A note inscribed in the margin of an ancient book connected me, across an ocean and a century, to a fateful decision.
When I was growing up in suburban Maryland, every fall would bring a familiar sound. Thud, thud, thud!—chestnuts falling in their hardy armor. My mom and I would gather them up and roast them. I loved peeling away the smooth veneer and eating the sweet, still-warm fruit nestled inside, like nature’s Ferrero Rocher.
I was not, however, so fond of the way in which we procured our chestnuts.
My mom hunted for them on suburban lawns. This was during the nineties—before foraging was a way of life, before it entered the lexicon of popular (now mainstream) “foodie” movements, before bearded chefs in Brooklyn were cooking local and seasonal. My mom and I wandered into people’s yards, into patches of wooded private land, and picked up chestnuts by the plastic shopping bagful.
“Mom, this is probably illegal,” I would tell her, hoping my protests would get me out of the chore. What if someone I knew from school saw us? Would they think we were poor, that we couldn't afford food from a store?
The cool kids had Lunchables and Mondos. I had a neon cooler ripe with the aroma of kimchi.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, Christos Gabriel and Yannis Lubovicki left the faltering Eastern Bloc and came to Greece in pursuit of a happier life. But as the energy and promise of Greece’s once-fiery economy has dwindled away, immigrants like them have experienced homelessness and hostility—as well as a peculiar yearning for the old communist ways.
Like many children of immigrant parents, I was told story upon story that began, “When I came to this country…” But certain details of my father’s journey weren’t shared until I was twenty-six. Even after all these years, the story of how he emigrated from Mexico isn’t one my father likes to tell. He came from a generation where one’s citizenship status was something not to be discussed. I only learned of the specifics because I poked and prodded until he finally gave in, saying, “Tell my story when I’m dead.”
On July 21, nine Mexican nationals openly defied US immigration policy, and more than ten thousand people watched the event unfold through a live, global webcast. I held my breath as activists from the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) — who are now known as the “Dream 9” — walked arm-in-arm through the streets of Nogales, Mexico. I felt the squeeze of anxiety in my chest as they neared the US-Mexico border. And I sent a silent wish into the universe that the gamble these young people are bravely taking won’t be in vain.
Joe Maddon and his colleagues at the Hazleton Integration Project are working at a grassroots level to improve their city and overcome its ethnic divides. I can't think of worthier goals.
How do diverse societies integrate newcomers? How do they balance the need to develop a sense of community with the desire to maintain one's ancestral culture? Every multiethnic society faces these questions, and those that fail to agree on an approach are doomed to fall apart. In Patriotic Pluralism: Americanization Education and European Immigrants,
historian Jeffrey Mirel challenges examines the civic instruction European immigrants received in the first half of the twentieth century.
One of the most valuable things America can do is show the world that a society made up of people from every corner of the globe — where in a generation or two no race will be a majority — can be a place where people can choose to preserve their ancestral cultures even as they truly become one people as Americans. We can serve as an alternative model to societies that reject pluralism, that look to suppress dissent and diversity because their majority believes its culture or beliefs are the only acceptable ones. One report doesn't mean the task has been accomplished. But it does mean that, on an issue of paramount importance for us and for the world, we are on our way.