Just Who Do We Think We Are?

Anyone living in the USA whose ancestors weren’t immigrants raise your hands? Only Native American’s, First Nations People, should have a hand up…and then only pure bloods. My American heritage dates back about 150 years, post Civil War, post slavery. (I like that part—it’s nice not taking blame). My father’s family came from Sweden and England, and were part of the Western Expansion. (Indian Relocation? Guilty). My mother is of Portuguese ancestry (with a little Scot-English we like to pretend never happened). Our Portuguese ancestors came here from the Azores in ships much like Columbus’s Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, small, crude, wooden. The ships sailed around the Horn—Cape Horn, the tip of South America, a journey called “a great challenge” by sailing aficionados—stopped in Hawaii and finally arrived in San Francisco Harbor. Immigrants who traveled this route were called “Green Horns.”

My grandfather’s mother, her husband and children left the Azores in the late 1800s. Long months later, my grandfather’s mother was the only one in her family to step ashore. Her husband and children died during the crossing. A “green horn,” alone, poor and grieving, she took the best job she could get, doing laundry. She remarried and had one son, my grandfather, Joseph Thomas Silva, born in America.

When I was 8 or so my grandparents were visiting and my step-father, having recently joined the Elks Club, proudly took us to his Club . As Elks do, the men got to comparing how long they had been members. My grandfather, also an Elk, pulled out his card. The man he was talking with whistled. “Wow! You’ve been a member a long time,” he marveled.

My grandfather looked at him. “I would have been a member longer, but back in my day, you wouldn’t let my kind join.”

My grandfather’s story is far from unique. If you’re descended from recent immigrants, you may know first hand how hard life is for anyone coming to America who does not speak American English with a USDA approved accent—aka one traceable to a southern, northern, Midwestern or eastern state—or  broadcaster bland. Others, like me, look back through American history, through your own family history. You’ll uncover layer upon layer of injustices and difficulties new immigrants endured before finally being accepted as Americans. Sure, we love, love, love having “them” --African “them” to plow our fields,  Chinese “them” to build railroads, Italian “them” to build our cities, Mexican “them” to harvest, clean, sweep, paint, garden, do all the “dirty jobs” we don’t want to do. But who do they think they are wanting citizenship? That may have been our ancestors’ right, but its not theirs…

What about that statue in New York Harbor, Lady Liberty, officially “Liberty Enlightening the World”? Should we sandblast the words off the base of her statue: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses?” Or paste a new sign over it: Only the wealth, white, and those under “work/study contracts" from Eastern Europe need apply, the rest of you immigrants—especially those of you already living and working and paying taxes here—shut up, do your job then get out. History be damned, the good old US of A is Full Up so Get Lost…