The Chronicle of Higher Education
Date: September 20, 1996
Section: Personal & Professional Concerns
By Mary Geraghty
Binghamton, N.Y. -- Although he didn't know it at the time, Thomas Dublin, a professor of history at the State University of New York at Binghamton, started work on his latest book 19 years ago.
Dr. Dublin was preparing to teach a course at the University of California at San Diego in 1977 on immigration and ethnicity in United States history. He was discouraged at how few books on the subject had been written from an immigrant's point of view.
So he decided to have his students write about their own immigration experiences, or about those of their parents or grandparents, and to use those papers to show them the personal side of immigration history. "I felt that the learning I was hoping would occur in the course would be reinforced by making it personally significnt -- helping the students see how the larger national patterns are themselves the results of many individual and family patterns," he says.
He continued giving the assignment after he came to Binghamton in 1988. But it wasn't until he was describing the students' work to friends over dinner four years later that he thought of compiling a selection of the essays in a book.
"I was describing how I felt about this material and how rich it was in my class," he says. "And several of them said to me, 'You really have got to do something with this. You shouldn't just limit this to your class.'"
Dr. Dublin turned that dinner-party discussion into Becoming American, Becoming Ethnic: College Students Explore Their Roots (Temple University Press), which comprises 30 essays and 2 poems written by students at both universities from 1977 to 1994.
About 60 of his former students responded to his request to publish their essays. Dr. Dublin says those he selected reflect "the whole range of relationships to the immigrant experience" that he has seen in his class.
He divided the essays into three sections: one about grandparents, one about parents, and one about the students' own experiences. He wrote an introduction for each section in which he described the historical patterns of immigration reflected in the essays.
Essays by black students focus on the migration of their families from the South to other parts of the country. "In the traditional literature of immigration history, African Americans -- because their ancestors came over to the United States primarily as slaves -- have not usually been conceptualized as immigrants," Dr. Dublin says. "So I was interested in the book in having people speak to questions of race as well as to questions of ethnicity."
The stories he compiled make the history of immigration more vibrant, he says. Students understand more clearly the difficulty of being a foreigner when they hear, for instance, the story of 5-year-old Maria Louisa Pinto, just arrived from Puerto Rico and trying to learn to speak English.
"Confronted by an Irish teacher, Mrs. Walsh, who was determined to Americanize her, my mother began her uphill battle with the English language," wrote Melissa Algranati, a Binghamton student.
She describes an episode in which her mother tried to pronounce the word "run" without rolling the 'r' sound. "Mrs. Walsh, with a look of anger on her face, grabbed my mother's cheeks in her hand and squeezed as she repeated in a stern voice, 'RUN!' Suffice it to say my mother learned to speak English without a Spanish accent. It was because of these experiences that my mother made sure the only language spoken in the house or to me and my sister was English."
Like many of his students, Dr. Dublin himself is the descendant of European immigrants who masked their ethnicity after arriving in New York City. His paternal grandfather's family emigrated from Lithuania. His mother was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. As a child, he says, he was not aware of any distinctiveness in his family that was the result of an immigrant past.
"They all seemed perfectly American to me," he says.
Students' essays about more-recent immigrants reveal a new struggle: trying to maintain their ethnic heritage while living in American society. Dr. Dublin says he uses them to show how the elimination of the quota system changed foreigners' views of adapting to American life. "With the abolition of the 'national origins' quota system in 1965, much more diverse immigration picked up," Dr. Dublin says. "With that more diverse immigraion, the pressure to stop participating in ethnic life declined. There was this renewal of religious and language and cultural roots among foreigners, and a growing tolerance in the United States of diversity."
Another Binghamton student, Lizette Aguilar, whose Peruvian father and Puerto Rican mother immigrated in the late 1960s, wrote about how her parents' decision not to assimilate allowed her to maintain her cultural identity. "By knowing where my parents came from, I am able to point the way to where I am going, because I have role models and tangible evidence that I can be somebody," she wrote.
Dr. Dublin says he does not worry that students these days are more likely to write about pride in their own ethnicity than to extol the virtues of the melting pot.
"I think you have to take a broader view," he says. "I think that the dominant impression one leaves this course with is that there is so much that brings us together, so much that we share, even in conflicts that we have. That is part of what being an American means."
"In the end, I'm not pessimistic that multiculturalism means fundamentally fractured, incompatible identities," he adds.
Dr. Dublin says he will now use the book in his class to supplement historical readings. He also sometimes uses recent fiction about immigrant experiences, including Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers, about a Russian-Jewish family, and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, about Chinese immigrants.
He says he would consider editing another collection of student essays in 20 years to examine how the ethnic experience in America changes in the 21st century.
"You might see some changes that aren't apparent yet," he predicts. "What Americans' attitudes will be toward immigrants strikes me as an open question at this point in time."