These last months there’s been a lot of talk about making America ‘ours’ again. Hello? That might come as big news to those early North/South American settlers. Remember those guys who came from Asia more than 20,000 years before the Nina, Pinta or Santa Maria ever cruised these hallowed shores? The indigenous native populations, who treasured forests, nature and spirit, were the original owners of our fair land before they got their walking papers. They had make room for the upstarts from across the pond; the new kids on the block took over big time. Now, I’m not saying we haven’t done a great job with the place. It’s flourished nicely these 241 years since we made it official. I’m pretty darn proud of this America, even though it has a shadow side we sometimes conveniently forget.
So, we shipped the first owners to the hinterlands. Weirdly, though we couldn’t understand why they weren’t thankful for the ride! (We get a little defensive about ownership and the acceptable types who should live here.) This country was becoming pretty nice place and soon more settlers came and set up shop. Others got the memo that the place was open for business and they came in droves, but as the land slowly sprouted farms, ranches and tiny cities, we needed to call in the ‘help’. So we grabbed them from another continent, then owned, traded, worked the frightened captives we indignantly believed had no right to be here! We have a little problem with this ownership thing.
America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms
it will be because because we destroyed ourselves.
The Chinese, Italians, Irish and Germans also traveled the high seas to this land of opportunity but the welcome sign wasn’t always up for them either. They came escaping wars, poverty, and starvation only finding they now would struggle to survive, and fight to belong. They built our railroads, worked in fields, and factories. Yet, for many years, finding a place in their new home’s pecking order came second to simply knowing their place. Immigrant makes good. That’s the dream every pilgrim held as they sailed to these shores and it came true for some — not all. If your eye or skin color didn’t match the Mayflower brand, you had a tougher time and some were often stuck in time; the wrong time. The dreams of today’s immigrants are no different. Armed with culture, appearance and beliefs dramatically different than ours, that big open door often gets stuck. Many Hispanics, Muslims, and Vietnamese find themselves outside looking in, a ‘no vacancy’ sign neatly posted. Many achieve US citizenship but will always seem less than equal to natural born Americans. Most ironic is that many of those ‘less thans’ have fought and died for the country they’ll never achieve ‘same’ status in.
“The McNichols, the Posalskis, the Smiths, Zerillis, too
The Blacks, Irish, Italians, the Germans and the Jews
Come across the water a thousand miles from home
With nothin’ in their bellies but the fire down below
They died building the railroads worked to bones and skin
They died in the fields and factories names scattered in the wind
They died to get here a hundred years ago they’re still dyin now
The hands that built the country were always trying to keep down”
Nearly 40 million American neighbors, co-workers are foreign born. Unfortunately, many of us didn’t get that memo. Watching the Charlottesville, VA protests, the often hidden underbelly of American prejudice raised an ugly head. It was hard not to be ashamed and indignant hearing the hateful rhetoric and bizarre beliefs. We are all people whose ancestors escaped caste systems, brutal prejudice, and pillaging to come here. We don’t get to vanquish others and still pretend to be the good guys. Newsflash, people – there is no making America ‘white’ again; it never was in the first place. So those Neo-Nazi flags, the KuKluxKlan torches? Um, no, not in MY America.
I have blonde (helped a little) hair and blue/green eyes. Didn’t put in the order for it, especially as an Italian American, I just came that way. But what if I didn’t? Anyone who’s struggled to pick a paint color for their living room, knows there are dizzying shades of white. We mix different genres of design style and call it ‘eclectic’ and our blended cuisines become chic ‘fusion’. Yet, we somehow can’t find the coolness in the people variety.
When I was in grammar school, one of the sweetest girls I’ve ever known arrived from Argentina. My town was so white bread, so generational in its population, that her pierced ears alone made her exotic if not suspect. Her parents’ warmth and love each time I visited their apartment made me feel more welcome and understood than I sometimes did in my own home. More than 60 years later (gulp) I still treasure my beautiful Argentine friend, partner in crime at our all-girls high school, bridesmaid in my (first) wedding, and still one of my dearest friends. When my youngest daughter was small, her lifetime friend came from Japan. That little girl learned English with the help of my daughter and her best bud (son of my best bud) who patiently pointed out trees, clouds, and other sights each day in car pool. Now both young moms, they still hold each other in heart, separated only by ocean. Hey, how else would my daughter have discovered those Japanese donuts with potato filling she loves? (I’ll still pass, thank you)
Lost in the daily grind, it’s easy to forget how we got here. It’s easy to forget the sacrifices and sins, struggles and dreams of those who came before us. What unites us all is not skin color but dreams; the dream of freedom, equality and opportunity. Those who answer the call of the torch carrying woman in the harbor, like my grandparents did, still believe in those dreams for them, their children and children’s children. Yes, times have changed since the Constitution was written. When the second Amendment was inked, the people who espoused it used muskets – not assault rifles; hunting was for survival not sport. The first Amendment mandated not only for freedom of speech for everyone, but for separation of church and state. But secular or religious, the precept of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” will always be a pretty good one to follow.
You say I’m just a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
With the rescinding of DACA today, there are many Dreamers who may never get to see the dream their parents sacrificed to give them. And here’s the rub. The number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. tripled between the 1990s and 2013, but violent crime declined 48% and studies show that immigrants, both legal and undocumented, commit less crime than native-born Americans. While that might be a cringe worthy fact it’s true, not an alternative.
Nothing good comes from a toxic chase of the ‘real American’. We can’t accuse someone of not being born here without remembering where our own ancestors emigrated from. And, chances are, that wasn’t from the original 13. America may not have a lily-white history, but I still like to picture it as Norman Rockwell’s rainbow of mankind portrayed in his “Golden Rule’ painting. Today’s Americans have immigrated here from all corners of the world, all religions and ethnicities and that’s as ‘real’ as you get. We are urban and rural, white and blue collar, conservative and liberal, straight and gay. America is not Mayberry but a melting pot of every ethnicity, culture, and profession. Humanity is multi-faceted and so is America. If we think it isn’t, we aren’t looking hard enough.
We have to work really hard sometimes to be our brother’s keeper, to accept another viewpoint, see past color or people struggling to learn new ways and language. Prejudice can be as contagious as the flu with education and morality the only vaccination against it. The narrative has to change. Being American is much more than mom and apple pie, though I still vote for both. Everyone is fighting for American fairness, justice and equality. No one state, political group or set of followers have a lock on a ‘real America’. Real America is found in the Constitution, the battlefields of Afghanistan, the generosity and sacrifice of people we’ve seen in the flooded state of Texas. Real is not in paranoia about ‘the other’, or cultural, religious or racial resentment. We fought wars over that, right? Fear of the other might drive political fervor, but not the ‘real’ American dream. That’s what abides in hearts and minds of everyone who cherish the freedom and precepts that built a powerful nation.
Yeah, we have problems, who doesn’t? Infrastructure, healthcare, tax reform and affordable college are all on our plate, along with keeping a lid on the threat of nuclear war. But this country has lived through wars, devastation, witch trials and a Great Depression. I believe in our better instincts because I still believe in you, America. I believe that at your heart, you are still the shining city on the hill.
You’ve got this, America.