Most of Us Used to Be Them: Family Tales of Immigration

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President Obama’s words as he discussed principles for immigration reform struck a deep chord. Some of us at the Latin America Working Group office decided to reflect on our families’ paths to the United States.

Here’s what he said:

When we talk about that in the abstract, it’s easy sometimes for the discussion to take on a feeling of “us” versus “them.”  And when that happens, a lot of folks forget that most of “us” used to be “them.”  We forget that.

It’s really important for us to remember our history.  Unless you’re one of the first Americans, a Native American, you came from someplace else.  Somebody brought you…

lisa_cropped_headshot1Lisa:  My mom, Ella, was born in Romania. Her parents, who were Jewish, fled Russia in the chaos of the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. But my grandmother was pregnant with my mom, and my grandfather left her in the care of relatives in Romania while he went on ahead to New York. My grandmother and my mother then took a boat some months later. My mom grew up in New York City, speaking Russian at home. I think that she probably considered herself a New Yorker first, then an American, then a Russian-American.

My dad, Niels, left Denmark at nineteen with his two younger brothers, a couple of days before Hitler’s forces invaded Denmark. His parents had gone on ahead of their children as his dad had found a job in New York state.  The family lore was that the three brothers took the last boat out before the invasion; I thought it was a fable, until we checked the boat records and found that the dates matched.  His parents and one of his brothers returned to Denmark, but my father stayed and became a U.S. citizen. He spoke with a thick Danish accent all his life, although his grammar was perfect—he was a devotee of Fowler’s Modern English Usage.  We had pickled herring every weekend, as he set out a smorgesbord.

For my family, the United States meant a refuge from war, and in the case of my mom’s family, from persecution, as well as a land of opportunity.  My grandfathers were both scientists and were able to enter the United States with jobs, so they were much better off than many.  But my parents and grandparents were immigrants, who still had a strong tie to their other homelands.

omar_staff_pic_2Omar: Identifying myself as an immigrant comes easy to me, even though I technically am not an immigrant. Born with two nationalities, I choose to recognize only one of them: I am Nicaraguan. Living the first eighteen years of my life in one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, with occasional visits to my mother’s hometown of Plain City, Ohio, will do that. Although I was never directly subjected to the struggles associated with an underdeveloped country, bearing witness to them has most definitely shaped my world view in a way that can only be sharpened, not redefined, by the time I spend here in the United States.

Now, the opportunities that I have been able to take advantage of as a citizen during my stay in the United States are numerous and too many to enumerate here. From taking advantage of education or professional development that is severely lacking in my native Nicaragua, I am aware of the privileges I have as a U.S. citizen. But, by privilege I do not mean it in the sense of land of opportunity, but in the sense of the advantages I have compared to others.

My immigrant story is not of searching for economic prosperity, fleeing political persecution, or fleeing war. My immigrant story is of acknowledging and recognizing privilege and the pervasive relative deprivation that, to this day, persists throughout the United States, exemplified and amplified in the arbitrary definitions of “us” and “them”; “illegal” and “legal” immigrants.

Even though I possess U.S. nationality, I am still one of “them.”

mavisMavis: I am part of an immigrant family originating in Prussia through the Ukraine in Russia, and in Scandinavia. My maternal great-grandparents were part of a Mennonite “clan” that migrated from what was then Prussia to what is now the Ukraine, at the invitation of Catherine the Great of Russia. They were seeking religious freedom and fleeing military conscription in Prussia, and Catherine offered them haven in exchange for their developing fallow farmland in south Russia. They were excellent farmers, and many of their descendents remain so to this day.

The trek to the United States was again motivated by their commitment to pacificism after the loss of their special privileges under Alexander II, a little less than a century after their arrival in Russia. They protested the removal of their exemption from military service and the right for their schools to use the German language, and they sent emissaries to look for farmland in the United States and Canada. My ancestors moved to Minnesota to “available” cropland similar to what they farmed in the Ukraine; their move coincided with the opening of land after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Obviously, this land that was “available” from the young United States did not take into consideration the native population that been displaced from it!

The Scandinavian part of my heritage comes from the migration of, again, great-grandparents leaving their homes under duress. The farmland they held in Sweden was insufficient to support their growing families, and repeated crop failures made life in Sweden very difficult for rural populations. They migrated to the frontier of the United States, following the promise of free or low-cost quality farmland (with low taxes and no established state church or monarchy) in the same region to which the Mennonites from Russia immigrated.

While proud of my strong and pacifist ancestors who were seeking political and religious freedoms, I remain very aware that our immigration to this nation was the result of the displacement of Dakota Indians (Sioux), who were poorly treated (and even massacred) by the federal government, local traders, and settlers. They saw their hunting lands whittled down, and they found themselves surrounded by a wave of white settlers. Their lives were changed forever. In this case, the “them” were also the Indians who had for generations farmed, hunted, fished and gathered wild rice in what became Minnesota.

Karina, our Cuba intern, wrote a moving blog about her experience as a Cuban-American finding her identity. Click here to read her story.

Most of us used to be them. And we still are.