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Our collective ignorance of American history is deeply perplexing to me. Even more perplexing is the thought process that inspires people to click “forward” when equally ignorant e-mail messages end up in their inboxes.

It appears Rosemary LaBonte was irritated about those immigrants, and chose to write about it. The “politically correct” editors of the Orange County Register (ironic, given the OC demographic) saw fit not to print her rant. Mr. LaBonte, crusader that he is, went ahead and set it free into the internet wild.

Maybe we should turn to our history books and point out to
people like Mr. Lujan why today’s American is not willing
to accept this new kind of immigrant any longer. Back in
1900 when there was a rush from all areas of Europe to come
to the United States, people had to get off a ship and stand in
a long line in New York and be documented. Some would even
get down on their hands and knees and kiss the ground. They
made a pledge to uphold the laws and support their new country
in good and bad times. They made learning English a primary
rule in their new American households and some even changed
their names to blend in with their new home.

I don’t doubt that more than a few early 20th-century immigrants eagerly learned how to speak English. Given that previous generations of immigrants (primarily from western Europe, e.g., Germany, Britain) treated so poorly this new wave of southern and eastern European immigration, assimilating quickly was to their benefit. No longer would they be discriminated against — poor and dirty and of “ill repute” — if only they could be more “American” sooner rather than later.

Understandably, assimilation isn’t an instant process. It makes sense that it would take more than a generation, perhaps two, if not more, for a family to be fully assimilated into “American” culture (whatever that is).  But the impetus for that process wasn’t a feverish devotion to Americana. It was a realization that the people already here wanted nothing to do with these new immigrants and wanted to ostracize them. They didn’t Anglicize their names to be more like the Joneses — they did so to keep the nativists/racists/classists at bay.

They had waved good bye to their birth place to give their
children a new life and did everything in their power to
help their children assimilate into one culture. Nothing was
handed to them. No free lunches, no welfare, no labor laws
to protect them. All they had were the skills and craftsmanship
they had brought with them to trade for a future of prosperity.

The irony and humor of bemoaning labor laws in the context of this discussion isn’t lost. Without labor laws to protect their children who were also searching for prosperity, these children ended up working in mines and sweatshops All manner of dangerous lines of work had children on the clock. And when these children were injured on the job, their impoverished families had no recourse — no way to treat their injured children, no way to recover lost wages, nothing. And this was admirable?

Most of their children came of age when World War II broke out.
My father fought along side men whose parents had come straight
over from  Germany, Italy, France and Japan. None of these
1st generation Americans ever gave any thought about what
country their parents had come from. They were Americans fighting Hitler,
Mussolini and the Emperor of Japan.
They were defending the United States of America as one people.

Japanese-American soldiers, like their black American counterparts, fought in segregated units, and separate from their white American counterparts, so it’s highly unlikely the Mrs. LaBonte’s father fought alongside Japanese immigrants to the U.S.

It bothers me greatly that people embrace the ideas put forth in this e-mail because so many of the ideas are wrong and flat-out ignorant of history and reality. It bothers me greatly that people have this conception of immigrants today being so dramatically different than the immigrants yesterday.

It bothers me greatly that people assume that assimilation into American culture is a simple thing — as though one can “flip the switch” and magically become more American, particularly when it’s not likely their ancestors did anything of the sort. It bothers me greatly that the same nativist prejudices that marred American history are still strong today.


One Comment

  1. My grand-parents on both my father’s and mother’s respective sides came to this country legally. They came from Canada (French), Poland and Austria. The “assimilated” just fine. Yes, my dad and his family were discriminated against because they were “Canucks.” And, equally so, my grandmother and her family learned English as quick as they could because German was only spoken behind closed doors. What I know of both my grandmothers (who lived to 97 and 95, respectively) they were quite wonderful people who, from what they told me, cherished their decisions to immigrate to “America.” I’m sorry to say that I did not know my dad’s father, who died of poor health prior to me being born. My mom’s father was estranged from the family (some kind of pool hustler in the 50s, I’ve heard.) My dad and his brothers all served and retired from US Armed Forces, Army, Air Force and Navy. One uncle died young due to poor health; before the other died I ask him why he had served in the Army. He said to me, “Don’t get me wrong, kid, military life stinks like the worst sewer you could imagine but remember, that’s what it takes to keep America free.” I spent 23 years in the Navy–it didn’t stink too bad. My grandparents on both sides were on relief during the great depression but worked as families to get themselves up and out. For what it’s worth, I respect their choices to be “Americans” not people who came here to be Canadian, Poles and Austrians and pretend to be Americans. There was only one flag flown in our yard.

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