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Another Redirect…

September 8, 2013 2 comments

To a small slice of history from my home of Santa Fe, originally posted on my personal blog. Hope my faithful readers–all six of you–enjoy it.

 

A Slice of History

Different American Dreams

November 8, 2009 5 comments

My recent post about Ralph Nader prompted a short debate with a stranger on a friend’s Faecbook page. No fan of Nader, my opponent didn’t buy my definition of the American Dream, as personified by Nader: Immigrants come to America, start a small business, raise a family, instill in their kids a sense of civic duty and responsibility. One of the kids – our boy Ralph – goes on to a great academic career and become the leader of the consumer-rights movement. Sure, he alienates some people along the way (especially in 2000…), but he rises from humble roots to make a difference. The American Dream – or at least a version I can relate to, despite my own modest accomplishments.

Hogwash, the unknown debater said. The American Dream is about getting wealthy. End of story.

OK.

I thought again about all this after reading an article in my hometown paper, the Citizen. A local historian looked at the Italians of Matson Hill, a region in South Glastonbury, Connecticut. The Italians, from several northern provinces, turned a hilly, rocky, mostly ignored part of town into a productive region of orchards. And my grandparents were part of the immigrant wave that helped make the apples and peaches and berries grow.

snowy backyard view

Part of my grandparents' farm, years after they sold it.

Their American Dream was: Leave the village of Fubine, Piedmont, Italy, for the States when they were teens, work different jobs, save enough to buy an orchard among the Italian pioneers who had come to Matson Hill a few years before them. Over the years, my grandparents’  children did well enough in school; one went into business for herself, another worked in a legal office. The third child – my mother – stayed on Matson Hill and raised a family, eventually sending her kids off to college. None of us achieved Nader-like stature or the wealth my opponent covets for his Dream. But to come from a tiny Italian village with little money or schooling and set in motion what they did – my grandparents did all right.

I want to go beyond the personal, though, and say a little more about the Italians of Matson Hill. Their achievements caught the eye of the U.S. Immigration Commission and were featured in the commission’s 1911 report. Before telling their story, a little background on the commission.

italians ellis

Those scary Italians at Ellis Island

Launched in 1907, the U.S. Immigration Commission included members from both houses of Congress. It was led by Senator William Dillingham of Vermont and included Henry Cabot Lodge, two members of the old-time WASP elite increasingly fearful of the “new” immigrants inundating America during the early 1900s. Who were the new immigrants? Slavs, Greeks, Jews, and Italians, non-Protestants, mostly poor and uneducated, sometimes swarthy. You know, not like the good “old” immigrants from the British Isles, Scandinavia, and Germany (Catholics excepted, of course).

Dillingham, among others, wanted to restrict immigration, especially from Southern and Eastern Europe. His commission members spent four years studying the homelands of the immigrants and their lifestyles here. (And stirred up some snarls from their Congressional cohorts. A 1910 NYT article reported that some lawmakers accused the commission members of taking wasteful junkets. “We have spent more than half a million dollars,” one rep said, “and all we have got is a ten-page report.” Dillingham and company showed him: their final report filled 41 volumes.)

And what of the Matson Hill Italians? The report noted how “the Italians have taken the rough uncultivated land abandoned by the Americans, made it productive, and established a community that is well known throughout Connecticut. “ These Italians were part of a ‘”good type of foreign colony” as opposed to the bad kind created by the Southern Italians, often stereotyped as shiftless, shifty, and prone to crime. No, Americans would approve of the Matson Hill settlers, who “are spoken of as being honest, hard working, and industrious. One merchant remarked that they were the best people to deal with. They pay their taxes before they are due and often meet the bank’s demands with the same promptness.”

But the report notes that even the “good” Italians faced a hard time at first, as they had “to make their way through a thick wall of prejudice. Every year they tried to have the district vote enough money to buy land and erect a new [school] building, but the Americans controlled a majority of the votes and each time voted down this proposition. Finally one of the Italians donated the land on Matson Hill, where the present schoolhouse now stands, others contributed money to buy the necessary lumber, a few contributed their labor, and in this way a new schoolhouse was obtained.”

Even as the Commission praised the immigrants, a little bit of condescension crept it. I love this observation about the good women of the “colony”: “[ They] know very little about housework, and seem to think that the house can care for itself. Cooking, washing, and giving a little care to their children include the total of their household responsibilities.”

matson001

Members of the Matson Hill Community Club (still standing) in 1935.

My grandparents had not reached Matson Hill in 1911, but I think they embodied the values the commission extolled (and my grandmother certainly did know something about household responsibilities as well as how to pick fruit right along side the men). But they did arrive before Dillingham finally got what he wanted – the first large-scale limits on immigration, which led to a quota system that favored the good immigrants, reduced the “new” Europeans, and almost totally shut down immigration from Japan (the Chinese already faced tough restrictions that dated back to 1882).

What does all this mean about immigration today and the American Dream? I’m not sure. I know that today’s immigrants still face prejudice and efforts to keep them out. Those who do make it overcome a lot to start businesses, send their kids to school, maybe even produce the next consumer crusader. Or history blogger. And while money’s nice, I think most are ok with just knowing they have the chance to better their lives, and their children’s. Just like the Italians of Matson Hill.