The Immigrant Experience
May 13, 2010
As a parent of an unschooled child, I know the children’s fiction and non-fiction sections of the library and local bookstores very, very well. I also know that young children, mine included, are drawn to learning about history, because history is just a great big story, after all.
The immigrant experience, circa 1900, is a heck of a good story: it has a beginning (poor, hungry people in a far-off land), a middle (the crowded, desperate journey across the sea), and an end (a new life in America—after having your eyelid stretched with a button-hook to make sure you don’t have trachoma).
The immigrant stories–both fictional and non-fictional—that my child and I read together had beautiful illustrations of the Statue of Liberty seen from the deck of a massive ship. They had lovable characters—mothers and children going to meet fathers in the New World, and brave adolescents making the trip alone while their families back in the old country prayed for their safety.
Once the immigrants arrived in New York City, there were more compelling stories to be told—about how the families adjusted to new homes, new cities, new friends, and a new language. My child and I loved the immigrant stories in Mama’s Bank Account and When Jessie Came Across the Sea and All-of-a-Kind Family, just as little girls right now are loving the Rebecca collection from American Girl.
The message about immigrants from a century ago is that they were brave, determined, moral, loving, and eager to be Americans. The message about today’s immigrations is quite different.
A hypothetical children’s book written today, from the perspective of many Americans, would still have a beginning (poor Mexicans who have no right to enter this country), a middle (the illegal journey across the border), and an end (deportation back to Mexico, or subsistence in a shadow world of poverty and degradation). The characters would be portrayed as cowardly, sneaky, immoral, criminal, and eager to grab America’s prizes while scoffing at America’s laws.
Don’t worry: America Girl isn’t offering a Juanita series about an immigrant child whose parents steal jobs from respectable, real Americans while stubbornly (and gleefully!) refusing to learn English. But, that’s the story many Americans tell their children about immigrants today.
The immigrant experience needs to be updated, both legally and culturally. Read the Washington Post’s recent Five Myths About Immigration and imagine the story we should be telling our children:
Once upon a time, some people wanted to come to America because it was a better place than the place they lived. Good people in our government made it easier for them to come legally, and for them to assimilate into the American culture. So they came, and they stimulated the American economy. They learned English just as quickly as the immigrants from one hundred years ago did, and they became Americans. And we all lived harmoniously ever after.