My Ancestors came to America from…
Poland. Sweden. Bohemia. And probably some other countries I don’t know about.
My Dad’s parents traveled as teenagers on ships from Poland and Bohemia and met in Chicago.
My Mom’s grandparents were Swedes who immigrated to Iowa.
In other words, my ancestors were IMMIGRANTS.
They all came penniless, young, scared, unable to speak English and with few job skills. They also came with courage, faith, a willingness to work hard and a heart’s desire to become Americans. To be free, raise families, create businesses and add to the marvelous melting pot that America was.
Did they face hardships? I am certain they did. Did they leave family in their home countries? Yes. Many they would never see again. Were they made fun of because of their strange clothes or accents? Probably. Did they become American citizens, learn English, work hard, buy homes, raise families and send their kids to college? You bet they did!
Did I appreciate the sacrifices my ancestors made for me? As a kid, no. Sure, my great aunts and uncles spoke Polish and the women wore babushkas and dark dresses. That was kind of weird. And we had a very Polish sounding last name that originally ended with the letters “but” later changed by my grandparents to “butte”. Frankly, not much better. My Grandmother explained, “We are Americans now.” And that’s all I needed to know.
Growing up I heard people tell Polack jokes. I didn’t like that my ancestors were made fun of and laughed at. But I didn’t say anything. Until I became a Mom. One Halloween a group of kids came to my door. I was a young Mom with a bowl full of candy and a baby in a pumpkin seat on the floor. “Trick or Treat!” they shouted. “Tell me a joke.” The oldest of the group, a boy, said, “How many Polacks does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
My face turned to stone. All the anger and embarrassment I had felt as a kid came back in that moment. I looked that boy in the eye and said, “I’m Polish. I don’t like you talking that way about MY PEOPLE.” I suddenly had leverage. I held a bowl full of candy. “Come up with a joke that doesn’t make fun of people.” And he did.
From that day on, people learned to NOT tell jokes about Polish people in front of me.
More importantly, I learned to speak up when anyone made derogatory jokes about other groups of “Non-Americans.” Or minority groups. Or religious groups. I even began to object to jokes about Blondes. Ok, they were funny but they made fun of my favorite people—WOMEN!
Looking back, I wonder, did that boy on that Halloween night change his ways in that moment and vow to never have a bigoted or racist thought again? I don’t know. And all those other people who I politely challenged to think about how hurtful those kind of put downs and jokes are–did they have an epiphany and realize that when you mock one group of people you are really hurting yourself because WE ARE ALL ONE? Again, I don’t know. But it might have started them thinking. Just like it started me thinking that I needed to stand up for not only my heritage but defend others as well.
So, how do we go from feeling we need to defend our heritage to celebrating it?
Simply look to our FAMILY TRADITIONS. How would you answer these questions?
What special foods were prepared and served for special events?
For me, bread dumplings with sauerkraut and Swedish cookies were my penultimate cultural foods. Christmas Eve we were allowed to open ONE present IF we ate our traditional Swedish oyster stew. Yuck!
Which holidays were celebrated with specific references to your heritage?
Hubby’s family was Irish and French so St. Patrick’s Day became an all-out event for us, including green clothing, decorating the house with leprechauns and consuming Irish food and drink.
Were certain songs or dances taught and performed?
Bestest Friend grew up singing and dancing to Latin music and that love has been passed down to her grandchildren.
Was a specific religion practiced and passed on?
Lutheran for me, Catholic for Hubby. We each came with our own prayers and practices.
Was the ancestral language spoken and taught?
No, though my Dad could remember some Polish curse words! Hubby and I joke that the only Swedish I know is “Orky borky” from the Muppet Swedish Chef. I deeply admire multi-lingual people. They can connect to a larger world than I.
How has the Art and Culture been celebrated?
Both Grandmothers were crafty ladies and taught me all I know about handcrafts. Some of their creations are my most cherished possessions.
What Stories were told?
In addition to family stories, cultural stories connect the generations. A gifted book of Scandinavian folktales remains a constant source of storytelling material and connection to my heritage.
Have you visited the family Home Land?
I have not, though my world traveling parents have and brought me back beautiful keepsakes. Hubby and I traveled to Ireland and that was a life-long dream for us both. Dreams, books, and movies about your home land pale in comparison to actually visiting the country and meeting YOUR PEOPLE.
Unless you are Native American, WE ARE ALL IMMIGRANTS. Some first generation, some tenth generation. No group is more American than another. Some Americans hold fast to their home land traditions and have created cultural enclaves within our cities. Some Americans keep certain aspects of their native culture alive along side of adapting and adopting multi cultural traditions within their families. Some Americans like to think they are only Americans and deny that their ancestors came from somewhere else.
If you think the “Immigration Crisis” is new, read your history. There have been waves of immigrants for centuries, rules banning and allowing certain “races.” Requirements for literacy, skills, family already citizens who will sponsor new immigrants. Deportation based on criminal activity or illegal entry. Immigration allowed because of wars and famine. Caps on number of immigrants allowed based on the year, country of origin and political asylum. Border enforcement.
The assumption is that people coming to America want to become Americans. To assimilate. To add to the rich cultural melting pot. To build a new life here for themselves and their families. As with every scenario in history, a relatively small percentage come seeking to cause trouble and subvert our laws. The goal, I think, is to allow the former and keep out the later.