We’re not from around here

lake georgeLast Wednesday, #unitecloud had its first appearance at Summertime by George! We offered cool candy, bracelets, conversations, but most notable was a large world map.

We asked passersby to show us where their ancestors originated by pinning it on our map. Most people were excited and proud to find the place and add their pins. Predictably, many of us have our roots throughout Europe; Germany, Finland, Norway as expected, but we’ve got pins on France, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Great Britain. But then we had South Korea, Guam, Brazil, Greenland, Russia, China, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. There were a rare few who didn’t know. There were also those who were adopted did not know.

I was surprised, as many St. Cloud locals had no idea from where their families came. If you don’t know your ancestry, it’s often a joy learning about the places your family originated–new traditions, food, books, music, maybe a desire to travel there? Google is a fabulous tool, and there’s a lot of free information online. Try Googling your last name + country of origin. That’s an easy start for most.

ellis islandYesterday I read an article, a post from Green Card Voices by Tea Rozman Clark, showing photographs of immigrants who came through Ellis Island. It was called “These Are The Real Faces of America,” by Erin Kelly. The photos capture American diversity from as early as 1880. Albania, Algeria, Romania, Russia, Italy. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, among others. They came in their traditional apparel. It shares with the reader what it was like for our ancestors as they arrived to Ellis Island, the processes it entailed. New immigrants were given free food because so many of them arrived hungry, some starving. Reading the article made me proud to be an American, because this is how I see America. We have always been a nation of immigrants.

It also reminds me that my own family came through Ellis Island, and I will be forever proud of them for coming to America from Italy, not knowing English, not having more than a few dollars, or a job or a place to live lined up. It was hard work learning English, getting jobs that paid enough, dealing with ethnic stereotypes, not to mention setting up a home, having a family and having a successful business. It took a while, all that work, and they became proud American citizens.

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And now fast forward to 2016: I am angry and embarrassed to see how immigrants are treated as they come to our country for the very same reasons my family did. Unless you are Native American, your relatives, too, came from somewhere else. Get curious…find out where! Again, try Google: your last name + country of origin. You’re not “from” Minnesota, I assure you.

Now, do some Googling of what it was like for your great great great grandparents to leave their countries, families, communities, with the clothes on their backs, maybe a kid or two, and sail to a place (not on a cruise ship, mind you), about which they’d only heard. How upon arrival to their new towns, they were made fun of for their heavy accents, strange clothes, weird smelling food, and different customs. My family experienced this in my lifetime. Being called a Wop, a Dago, and EYEtalian, a Mafioso.  I have friends from different backgrounds who have experienced this as well. It was hard on kids, and hard on their parents to see their kids made fun of.

I’m hoping that if you learn about what your ancestors went though to come here and a make life here you’ll see the sacrifices they made, and see all the things they endured as well as the successes they achieved.

They did not do all this to enable you to feel superior to others who are newly here, reaching for the same stars as your ancestors did.

About the Author
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Catherine Verrilli

Catherine is the #unitecloud Advisory Board Chair. She is a professor of music at St. Cloud State University where she teaches Music in World Cultures, Music History, and Voice. As a singer she made her Carnegie Hall Debut in 2012 as a member of Trio Lorca. A native of Connecticut, Catherine has been married almost 30 years and is happiest the presence of animals. She and her husband moved to St. Cloud in 1999 from Washington, D.C.