I am a first-generation American. My father’s family came here from Russia when he was two years old, in 1904 or 1905. I never knew his parents – they died long before I was born – and didn’t know his older sister and brother well enough to ask about their lives before they emigrated. My father did not want to talk about his life before, what little he might have remembered of it; he was an American citizen, and that was what mattered to him.
My mother’s family came from Austria; she was born in 1907 and was about thirteen when they came here, so that would’ve been around 1920. I know a little more about my mother’s family history. Her father was Rumanian, her mother Polish, and apparently they were distant cousins. Her father had been in the Austrian army during the first World War. At some point they had lived in a small town in Austria, which they escaped when the Cossacks burned it down. In Vienna they had owned a hardware store.
When they arrived at Ellis Island, my uncles had had their heads shaved, and some of the family members had had their names changed. The admitting authorities had apparently found some of the Yiddish names unpronounceable, so they renamed my mother “Rose” and her sister “Jeanette.” My mother, at 13, was placed in a kindergarten class because she could not speak English and made her way up to sixth grade by the end of the year. Though she graduated from college and earned her teaching degree, she was not allowed to teach kindergarten until the very faint trace of her “foreign” accent that remained was erased through speech lessons.
When I was growing up, the United States was often referred to in our social studies classes as a “melting pot,” a nation of immigrants from all over the world who had come here to build new lives in an atmosphere of freedom, who generally retained and shared their cultural heritage in terms of food, worship, celebrations, but who also participated in the larger American culture as American citizens. Growing up in New York City, I experienced this first-hand. My parents had started out on Manhattan’s Lower East Side but had eventually ended up in Brooklyn. When my ex-husband and I first moved to the Lower East Side, my parents couldn’t believe it…..they had struggled to make enough money to move on and here we were, choosing to live there. We liked it. There was still a blend of cultures, so different foods, clothes, music were all available. Similarly, later in the East Village, we were part of an eclectic community. When we moved to the Midwest, I couldn’t believe how bland everything seemed. I missed the ethnic and cultural diversity we had become accustomed to.
In the past few years the question of immigration has become such a hot button for so many people. In thinking it out for myself, I had to rely once again on that concept of the “melting pot.” What does that mean, exactly, and how does that apply to the United States, in the past, present, and future? The closest analogy I could find was the process of making beef stew. Of course, in a stew, most of the things don’t exactly melt, but bear with me and see if the analogy makes sense to you.
To make beef stew, you must first have a pot, a fairly sturdy pot that can withstand sitting on the stove for quite a while without burning the stuff inside. There has to be a structure, a framework, within which to cook different things to make the stew. Similarly, in our country, we have a structure: the Constitution of the United States, the guiding principles of the people who drew up that Constitution, and the government that derived from it. We are still a relatively young country and our whole existence has been a story of immigrants and a desire for freedom. (I am not going to get into the wrongs we’ve done here, because those are part of another story). Without the specific American culture, however, there would have been nothing cohesive to bring all those immigrants from different places and different times into a unified whole. There had to a be a strong pot that could itself withstand the heat of change, while allowing the ingredients inside it to change enough to contribute to the recipe.
So, we’ve got a pot on a stove, and into it we put different ingredients: carrots, potatoes, celery, beef, onions, garlic, and whatever else is available…..plus oil and salt and spices and water. That’s the nice thing about a stew; you can put lots of different things into it, they each add their own specific taste and texture, but when you’re done, you have a finished dish, not exactly all “melted,” but all parts of a unified whole.
Similarly, each group of immigrants to the US brought their own cultures, their own specific tastes and textures, but as they assimilated into American society, they became part of the stew, not losing their cultures but adding them to the overall American culture so that it was enriched and flavored. There were common values that held us all together and the result was a country unlike any other.
Unfortunately, what has happened in my lifetime – I am 68, so I’ve lived through a lot of changes – is that we’ve allowed the pot itself to be damaged; we’ve allowed – nay, even encouraged – the corrosion of the structure of our country, the Constitutional pot, so that there is no longer a solid framework in which people can assimilate, and assimilation is crucial for the survival of a nation. Remember, assimilation in the US has not in the past meant giving up one’s culture; it has always meant declaring America to have the first claim on one’s political allegiance and it also meant that most American citizens held to the same values, the Judeo-Christian values of the founders of our country.
Furthermore, every good cook knows that there are some ingredients that just don’t go together. There are vegetables and spices that are fine in themselves but that will just not go with the stew you have made. There are also poisonous plants that you would never want to introduce into your stew…..they would make it toxic for anyone who ate it, eliminating the benefits of all the good stuff you had already put in there.
There are some people who just do not belong in our pot. They do not hold to the values that we as Americans have traditionally espoused. They just don’t fit, and neither they, nor we, would be comfortable with attempting to mix these values together. Sadly, there are also those who come here intent on only damaging and ultimately destroying the pot itself, those who embed themselves in American society only in order to bring it down. These misfits and destroyers are not always immigrants but are often those who have been born here but who don’t appreciate what we have; they want America to change to fit their political or religious ideologies.
It is so easy to make blanket statements about immigration, but that gets us nowhere. As a country that has always sought to help the downtrodden and the exiles, we need to find a way to do this without endangering our own American culture. There are people who have come illegally to this country who have assimilated as much as they could, who have jobs, kids in school; these people should be given a means to become legal citizens and not have to live in fear of being discovered and deported. There are others who are here and who express hatred for Americans and everything we stand for; these people need to be somewhere else. I don’t claim to know how to do any of this. It just seems to me to be common sense that if you hate America and seek to undermine her, you should be encouraged to leave. If you love America and seek to make a life here, to be part of a country of immigrants, a melting pot, then a means should be made for you to legally stay.
Becoming an American citizen was not easy for my parents, but citizenship was something they treasured and honored all their lives. They added their own flavor to the melting pot that is America, and their children and grandchildren have continued to be active citizens in what is still the most unique country in the world. Let’s not lose sight of who we are.