July 25, 2014

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Here in America, it’s always time for a really big family reunion

Cynthia DewesFamily reunions must occur in every culture. It’s only natural for people related by blood, marriage or whatever bond, to want to reconnect now and then. They fulfill the human need to reminisce, compare notes, and size each other up. The results may be good or bad experiences, fun or not, but they’re prevalent, usually in summertime.

It seems to me that such reunions are especially important and meaningful in the United States. That’s because we’re a nation composed largely of immigrants. And people who’ve left behind their particular ethnic or national or cultural groups need somehow to maintain their integrity. They need to keep their original identity without losing their new American one.

At first, many immigrants hastened to drop all vestiges of their native customs or languages. They wanted to fit in, and our society encouraged, if not demanded, it. People who spoke “broken English,” a revealing description in itself, were often looked down upon. Even in enclaves of people who came from the same place, assimilation to the new country was paramount.

Of course, Native Americans were the first people prejudiced against, and they were not only dismissed as savages, but harassed, stolen from, and shoved into what amounted to concentration camps. For years, their children were taken away to schools where they were denied any connection to their own language, culture or religion. Often all this was done in the name of Christianity.

The majority of early Americans following the Native Americans came from England, the original WASPS, including many of the Founding Fathers. Then, over time, other northern Europeans came, including Germans and Scandinavians.

About the mid-19th century up through World War II, foreign events and political upheaval caused an influx of new immigrants, including the Irish, Jews, Italians and Eastern Europeans. This resulted in a discriminatory campaign against them, often on the basis of religion. The Irish and Italians were Roman Catholic, a faith that was anathema to the Protestants of the time.

In addition, most of the new immigrants were indigent, poorly educated and unskilled, putting a burden on the new country’s economy. As a result, they clustered together, usually in urban centers, to find work and support. Their parishes and synagogues became insular communities where they could speak their native languages and celebrate their customs and religions, with financial and moral support thrown in.

Black people came as immigrants too, but as slaves against their will. Like the Native Americans, they were often considered subhuman. It’s taken more than 200 years and counting to give them basic human respect, as in electing a black president.

Now the immigrant wave we’re experiencing is mostly Hispanic and, like the others before them, they’re looked down upon, criticized and feared. And that’s the key word here: fear. There was nobody to fear when all the new guys in town were just like us. But the moment that changed, immigrants became scary.

We should remember that this summer when we’re sitting down to a reunion feast of kielbasa or lutefisk or latkes with our families. We need to remember that this country composed of immigrants is one, big extended family.

We Americans practice many religions, speak many languages and follow many customs. Immigrants from around the world still struggle to come here because they know they’ll be free to be themselves here. We’re all Americans in a nation founded under God, and we rejoice in our (re)unions.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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