Coming to America
by Professor Donald Levine
The story of the Ethiopian expatriate community in Chicago and
beyond belongs to
the larger story of the creation of the United States. For four
centuries, successive waves of immigration from dozens of countries
in Europe, Africa, and Asia have helped shape American society
and provide it with continually renewed energies.
The earliest settlers came mainly from Britain, Holland, Germany,
and France, in search of religious freedom or opportunities for
exploration and trade. Once colonies were established, Europeans
came simply to seek their fortunes in this new land, bringing
or then importing indentured servants from England and slaves
from Africa. After the importing of slaves was prohibited in the
early 19th century, the immigrants came from Western Europe for
some time, especially from England to find economic opportunities,
from Germany to escape political repression, and from Ireland
to flee poverty and famine.
By mid-century, immigrants from China and Japan began coming
to America's new Western frontier. At the century's
end, most immigrants came from Southern and Eastern Europe, especially
Italy and Poland. Huge numbers of Eastern European Jews joined
the exodus, to escape murderous pogroms as well as poverty. Although
immigration peaked around the turn of the century, waves of immigrants
by World War I, the Nazi persecutions, and World War II continued
the cycle of
coming to America.
The last twenty-five years have seen an increase in the proportion
who came as political refugees. While immigrants still arrive
from all parts of the globe, Southeast Asian refugees, especially
from the war-torn countries of Cambodia and Vietnam, have been
the most visible. The most recent arrivals include refugees from
formerly communist countries, in search of both political freedom
and economic stability. Although the Ethiopian immigrant community
has arrived without much fanfare, its increase during the early
Derg years was phenomenal. In 1974, I am told, Ethiopia had the
smallest proportion of its citizens living abroad of
any country in the world, while five years later, in 1979, it
had the highest.
While over these centuries the physical process of 'coming
to America' has evolved from arduous long journeys to simple
airplane trips, the psychological
process of coming to America (that is, adjusting to American society)
has changed no less dramatically. Changes in the ability of immigrants
to adjust reflect two main factors: the reasons why they left
their homeland, and the way they were received by the new environment.
For what reasons do people leave their homelands?
At the peak of immigration during the decades 1880-1910, most
immigrants were drawn to America by their search for 'a better
life' than they could find at home. Millions were lured by
the prospects of prosperity which was said to abound in the United
States, harking to phrases like 'there, the streets are paved
with gold.' These hyperbolic notions had some basis in fact.
New industries required large supplies of labor. Immigrants had
no trouble finding jobs in factories and on railroads. They were
willing to work hard for little pay because it represented more
than they could ever have imagined at home. Land and other material
resources were just as plentiful as employment.
Immigrants who responded to such 'pull' factors were
for the most part voluntary migrants, those who chose to leave
their homeland for the sake of economic opportunities. Some saved
for years to make the journey possible; others were sponsored
by family members who had gone before them. Coming through their
own free choice, such immigrants were more likely to make the
their cultural habits, which were required at that time to make
their 'American dream' come true. Pull factors continue
to operate in bringing newcomers to America. Even though the age
of rapid economic expansion has ended, making it difficult even
for long-established Americans to find work or to make ends meet,
the United States continues to be viewed as a land of economic
opportunity by residents of many other countries.
Migration is spurred for different reasons when conditions in
the home country are severe. Famines, chronic employment shortages,
political or religious oppression, or wars or civil unrest often
'push' dislocated, impoverished, or oppressed individuals
from their homelands. In response to such push factors, people
are not so much voluntarily coming to America as they are involuntarily
leaving their homeland. They do so because America has historically
been seen as a refuge for oppressed people. The motto inscribed
on the Statue of Liberty "Give me your huddled masses, yearning
to be free" publicly affirms a welcome to immigrants of all
Immigrants who left voluntarily had greater choice in the destination
and time of their departure. They thus had more of a chance to
prepare for life in the new country.
Involuntary migrants, on the other hand, may have had little
choice as to the time of their departure or their destination,
giving them less opportunity to prepare for what lies ahead. What
is more, those who come as refugees or other permanent involuntary
immigrants generally seek to remain true to their native traditions
and have no strong incentive to adopt American ways. Indeed, many
are less anxious to join American society than they are desirous
of returning to their homeland some day. This 'sojourner
mentality' makes them less likely to want to learn English
and makes it more difficult for them to 'come to America'
in the sense of accepting idiosyncrasies of American society,
things which voluntary migrants might more
easily learn to deal with or even appreciate.
This is often true even if they recognize that a return to their
homeland is impossible, at least in their lifetime. Forced to
emigrate, refugees and other involuntary migrants tend to feel
that although they may be taken from their homeland, their homeland
can never be taken from them. Accordingly, they tend to create
an island of familiar culture in a foreign cultural sea. To do
this, immigrants typically gather in urban neighborhoods where
others from their homeland have settled. Such neighborhoods are
home to most new immigrants, whether they come voluntarily or
involuntarily. Immigrants today often continued ... join together
to form small businesses that appeal to customers in such ethnic
enclaves. The ambitious among them may build these into large
businesses or even move out of the ethnic neighborhood altogether.
At the same time, those who wish to preserve their traditional
ways might choose to stay in ethnic communities where their traditional
ways are easier to maintain than when isolated from fellow ethnics.
Whether creating such a cultural 'island' is possible
depends not only on the desires of the migrants to create it and
the resources they have to do so, but also on the environment
in which they live. This environment has changed during the past
century, from a demand for total assimilation to 'American'
ways to an acceptance of a pluralistic mixture of cultures.
At the turn of the century, when immigration from Eastern and
Southern Europe was at its peak, most Americans embraced the notion
of the 'melting pot.' This metaphor implied that the
new country served as a crucible in which those of all ethnic
backgrounds would be fused together to form a new American culture.
In effect, newcomers of those years were expected to conform closely
to the American culture established by long-term residents. Immigrants
were expected not only to learn English, but also to acquire American
habits as defined by those who had lived
here for a generation or two. New immigrants were ridiculed into
discarding their Old World ways and becoming more like those who
had arrived earlier. This attitude instilled in an entire generation
of immigrants striving to become just like other Americans a sense
of shame regarding their own culture and language.
As a result of social pressures and their own desires, immigrants
did not pass on their language and customs to their children.
Second- and third-generation Italians, Irish, and Poles grew up
with no knowledge of their parents' and grandparents'
language and cultural heritage. A sense of unique cultural identity
was something those early immigrants sought to lose as quickly
as possible, because they recognized that 'making it'
in America meant giving up characteristics that made them seem
'foreign.' Over the past few decades, America has learned
to tolerate, or been forced to accept, many differences in lifestyle,
language, and beliefs among its people.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the feminist movement
of the 1970s and 1980s forced Americans to reconsider traditionally
disadvantaged groups whose needs and interests had been underrepresented,
even silenced. Movements
such as Black Power and La Rasa sent strong messages to African-
American and Hispanic-American groups and individuals to take
pride in their racial and cultural heritage. These 'identity'
movements stimulated other groups to reconsider their own ethnic
heritage, giving rise to the formation of Italian-American, Irish-American,
and similar ethnic 'interest groups.' Relatedly, Americans
have recently witnessed the phenomenon of the'third-generation
return,' as grandchildren of immigrants
discover and take pride in the heritage their grandparents were
ashamed to transmit.
Due to such sweeping social changes, immigrants today face an
environment radically different from that of a century ago. American
society today is much more tolerant of diversity than before.
Today, ethnic diversity is celebrated, multiculturalism is in
style, and ethnic Americans tend increasingly to celebrate cultural
heritages long buried by assimilationist trends. In fact, displaying
unique cultural or ethnic characteristics has become an accepted,
even encouraged, means of 'being American.' The United
States is recognized as a country consisting of people from a
variety of ethnic backgrounds, with a few, not all, characteristics
in common. This pluralistic attitude is often compared to the
image of a 'salad bowl,' a
mixture in which, unlike the melting pot, each piece retains its
distinctive form and
flavor to produce a healthy collection of interests and backgrounds.
Although this acceptance comes at a time when the number of new
immigrants is but a fraction of the number arriving in 1900, those
who do come are given much more freedom, informally and officially,
to retain their own distinctive cultural practices. Beyond learning
some English, sending their children to school, and taking some
form of employment, little else is required of immigrants, and
they are required to relinquish
few, if any, of their former habits and customs.
In such an environment, it is clear that recent immigrants have
it easier than their predecessors in not being forced to relinquish
their past. Current newcomers are allowed to choose how much of
their culture they want to preserve, and which 'American'
ways they want to adopt. The contemporary situation, then, combines
an increase in the number of immigrants who come more or less
involuntarily, as political refugees, with an increased acceptance
of the home cultures from which they come. Today's immigrants
do not have to choose between social acceptance needed for economic
survival and adherence to their traditional ways. Living in ethnic
neighborhoods may even promote economic success. It certainly
represents a fully accepted way of being American in our time.
Today's immigrants thus arrive with a greater interest in
retaining their home culture and enter an American society that
shows enhanced appreciation of cultural diversity.
Accordingly, although today's immigrants may continue to
feel some social pressure to conform to certain American habits
of dress, food or behavior, and while they still face difficulties
in maintaining their islands of ethnicity in a sea of 'Americanisms,'
they should keep in mind how much less pressure exists today than
a century before. The fact is that nowadays 'coming to America,'
that is, learning to cope with a strange new world, is a good
deal easier than for previous immigrants, because immigrants today
enjoy a freedom to decide what traditional
ways to maintain and what American ways to adopt. In this more
tolerant environment, recent immigrants are able to form stable,
vibrant communities together
with those who arrived earlier from their home country. Especially
for refugees and other involuntary immigrants, these expatriate
communities create a safe haven in which familiar habits and beliefs
can be preserved.
Such communities, however, do not preserve culture the way a
museum would, as a static snapshot of one moment in time, but
rather as a living, developing way of life. When a diasporic community
retains a living culture, it then is in a position to be able
to infuse new life back to the homeland, whose own traditions
may face certain
threats. In this perspective, the Ethiopian community of North
America faces a
triple challenge. First, it needs to provide continuing assistance
to new immigrants,
especially those who may have been pushed to leave because of
repressive conditions at home. On this front, the Ethiopian Community
Association of Chicago has long played a conscientious and constructive
role. Second, North America offers resources to sustain those
aspects of its traditional culture that are being eroded at home
due to ignorance, poverty, or reckless modernization. In this
regard, such organizations as the Center for Ethiopian Arts and
Culture, the Ethiopian Research Council, and the various Ethiopian
magazines and publishing houses have made enormous contributions.
Finally, the Ethiopian and Eritrean expatriate communities face
a special challenge in view of the tendencies toward ethnic and
regional separatism that have threatened the integrity of their
homeland. Indeed, in some quarters it has become fashionable to
deny the very facts about the existence of the enduring multiethnic
society that took shape in historic Ethiopia. In this country,
at least, Ethiopians need not give in to the
temptations of narrowly- based ethnic factionalism and can do
much to preserve
and restore the valuable traditions of their national culture.
Professor Donald Levine
Dr. Donald Levine is a Prof. of
Sociology at University of Chicago.
Dr. Levine's current research and
teaching interests focus on classical
social theory, Ethiopian studies,
conflict theory and aikido, and
philosophies of liberal education.