How Quickly We Forget: We Owe It to Today's Immigrants to Be Honest about the Difficulties and Prejudices against the Huddled Masses Who Came before Them

By Hoover, Brett C. | U.S. Catholic, May 2007 | Go to article overview

How Quickly We Forget: We Owe It to Today's Immigrants to Be Honest about the Difficulties and Prejudices against the Huddled Masses Who Came before Them


Hoover, Brett C., U.S. Catholic


On my father's side, my great-great grandparents came to this country from Germany sometime in the middle of the 19th century. What their Catholic immigrant lives were like, I could not say. Their stories lie too far back in the generations, lost in the mist of history.

Instead in my family we make do with substitutions. My grandfather once told me about how his next-door neighbors, a German couple, ceased speaking German completely, even at home, when World War II broke out. My grandmother--who grew up Methodist--remembered as a teenager discovering a cross burning in the middle of the street. She recognized the house it marked as that of a Catholic family she knew (probably immigrants, the main target of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and '30s).

These anecdotes, all a safe distance from my own family, are all we know of immigrant struggles. The rest of the story is long forgotten.

I call it immigrant amnesia.

In the recent national debates about immigration, surprising levels of resentment have surfaced against immigrants, particularly against the undocumented. People talk of "invasion," of being "overrun." A Colorado congressman calls the undocumented a "scourge that threatens the very future of our nation." An acquaintance in Seattle makes no distinctions about people's legal status, only telling me that many Californians have moved north to "escape the Mexican problem."

Scattered sentiments I hear from white Catholics in parishes across the country express similar ambivalence about immigrants and immigration, though almost never to such extremes. In Northern California and New York City, only a small number of people ask, "Why do we need Masses in Spanish? They need to learn to speak English."

In the Midwest I am told uncertainly, "Well, Father says they have a right to be here, but there's all these car accidents and they don't have insurance." Once in a while Catholics of Euro-American heritage accompany these comments with statements about their own immigrant ancestors. "When my great-grandparents came to this country, they learned English."

That's when I begin to wonder about immigrant amnesia.

Most Euro-American Catholics in the United States today are descended from immigrants who came to the United States in two great waves: the first mostly Irish and German (1820-1870), the second Southern and Eastern European (1880-1920). In the first decades of the 20th century, however, anti-immigrant sentiment--particularly focused on curbing the expansion of Southern and Eastern European Catholic and Jewish populations and on deporting Asians--was encoded into law. Immigration ground nearly to a halt, further dampened by the economic climate of the Great Depression. It did not pick up again until the 1960s when the civil rights movement put an end to the discriminatory laws.

A slowdown in European immigration, however, is what allowed Euro-American Catholics to get fuzzy and perhaps a bit romantic in our memories of our own immigrant ancestors. For most of us it all happened a long time ago. To know what their lives were like now, we turn to history. Did our ancestors really learn English right away? What do we really know about their lives?

Deja vu all over again

If suddenly you found yourself chatting with a German immigrant from the late 19th century, you would find people like my great-grandparents under increasing pressure to learn and speak English. In many German areas Catholic schools were German schools, bilingual at best.

A German Jesuit in Boston, Ernst Reiter, had advised German immigrants to speak only German to their children, lest bilingual children humiliate their parents with their superior English. Many Catholics over the decades--Germans, Poles, Italians--feared that letting go of their native language in a Protestant country would mean losing their culture and their religion.

One immigrant writer even called English a "Protestant language.

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