scholar at large
Fresh off the BoatAssimilation’s dirty little secret
Full disclosure: my mother came to New York City in 1919, at age fourteen.
The Ellis Island database lists her name and that of my Aunt Bertha, the
oldest of my mother’s eleven siblings, who was waiting for her at
the ferry. There is no record of my father, who came a little later. He
remembered arriving off the coast of Long Island on a big boat, then getting
into a little boat and rowing ashore. My father was an illegal immigrant.
Neither parent knew a word of English. My mother never went to school.
My father had only a rudimentary education. In 1938 they became naturalized
Americans. End of full disclosure.
On his celebrated visit to the United States in the 1830s, the young Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the settlers pouring into the country enjoyed a conveniently short memory. Within a generation of their arrival, he noted, most of them had forgotten that their forefathers were desperate immigrants. The now proud Americans had abandoned their native languages, and showed little sympathy for the next boatload to come ashore.
A similar amnesia pervades our history. The Pilgrims of 1620 came fleeing religious persecution, but once they had morphed into the Puritans, established Boston, and founded Harvard, they became persecutors in their own right. The ministers Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams had hardly stepped off the gangplank before they were told to get out of town, banished because they worshipped in a slightly different fashion. Mary Dyer, another English immigrant, “quaked” in the presence of God, and for that offense she was hanged on the Boston Common in 1660. But much as the English Protestants hated each other, they hated those who were not their own kind even more. Benjamin Franklin could be driven apoplectic by his loathing for the “stupid, swarthy Germans.”
Later, the Irish, who started fleeing the potato famine in the 1820s, became a target. In the Boston broadsheets they were called “maggots and vermin” who weren’t really “white,” and if the door was open to them, it was largely because they would perform menial work for little pay. Throughout the Civil War, they were also useful as cannon fodder. Young Irish boys would go from boat to battlefield, seldom stopping long enough in Boston or New York City for their mothers to save up the hundred dollars in silver that “real” Americans paid to keep their children out of the draft.
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, big business still needed cheap labor, and still turned to immigrants for it—Italians and Russian Jews this time. The Irish, who had made it in America by then, looked down on these most recent immigrants just as everyone else did. An Irish-American journalist writing in the New York Tribune in 1898 had this to say about Manhattan’s Lower East Side, then known as Little Israel: “The neighborhood where these people live is the eyesore of New York City and perhaps the filthiest place on the western continent. It is impossible for a Christian to live there, because he will be driven out by the stench. Cleanliness is an unknown quantity to these people. They cannot be lifted to a higher plane, because they do not want to be.”
Today it is the Asians’ and Latin Americans’ turn. It is they who will do anything to get to America—whether that means swimming across shark-infested waters, crossing a desert on foot, or selling their daughters for space in a container to save the rest of their family. No wonder the greatest source of illegal wealth in the world is neither arms nor drugs, according to Interpol, but human trafficking.
The new immigrants will be received the same way their predecessors have been: with accusations of criminality and low morals, and the claim that they “will never be willing or able to assimilate.” And yet these new immigrants—people of color, who face an even greater challenge to be “like us”—will, within one or two generations, be exactly like us. Do you know what the most popular name for girls born to second-generation Latino parents is? Ashley. For boys? Kevin. As for language acquisition, there is already a shortage of Spanish speakers in Miami for social service agencies. Some things never change.
In his forty-five years at Tufts, SOL GITTLEMAN has been a professor of German, Judaic studies, and Biblical literature, and has taught in a variety of departments. Formerly Tufts’ provost and chair of the Department of German, Slavic, and Asian Languages, he is now the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor. His most recent book is on the 1949–1953 New York Yankees.