A recent letter to the editor lauded America as a melting pot, and demanded that new immigrants assimilate as quickly as possible by getting off the dole within 90 days, learning English within three years, and melting in to the greater American ethos. At least that was the general idea, and I guess he believes that is how other generations of immigrants did it. Was it?
What is assimilation? For some it seems to mean something like adopting a generic white middle American way of life that dispenses with the cultural baggage of the old country. What if it’s something different? What if it means incorporating the best of that cultural baggage into an evolving American way of life?
Where I grew up in the 1950s, the countryside was dotted with small towns: some German, some Norwegian, some Swedish. Up north is was said to be mostly Italian and Finnish. Minneapolis was mostly Scandinavian and German, except for the Polish north side. St. Paul had a reputation for being French and Irish. An acquaintance of my parents’ age had to learn her catechism in German. Adopting English as one’s primary language often extended into the second generation. Cultural identity was not left behind in the process of assimilation, but was incorporated into the American way of life. Of course we celebrated the Fourth of July, but that didn’t stop celebrations of Syttende Mai and Svenskarnas Dag, which we plain old run of the mill Americans enjoyed along with Norwegians and Swedes. The last time I visited my home town there were many shop signs advertising Middle Eastern fare, some in Arabic. People of a variety of skin shades were everywhere, and the whole place looked more vibrant than ever before.
I’ve been gone from Minnesota a long time. I live in Walla Walla now. It’s a much more recent place, having emerged from the frontier as a proper small city only in the last quarter of the 19th century. What about immigrants here? It’s a broad mix of about everything. That happens when a gold rush drives the early in migration. But among them the French, Italians, and Russians stand out as groups that maintained the old language and customs for a long time, including newspapers and schools. Some were not that interested in assimilating with the dominant group, even if the dominant group was another immigrant community, especially if you were an Italian expected to assimilate into St. Patrick church. There is a reason why we have a small St. Francis church only a few blocks away. The Frenchtown historical site, and an Italian heritage day celebration are among the ways we celebrate cultural diversity. Cinco de Mayo is a big day for the whole town. In fact, we have a Cultural Diversity Day that celebrates in music and dance all of the ethnic identities one can find around here. Assimilation looks a lot like that.
In the end, I think our letter writer expects more out of recent and future immigrants than we have ever demanded of those who came before. Besides, he wants them off the dole within 90 days. What dole would that be? Well, at least he has that in common with the way we treated earlier waves of immigrants. Ridiculed, shut out of decent jobs, shunted off to the worst of places to live, and, if you were Japanese or Chinese, banned from coming at all. On the other hand, if you were an American Indian you were herded onto reservations and your children made to attend Indian schools whose intent was to make good little all American white boys and girls out Indian children. But that’s another story isn’t it?