Tuesday, June 18, 2013

In My Heart, I’m an Immigrant

Lately, I have been researching my family roots, trying to find out where my father’s family originated, how my paternal grandparents wound up coming to the U.S., and how they ended up in small towns in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Two Internet tools I have been using are ancestry.com (which costs money after an initial search) and familysearch.org, a totally free site put up by the Mormons for all of us to use. (Thank you.) I am one of millions of Americans who have tuned into these websites. And do you know what all of us have discovered? If we look far enough back, we have found that ALL of our ancestors (other than possibly a few Native Americans) originated outside of the United States. So, somewhere in our past, all of us have family members who were immigrants. Live with it!

Amazingly, I learned about familysearch.org from a cousin I never knew I had. She came across some of my blog posts about my Southern roots and realized that her grandmother was actually my father’s sister. So she put a comment on one of my posts, and we followed up with emails and phone calls. You know the kind of things that cousins do. We have combined tidbits of knowledge about our ancestors that we each knew independently, and we now have a much fuller picture than before. Except neither of us knows just where my grandfather was living before he arrived in the U.S. in the 1880s. But arrive he did, probably through Castle Garden in New York. Then he somehow moved to the Midwest, took on the last name Goodman, and eventually met my grandmother in Indianapolis, where her family had settled after arriving from the Ukraine in Russia. Then they moved to Mississippi, of all places. So now I know the awful truth—both of my paternal grandparents were immigrants. Live with it!

Part of why I am thinking about this stuff is that I recently watched Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity—whose ancestors I’m sure came from somewhere in Ireland or elsewhere in Europe and were subjected to abuse after arriving in the U.S.—discuss how the country will be “lost” if a new immigration bill is passed and immigrant children living in this country since birth are offered a chance to stay here as citizens or others who entered illegally are granted amnesty. The country will be lost because we will become a country filled with immigrants. News flash! We already are. Live with it!

There is a quote attributed to former Texas governor Miriam Amanda “Ma” Ferguson, who in speaking against bilingual education in her state said, “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it is good enough for Texas schoolchildren.” Now, even Wikipedia has some doubts about whether Ma Ferguson actually said those astounding words, though the Wikipedia writer is certain they were indeed spoken by some Texas politician, perhaps as early as the 1880s. Deep in his Texas heart, Rick Perry (or even Ted Cruz amazingly) might want to echo the sentiments if not the words of Ma’s quote. And he would sound just as silly. Live with it!

"Ma" Ferguson contemplating her next big idea
Last Sunday morning (and this is a true story, not made up for effect), I went for a ride on bike paths linking my town and the town of Saddle Brook, some five miles away by bike. In one half-mile stretch, I passed patches of grass on which groups of Indians or Pakistanis were playing cricket, groups of Latinos were playing soccer (futbol), and a mixed group of kids—white, black, and brown—were playing baseball. I also heard lots of Russian, Polish, and Chinese spoken by people I passed along the way, and probably a little Hebrew and Yiddish too. And I’m sure that the region in which I live is no more ethnic than are the regions of most Americans these days, no matter how much we try to isolate ourselves. We are all former immigrants trying to blend in. Live with it!

Cricket playing in some Saddle Brook somewhere

I know that I am riding on a “high horse” here, but the tone of the debate today on immigration is a little sad and a lot scary. Just as our ancestors (even Sean Hannity’s and Ann Coulter’s) eventually were “included” in this country (sometimes after a very bumpy beginning), today’s immigrants will, over time, find their place too and maybe even be accepted. The country will survive, and we will be better off for the experience. Live with it!    

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