Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.
So often, what we learn in school is taken out of context, fed to us as a list of facts and dates, battles and documents and geopolitical borders.
Yesterday, I went on a walking tour of San Carlos de Bariloche, a smallish town in the Patagonian Lake District of Argentina, led by an amazing local historian named Diego.
He told us about three distinct waves of German migration to this area, beginning in the mid-19th century. The Argentine government, having expanded the country’s borders to include the massive area of Patagonia, put out an international call for settlers. Anyone who came here, built a home, farmed the land, and stayed, would be given 600 hectares, free of charge. So Germans came, as did people from Switzerland, France, Britain, Portugal—all over Europe. Wherever the ‘old world’ was declining. In other parts of Argentina, the massive numbers of immigrants were Italian or Spanish.
Sound familiar? If you grew up reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, it should. Our pioneer story—our immigration story—looks incredibly similar. I loved those stories when I was a kid: all those Germans and Norwegians homesteading on the prairies of Nebraska and South Dakota, fighting the hardships of crop failure, blizzards, wildfires, and loneliness.
Diego told us that his grandfather had come from Spain, his grandmother from Italy. There was one other Argentine couple on the tour; when he asked them about their ancestry, they were more like 3/4 Italian, 1/4 Spanish. I remarked that I’d had no idea; I fumbled over the words a bit, not knowing how to phrase it, but he saw where I was going and jumped in to save me.
“Yes,” he said, “we are, like the US, a nation of immigrants. We have many of the same problems.”
I had no idea. When I was a kid, learning about all those vast migrations to the New World, New World really meant the US. The picture books I read to my children at this time of year, about how we all came from somewhere else, and joined together in one big melting pot of gratitude at Thanksgiving—the pictures in those books were of the Statue of Liberty in the harbor of New York, not Buenos Aires or Santiago.
It never crossed my mind that some of those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” landed in Argentina. I guess I just assumed they all—we all—were drawn to the US, because it was the place that welcomed immigrants. I mean, we called our most famous symbol the “Mother of Exiles.” Of course we welcomed all comers. It’s how we like to think of ourselves.
That’s certainly how I came to be an American. My ancestors were Scottish highlanders, part of the wave of refugees who fled Scotland after the Jacobite uprising, when the English were doing their best to (brutally) obliterate all remnants of highland culture. I don’t know much about what my specific ancestors left behind—all we have are names and dates—but I’ve read enough about that time, and learned enough about the broader world context, to know that they must have been refugees in the truest sense of the word.
Because it really is all about context. A name and date in a record book give us no texture, no details about what misery that person left behind, or what hopes and dreams carried them to an unknown shore, but context can help.
I was raised on a family mythology about my Scottish ancestors; one of the few items that I put in storage when we left the US was a thin, hand-typed book—a family tree assembled by some distant cousin—that traces my people back to their arrival on the shores of the newly-minted United States. But the narrative that I was raised on never mentioned what they were fleeing from: war, violence, defeat, poverty, and discrimination at the hands of a cruel, repressive government.*
Learning about European immigration to Argentina shed a much broader light on the very concept of immigration—it’s not just an American story. There have been periods in history when vast waves of people had no choice but to pull up stakes and move around the planet. My ancestors were part of one such wave. Lee’s ancestors were part of another wave, but one that had its roots in the same problems: war, violence, defeat, poverty, and discrimination at the hands of a cruel, repressive government. (Aside: for Thanksgiving one year, we took our kids to New York, where we visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and went to Ellis Island. We found their great-great-grandmother’s name on a ship’s manifest. Yeah, I was that kind of mom. #EducationalTravelRUs #CanWeGoToThePoolNow)
Am I glad my people wound up in the US? Undoubtedly. But we are not the only nation of immigrants in the world. From where I sit right now, outside of the US, I worry that we spend this one day of the year claiming that our melting-pot diversity makes us special and unique, but ignoring that identity the other 364 days.
Where did your people come from?**
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
—The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus
*If you’d like a fun exploration of the post-Jacobite Scottish migration to the US, try the Outlander books by Diana Gabaldon. You’ll get plenty of misty, kilt-clad (and unclad) Highland texture. Unless you’re my mother, in which case, stick with Monarch of the Glen reruns.
**For the record, Argentina also has an indigenous population, as does the US. The history of relations between that minority group and the government/majority population sound strikingly familiar, but that’s another story for another day.
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