There is a rising anti-immigrant tide in this country that frightens me. It feeds on our depressed economy and is fueled by pervasive prejudices against people of color. The anti-immigrant law in Arizona epitomizes its ugly face, and elements of the right wing in this country are embracing the opportunity to assert a narcissistic frame on who is a “real American”.
What would my grandmother say?
Even though this country was founded by immigrants and shaped by the immigrant ethos — the notion of a safe haven — our history is also replete with contradictions, as manifested in the darker side of our past, namely Native American genocide and slavery. Let’s also not forget that even when slavery was abolished, women were second-class citizens in this nation.
When I think of our nation’s history, I think about my own grandmother. She came on her own to this country from Hungary around 1890, traveling on a ship in a wave of Eastern European Jews who were looking for a better life on these shores. The details of her trip are a little fuzzy because she didn’t like to talk about “the past”. She even yelled at my grandfather one time when he started to tell me about his childhood in Hungary. “Saul! She doesn’t want to hear what happened so long ago!”, she snapped at him in her thick Eastern European accent, a comment I regret to this day.
We do know that my grandmother was only 13 years old when she arrived and like so many before and after her, she came through Ellis Island. She lived for a time in Manhattan with relatives who made the same journey. At some point, she got back on a boat and returned to Hungary, to bring her parents back with her. I imagine that by this point, she was fluent in English and that they spoke none. They lived in New York City, and through her teen years she became a skilled seamstress, working in sweatshops by day and studying clothing patterns by night so she could master the skill. She and my grandfather met in New York, where they opened a “dry goods” store, which apparently is a store that sells just about anything. She had, by then, become a master seamstress, and was also a mother of nine children, all of whom attended public schools and ultimately “made good”, achieving the American dream of sorts.
Of her nine children, there was one dentist, two English professors (including my father), a factory owner, an accountant, an architect, a schoolteacher, a bookkeeper and a postal worker. All but one had children of their own, 21 in all, and these children had over 20 children, and on and on it goes. With each successive generation, they are one step away from their heritage, and yet most have tried — in their own ways — to maintain a connection to their history.
How many people in America have some version of this story? Either they came to this country from foreign soil or the parents came or their grandparents came, to create a better life for themselves. They may have been fleeing political persecution or poverty or both. And when they came here, they struggled to learn the language, gain new skills, find jobs, and live the American dream. When they got to this country, they worked very, very hard. Many experienced discrimination, often from people who felt threatened by them in some way or wanted someone to be lower on the totem pole than them.
As Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, my grandparents were Caucasian. So while they experienced discrimination as Jews and as poor people, they didn’t experience discrimination because of the color of their skin.
When I hear about the anti-immigrant “movement”, I honestly feel sick. That must have something to do with my grandmother, as I think: Who are these people who hate people who are just arriving? Who are these people who want to close the borders? Who are these people who want to pass laws that allow English only? Who are these people who want to deny a college education to children of immigrants?
And what would their grandmothers say?