But I’m Not Irish!
March 18, 2011 § 3 Comments
Yesterday, many Americans, whether they possessed the blood of the Blarney Stone or not, dressed in green, painted their faces with shamrocks, sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and drank some green concoction or other. It was fun, raucous and a great builder of endorphins!
But what does the day really mean? Obviously it is a celebration of a culture that invaded America as many other immigrant groups have done, to find a better life. Here in The Villages we also celebrate Italian Day, Octoberfest, and just about every other nationality you can name and for that special day we all become that cultural group – just because!
Celebrations such as these make me think of my own cultural identity. Who am I and where did I come from – ancestor-wise I mean. Where to begin? Aha, you say. Perhaps Ellis Island?
Tom and I lived in New Jersey when the Ellis Island Historic Immigrant Museum opened in 1990. That Thanksgiving weekend Tom, my sister and a friend and I spent the day touring the exhibits and reading the history of immigration in the US.
Between its opening on January 1, 1892 as the new inspection and transition base, and its closing in 1954, approximately 12 million people were processed there by the US Bureau of Immigration. Today, over 100 million Americans – one third of the population – can trace their ancestry to these immigrants.
They came because they were starving. They came because their governments suppressed their freedoms of worship, self-government, and property. They came for the right to learn and grow. In short, they wanted new lives.
As we toured Ellis Island, I looked in awe at the photographs, keepsakes, and histories of the people who had landed here, within sight of New York City and the Statue of Liberty, with so many hopes and dreams. But as we talked among ourselves we realized that none of our families had entered the US through this portal.
Mother’s family stories tell of maternal ancestors – Scotsmen – who fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Jacobite Rebellion which sought to overthrow the Hanovarian King George I and return the Stuart line to the throne of England. They lost! After the final battle at Culloden near Inverness, Scotland, in 1746, those few who survived were transported to the penal colony of Georgia. Their families – some of whom are my ancestors – eventually made their way to America, by the end of the 1740s, through Charleston, South Carolina.
Her father’s ancestors were Baptists, dissenters. When Bismarck began forming the German city states into the a new country – Germany – he designated the state religions of each region: some Roman Catholic, others Lutheran. In either case the Hilgers were unwilling to pay taxes to support these churches. They arrived in the US through New Orleans and settled near the Black River in upstate Arkansas in about 1835.
Dad’s family rumor mill whispered that both of his parents were part Native American. I’ve been doing ancestral research and haven’t found the link yet, but if it’s there I will. In any case, his parents came to Texas in a covered wagon shortly after they were married to start a new life.
What wonderful themes these are: religious liberty; freedom of speech; self-determination – all indisputably American and running rampant among my family on both sides.
The Statue of Liberty is a proud symbol of our country and the promise it still gives the world. And at the base of the statue is inscribed a poem by America poet, Emma Lazarus:
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and every other immigrant or Native American cultural festival you can find. These are the pieces that make up the jigsaw puzzle that is the United States of America!
When Ellis Island was restored, my brother-in-law, Paul Rosenthal, wrote all the interpretive signage so he spent many months reliving the history of the place.
It is hard to visit Ellis without feeling the spirit of all those scared and hopeful aspiring Americans.
I remember two small stories from my own visit to the island.
One is attached to the great pile of suitcases on display. Some immigrants carried empty, or nearly empty suitcases. They had nothing, but were too proud to parade the fact.
The other is about a girl whose coat had been marked with the chalk X that indicated she had been refused entry into the country. The woman behind her in line quietly told her to turn the coat inside out. The X hidden, the girl left Ellis to begin her new American life.
The USS Sylvia brought my father from New Foundland to Ellis Island when he was a year old, and a few years ago I went to an EI Hall of Fame induction. I wish more citizens could visit such representative and deeply meaningful sites in our country. (P.S. I sported a kelly green feather boa over my Killian’s Red shirt last night.)
Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are two national treasures every American should see in his or her lifetime. Even if your family ancestors did not pass through those particular gates, each one of us is descended from a newcomer to this land. It’s good to remember that all immigrants held the same dream of achieving success, safety and freedom in America,no matter where they came from. This American dream is what ties us all together.