Today is the federal holiday of Columbus Day. In ironic recognition, President Obama will stop by a remote California village to dedicate the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, memorializing the contributions of the eponymous Mexican-American civil rights leader who fought tirelessly to gain justice for immigrant farm workers.
Also today, Cesar’s widow, Helen, continues her effort, with many others, to urge the New York Times to replace the odious, overbroad and outdated term, “illegal immigrant,” with “undocumented immigrant” or another less racially charged phrase.
For me, Columbus Day is personal. I was born on October 12 — the original day of remembering the Italian explorer’s first touchdown on Guanahani, as the island of San Salvador was known in 1492 — that is, until three-day weekends became more important than historical accuracy and Columbia became a misspelling of a South American country known for fine coffee more than the name by which to distinguish America and the New World from Old Europe.
The President’s Columbus-Day commemoration of the leader of farm workers strikes me as doubly ironic (and also quite politic) because early Italian immigrants, like my grandparents, came as impoverished and landless farmers to this new world of promised “opportunity” and were as reviled and unappreciated as Hispanic field workers in Chavez’s time and other unauthorized immigrants still are today.
As social and cultural historian Yoni Appelbaum reminds us in The Atlantic, (“How Columbus Day Fell Victim to Its Own Success“), the Italian explorer who outsourced his services to Spain has become an enduring symbol of the genocide of indigenous people, even though Italian immigrants were vilified and some were murdered when they arrived on America’s shores in the early Twentieth Century:
Many Americans believed Italians to be racially inferior, their difference made visible by their “swarthy” or “brown” skins. They were often portrayed as primitive, violent, and unassimilable, and their Catholicism brought them in for further abuse. After an 1891 lynching of Italians in New Orleans, a New York Times editorial proclaimed Sicilians “a pest without mitigation,” adding, for good measure, that “our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they.”
The plight of individuals who migrate from poverty to opportunity is also reflected in an eye-opening book of great scholarship by Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times author Isabel Wilkerson in The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Although the African-Americans she interviewed never saw themselves as immigrants, she maintained that the “central argument of [her] book [is] that the Great Migration [of Southern Blacks to Northern and Western cities] was an unrecognized immigration within the country”:
“The participants bore the marks of immigrant behavior. They plotted a course to places in the North and West that had some connection to their homes of origin. They created colonies of the villages they came from, imported the food and folkways of the Old Country, and built their lives around the people and churches they knew from back home. They took work the people already there considered beneath them. They doubled up and took in roomers to make ends meet. They tried to instill in their children the values of the Old Country while pressing them to succeed by the standards of the New World they were in.”
By insisting that “Readers Won’t Benefit if Times Bans the Term ‘Illegal Immigrant’,” The New York Times Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, mistakenly aligns herself with Ann Coulter (“Immigrant rights are not civil rights . . . Civil rights are only for Blacks“) and continues the sad tradition of The Grey Lady in belatedly dropping venomous pejoratives in common use as ad hominem attacks on discrete and defenseless groups within society. Sullivan also facilitates the effort of anti-immigrant NumbersUSA to pit African Americans against their immigrant brothers and sisters in a recent TV commercial. Let’s be clear, the term “illegal immigrant” is grammatically and legally incorrect. It is more than just a term. The media needs to drop the ‘i’ word. It is simply not the right description. As much as I respect Times’ immigration reporter, Julia Preston, and its immigration editorialist, Lawrence Downes, for their fine work, ‘illegal immigrant’ is not interchangeable with ‘undocumented immigrant’.
If we, as Americans, subjugate the civil rights of any and all people we lose our way and slide toward a form of national mental illness, as Eric Fromm said it so well in “The Sane Society”:
Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. ”Patriotism” is its cult. It should hardly be necessary to say, that by ”patriotism” I mean that attitude which puts the own nation above humanity, above the principles of truth and justice; not the loving interest in one’s own nation, which is the concern with the nation’s spiritual as much as with its material welfare /never with its power over other nations. Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love, love for one’s country which is not part of one’s love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.