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The Hidden History Of Immigration: Part 3 of 3

by Martin Ford

Critics of post-1965 immigration policy believe that by accepting so many newcomers from non-Western countries, America will become Balkanized. Today's immigrants, they say, are simply too different, and unlike their European predecessors, not likely to assimilate. That many Ellis Island descendants are no longer conscious of their ethnicity is illustrated in the wry anecdote about the sociologist who was charged with surveying a cluster of white ethnic urban neighborhoods, having to map the identities of each. Walking down a new block, he passed a boy bouncing a ball against a stoop and asked him, "What kind of people live in this neighborhood, Polish, Irish, Italian?" The boy responded, "Italian," and then, as if his word alone would not suffice, he turned to a woman leaning out a nearby window, and called, "We're all Italian here, ain't we Mrs. O'Brien?" Mrs. O'Brien nodded and replied evenly, "Yea, Tony, we're all Italian here." Today, many young Americans would see no irony in Mrs. O'Brien's response. The term "European American" slides easily off the tongue and carries social weight. People of European ancestry regularly go to school and work together, marry each other, worship together, belong to the same clubs-without giving much thought to their ethnic background. And yet, during the Ellis Island era, there were few European Americans. The newcomers were Italian, Russian, Polish, Greek and other nationalities.

In fact, these "nationalities" were often poorly developed and American made. Just as some immigrants were "rebaptized" at Ellis Island, given names by immigration officers who either misunderstood the native pronunciations or sought to Anglicize foreign-sounding names, immigrants from varied ethnic and regional backgrounds were also lumped together under broad national identities that meant little to them. As sociologist Alejandro Portes has said, "Nationalities were created in America for peasant newcomers whose original identities and loyalties did not go much beyond their local villages."

According to Portes, Italians represented the "archetypal example" of this process. The largest of the Ellis Island immigrant groups, Italians came mostly from the Mezzogiorno, the southern half of the peninsula and Sicily. At Ellis Island, the peasant boy from Sicily may have been told that he was "Italian," but his sense of belonging did not extend beyond family and village. His identity could be captured in the term campanalismo, from the Italian campanile ("bell tower"), a fellow feeling extending only to those within earshot of the tolling of the village church bell. From Ellis Island, he would have settled in a neighborhood with others from his village or region, perhaps one that Americans would call "Little Italy." This community would likely have been a microcosmic reflection of the old country, divided into regional enclaves.

But life in America was fluid. As memories of his home village receded against day-to-day experience with Italians from other regions, newcomers from other countries and perhaps even old stock Americans, his social frame of reference grew. He recognized affinities with Italians from Catania, Bologna, Abruzzi, and Napoli. Once divided from them by dialect, he now felt united with them by language. This was particularly true during World War I or during the Depression, when enlistment in the Army or service in the Civilian Conservation Corps brought him into close contact with a motley assortment of Americans. The differences he had once felt towards the Italians now paled by comparison to the strangeness of these others. In this way, immigrants were drawn together as they never were in the old country. It was a process repeated over and over again. Sometimes it was language that united, as did German or Italian. Sometimes it was religion, as did Lutheranism for Dane, Swede and Norwegian. Almost always unity was achieved against the backdrop of established Americans failing to recognize differences among the newcomers and treating them with blanket disdain.

In Letters from an American Farmer, the 1782 paean to America, J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur found a "strange mix of blood" unknown in Europe. "I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations." Yet, such intermarriage was not so common for the immigrants of the Ellis Island era, or for their children. Perhaps the most telling indicator of assimilation, intermarriage implies social intimacy that goes beyond the couple involved, encompassing family and friends from their two groups. The social distance that the Ellis Island immigrant groups maintained from others was due in part to the times. This was an era of extreme nativism in America. In 1924, the year Congress enacted severe immigration restrictions, the Ku Klux Klan was at the height of its influence and the country was in an isolationist mood. The trajectory of intermarriage suggested a century before by De Crevecoeur went unrealized as America's new nationalities closed ranks against outside discrimination.

"Mixed marriages" would only become common-indeed, the norm-in the third and fourth generations. The trend began after World War II, almost as if the wartime platoon buddies-Murphy, Roselli, Pappas and Goldberg-had agreed to introduce each other to their sisters after the war. Among whites born after 1950, only one-fifth of spouses would come from the same ethnic ancestry. Examining data from several censuses, sociologist Richard Alba found that less than a third of whites born in 1920 or earlier had ethnically mixed ancestry. The figure climbed to 60 percent for those born after 1960 and to two-thirds born during the 1970s. One result of this mixing is that the number of people who claimed German, Irish, English or most other European ancestries on the 2000 census declined sharply. All told, 39 million fewer Americans claimed European ancestries than in 1990. For example, 43 million Americans claimed German descent on Census 2000, 15 million fewer than the previous decade.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the latest immigration is that the new immigrants are intermarrying at a faster rate than their Ellis Island predecessors. Asians and Hispanics, who make up around 85 percent of newcomers today, are more likely to intermarry than European or African Americans. Gregory Rodriguez sums up the trend in a recent Atlantic Monthly article:

Nationally, whereas only 8 percent of foreign-born Latinos marry non-Latinos, 32 percent of second-generation and 57 percent of third-generation Latinos marry outside their ethnic group. Similarly, whereas only 13 percent of foreign-born Asians marry non-Asians, 34 percent of second-generation and 54 percent of third-generation Asian Americans do.
Rodriguez attributes this readiness to mix to deep cultural factors, particularly a less rigid view of race among contemporary newcomers exemplified by the Latin American notion of mestizaje, racial and cultural synthesis. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the number of Americans of mixed racial ancestry will quadruple to 81 million in 2050 (out of a total projected population of 387 million). Needless to say, the social meaning of the categories by which we now divide ourselves-White, Black, Latino, Asian, Native American-will have become hopelessly antiquated. By then, too, the achievements of contemporary immigrants will no longer be hidden, and today's newcomers will be allowed to stand alongside their Ellis Island kin in the broadly expanded pantheon of ancestral gods.

Next week: The Hidden History Of Immigration: All Parts Compiled

Originally appeared in Potomac Review, Issue 35, Spring/Summer 2003 issue

About The Author

Martin Ford is the Associate Director of the Maryland Office for New Americans.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.