(cited in BAE 2015, 2016, 2020, 2022); PUSHCART poetry finalist

The Immigrant Experience Then and Now — and Hope for the Future

Note from Intern Anita Ballesteros:  This week in our guest blog post, Diane O’Neill writes about her personal experience as a descendant of Irish immigrants, and her views on the social and political climate surrounding immigrants in America today.  America is built on many nations, and her piece speaks to the current perceptions and the hope for a better future.



Diane O’Neill

I’m not sure what year my grandmother came to this country, but she never lost her Irish brogue and spoke Gaelic during daily telephone chats with her sister. She barely knew how to read and write; back in the “old country,” as the oldest of eight, her parents had her working the store and minding her siblings. Here in the U.S., she was widowed when the oldest of her four children was four years old, and this at the height of the Depression. Yet her grandchildren today are college-educated professionals.

I grew up with Gran, and in childhood, somehow my closest friends were immigrants. My first best friend was from Ecuador, and in high school, lunch table friends were from Egypt, Korea, Hong Kong, and Puerto Rico. I’m not sure why, but I felt more comfortable with kids from non-white cultures than with other white kids.

So I have trouble with the “America First!” anti-immigrant talk I hear today. Unless an American is a Native-American, isn’t that American the descendant of immigrants? Doesn’t being an American intrinsically connect you to immigrants? Of course, some ancestors didn’t immigrate willingly but were dragged over here in chains — but I don’t hear those espousing “America First!” advocating for reparations for African-Americans.

Despite our immigrant roots, there never seems to have been a time when newcomers were welcomed without reservations. The Irish endured “No dogs or Irish” or “No Irish need apply” signs and stereotypes of criminality or drunkenness; the origin of the name “paddy wagon” is a reference to police vehicles supposedly carrying an inordinate number of Irish Americans off to jail. I enjoy watching Perry Mason reruns from the fifties and sixties but flinch at portrayals of stereotyped and heavily-accented Latino and Asian characters. My mother had her own prejudices, saying my buddies were only friends with me because no one else would befriend them, reminding me that we’d been at war with Korea not so long ago.

In college application essays, I wrote about prejudice and my belief that biases hurt the one who is biased. You’re denying yourself the chance to know people! Who knows, maybe someone who is outwardly different from you might be the kindred spirit for whom you’ve been seeking? Neil deGrasse Tyson writes that any two human beings have a common ancestor; family is a line we choose to draw. So is nationality.

The current attack on immigrants is harsh. Last year, two legal immigrants from India were shot in a Kansas bar by a man shouting, “Get out of my country”; one died. Today, young people who know our country as home, as they were brought here as children, live in fear of being forced to leave. And if they are allowed to stay, what about their parents? There’s talk, too, of restricting immigration to favor those who are well-educated. My grandmother wouldn’t have made the cut.

I remember the words of the illiterate grandmother in Betty Smith’s literary classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: “There is here, what is not in the old country. In spite of hard unfamiliar things, there is hope–hope. In the old country, a man can be no more than his father, providing he works hard. If his father was a carpenter, he may be a carpenter. He may not be a teacher or a priest…In the old country, a man was given to the past. Here he belongs to the future.”

If anything does make our country exceptional or great, it is the American Dream.Please, let’s not squash hope, not only for immigrants, but for our country’s future.

Photo courtesy of the Immigrant Archive Project

Diane O’Neill is a Chicago writer with degrees from Columbia College and National University. Her essays and poems have appeared in the South Side Weekly, the Journal of Modern Poetry, The Shine Journal, National University’s Gnu Journal, Still Crazy Literary Journal, The Chicago Tribune, and It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure. Her poem “Nighthawks” won third prize in the “Chicago: The Arts” category of the 2017 Poets and Patrons Chicagoland Poetry contest.



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