Immigration Should Be About Culture and Assimilation (and the Joy of Becoming American)

As the immigration debate heats up, we must remember that America has a culture. Of foremost importance to any immigration policy must be protection of that culture.

America has been honored through her history for being a nation whose membership is not based upon a bloodline but instead upon ideals. Anyone can be as American as anyone else. That being the case, shouldn’t we insist upon those ideals being at least substantially held by others when we allow them to become American? If America is her ideals, can one really claim an “American” identity without adhering in substantial measure to her ideals? 

Were we to allow America’s ideals to be radically changed over time by outsiders coming in, the case could then be made that America as founded no longer exists. At that point we may as well change the name to not denigrate what American once was.

A nation that does not protect its culture invites not just loss of that culture but destruction from outsiders. When Mexico owned Texas, they had an open borders policy. How’d that work out for the Mexicans? Look at Lebanon. That was a thriving, wonderfully free country run by majority Christians. They elected to have an open door policy to Palestinians who did not share their culture. The Arabs soon turned Lebanon into a disaster area.

History compels us not to let America die by the noose of multiculturalism. We have a culture, thank you very much. It can be learned in our founding political documents and in the theistic-based values that shaped our daily living over centuries.

I hope to have a series of posts on immigration and the importance of culture.

To show that I’m not here to beat up the newcomer but support him, in this post I’d like to explore something favorable to the newcomer. I’d like to recognize that it isn’t easy for newcomers to abandon the traditions of the old country and accept fully the culture of America, even when they truly want to do it!

While I acknowledge that it can be hard to let go, I stress that anyone who won’t let go of their old country makes themselves an outsider here, not the other way around. Assimilation means the newcomer has to do the work of fitting in with us, not us with him.

There is an essay that I have seen in various forms hanging in Italian restaurants (and now on the Internet). It is called “The Joy of Growing up Italian.”

The reader will get what is promised and expected from the title, but the essay turns out not really to be about the joy of being Italian. It is really about the joy of becoming American. As with all good things in life, losing your old culture to be American doesn’t come easy and there is some lamentation about the loss of old country culture in the essay. 

We Americans should recognize that assimilation by letting go of the past is hard, no matter how much better and more glorious American culture really is than that in the old place. The best we can do for newcomers is to constantly encourage them towards assimilation and to not coddle anyone’s expectation of rejecting our culture for theirs.

The essay strikes a chord with me because my experience is the same as the author: It takes four generations for a family to lose the old ways. As in the essay, my immigrant grandparents (who loved this country greatly) were aesthetically Italian-Italian, my father an American-Italian, I an Italian-American and my own children American-American (I don’t think they self-identify as Italian at all. If you had asked me for my “nationality,” as a young man I would have told you Italian, despite never having stepped foot in Italy. My children will say American).

So please enjoy the below essay. The part about the author’s grandfather really drove it home for me. He wanted an American family and eventually got one, but the cost of losing the Italian culture, while certainly worth the price of admission, at least should be acknowledged by the rest of us as not always an “easy” emotional price to pay:

 The Joy of Growing Up Italian

I was well into adulthood before I realized I was an American. Of course I had been born in America and had lived in New Jersey all my life, but somehow it never occurred to me that just being a citizen of the United States meant I was an American. Americans were people who ate peanut butter and jelly on mushy white bread that came out of plastic packages. Me? I ate pepper and egg sandwiches on an Italian roll. I was Italian.

For me, as I am sure for most second generation Italian-American children who grew up in the 40’s and 50’s, there was a definite distinction drawn between “us and them.” We were Italian. Everybody else – the Irish, German, Polish, Jewish, they were the “Med-e-gones.” There was no animosity involved in that distinction, no prejudice, no hard feelings, just, well, we were sure ours was the better way. For instance, we had a bread man, a milkman, a coal and ice man, a fish man, a fruit and vegetable man, a watermelon man, an egg and cheese man, and we even had a man who sharpened our knives and scissors and came to our homes, or at least to our neighborhoods.We would wait for their call, their yell, their individual sound. We knew them all, and they knew us. Americans went to the store for most of their food. What a waste!

Truly, I pitied their loss. They never knew the pleasure of waking up every morning to find a hot crisp loaf of Italian bread waiting behind the screen door. And instead of being able to climb up on the back of the peddlers truck a couple times a week just to hitch a ride, most of my “med-e-gone” friends had to be satisfied going to the A&P. When it came to food, it always amazed me that my American friends or classmates only ate turkey on Thanksgiving or Christmas. Or, rather that they only ate turkey, stuffing, mashed potatos and cranberry sauce. Now, we Italians – we also had turkey, stuffing, mashed potatos and cranberry sauce, but only after we finished the antipasto, soup, lasagna, meatballs, salad and whatever else Mama thought might be appropriate for that particular holiday. The turkey was usually accompanied by a roast of some kind (just in case somebody walked in who didn’t like turkey), and was followed by an assortment of fruits, nuts, pastries, cakes and of course, homemade cookies. No holiday was ever complete without some home baking, none of that store bought stuff for us! This is where you learned to eat a seven course meal between noon and 7PM, how to handle hot chestnuts and put tangerine wedges in red wine. I truly believe Italians live a romance with food.

Speaking of food, Sunday was truly the big day of the week! That was the day you’d wake up to the smell of garlic and onions frying in olive oil. As you lay in bed, you could hear the hiss as tomatoes were dropped in a pan. Sunday we always had macaroni and sauce, the “med-e-gones” called it “pasta and gravy.” Sunday would not be Sunday without going to Mass. Of course, you couldn’t eat before Mass because you had to fast before receiving communion. But the good part was we knew when we got home, we’d find hot meatballs frying, and nothing tastes better than newly fried meatballs and crisp bread dipped into a pot of sauce. There was another difference between “us” and “them”. We had gardens. Not just flower gardens, but huge gardens where we grew tomatoes, tomatoes and more tomatoes. We ate them, cooked them and jarred them. Of course, we also grew peppers, basil, lettuce and squash. Everybody had a grapevine and a fig tree, and in the fall, everybody made homemade wine, lots of it. Of course, those gardens thrived so because we also had something else it seemed our American friends didn’t have. We had a grandfather!

It’s not that they didn’t have grandfathers, it’s just that they didn’t live in the same house or on the same block. They visited their grandfathers. We ate with ours and God forbid we didn’t see him at least once a day. I can still remember my grandfather telling me about how he came to America as a “young man on a boat.” How the family lived in rented apartments and took in boarders in order to help make ends meet, how he decided that he didn’t want his children, five sons and two daughters, to grow up in that environment. All of this, of course, in his own version of Italian-English, which I soon learned to understand quite well. So, when he saved enough (and I could never figure out how), he bought a house. That house served as the family headquarters for the next 40 years. Of course, he had to add his own touch of himself to that house by building a porch on, and then deciding to “add another on to that” and another on to that one until he added about four porches on to the original. I remember how he hated to leave that house, and would rather sit on the back porch and watch his garden grow, and when he did leave for some special occasion, he had to return as quickly as possible. After all, “nobody’s watching the house.”

I also remember the holidays when all the relatives would gather at my grandparent’s house and there would be tables full of food and homemade wine and music. Women in the kitchen and men in the living room, and kids, kids everywhere. I must have half a million cousins, first and second and some who aren’t even related, but what did it matter? And my grandfather, with his gallon jug of wine beside his chair, sitting there smoking his cigar in the middle of it all, grinning his mischievous smile, his eyes twinkling, surveying his domain, proud of his family and how well his children had done. One was a barber, one had his father’s trade, one was a policeman and of course there was always the rogue. And the girls, they had all married and had fine husbands and healthy children that everyone knew and respected. He achieved his goal in coming to America and to New Jersey and now his children and their children were achieving the same goals that were available to them in this great country, because they were Americans.

When my grandfather died years ago, things began to change. Slowly at first, but then uncles and aunts eventually began to cut down on their visits. Family gatherings were fewer and something seemed to be missing, although when we did get together, usually at my mother’s house now, I always had the feeling that they were there. It was understandable, of course.

Everyone had their own families now, and their own grandchildren. Today we meet at weddings and wakes. Lots of other things have changed too. The old house my grandfather bought is now covered with aluminum siding, and the garden is gone. The last of the homemade wine had long since been drunk and nobody covers the fig tree in the fall anymore. For a while, we would make the rounds on the holidays visiting families. Now, we occasionally visit the cemetery. A lot of them are there, grandparents, aunts and uncles, a few cousins and even my own mother and father.

The holidays have changed too. The quantity of food we once consumed without any ill effect is not good for us anymore. Too much starch, too many calories, too much cholesterol and nobody bothers to bake anymore…too busy and it is easier to buy now. Too much is no good for you. We meet at the same house now, at least my family does, but it’s not the same anymore.

The differences between “us” and “them” aren’t so easily defined anymore and I guess that’s good. My grandparents were Italian-Italians, my parents were Italian-Americans, and I am American-Italian, and my children are American-Americans. Oh, and I’m American all right, and proud of it, just as my grandfather would want me to be. We are all Americans now – Irish, Poles, Germans and Jews. United States citizens all – but somehow I still feel Italian. Call it culture, call it tradition, call it roots. I’m not sure what it is, all I do know is that my children have been cheated out of a wonderful piece of heritage. They never knew my grandparents.