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Writing American Immigration History (June 2019): Immigrants: Lives, Cultures & Communities

by Sara S. Goek

Immigrants: Lives, Cultures & Communities

As the field has flourished, so too has scholarship on specific immigrant groups, the places they settled, and their lived experiences. Research often concentrates on particular eras: the mid-nineteenth century (c.1820–80), the “new” immigration (c.1880–1920), the era of restriction (c.1920–64), and the modern era (1965 onward). Each tends to be associated with certain demographic groups or trends: the mid-nineteenth century with northern Europeans, the new immigration with southern and eastern Europeans, the era of restriction with fewer immigrants overall, and the modern era with more diverse and globalized arrivals. Recent scholarship has broadened our understanding of those periods, challenging assumptions based on demographic dominance by drawing attention to previously overlooked groups and the nature of encounters between peoples.

Among the largest and most urban of the nineteenth-century immigrant groups were the Irish, precipitated by the Famine of the late 1840s. They lived in cities, towns, and industrial counties at a much higher rate than the American population overall. The classic account of their experiences and attitudes is Kerby Miller’s Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. His thesis, that Irish immigrants, particularly Irish Catholics, regarded emigration as involuntary exile, has stimulated debate in the field ever since. Miller’s text, and his larger body of work, remains significant as well for his emphasis on the words immigrants left behind, particularly letters. One unique characteristic of nineteenth-century Irish immigrants was the number of women among them, many single and working in domestic service or factories. Hasia Diner’s Erin’s Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century was among the first to draw attention to these women, and the tension between their traditional values and the modern economic roles they inhabited. Both Diner and Miller published their work in the 1980s and focused on the nineteenth century as the era when the Irish arrived in the largest numbers. In recent decades the focus has expanded to include the twentieth century and account for the multi-generational Irish population now present in the United States. Joseph Lee and Marion Casey’s edited volume Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States encompasses those trends, with essays on a range of thematic topics and time periods.

The presence of the Irish in cities brought them into contact with many different groups, sometimes violently, other times as peaceful neighbors. Tyler Anbinder’s Five Points focuses on the notorious New York City neighborhood of that name in the nineteenth century, where the tenements housed Irish, Italians, Chinese, Germans, African Americans, and Jews. Anbinder unpacks some of the popular myths about the neighborhood, recognizing the harsh realities of life there while giving prominence to the perspectives of its residents. The story of one place intertwines with the broader American histories of race, poverty, Progressivism, and politics. Another book that takes as its starting point the demographic dominance of the Irish in nineteenth-century urban areas is James Barrett’s The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City. It argues that the Irish irrevocably shaped local politics and the tenor of interethnic and interracial relations, especially in New York and Chicago. Therefore, Barrett suggests, when other (white) immigrant groups became American, their Americanism had a distinctly green tinge.

Both those texts also represent the dominance of northeastern urban centers in immigration histories of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Moving beyond the northeast, Gary Mormino and George Pozzetta focus their attention on Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood, once home to a mix of Italian, Cuban, and Hispanic residents. The Immigrant World of Ybor City looks at how those groups interacted, particularly in the realm of labor and class identity. On the west coast, George Sánchez’s Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945 questions the Eurocentric uprooted/transplanted paradigms of the immigrant experience. He argues that the Mexican American experience fits comfortably in neither model: the people he describes are neither singly Mexican nor American, but both. “To be Chicano,” he writes, “in effect, is to be betwixt and between.” He draws on evidence from consumer culture, religious practice, home ownership, work, and politics, to examine processes of cultural adaptation and ethnic identity formation.

Nineteenth-century encounters were not restricted to urban areas. Two important studies focus on the rural Midwest and Great Plains. Jon Gjerde’s The Minds of the West draws attention to the different cultures of the people who moved westward from 1830 to 1917. Where Frederick Jackson Turner and others saw the West as the crucible of the American character, a site of opportunity and energy, Gjerde sees sites of tension. European settlers in the upper Mississippi Valley may have participated in a grand American experience, but they also carried with them beliefs, practices, and institutions around which they organized ethnic communities. These settlers did not move into an empty land. Karen Hansen offers a corrective by bringing Native Americans back into the story from which they are often omitted beyond the Colonial period. Her Encounter on the Great Plains: Scandinavian Settlers and the Dispossession of Dakota Indians, 1890–1930 examines the entangled histories of those two groups on the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota and grapples with issues of racialization, land, and citizenship.

Along the West Coast, Asian and Mexican peoples historically dominated the immigrant population. Before 1849 few Chinese people lived in the US, but the Gold Rush attracted large numbers. Many of those who arrived in the ensuing decades were men who worked as “coolies,” indentured laborers in mining and railroad construction, and later moved into manufacturing and agriculture. Despite the demand for labor, they faced discrimination from the start, from other immigrants as well from as the native-born population, which coalesced into the Chinese Exclusion Act. As those restrictions took effect, other Asian immigrants, including Japanese and Koreans, came to fill labor shortages, until they too fell subject to restriction. Erika Lee (The Making of Asian America) and Ronald Takaki (Strangers from a Different Shore) both take this story through the twentieth century. Over time the perception of Asian immigrants shifted from a threat to a “model minority,” the epitome of educational achievement and success. Two recent, complementary works examine that change: Ellen Wu’s The Color of Success and Madeline Hsu’s The Good Immigrants. Wu focuses on the racialization of Chinese and Japanese immigrant communities, from inside and from without, while Hsu looks at the influence of immigration policy and the way its selective preferences privileged the well educated.

A noticeable gap in the literature concerns the experience of African immigrants—as distinct from those brought in slavery—especially before 1965. Violet Showers Johnson makes this critique in her afterword to A Nation of Immigrants Reconsidered (see above), and calls for new research exploring the black immigrant experience and the perspectives of African Americans in policy debates. Her own work has also sought to rectify the imbalance. The Other Black Bostonians: West Indians in Boston, 1900–1950 delves into local context and the complexities of the immigrant experience, from the factors that influenced migration from the West Indies to the immigrants’ community life, social mobility, and ethnic and racial consciousness. While Showers Johnson focused on Caribbean immigrants, Marilyn Halter wrote one of the first comprehensive studies of an early African immigrant group, Between Race and Ethnicity: Cape Verdean American Immigrants, 1860–1965. Cape Verdeans make an interesting case study as a group with mixed Afro-Portuguese heritage who defy simply racial categorization. Halter and Showers Johnson teamed up to write African & American: West Africans in Post–Civil Rights America. They challenge both the Eurocentric view of immigration and narratives of African American history that concentrate on slavery while neglecting voluntary migration, though the region from which that migration took place was itself inextricably linked to the histories of slavery and colonialism. Focusing on the diversity of the new West African diaspora in America, they offer a much-needed corrective to rigid dichotomies of race and ethnicity.

Showers Johnson and Halter’s work is also part of a trend towards understanding diaspora, transnationalism, and mobility in scholarship as it has shifted away from works on specific places toward a more global understanding of migration. In his Emigrant Nation: The Making of Italy Abroad, Mark Choate takes a diasporic and imperial approach. Focusing on the period immediately following Italian unification, 1880 to 1915, he demonstrates that Italy crafted deliberate policies to build ties with its emigrants abroad and create a global community. Hasia Diner’s Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way likewise offers a global perspective, though the United States is a primary focus. She argues that Jewish peddlers across the world shared similar experiences as “middlemen,” providing a bridge between cultures, between producers and consumers, and between urban and rural areas. She draws attention to two significant strands of transnational scholarship: its attention to “ordinary” migrants, not only elites, and to the different scales of focus, from the individual to the local to the global. Ana Raquel Minian does likewise in her recent book Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration, which concentrates on the two decades after the Hart-Cellar Act. She emphasizes the significance of transnational movements and problematic assumptions about belonging.

Whether settling in the crowded coastal cities or venturing into the rural interior, immigrants encountered diverse peoples and experiences. Their cultural practices—including food, music, and dancing—offer insights into the practice of ethnicity and how American encounters shaped it. Randy McBee’s Dance Hall Days: Intimacy and Leisure among Working-Class Immigrants in the United States looks at the rise of commercial leisure at the turn of the twentieth century, focusing on urban dance halls. They provided a space for young men and women to socialize away from the strictures of home or workplace, and to challenge traditional gender roles, if not fully escape them. The soundscapes of those spaces can get lost in a focus on social interaction. Barbara Lorenzkowski considers the music immigrants played and heard, and the meanings they attached to it, in Sounds of Ethnicity: Listening to German North America, 1850–1914. Her work crosses national and disciplinary borders. She focuses on German communities in New York and Ontario, drawing on research methods from history and ethnomusicology to offer an innovative perspective on ethnicity in everyday life. Music and dancing, as markers of identity and cultural adaptation, share much in common with food. Donna Gabaccia’s We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans considers how foods moved from ethnic origins into the American commercial mainstream. An accessible and enjoyable read, it can be paired with Hasia Diner’s Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration. While the former focuses on ethnic food in American society, the latter considers the place of food (and hunger) in the immigrant experience. These cultural approaches all offer fresh perspectives on the lived experiences of immigration and ethnicity.

Works Cited