These are immigrants. The photo was taken around 1888 at a new house built in a German community near Puyallup, Washington. The young boy with his hand on his father’s arm was the father of my grandfather.
They came from a place called Stöckse, Neidersachsen which is in the northwest corner of Germany near the border with the Netherlands. My great-great grandfather was a forester for a Saxon baron and cared for the trees on a large estate. Because of this, he was recruited to work on for a German sugar company in Hawaii (then a sovereign kingdom). They were looking to improve sugar cane production with irrigation, and the idea was that trees would hold the water from the rain and release it slowly. The family made the decision to move. The fact that boys could be conscripted into the army at age 14 certainly was a consideration. With three sons, it was likely that some or all of them would be cannon fodder in Kaiser Wilhelm’s wars. Also, the story goes, an old aunt advised them that they would never have anything in Germany so they might as well leave. They could also never have anything in Hawaii since haoles couldn’t own land, but the west coast of the United States was not far away. There was hope of building a new life there.
So in 1881, several German families departed Hamburg on the small barkentine Ceder to sail halfway around the world to Kauai. My great-grandfather was six months old, and his diapers were washed in salt water for many weeks. The passage around Cape Horn was rough, and the Pacific Ocean is wide and empty. By the time the people disembarked at Lihue, Kauai, they were weak from lack of food and water and perhaps loss of hope.
The family of Friederich Mueller stayed seven years. They helped build a small community on a hill adjacent to the cane fields and a Lutheran church reminiscent of the ones they had left in Saxony. Then the eldest son was sent to Washington Territory to buy land and build a house. When this was done, the rest of the family came. They became naturalized citizens of the United States. A strong German community existed into the early 20th century, where people spoke their language, attended their church, kept their customs, intermarried, and slowly wove their lives into the fabric of America.
When World War One broke out, there was deep distrust of Germans. Slurs and vandalism were directed at German Americans. Some were suspected of being spies and collaborators. I can imagine that the immigrants wanted to mind their own business and get on with their lives in a new land–after all, that’s why they came here. But they were reviled anyway. Same thing happened during World War Two. When the government came for my great-grandfather, he was shocked to learn that he was not a naturalized citizen, having come when he was so young. He immediately applied for citizenship and it was granted. My Grampa said that it was one of the proudest days of his father’s life, when he officially became an American.
There are millions of family stories like this in our country if you go back far enough and look. And there has been plenty of reviling of immigrants, and discrimination. No Irish Need Apply. No Jews. No Catholics. Yellow Peril. Some immigrants came here unwillingly and were put to work for masters who thought they were less than human. For every American immigrant success story, there is also one about cruelty and misunderstanding. There is a slur for every race, every nationality.
I am writing this because I have trouble swallowing hypocrisy. America for Americans? And who are the Americans? Perhaps they are the ones who were here first, even though anthropologists tell us that they also emigrated here. Do you have to be descended from the families that crossed on the Mayflower? Fought in the Revolutionary or Civil wars? Or perhaps those who fled famine in Ireland or pogroms in Europe? Do you have to be white? All of us come from families that came to this continent from another place, with the hope of creating a better life, living in a world where children can grow up to be whatever they want, where there is freedom of worship and freedom from oppression.
History is a lens, which can be clear or distorted. We can look at history to identify patterns and pitfalls, with the hope that we can avoid repeating mistakes and injustices. The stories we tell ourselves as a nation can help or harm. These days I hear a lot of harm coming from the mouths of people who should know better, and from the people who listen to them and hear what they want to hear. I see mistakes and injustices repeating.
Looking at my German heritage is humbling. I cannot imagine having to submit to the aristocracy, or have no hope of bettering myself. I cannot imagine months on a cold wet ship or stumbling out onto a tropical island feeling a hell of a long way from home. I cannot imagine being called horrible names because of who I am. While I may long to know more about the German culture that produced me, I understand the need to assimilate and get along. I understand the part of me that was taught to be German–hard-working, stubborn, sober, competent with my hands, connected to the land. I also understand the part of me that is American, that longs to be different from what I’ve always thought of as a narrow point of view. I’ve always been curious about other countries and cultures. The sameness of being a white person in a white community, of growing up on meat and potatoes, of a Protestant work ethic–boring! For me, entry into other cultures is through food. When I was young, I thought tacos were exotic. Spaghetti was Italian food. I never had Chinese food till I was a teenager. I loved all of it! Curiosity about food leads to an interest in the culture that creates it, the history, the language, the arts. Now I live in a place where I can find Mexican food cooked by Mexicans, and delicious aromatic Thai dishes cooked by an Asian woman. The internet brings me recipes from around the world, and one of my favorite winter soups comes from a traditional African dish. While potatoes, sauerkraut and sausage is still my German comfort food, I will never go back to straight meat and potatoes.
I find that I am unable to revile immigrants. I find nothing to fear from them. A woman I know left Cambodia as a child. When the family was running from the Khmer Rouge, she remembers hunting for frogs to eat. Or having nothing to eat at all. I have always had enough to eat–why would I deny that to anyone based on our differences? Under our skin, we are all human. And that is the thing about the United States–even though we are told stories about scarcity, they are not true. There is great wealth here, in spite of the uneven distribution and incredible waste. We can afford to be generous and open to other human beings.
Spaghetti is American food. Hummus and naan and sushi are too. I want to hear more helpful stories.