pay thousands of dollars in fees and jump through every demeaning hoop to get a green card to come and live with my US citizen wife. Until you have dealt with the INS as a (would-be) legal immigrant, you have no idea how nasty and incompetent bureacrats can be.

  13. Immigration is a bogus issue and the debates on the subject are the kind of thing Brad DeLong calls “dingbat kabuki.” Whether we want to admit it or not, the entire country has too big of a stake in the status quo to make any real changes.

    Employers want to hire immigrants, legal or otherwise, because they are the perfect disposable work force. Employers can pay them less, they don’t make a fuss about lousy working conditions (even if they are here legally – a friend of mine who practices immigration law says most Latino immigrants are terrified of the government and would never dream of making a complaint to a government agency about their work places), and maybe when you fire them they will go back home. As long as there are jobs for immigrants, immigrants will continue to come here. Maybe real enforcement of the immigration laws would help with the hiring of illegal immigrants, but I don’t see that kind of enforcement happening under the Bush Administration.

    As for those of us who are not employers and don’t hire anyone – get real. Would we pay the prices that goods would cost if they were produced by non-immigrant workers who were paid decent wages? I won’t even bother to answer that one. When Wal-Mart came along small-town and rural America was perfectly willing to abandon their local shopkeepers in favor of the cheaper goods at the big-box store.

    Next, does anyone have a feasible plan to keep immigrants out? The last time somebody suggested a wall along the Rio Grande, the government of Mexico had a fit. Even if we did that for the Mexican border, we can’t put a fence around the sea coast — of which we have plenty. A local radio show here (San Francisco) was asking a while back if the United States should close its borders as if our borders were doors, for God’s sake, and we could just close and lock them.

    That seems to me to be about the usual level of this debate.

  14. there are quite a few words of Gaelic origin in English

    Your examples are mostly Irish Gaelic, and they represent only a handful of words out of the entire English language. Welsh is a different language that is only a distant relation of Gaelic. Welsh and English existed side-by-side on the same little island since the English language existed, yet Welsh, the older language, had very little impact on English. The list of English words taken from Welsh is a great deal shorter, you’ll notice. And I had never noticed an English speaker using “cwm” (sorta pronounced “koom,” with a short “oo” as in hook) for “valley.” That probably shouldn’t be on the list.

    (probably more common in England than North America), “to put up with”, “the both of you” (as opposed to “both of you” – interestingly, this is more common in the US than England)

    That’s cause most of Ireland moved here awhile back.

  15. Many Mexicans would prefer to stay in Mexico with their families, language, culture and history. So many are coming here to be spat at and demeaned because of the terrible economic conditions at home. I know legal immigrants get upset because they had to wait in line, but seriously, how long would you wait, begging for a green card, with a starving family? Screw the law, I’m going to feed my family.

    And that’s what’s so insidious about this whole situation. NAFTA created horrid economic conditions in Mexico, forcing millions into poverty, the U.S. for years looks the other way while demand is created for illegal immigrant presence, and now it’s this big crisis that has to be dealt with, like it’s just the immigrants’ and employers’ fault. How about fixing NAFTA, for a start? That would be a hell of a lot cheaper, easier and humane than building a wall and deporting millions of people, or just ignoring the whole situation.

  16. On the other hand there are some Welsh words that have been so thoroughly expropriated by the English that no one ever realizes they are Welsh any more. E.g. the word “British” originally meant Welsh, and the name “Welsh” meant foreign – the English called the Welsh foreigners in their own land. Also the whole King Arthur and Camelot myth cycle was of Welsh origin but today people think of it as quintessentially English.

  17. I think the immigration issue is bogus also.. I don’t see much difference between Hitler scapegoating the Jews for the ills of Germany than the present targeting of illegals as a diversion to the ills of America.

  18. There are second- and third-generation Americans here who don’t know what a fruit cobbler is, for example.

    Is that a shoemaker who lives an alternate lifestyle?

  19. At one point in time, maybe 10-12 years ago, Douglas County [south of Denver] was the fastest growing county in the United States. National Geographic did an article on it which included wide shot pictures of new housing tracts which seemed to go on forever, hiding the original landscape. All the earlier folks who moved to the front range suddenly realized that their own reasons for moving there [ living in view of and with access to beautiful mountains] were going to be defeated if more and more folks kept moving in. And, so they were right. Today, if a Denver area suburbanite wants to take off to the nearby mountains for a weekend, there’s the reality of bumper to bumper traffic and exhaust fumes to contend with as the congested traffic slowly climbs up the mountain grades.

    That potential of living space congestion is my admittedly selfish concern about millions of new folks coming to live in the United States. But just as in the case of Douglas County, Colorado……where should the line be drawn on population density and who should draw it? How can we [who are all descendants of immigrants, Bonnie’s folks excepted] decide to cut off the flow of new immigrants? Who wouldn’t dream of living in a beautiful place or of being able to move to where there’s income security?

    I really like Julie O.’s points in post #17. The disparities of living conditions around the globe are fostered by and made chronic by unchecked multinational corporations who play countries against each other.
    Too, I think we have to grapple with America continuing to offer contradictory messages to those who cross our borders: 1] come and you’ll get a job, 2]come and you’ll be a criminal. This is sort of like making a ‘no food’ rule for these folks while setting out bowls of food in front of them.

  20. Julie O, Donna – You’re truly in striking distance of what’s at the base of this whole mess. I think that’s why we have such a horrible time solving this issue – NAFTA (corporations) is at the root of most of it. Worry over inflation (“not on my watch” Bush), drugs and corruption in Mexico (and here), an indigineous population’s natural questioning over the meaning of “borders,” U.S. citizens’ insecurity over our “identity.”

    Maha – loved your post. It gives wonderful perspective to the whole issue of who and what American was and is. It should be required reading for everyone.

    Bonnie – I had one ancestor come over on the Mayflower and one meet the boat (as my family likes to joke). Lots of pride in our Indian heritage now, but no one wanted to talk about it during the generation involved. Americans have always been schizoid about it, haven’t they? When you shared the discrimination suffered by your ancestors and family regarding language, it brought to mind what my former boss (still my dear friend) would tell me about her own childhood experiences. She grew up in the 1940’s in LA as Mexican American. She broods to this day over the treatment she received as a school child when she and her classmates were punished for speaking Spanish during recess. This feeds in to much of the “attitude” that is displayed by some hispanics (they’ve heard all these stories, you know). And when you think about it, a majority of them of them are mostly of “Indian” heritage.

  21. Great essay, Barbara!

    I used to work with a woman from Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her Spanish ancestors arrived there 450 years ago, give or take a few. Far longer than most of the rest of us. She is also numbered amongst the Latino population.

    The mixtures of cultures is what makes this place so great.

  22. “Would we pay the prices that goods would cost if they were produced by non-immigrant workers who were paid decent wages?”

    Well, we used to. We had homes that weren’t filled with junk. We had TV’s that were repaired over and over again. We wore clothes that had the union label or we made them ourselves; our closets weren’t jammed to overflowing. My mother used to darn socks. And I’m not 100, only 53. Those non-imigrant workers who were paid decent wages? They were US.

  23. Anonymous –
    You have a point. I remember those days well, and they made much more sense to me.
    Another thing, though, is that the family farm is no longer the main source of our food. Bigger corporations took over and they use— guess who? Now that the farmer and his family are not out doing the sunup/sundown, backbreaking work in such numbers, do you think you could get anyone who wasn’t a first generation laborer for this job?
    The first generation comes, full of eager desire for anything.
    Second generation obtains more education and wants a better life.
    Third generation? That’s most of the rest of us.
    The question is, can we go backwards now? Or forwards? If we had to be smarter about our need for labor, we would probably invent in more labor saving devices.
    I’m askin’! What’s the answer?

  24. Well, Sam, since I come from a family who used to farm, I can tell you that farmers don’t usually quit farming because it’s hard work. Most farmers love the life. The problem is small farmers have almost never been paid fairly for their labor; people have always expected them to work for next to nothing. Agribusiness has clout, small farmers have none.

    What’s the answer? Well, since the powers that be depend on the ignorance of the electorate to enable them to pass things like Right to Work laws that weaken labor, I would think that the first step would be to educate people. I wouldn’t count on that happening, though when people seem to be so proud to be know-nothings and want everybody else to be just like them.

  25. Anonymous –
    You are exactly right. Education is always the key. I felt heartsick during that time the family farmers were getting no help or understanding for their plight. I knew it would come to this, but back then no one seemed to care. My point about the hard work was that a farmer would be willing to do it on his own farm – as you say, loves to do it on his own farm – but not on someone else’s farm. That’s where this, in my opinion, tragedy all began – this supersize me economy. I hate it. I loved the family farms in our country and thought they were the healthiest path for our nation on every level. When I think about how much times have changed, I could cry. I wish we could take back parts of our nation and set them aside for family farms and craftsmen, and other productive members of our citizens.
    But my question still stands, we’re in it now. What are we going to do about it? Go backwards or forwards or in some direction as yet unknown?
    We’ve got lots of educating to do. Is it too late? And who is going to do it?
    And look at Mexico – a nation of poor villages and farmers who can no longer make a go of an ancient tradition for self-support. That’s tragic to me, too. Is NAFTA an evil thing to be changed? Or is it similar to the Industrial Revolution (globalization) where we still need to blindly feel our way?
    In the meantime, heaping abuse on the poor is not worthy of us.

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