CHQ Column – December 2010

The following column by Jim LeMonds appeared in the December issue of the Cowlitz Historical Quarterly.

Americans have short memories.

Listen to the buzz today and you’d believe 20th century immigrants to the United States would never have considered entering the country illegally. And, once here, their first actions would have been to box up their heritage, toss it in the back of the closet, and rush out to enroll in English immersion classes.

Desperate to escape poverty and repression, my maternal grandfather arrived at Ellis Island in 1907; my grandmother in 1909. They weren’t exactly welcomed, but they were accepted. At the time, the U.S. had both the capacity and the need for immigrants. It was legal for my grandparents to enter the country, but I have no doubt they would have tried to enter illegally if they’d had no other option.

They spoke no English when they arrived. If “Press two for German” had been on the phone menu, they would have selected it.

When my mother entered first grade at Castle Rock Elementary, she could speak only a few words of English. Her name changed as a result. Her given name is “Alvina,” but when she tried to pronounce it on the first day of school the teacher heard “Evelyn.” My mother has been Evelyn ever since.

My grandfather and his friends and relatives who came from the Old Country were grateful for the opportunity to live in the United States. Their children and grandchildren would eventually embrace a new world and the culture that went with it. But for that first generation, their religion, customs, and language were German until the day they died.

When immigrants come to America, they leave behind their birthplaces, their families, and their histories. Identity is another matter.

Unlike pudding, there is no instant form of assimilation. We shouldn’t be surprised that it takes time.

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