OPINION | KAREN MARTIN: Staying in touch with our immigrant past

Karen Martin

It's difficult to understand why many Americans blame immigrants for just about everything that's wrong with the United States.

Those of us who aren't Native Americans or descendants of slaves are here thanks to immigrants, yet a lot of us seem to have a problem with anyone who arrived at the party later than our ancestors. It's been a phenomenon since long before former president Trump asked, "Why are we having all these people from * * * *hole countries come here?"

According to the American Immigration Council, "The United States was built in part by immigrants--and the nation has long been the beneficiary of the new energy and ingenuity that immigrants bring. ... Five percent of Arkansas residents are immigrants, while another 5 percent are native-born U.S. citizens with at least one immigrant parent. More than a third of all immigrants in Arkansas are naturalized U.S. citizens."

To me, it seems that the disconnect occurs because many Arkansans (and other Southerners) are products of families that have been in the United States for multiple generations. They don't have much ancestral memory of how they got here.

It was different for me and others growing up in the middle-class southwest Cleveland suburb of Parma: Many of the kids I went to school with were first- and second-generation Americans, with parents or grandparents who came to this country from eastern Europe.

My paternal grandfather left Croatia to work as a laborer for the railroad in Cleveland. He went back to his native land twice--not to visit, but to find a new wife, after two died in childbirth. My dad, raised by three mothers, was one of nine siblings.

My maternal grandmother arrived from southern Germany when she was barely a teenager, planning to head to San Francisco to join her older brother. He disappeared in the 1906 earthquake. She met a German family at Ellis Island, who brought her with them to Cleveland. She got a job at Astrup Awning Co., got married, and learned English along with her three children when they went to school.

My high school classmates (our graduating class had over 900 students) had last names like Pokorny, Coseriu, Zdanko, Szuter, Petkovic, and Heiden- reich mixed in with those with less ethnic monikers like Grady, Gates, Wood, Thompson, and Myers. Those of us with more ethnic names were envious of them; I recall feeling embarrassed whenever a teacher made it to the last names starting with S because I knew there would be hesitation to attempt pronunciation when he/she came to mine (Strahinic).

A curious aspect of my dad's family was the rush to abandon what was left behind. Although the seven sons and two daughters could speak Croatian, they avoided it whenever possible. In their mad dash to abandon the old country and become active participants in the USA, their only concession to their history was in being members of the Zumberak Lodge, part of the Croatian Fraternal Union (probably because of its exuberant free-flowing Christmas parties).

They also showed little affinity for familiar foods such as stuffed cabbage and nut rolls. My father, in particular, shied away from anything that hinted at any ethnicity, including pizza, chow mein, or borscht.

When I offered to take him to dinner at one of Cleveland's hearty eastern European restaurants, he'd balk, preferring local and national chains serving steaks, chicken, and burgers. What do you want to eat? I asked him. "I like American food," he said: pork chops, mashed potatoes, white bread, coffee with milk.

After gnawing on the results of an incredibly overcooked goat roast at St. Nicholas Croatian Byzantine Catholic Church a few summers before he died, I was inclined to agree with him, but that was the only time I did.

This was the opposite attitude of my first husband's family, sixth-generation Norwegian American farmers in northeastern Iowa. They decorated their home with Norwegian folk art (giving me a rosemal painting noting my birthday) and steadfastly served their big-city daughter-in-law traditional staples such as potato lefse and hot dish; I drew the line at lutefisk (dried whitefish treated with lye, resulting in a gelatinous consistency and a pungent odor).

Southerners, in my experience, are enthusiastic about embracing their traditions, even if they're unaware of how they came to be part of their lives. Perhaps if we look into the details of how those traditions and innovations became intertwined with modern life--not only food, but clothing, music, literature, technology, art, education, and economic productivity--we would be more accepting and celebratory of what newcomers to this country have to offer.

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.

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