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How We Adopted the Fourth of July

Resource type: News

The New York Times | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

Perhaps because America is a nation of immigrants, immigration has always been a fraught political issue. How immigrants define themselves and how the laws determine who is welcome and who is not have played out in various ways throughout American history.

Yet immigrants are among the most eager to proclaim their love of country. We asked some writers and historians, how do different generations see the Fourth of July, and how do those views change over time?

No Going Home

Joshua Halberstam teaches at Bronx Community College of City University. He is the author of “A Seat at the Table: A Novel of Forbidden Choices.”

On the Fourth of July, our house was conspicuous.  It was the only one on our Brooklyn block that featured a huge American flag we suspended from the upstairs window and let drape across the façade. The house was conspicuous the rest of the year too. This was the home of that ultra-Orthodox Hasidic family.

The unfurling of the flag became one more tradition in our life, already steeped in traditions.  But for my father who arrived from Poland, and my mother from Czechoslovakia, this was an annual celebration their forefathers could hardly imagine. Here, for the first time in Jewish history, was a country in which you could truly adopt new, national rituals without relinquishing your own.

My parents were immigrants unlike most other American immigrants. The elderly Italian couple across the street regularly traveled back to their old neighborhood in Palermo where their relatives still lived.  The Puerto Rican family around the corner engaged in a  constant exchange of visitors with their cousins in San Juan, and the old Irish fellow who worked in the grocery store waxed poetic about the beauty of his village in Limerick where he hoped to return after retiring.

But there was no returning to the old country for my parents, their siblings, or their extended community. The family properties had been expropriated, the communal buildings burned to the ground. There were no old folks to visit and the cemeteries of their relatives were but wafting ashes over mass graves and the incinerators of Auschwitz.   They could — and did– dream of a past in an ancient Israel that lived in the Holy Scriptures and could pray for the future of the neonate, fledgling new state of Israel. But America was their home, the only home in an unwelcoming planet.

“Never take this country  for granted,” my father repeated to me  with growing disappointment as he watched my generation settle into the comfort of assumption, lazily accede to a  reading of the world  in which America was a  tired construct at best, but more often yet another villainous hypocrite in the parade of villainous hypocritical  nation-states.

And every election day he’d admonish me, “You have something to say about politics?  Good. But first say it at the polling station. Otherwise, I’m not interested in hearing your ideas.”   To him, my youthful cynicism about voting was an inexcusable, lack of gratitude for freedoms he was never allowed in his own youth.

I don’t think you’ll find too many flags unfurled in my old neighborhood this Fourth of July. I know they don’t abound among the homes in my urbane neighborhood in Manhattan, or, for that matter, on the lawns of other sophisticated landscapes across the country.   We have no need for such naivety, for such childish displays of patriotism, do we?

“Oh, but you do,” I can hear my father say. “You, now, especially.”


A New Welcome

Kica Matos was the executive director of the Junta for Progressive Action, a Latino community group in New Haven, and deputy mayor of the city, where she helped implement the Elm City ID card. She runs the U.S. Reconciliation & Human Rights Programme at The Atlantic Philanthropies.

“A la tierra que fueres, haz lo que vieres.” (“Wherever you go, do as you see.”) This Mexican proverb best describes how immigrants in my home city of New Haven, celebrate the Fourth of July.

I first heard the proverb from Maria L., a long-time friend and immigrant rights’ advocate, as she recalled her early days in New Haven, when she and other immigrant residents were too afraid to venture into public spaces for fear of being deported. Even on a holiday as popular and symbolic as Independence Day, immigrants without papers largely stayed home.

Today, she says, things are much different: as a result of the city’s embrace of newcomers and its implementation of immigrant friendly policies over the last few years, immigrants like her are able to celebrate the Fourth of July openly. In 2007, the city began to issue identification cards, which allow immigrants to open bank accounts and to use libraries and other public resources.

Many now proudly carry identification cards that recognize them for who they are – residents of a city that appreciates their contributions and acknowledges their humanity.

There is also something distinct and unique about July Fourth for many working immigrants. It is one of the few times of the year when their patron truly gives them the day off. This holiday then, has also become a special day in which to celebrate community and connect with family, friends and loved ones. How they choose to do so is not unlike the rest of us.

So on July Fourth, immigrants in New Haven go to the public beach or the parks. They host barbecues at their homes. They head out at night to watch the fireworks, gathering with city residents from different backgrounds. Together, they form a beautiful living mosaic of people related by hope, freedom and a desire for harmony and justice in a city that welcomes them, and which they now call home.

A Foreign Holiday

Thomas Glave, a professor of English at Binghamton University, is the author of “The Torturer’s Wife” and “Whose Song? and Other Stories.”

 “The American holiday,” that was how some of my Jamaican family in the U.S. and in Jamaica referred to the Fourth of July. Many years later, as a black child of immigrants from a so-called Third World country and one born and raised in the U.S., I would confront some of the profound ironies at the center of American “independence” (independence for whom? would loom as a later question).

But yes, July Fourth was their holiday, the Americans’, of whichever color. In our American life, we observed it, as some of them did, with a backyard barbecue (in the years after my parents were able to afford a house in the Bronx), hot dogs and hamburgers.

These were “American” treats which many Jamaicans in the 1970s, years before the appearance of fast-food chains in the Caribbean, did not yet consume in notable quantities. American goodies that spoke of the limitless bounty America was known to provide: “The Land of Opportunity!” my mother (but not my father) enthusiastically called it.

“Americans,” and white Americans especially, were still, to us at the time, a very distinct and odd species; unlike the British whom we’d known intimately, we found these July Fourth people, often our neighbors, somewhat incomprehensible. Yet, alongside those same revelers — foreigners, to us — we watched fireworks, ate their delicious summer picnic foods (supplemented by our Jamaican drinks like ginger beer and coconut water — white rum for the adults, of course) and rapturously watched their fireworks.

What did it all mean? I would learn about some of it in school later, but much of that particular American history would remain unknown and of no real interest to my parents and other family. Our true reality, after all, was back there, in Kingston. We couldn’t know then that, in the years after Jamaica’s independence from England in 1962, the idea of American “independence” — get rid of those British, if at all possible — would take on deeper meaning for all of us.

American Enough

David A. Hollinger is a professor of American history at the University of California, Berkeley, and president of the Organization of American Historians. He is the author of several books, including “Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism.”

If the Fourth of July remained as ideologically important as it once was, the response of immigrants to this holiday might tell us something about the extent to which we are becoming a post-ethnic society. But for much of the American public, Independence Day has become just an occasion for another three-day weekend, offering little incentive to register degrees of solidarity with the civic nation that is the focus of the celebration.

Being indifferent to the Fourth of July may even be an indicator of the process of assimilation. Immigrants are notoriously patriotic, living in a country they have chosen rather than inherited through the accident of birth. Recent immigrants taking Independence Day as casually as people with many generations of American ancestry may simply be a sign that they are becoming more like the rest of the population.

Immigrants might feel comfortable about their American identity without bothering to display it on July Fourth, just as they may feel comfortable with this or that ethnic identity without attending closely to the ancestral group’s festivals.

They should choose for themselves just how much energy they allocate to the various identities that compete for space in their lives. Likewise, just how to balance loyalty to an ancestral group with a feeling of solidarity with the civic nation should be up to the individual.

The post-ethnic principle is “affiliation by revocable consent,” by which an individual decides just how much to make of being Chinese or Mexican or Nigerian or Irish or Egyptian while enjoying all the rights and privileges of residing in the United States. Persons with European ancestry have long enjoyed this autonomy. But individuals marked by certain skin colors, morphological traits and linguistic particularities have often had to accept ascribed identities, told by empowered whites or by members of their own natal community about their “real” identity.

The Fourth of July offers a good opportunity to proclaim and defend the principle of affiliation by revocable consent. Making the principle operative — making the United States more fully post-ethnic -– is, of course, a two-way social process. A person might choose to downplay a connection to an ethnoracial community to emphasize his or her deep involvement in the civic nation, but this decision would be denied if the rest of society, through the categories of the federal census and through popular habits of ascription, keeps pushing individuals back into their ancestral past.

In the same spirit, those of us who identify chiefly with the civic nation should not object if, even on the Fourth, many of our fellow Americans would rather picnic with their “old country” clan than discuss the Declaration of Independence with us.


A Complicated Appreciation

Hiroshi Motomura is the Susan Westerberg Prager Professor of Law at the U.C.L.A. School of Law. He is the author of a book, “Americans in Waiting: The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States,” and is writing a companion volume, “Immigration Outside the Law.”

My family came to America when I was 3 years old. Some of my earliest memories of our first years in this country take me back to the fireworks at the Marina Green in San Francisco. For the several years that we lived in an apartment on Bush Street, my father would take me up the hill to Alta Plaza Park to see the show.

I don’t know exactly what my father thought about on those evenings, but I am pretty sure that he considered the Fourth to be a special day for complicated reasons that many immigrant families share and probably always will.

The Fourth of July was my father’s way of marking some sense of belonging to a new land, and of sharing that feeling with his child. So it was a day of appreciation and celebration. But I also know that his Fourth of July must have been a day of unease and hesitation. Being an immigrant in America and starting a new life here meant everything to him, and yet his Independence Day was always tempered by his doubt that he would ever truly belong. Like many immigrants throughout American history, he must have taken some comfort in hoping that his children would.

Patriotism and Ambivalence

Rogelio Saenz is a professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University. He is the author of “Latinas/os in the United States: Changing the Face of América.”

We are in the midst of major demographic transformations in this country. Latinos, now the nation’s largest minority group, make up about one of every six people in the United States. This reconfiguration has raised concerns about how Latinos are integrating into traditional American society. Since there’s great variation in this population, it’s not surprising that there are as many responses to the Fourth of July.

Patriotic Latinos fire up the grill, cook fajitas and other delicacies, attend parades, and set off fireworks or attend firework displays.  Though they embrace an American identity, many also continue to celebrate and observe the independence day of their home countries, such as el 16 de septiembre, Mexican Independence Day.

Other Latinos are ambivalent about the celebration of the Fourth of July.  Some individuals fear losing the identity of their country of origin.  Others also feel alienation from the United States.

A professional woman in her thirties who lives in the Midwest but who grew up in Mexico City told me that even though she has lived in the United States for fifteen years, she has never celebrated the Fourth of July for fear of losing her Mexican — and more specifically Chilanga (Mexico City) — identity.  Nonetheless, her sense of herself has changed somewhat within the last year, since she had a daughter who was born in the United States and who is a U.S. citizen. 

She now feels she has a true piece of her family who belongs here in the United States.  Yet, she intimates that her American attachment still is fleeting, especially when she sees a suspicious, questioning, or uninviting glance from some people reminding her once again that she is not a real American.  When such events happen, and sometimes they happen daily, her sense of belonging in this country easily evaporates.  Laws, such as Arizona’s SB1070, serve as a constant reminder for Latino undocumented immigrants — and by extension all Latinos — that they are neither embraced nor seen as real Americans here.

Indeed, many other Latinos possess ancestors who have been in this country for many generations, yet they continue to feel isolated because they are not really seen by mainstream America as part of the national fabric.  Even though they may take a day off from work, do the cookout thing, and view firework displays, they do not really feel American or feel that other Americans do not see them as belonging to this country.

Then we have the many Latinos, especially among the immigrant population, who, even if they wanted to celebrate the Fourth of July, cannot because they are hard at work.  For these individuals, the Fourth is not a holiday.  They are the very people, such as Olga and Pablo, who provide both the services and the comfort so that everyone else can celebrate the nation’s Independence Day.  This reality, we need to recognize, remains unacknowledged and unappreciated, and we’d do well not to forget their many important contributions.

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