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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Immigration: The Colonial Period-1924

I guess I must write about immigration, as that is what the chattering class is chattering about these days. I don’t want to because it heads the current list of things I’m tired of discussing with those who lack context -- but nonetheless, it is exactly the sort of thing I should do for “In Context.” So please forgive me if I talk more about that than about the president’s recent executive order. Nor will I mention the fact that some of the worst xenophobia comes from guys with Hispanic surnames, ala Rubio and Cruz.

Immigration from Latin America just barely had begun when I published my first book, Foreign and Female: Immigrant Women in America, in 1986. My agent, editors, reviewers, and everyone else implicitly understood that it focused on what until recently was the nation’s major period of immigration, 1840-1930, when almost all immigrants came from Europe. Let me tell you how the book – which has been revised and reissued with three different jackets – happened to come about.

Hubby was in graduate school at Harvard, and I was teaching high school in suburban Boston. I could get a raise if I took one more graduate course in history, so in the summer of 1969, I enrolled in Harvard’s summer school. That is not at all the equivalent of real graduate school, but the professor who taught the seminar nonetheless was an international expert on immigration. One day he made the statement – incontrovertible to him – that men adjusted to America better than women. Women, he said, were more likely to be homesick and want to go back to Europe, less likely to learn the language and be assimilated into American life.

Being young and impolitic, I raised my hand and asked if he had statistics on returning to Europe. He didn’t, and when years later, I finally found them (none were collected until 1910), they showed men were infinitely more likely to go back than women. Especially for young men, it was a lark, an adventure. If it didn’t work out, they knew that a mother or wife or some woman would welcome them back. For women, leaving home was a permanent decision, something well thought through. When they said goodbye, most knew it would be forever on this earth. Nonetheless, especially from Ireland and Sweden, there were years in which more women emigrated than men.

But statistics were not at the heart of my question. Instead, I asked: “What about women like my Norwegian and German ancestors who got jobs in American homes? Wouldn’t they learn the language faster than say, Slavic men working in the steel mills with other Slavs? Wouldn’t these women learn from the inside what Americans ate and wore and how they lived their daily lives?” He looked at me as though I were from outer space, as though it never had occurred to him that stereotyped gender roles might sometimes offer broader experience.

So I went over to Widener Library – the biggest in the world, except for the Library of Congress – to check out a simple book on immigrant women. There wasn’t one. There were books on immigration that included women, such as Historical Aspects of the Immigration Problem, or books on women’s history that (less often) addressed immigrants, such as Domestic Service. There were autobiographies and memoirs, especially by Jewish women. There was the five-volume work, Polish Peasants in Europe and America, and the federal government’s confusingly numbered but many-volume work, Report on the Condition of Women and Child Wage Earners in the United States.

I read tens of thousands of pages to find the information that I wanted for Foreign and Female. Let me take this opportunity to again thank the USF Library and to bless the memory of Mary Lou Harkness, who led the accumulation of USF’s books from its 1956 beginning. She also made specific suggestions from her days growing up in Nebraska, where fully half of the people at that time had German ancestors.

Or said that they were German. Actually, they often came from places that were not yet part of the German or Austrian/Hungarian empires. Instead, they came from principalities such as Westphalia, Saxony, Hesse, Schleswig-Holstein, and more. Others were Czech, called Bohemians at the time. They were the protagonists of Willa Cather’s magnificent My Antonia, set in pioneer Nebraska. I had read that long ago, but Mary Lou introduced me to Old Jules, written by the daughter of a Swiss man who abused the four wives he imported to work his worthless soil in the sand hills that now are the setting of the Keystone Pipe controversy.

Jules spoke French and German, which is not uncommon in Switzerland, and most Americans had at least a vague idea where it is. Many other immigrants, though, gave up on explaining their origin – if indeed they understood it themselves -- and simply called themselves “Dutch,” a corruption of Deutschland, Germany’s name for itself. North of Nebraska, the Dakotas became home to many who called themselves Russian because that was easier than explaining that they were Ukrainian, Estonian, Latvian, and other groups unrecognizable to Americans. After the 1917 revolution introduced communism to Russia, they were even more likely to evade questions about their national origin – just as is the case with many immigrants today.

* * *

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the long version. As I said last week, St. Augustine is the oldest permanent city in the United States, having been founded with a Mass of Thanksgiving on September 8, 1565. Spanish Florida was decades old in 1607, when the English established Jamestown, Virginia, and Plymouth, Massachusetts followed in 1620. Florida would not be part of the US until 1821, and the thirteen colonies that made up the new United States in 1776 were under English governance -- although Swedes initially settled Delaware and many German speakers (“Pennsylvania Dutch”) came to Pennsylvania. The first Catholics were in Maryland, and the first Jews in Rhode Island, but the new nation was almost entirely Protestant.

When the first census was taken in 1790, the population was 3.9 million. It grew slowly, with almost all of the increase being from births, not from immigration, until the 1840s. A potato blight in Ireland caused famine, bringing million newcomers from there in that decade; another million starved to death. The book you should read on that is Boston’s Immigrants by the great historian Oscar Handlin. Some Irish took the shortest and cheapest route that they could, going to Canada instead of the US, and literally walked south to jobs in Boston -- jobs that women were at least as likely to get as men. But Protestant New England did not welcome the Catholic Irish, and discrimination against them was very real.

Americans in the 1850s were more welcoming to more affluent immigrants from Scandinavia and German provinces. Most were Lutheran – if they were religious at all. Some fled from failed revolutions against Catholic royalty in southern and eastern Europe that peeked in 1848. Usually educated with enough resources to go to the frontier and begin farms and businesses, they sometimes were called “Latin farmers.” They settled cities such as Cincinnati; among the women was Mathilde Anneke, a German who began a feminist newspaper in Milwaukee in 1851.

You can read memoirs and letters from others of my favorite pre-Civil War immigrant women. Key search words are Linka Preus, whose husband was a Lutheran pastor in Wisconsin; Elisabeth Koran, who was the same in Iowa; and Elise Waernskjold, who differed from most Norwegians in going to Texas. Jette Bruns went from Germany’s Munster to frontier Missouri, and her letters are akin to those of Iowa’s Gro Svenson in that they bring tears to my eyes more than a century later.

I quoted liberally from them in Foreign and Female, as I did with Italian, Jewish, and other immigrants who came from further south in Europe after the Civil War. Again, they were likely to be scorned by Americans for their differing religions and lifestyles. Among my favorites for that era are Rose Cohen, who was smuggled out of Russia under a load of hay; Rosa Cavelleri, who had a reasonably good job in a Milan silk factory, but was taken by her husband as a virtual slave to a Missouri coal camp; and Anzia Yekierska, whose straightforward title is Children of Loneliness: Stories of Immigrant Life in America.

Ellis Island opened in 1892, greatly enhancing the chances that newcomers would not be allowed to easily enter as before. For a good read on this, get the first two of a planned trilogy by my Palm Harbor friend, Deanna Bennett. She writes evocatively of her grandmother’s trip from Lithuania -- and of Ellis Island officials who confused seasickness with pregnancy, a definite moral offense. You can find her author’s page at deannabennett.net.

San Francisco’s Angel Island was the West Coast’s equivalent to Ellis Island, but businessmen who wanted contract laborers from China had no trouble getting these workers – and keeping them undocumented and unprotected. Chinese men toiled in western mines and built the region’s railroads, but their existence always was tenuous. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1887 meant that neither they nor their children ever could become citizens. The chances that they would have legitimate children were very small, however, as most of the Chinese women who allowed to enter did so as sex slaves. Often kept in what were called “cribs” that were open to public view, many would be considered children today. Their life expectancy in the US was a mere four years. Read Jean Pfaelzer, Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans.

Japanese immigrants were treated slightly better until 1907, when they, too, were officially excluded. Immigration peaked that year, and when World War I broke out a few years later and new submarines infested the Atlantic, immigration effectively ended. Russians revolted against their czar in 1917, and the 1918 end of the war against Germany only inflamed xenophobia. German Americans in fact had met much discrimination during the war. My own grandfather, whose surname was Schultz, felt forced to buy “Liberty Bonds” that he could not afford, even though he had been born in Minnesota forty years earlier. Schools stopped teaching the German language; sauerkraut was dubbed “Liberty Cabbage;” and other such absurdities spouted from that era’s equivalent of right-wing talk shows.

So in 1921, a Republican president and Congress took steps to ban immigration. It was fully implemented with the 1924 Immigration Quota Act, a case of reverse affirmation action that I’ll address next week. A peek: during the 1930s, more people left American than came.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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