How 19th Century Immigrant America Gave Me Freedom

How 19th Century Immigrant America Gave Me Freedom

At some point, my relatives had enough.

They hopped a boat in Ireland, Poland, or whichever European country that was leading their final voyage, and sailed to America.

The final straw was either The Potato Famine, no money, no jobs, The Seventy-Fifth Partition of Poland, or...well...no money, no jobs.

Whatever the reason, the Irish and Polish were usually suffering at the hands of another people. The fanatical and outlandish stories about a country worlds away that promised money, food, and land seemed too good to be true.

They came in droves for the much-publicized 'life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness'...but mostly they were fine with just the chance to work.

The sides of my family would settle in Chicago, a working-class city made for the 19th century infusion of Catholic immigrants.

They had no delusions of grandeur. They just wanted to work, be productive members of society, and raise a family.

Being just normal immigrants searching for a normal life didn't sit well with the mainly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation.  There was an entire political party, the 'Know Nothings', dedicated to the demise of immigrant Catholics, and the re-instatement of basic American values.

People wanting to come to their country to work and love was not good enough for them. These new people didn't look like them, worship like them, drink like them, or raise children like them.

It would be hard to find work.

My Polish and Irish ancestors would work as carpenters, or work in newer industries like public service: police, fire...and, yes...politics.

If change in perception wouldn't be granted by the ole WASP guard, then they'd just earn it by getting elected in Washington.

As the years went by, these relatives of mine went to war.  They died for a country where many people didn't even want them.

Today, I pray for an ounce of understanding.  A shred of their bravery. 

And I pray that I will pass down the full meaning of my freedom to generations below me.  They must understand that all people reaching out for our hands, our American hand, are just another version of the tired, poor, and restless souls that came before me.

For this message, I am responsible.

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    Chicago Tough is a site that began independently in 2008. Shortly thereafter, we joined the ChicagoNow network in 2009. Chicago Tough currently gives 5 on 5 contributions in the RedEye every Tuesday. Podcasts are available on itunes.

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