I recently did my genealogy and traced it back far enough to find out what “nationalities” I’m compromised of. Now I haven’t done a ‘23 and Me’ test to see exact percentages of each genetic haplogroup I am, I just wanted to see from which countries my ancestors immigrated from. Here is a breakdown:
Now it’s easy to summarize that I’m fairly Caucasian, but when my Italian ancestors immigrated to America by boat, in 1895 and 1910 respectively, they all changed their first names to become more “Anglican” (or English sounding) so they would be accepted by the people in Philadelphia where they were immigrating to. While I’m grateful that is not something widely practiced in our current culture, many Asian immigrants have come to us in modern America and have chosen an “American” sounding first name to (in a very overt way) assimilate into our culture here. I’ll admit when I was searching for my Italian ancestors and realized they had changed names like Giuseppina to Josephine, Vincenzo to James, it caused me to reflect on WHY they were doing what they were doing. Why did they come here at all if they were going to have to pretend to be someone they weren’t?
In order to answer that question, we have to figure out why people immigrate to America. A few years ago I was working in San Francisco and during my time there I met an overwhelming number of people working for Google, Facebook, Apple, LinkedIn and many other tech giants in Silicon Valley who came from India and China on H1B visas. In fact, a majority of the highest paying jobs in Silicon Valley are being performed by Asian immigrants. Why are they coming here? They are coming to seek their version of a better life. Many are the best and brightest in their countries and they are coming here to pursue excellence and are striving to climb the Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ pyramid. Many of our ancestors have fought for the opportunity to be here and have eyed a similar pursuit. Unless you are 100% Native American, you are indebted to the pioneers in your family who have trekked on foot, by boat, or by plane, or other means to create an opportunity for themselves and their posterity.
Since the inception of this nation, there have always been problems. When the country expanded west, the Wild West, was exactly that, WILD. Many criminals were able to amass fortunes seeking “opportunity” at the expense of others. Later, the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Edisons of the past utilized human capital to legally become some of the richest people in human history. Should we all of the sudden quit this experiment of trying to create a Utopian society where men, women, and children can come here and try their luck to build a small little empire for themselves and their posterity? No, we make adjustments. In the in 230 years since the constitution was put into operation, it has been amended 27 times. Of those 27, some of the most pivotal included extending access to every American to be 100% free in every form of the word and to participate in the election process – which is one of the great attributes of being an American. Choice. Choosing leaders, choosing education, choosing careers, choosing to worship or not, choosing the size you’d prefer your family to be. These all seem like moral absolutes and no-brainers, but there are foreign governments who disagree on one or many of these things. Additionally, a census every 10 years allows American citizens to be better represented, both demographically and as a counted populace.
I’d like you to excuse the personal nature of these next two stories, and realize they could have happened to anyone, but they happened to me.
The first takes place in Brisbane, Australia on February 2, 2014. Well, technically it was February 3rd there, but we’re talking about being Americans here so the facts have been adjusted. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I take Sabbath day observance very seriously. We strive to find jobs that allow us to have Sunday as a day off and we seek to share it at home with our families and not out shopping, eating at restaurants (activities causing others to work), etc.
“Exodus 20:10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates”
For this reason, I had never gone to a restaurant or anything like unto it to watch a Super Bowl in my life. Well, in Australia the Super Bowl takes place Monday morning until the early afternoon so naturally I took the liberty of going to a sports bar in downtown Brisbane to watch the game. Though there were many people wearing NFL jerseys and cheering, I felt something was missing not being able to have in depth conversations about the game with someone who had grown up with the sport and not just seeing it on TV. After all, American Football as it’s called in Australia (not to be confused with rugby or Aussie Rules Football) is sparsely played Down Under. The game reached halftime and as my laser focus was no longer on the screen the volume of the surrounding voices seemed to spike. All of the sudden, like a sweet melody, I heard what I had been missing. An American accent! My eyes locked on the man who in that moment felt like a long lost brother and I went and started a conversation with him. We ended up chatting the entire second half and though there were a few others in our circle, he and I seemed to have two hearts which beat as one. It wasn’t until later that day I learned a very interesting lesson about myself and about humanity. Australia is a predominately ethnocentric country with most immigrants hailing from England. My friend in the sports bar was African-American. I suddenly realized how tribal we as humans are. I didn’t even process until much later in the day he was Black, just that he and I were the only Americans in that sports bar and we needed to band together. It is a very mammalian quality to want to be with people who are like you. We all remember the old adage, birds of a feather flock together. When is the last time you saw a flamingo, a goose, an eagle, a sparrow and a quail flying in formation together? Spoiler alert: it’s never happened.
What makes us as humans different? Well, for the most part we’re not much different. If you go to most 2nd and 3rd world countries on earth, you’ll notice – aside from tourists – everyone kind of looks the same. Even in early America, except for those who were brought here against their will, most of the immigrants looked... kind of the same. All of us are currently participating in an experiment to change the paradigm of what brothers look like, what friends look like, what “birds of a feather” looks like. The results over nearly 250 years have shown it's working! It wasn’t because my eyes and brain have grown to transcend color and be blind to race on that Monday morning in 2014, but I realized being an American means far more than what you can see on the outside, for he and I had more in common than all the “birds” who looked like me.
The second story, is far more recent and may be a far more familiar feeling to you. I currently live in Los Angeles which is a really poor way to spell North Mexico. There are tacos, tortas, elotes, and burritos around nearly every corner and the sound of Mariachi music blasting at 2am from your neighbor’s backyard makes you wonder what event truly warrants being celebrated on a Wednesday. Anytime I hear a barrage of fireworks outside of June or July I can be sure Mexico’s soccer team has just scored a goal or a top Mexican boxer has just won a fight. I've pondered whether the people here were striving to assimilate the same way my ancestors from Italy did a century ago. On July 4th I took this picture on my street and I was able to see things from a new perspective.
I own a state flag sock company with a slogan “Love Where You’re From”. When I lived in Utah several years ago, my roommates and I each had our own state flag on the wall. In fact it was our state pride that ultimately spawned my idea to start the sock company. Did I not love Utah the same way I loved California? Did I not love Australia the same way I loved America? The answer in both cases is clearly no (in fact I love Australia and Australians so much I married one). However, we can all agree “there’s no place like home” regardless of where opportunity takes us, right? As I dug deeper I found myself making connections about my Italian ancestors to our Mexican neighbors here. My first generation Italian ancestors struggled to speak, read, or write in English, and most did not become American citizens. Their children, who later became my great grandparents Anthony and Josephine Rocca, were naturalized citizens who did learn English. What about changing their names? In Hispanic culture, it’s very common to keep the last name from both the husband’s and wife’s side of the family and over time the length of last names can grow exponentially if that tradition is upheld. Most second generation Hispanics tend to “Americanize” their last names and just keep the husband’s name and the wife drops her maiden name. It may seem like a small thing to you, but having to forsake a tradition dear to your culture may prove difficult. Why do they do it? Why do they leave their homeland? They’re building a legacy. Sometimes it requires change. Sometimes it requires amending.
So what does it mean to be an American? Being American means we love this country while still appreciating and revering our own heritage. It means adding a little flavor into American culture pot while still embracing what makes America great and melting it all together. Thank goodness we look, think, act, and eat differently. America would be a pretty boring place if every restaurant served only burgers, hot dogs, apple pie, and ice cream and every song was played on a piano (though we can agree all of these are good things). Being American means we’re united in one cause if nothing else – the freedom to choose and to allow all men and women everywhere the same privilege, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as well as “to worship how, where, and what they may.”
Remember, it is a privilege, not a right to participate in the American experiment. We all need to recognize that each of us has a pioneer story. We all have a forefather or foremother who knew the importance of embracing the true American Dream – freedom.