One of my favorite books is not that exciting, and many people think it’s no longer needed. I’m talking about your average phone book — specifically, the white pages. If you want to understand the coolest thing about our country as we get ready to celebrate its founding, just pick up the nearest copy.
Consider the names: Alcantara and Andersen; Coblentz and Cappellucci; Dietrich and Dominguez; Chung and Choszczyk; O’Neal and Oliver and Yoshimura and Hassan and Goldstein and Stewart and Schmidt and Milesovich and Nwele and Oviedo — names from all over the world, a regular alphabet soup of them. And each name tells its own tale, an encyclopedia of history cradled in sturdy consonants and voluptuous vowels.
Sylvain, for example, my name, is French. I don’t know much about my father’s family history, except that his dad lived in Butte, Montana, in the early 1900s and spoke French as well as English. Grandpa married a woman of vaguely English/Irish/Scottish heritage, and somewhere on his side of the family was a Native American, tribe unknown.
Both my older brother and his son carry the middle name “Bruce,” in honor of my mother’s family, which proudly traces its lineage back to Robert the Bruce of Scotland. As my eccentric Uncle Herbert used to remind me, in his Southern, Foghorn Leghorn drawl: “Jest remembuh, mah dahlin’ niece: Our ancestahs were kings in Scotland while those Hanoverians were hoein’ turnips in Germany.”
This knowledge has helped me greatly, as you can imagine; I expect to be summoned to Edinburgh Castle for a garden party any day now. Meanwhile, there’s also Irish in my mother’s family and maybe some German, too.
In other words, like most Americans, I’m a mutt, and proud of it. My mother’s family has a long history in the South, mostly in Georgia and northern Florida, and Uncle Herbert used to wax eloquent about how Sherman’s Yankees burned the family plantation, as if the drapes were still smoldering. Although from what I know of my people, I’ve always believed that if anything got burned in the Civil War, it was probably the family trailer.
I have no idea when or how or why or where my father’s family entered the country, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if they just slipped over the border one fine day a century ago without asking permission first. I know my dad could never resist testing a “No Trespassing” sign.
You can trace the history of a place through its phone books. My small western Colorado town still has a fair number of eastern European names, for example, largely courtesy of the early coal miners. Minnesota remains rich in Scandinavians, and if you’re sleepless in Santa Fe, flipping through the white pages, you’ll find a half-dozen pages of Ortegas.
But the populations change over the years, with new peoples arriving and settling down and becoming part of modern history. Louisiana still has Cajuns, but a lot of today’s shrimp fishermen hail from Vietnam. The waves of newcomers throughout our history have left their DNA everywhere: Irish, Italians, Germans and Poles; people from the Middle East and India and China and Somalia and Mexico and Guatemala. They are Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and atheists. They bring new ideas, new words, new foods and new ways. And it all gets stirred into a lumpy but oddly nourishing brew.
Of course, we’re in a tizzy about immigration from Mexico and Central America right now. But the truth is that we’ve always been in a tizzy about immigration. About 150 years ago, signs proclaimed “No Irish Need Apply”; now, the entire country yells, “Kiss me, I’m Irish!” on St. Patrick’s Day.
Many Americans seem to be afraid of being overwhelmed by foreigners, but a strange thing happens after just a generation or two. One morning we wake up and realize that those foreigners have become Americans, too. Those Italians, those Chinese, those Jews, those Nigerians, those Russians — they’ve all been added to the mix, which is a better, richer, spicier stew than the bland melting pot people used to talk about.
Let the last word on newcomers go to the American poet Walt Whitman: “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear … Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.”
Have a joyous Independence Day!
Diane Sylvain is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndicated opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org), where she is a copy editor and illustrator.
We’re in a tizzy about immigration from Mexico and Central America right now. But the truth is that we’ve always been in a tizzy about immigration.