Friday, November 27, 2009

Plymouth Rock or Ellis Island?

Like so many Americans, my roots in this country don't go back very far. My family was part of that great wave of immigration that peaked in the early part of the twentieth century.

No Mayflower or D.A.R. for us. It was Ellis Island rather than Plymouth Rock, in the words of the Slovenian American writer/journalist Louis Adamic (1899-1951), who emigrated as a teenager in 1913. Adamic went on to become perhaps the most prominent chronicler of the early 20th century "new immigrant" experience.

They called them "new immigrants" to distinguish them from the "old stock" Americans who had came earlier, from Great Britain and Western Europe. Mostly, these new Americans were Catholics and Jews from Southern and Eastern Europe. They had funny accents and hard-to-pronounce last names.

Many of the "old stock" Americans worried about the consequences of opening the doors so wide. Eventually, the doors slammed shut, with restrictive legislation in place by the mid-1920s.

So I'm grateful that the doors were open long enough for my family to slip through. My Slovenian grandfather came through Ellis Island around 1913, just like Louis Adamic. My grandmother was born to parents who had emigrated from Slovenia around 1900. (Louis Adamic was her cousin, according to family lore.) When my mother with very young, they spoke only Slovenian at home.

My late father was Scottish, an ethnic background that's always been acceptable to "old stock" Americans. But I think there was something a little dodgy about how he got here. His family seems to have slipped in by way of Canada. My father didn't figure out he needed naturalization papers until he was drafted in World War II.

So now the "new immigrants" and their descendants have become the old guard. Too many of them—of us—are worried about the newest immigrants, legal and not, from all those other places. Mexico and China. India and the Middle East and Africa. How many of us are prepared to shut the door now that we have safely passed through it ourselves?

We need to remember where we came from and be grateful. And, when we can, we need to open doors and not close them.

(Note: this was originally written as a post-Thanksgiving essay on gratitude, in connection with the Red Room writing community. It seemed like a fitting way to initiate this new blog.)


  1. This was an interesting article.

    It's nice to see someone looked deep into this subject of immigration,and past the politcal aspect of it.

    I feel lucky that I was allowed to come to this wonderful country.

    It sure is a different ballgame now days when a person makes his way to a new life.You have to bring a lawyer along with you it seems.

    I found your wriitng really nice Blair..:)

    Elizabeth in Minnesota

  2. Thank you, Elizabeth, for the lovely response!

    So we seem to share some history: a journey that began somewhere else and then led to Minnesota :-) That's where my immigrant great-grandparents first settled, more than 100 years ago. It's also the birthplace of my grandmother, the first in my family to be born in the U.S.A. I am grateful, too.