by Bennett Muraskin
Discussed in this essay: Becoming Americans: Immigrants Tell Their Stories from Jamestown to Today, edited by Ilan Stavans, The Library of America, 2009 (paperback edition 2013), indexed, 724 pages.
ILAN STAVANS is a Jewish immigrant to the U.S. from Mexico. His parents were born in Eastern Europe. As a Jew, and a secular Jew at that, he never felt at home in Mexico, but after a period of adjustment, he feels fully at home in the U.S. He is a professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, with a Master’s degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary and a doctorate from Columbia University. A popular and respected intellectual, he was the host of a PBS series, Conversations with Ivan Stavans, from 2001 to 2006. Stavans is a prolific and creative essayist, story writer, translator, linguist, and editor. Among his many achievements are editing The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories, the collected stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature and the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature.
Because of what’s going on regarding immigration under the new Trump Administration, I recently picked up Stavans’ 2009 collection, Becoming Americans. Sad to say, the collection is not one of his best efforts — yet it is a provocative read in the face of current events.
There are contributions from ninety immigrants to our shores, from forty-five countries, but no more than half are memoirs or autobiography. The rest is prose fiction and eight poems.
There are no Canadians, no Australians, and only three sub-Saharan Africans, of which two are slaves from the 18th century. Considering the influx of Mexicans into the U.S., their stories are seldom told in this collection.
These are not the only problems. The Foreword by Pete Hamill is bizarre. On the one hand, he claims that the immigrants “received many gifts upon arrival; work and housing and that healing indifference that does not care whether you are Catholic, Protestant or Jews as long as you played by the rules.” This ignores the difficulty immigrants struggled to overcome in finding work and decent housing, and the discrimination they often faced. Through much of American history, immigrants have less needed to “play by the rules” than to have those rules rewritten and democratized.
On the other hand, Hamill claims that “All [the immigrants and their children] had to face the great strain of slavery and its aftermath.” Yet none of the ninety entries has anything to say on this subject.
Stavans’ own introduction is better, but in claiming that America has generally been welcoming to immigrants, he ignores the anti-Catholic riots of the 1850s, the persistent discrimination faced by Mexican-American, and the fierce persecution of Chinese immigrants in California before and after the Civil War, the harsh restrictions of the 1924 Johnson-Reed act, and, of course, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. And while there were many immigrants who fought in the American Revolution and Civil War and lived to write tell their tales, Stavans does not chronicle a single one.
Over twenty of the contributors are Jews, including some well know figures — Abraham Cahan, Ludwig Lewisohn, Mary Antin, Anzia Yezierska, Henry Roth, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, I.B. Singer, Ariel Dorfman, and the editor himself.
STAVANS DOES WELL to start with colonial America, with memoirs from immigrants who came here as indentured servants. The experience was so harsh for Gottlieb Mittelberger that he penned his account with the specific purpose of discouraging his German countrymen from immigrating to the U.S. Many of these accounts of early America also reveal the prevalence of epidemics of communicable diseases and debilating illnesses that were later wiped out.
The Irish came to the U.S. in droves after the 1845 potato famine, but I found only one contribution from an Irish immigrant, John McElgun. It is not a memoir but an excerpt from a novel that depicts how new Irish immigrants were swindled by employment agencies. A jovial countryman comes to the rescue. Stavans’ introduction to this chapter describes the novel in darker terms. (Why then did he not select a more representative excerpt?)
While new immigrants typically sought help from their countrymen that arrived before them, in one interesting memoir, a Swede Hans Mattson tells a different story. He came in the U.S. in 1851 with little money, and struggled for years to rise out of poverty. Mattson was shunned by his fellow Swedes, however, because he came from a middle-class background. Yet Mattson had a generous spirit and rose to prominence in Minnesota politics.
O.E Rolvaag arrived here from Norway in 1896. In an excerpt from his famous novel, Giants of the Earth, the main character weighs the pros and cons of immigration in writing a letter to his brother. He contrasts the greater opportunities to succeed economically and the political freedom afforded by the U.S. with the alienation felt by newcomers living among an “strangers,” and decides he cannot recommend either way.
Ludovico Caminita, an Italian immigrant who came here in 1902, was an anarchist in Paterson, New Jersey. He recounts his imprisonment on Ellis Island during the post-World War I Red Scare. Caminita was held for deportation for three years before being released. From his Ellis Island cell, he could see the Statute of Liberty. Surprisingly, he depicts the Paterson police as friendly, and reserves his contempt for the federal agents who kept him and his comrades from seeing their wives.
Fifteen pages are devoted to Edward Said, the Palestinian scholar, who became homesick while attending boarding school in a rural area of Massachusetts after living with his family in bustling Cairo.
ONE OF THE MORE interesting contributions comes Bernardo Vega, a Puerto Rican who came to New York city in 1916. A socialist, he gravitated to Harlem, where the Socialist Party was strong among Jewish residents. Vega tried to find work as a cigarmaker, but the only work he can find was in a munitions factory where working conditions are brutal and fellow workers stole his money. Nevertheless, he enjoyed the cosmopolitan atmosphere in New York and identified the Workmen’s Circle, the Yiddish Forward and the Jewish unions as standing in solidarity with foreign workers.
Carlos Bulosin, an immigrant from the Philippines, arriving in 1930 and wrote a novel about a labor organizer among cannery workers on the West Coast. He described Filipino immigrants being virtually sold to a labor contractor to work in Alaska, and being cheated out of their wages. The lead character later becomes an apple-picker until white gangs drive Filipinos out of the orchards. At the same time, Filipino workers squander their earnings on liquor and prostitutes and prey on each other.
The only story dealing head on with race relations is an excerpt from a novel by South Korean immigrant Chang-Rae Lee, who arrived here as a child in 1965, settling with her family in Queens, New York. In her narrative, a Korean merchant and a black customer argue over a defective watch that was sold at a pricea too good to be true. To the merchant, all black people are potential thieves or murderers, but when a Korean elected councilman intervenes, the merchant reluctantly gives the customer a more expensive watch and throws in a cheap pair of earrings.
Many of the stories deal with culture shock, linguistic transitions, and generational conflicts. These appear to be universal themes for immigrants. For example, Tahira Naqvi, an immigrant from Pakistan, tells a story about a Pakistani mother who feels adrift living with his son in Connecticut. Homesick, she elicits a promise from him that when she dies, he will see to it that she is buried back home among her ancestors.
But for something different, read Reinaldo Arenas’ account of the 1980 Mariel boatlift from Cuba. Arenas was among the 135,000 Cubans allowed to leave, but not before the Cuban government subjected them to vilification and abuse. Castro’s intention was to get rid of those he considered criminals and outcasts. Arenas, a dissident, was lucky to escape. His boat was lost as sea and had to be rescued. “The difference between the communist and capitalist system,” he writes, “is that although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system, you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system, you can scream. And I came to scream.” Tragically, Arenas contracted AIDS and committed suicide in 1990.
AMONG THE Jewish contributors, Cahan vividly describes the multi-ethic, multi-lingual Lower East Side of the 1880s and remarks that the immigrant socialists were able to circulate their propaganda freely, unlike in tsarist Russia, where there were no press freedoms. Mary Antin, who came here as a child from Russia in 1894, praises her wonderful public school education, which led to the publication of her ode to George Washington in one of the major Boston newspapers. An excerpt from an Anzia Yezierska novel shows the contempt that some college-educated Jewish youth had for their old-fashioned parents.
Lucette Lagnado came to the U.S. as a child in 1962 from Egypt. Her aristocratic father is berated by an intrusive social worker for resisting assimilation. Gary Shteygart, now a successful novelist, arrived from the Soviet Union in 1979. His parents sent him to a religious day school, where he felt alone. His family received charity from Jewish organizations. Slowly, he mastered English with the help of watching American television.
My favorite memoir is by Joseph Pell, an immigrant from Poland who came to the U.S. in 1947, after fighting with the partisans in World War II. Although he received assistance from HIAS, he was branded a “greenhorn” by many Jews he encountered in New York. He and a buddy took off for Chicago but were driven off by the cold. On their way to San Francisco in a bus, he tried to learn English by reading highway billboards. After a few hours of looking out the window, he asked his buddy how “motel” became such a bigshot in the U.S., confusing the Jewish first name “Mottel” with a motel. Pell became a wealthy real estate developer in California.
Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.