Learning what it Means to be an Immigrant

John Maddaus

John Maddaus

I teach a multicultural education course that is required for all Education majors at the University of Maine. Where some of my students come from, Somali refugees have settled recently. Can my students draw from their backgrounds to learn what it means to be an immigrant?

The conceptual framework for my course is the multicultural curriculum process developed by Gary Howard. Gary argues that before you can get very far in understanding people whose backgrounds are different from your own, you need to develop personal and cultural self-awareness. One of the first activities in this course is writing an “I am from” poem, in which every line begins with those three words. In this poem, students identify some of the influences that have made them who they are today, including family heritage, experiences, and values, the values of the community(ies) where they grew up, the activities (e.g., music, sports) that have been important in one’s life, etc. I provide my own “I am from” poem as a model, and I start with the line, “I am from England and Germany and Latvia”. I have other family lines as well, including “I am from my father, who wanted to be an unhyphenated American” and “I am from my maternal grandmother, who was widowed with four children and a fifth child on the way.” Most students come up with some kind of ethnic heritage in their poems, such as “I am from Franco-Americans” (French Canadians). Or “I am from an Italian-American father and an Irish-American mother.” After reading White Bread, I plan to try digging a little deeper next semester into what these ethnic identities really mean to them.

I’m writing from Riga, Latvia, where I’m on a two-week trip with my brother, Charles, and other family members, learning about the city and country where out paternal grandfather, Ingo Maddaus Sr. (1879-1958) was born. Thanks to Charles, who has done extensive family history research in Latvia in seven previous trips here, I now know a lot more about my father’s family history than I did when I interviewed my father, Ingo Maddaus Jr. (1909-2005) for a family history I wrote in 1995.

Ingo Sr. emigrated from Latvia to New York City (specifically to the borough of Brooklyn) with his parents and five siblings in 1884. My great-grandparents, Oscar Maddaus (1844-1896) and Augusta (Ratminders) Maddaus (1850-1937) were ethnic German and ethnic Latvian, respectively. My father grew up in an extended family that included Augusta and five aunts and uncles. Augusta was bilingual in Latvian and German, and read German-language newspapers right up to the time of her death. Despite living in the United States for over 50 years, she never became fluent in English. Ingo Sr. was bilingual in German and English. Ingo Jr., on the other hand, spoke only English, and couldn’t communicate well with his own grandmother. In two generations, my family lost two languages, first Latvian, then German, and we became monolingual Americans, speaking only English.

In White Bread, Christine reports that her mid-western German-American ancestors dropped the use of German language, culture, and religious identity abruptly during and immediately after World War I, as a response to anti-German feeling during that war, when Germany was on the opposing side. The adults sought to shield themselves and their children from the hostility that might arise from being identified as German-American. In my father’s family, the process of Americanization and language loss seems to have taken longer, perhaps because Brooklyn at that time had a large German-American community. Or perhaps it was because my grandfather (Ingo Sr.) was a businessman, importing German machine tools and speaking German in his work with representatives of German industries.

In any case, my father (Ingo Jr.) was an active agent in his own Americanization, determined, as he put it, to be an “unhyphenated American.” For starters, he denied that we had any Latvian ancestry, insisting that Augusta was German. He resisted learning to speak German, and struggled when required to take a course in reading technical German while a Mathematics major at Columbia University (1927-1932). He was critical of Augusta and Ingo Sr. for what he perceived to be anti-Semitism in the 1930s. As a boy, I remember his complaints when Ingo Sr. wanted to drink beer (which Dad identified as a German drink) when visiting our home in the 1950s. In short, his effort to be “white bread” American came with costs, not just in language loss, but also in denying and disowning his heritage, and in the quality of his relationships with his father and grandmother.

I suspect that there are losses as well in the lives of my students and their families. Many of them are descendants of French-Canadians who moved from Quebec to Maine in the late 1800s and early 1900s to work in the lumber, paper, shoe, and textile mills that were scattered across Maine until the de-industrialization of the late 20th century. Few if any of my Franco-American students speak French, partly because their grandparents or great-grandparents were punished for speaking their French in Maine schools, and partly because Quebecois French was regarded as inferior to Parisian French, which was taught as a “foreign” language in many Maine high schools. Also, as mill workers or their family members, my students’ ancestors were looked down on as working class and uneducated. In the early decades of French-Canadian immigration, the Protestant majority in Maine often viewed Roman Catholic religion as a threat. In the 1920s, Maine had a very active KKK organization that was influential in Maine elections, and whose primary target was Catholics, NOT African-Americans (of whom there are very few in Maine). Even within the Catholic church, Franco-Americans were looked down on by the Irish Catholics who dominated the church hierarchy and priesthood. In some towns, there used to be an Irish Catholic church and, just down the street, a French Catholic church. Small wonder, then, that many Franco-Americans tried to put their immigrant backgrounds behind them.

I find it very interesting to listen to how my students with French-Canadian heritage process our discussions about the thousands of Somali refugees who have settled in the former textile mill towns of Lewiston and Auburn, Maine. Some of my students live in or near those two cities, and have had personal contacts with Somali students in their schools. Others have only observed the newcomers from a distance. These Somali refugees are black Africans of the Muslim faith. They usually arrive speaking Somali, Swahili, Arabic, and/or other languages, but very little English. Like the French-Canadian immigrants of a century ago, they tend to have large families. They wear traditional clothes, including the hijab (head scarf) for women and even for small girls. They have opened a number of businesses on Lewiston’s main downtown street. Some long-time residents of the Lewiston area perceive the Somalis as outsiders and even as a threat in formerly mostly-white and Christian towns. Two thousand Somali refugees arrived in Lewiston, a city of 35,000 people, in 2002-2004 as secondary migrants, from larger cities where they had initially been settled in African-American communities. Soon afterwards, Lewiston’s mayor complained that Somalis were taxing the city’s resources and the city should discourage other Somalis from joining them. Then a white supremacist group from out of state tried to organize an anti-immigrant rally, which was poorly attended, while thousands of Mainers (including myself) joined a counter rally in another part of the city.

So are Somali refugees a threat, or are they folks like us, just the latest in a succession of waves of immigrants settling in Maine? In my class, we explore differences and similarities by hosting a group of Somali high school students on a visit to our campus for small group discussions of culture. We also visit the multi-ethnic mosque that opened about five years ago just off campus. In my students’ reflections on these and other activities, they indicate a growing appreciation of Somali people, about whom some of them knew very little, and about whom they may have harbored negative stereotypes. A few sign up for the optional courses in teaching English as a Second Language.

Reading White Bread challenges me to do more: to find better ways of talking about our heritages, what it means to be an immigrant, what teachers can do to better support immigrant children in their classrooms and schools, and how to become allies. Would White Bread be an appropriate text for this course? It’s something I’ll consider, in consultation with my colleagues who teach other sections of this same course. For starters, I’m planning to organize a book group for faculty, staff, and graduate students to read and discuss White Bread and related readings.

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