“I believe in America.” The famous opening line of The Godfather represents my feelings as well. I’m very patriotic. Every year I enthusiastically celebrate the 4th of July and every year I get a little misty eyed thinking about how generations of immigrants have made America their home, hoping to create a better life for themselves and their children. I include my family in that category of those striving to live the American dream.
I am half-Japanese and half-Mexican. After the Mexican revolution, my father’s father came to the U.S. and worked on the railroads raising a family of about 14 kids (I say “about” because seriously that’s a lot of kids, I would have to confer with my cousins to make sure I got that number right), one of which was my dad. While my grandfather was working the lines, my father and his siblings worked in the fields picking produce to earn extra money for the household.
During WWII, my older uncles enlisted in the U.S. army and fought for their country in Europe as paratroopers and infantry men. My father was too young and stayed state side but apparently got into a lot of teenage shenanigans. So when his brothers returned from the war, they convinced my grandmother that a little army discipline and structure was exactly what he needed. One of his posts was Reconstruction Japan.
While stationed in Japan he met my mother. Although (or maybe because) she didn’t speak much English, she fell in love with his eyes and as my mother would later say, “When you’re an 18-year-old girl, that’s all you need.” To the horror of her traditional parents and against their wishes, they married. Not only was she marrying an American GI, but a brown skinned American.
As many immigrants do, with just the few belongings that could fit in her suitcase and little knowledge of the culture and language, she left the country of her birth and came to America to make a new life. Here they started a family including my brother and sister and me.
My wife’s story is similar, except that her family tree has roots in Ireland and Italy. Her mother’s family is of Sicilian decent living in Chicago. (You know what that means.) Her father’s family was Irish although he grew up in Wales. His father and eldest brother died during WWII, on their way home from a tour of duty in Europe. After being sent to a war orphanage in London, he ran away, worked on a transcontinental steamer, jumped ship in New York, and eventually worked his way to Chicago where he met his future wife and grandmother to my son.
Making my son ¼ Irish, ¼ Italian, ¼ Japanese, and ¼ Mexican. We call him our melting pot baby. While eating at an Italian restaurant, I’ll tell my son, “This is the food of your people.” Or while driving through more rural parts of California, sometimes we’ll see field workers and I’ll point them out to remind my son that his grandfather started out as a day laborer. And that he is the beneficiary of the courage of his ancestors to leave their families and homes to chase their dream of better opportunities for themselves and their children and their children’s children in the country that’s famous for taking in the huddled masses and making them her own.
Happy Independence Day.
originally posted 7/2/12