Our ‘Mygration Story’ series tracks the family histories of staff and fellows at UNU. The aim is to show that many of us owe our lives and careers to the courage of migrant ancestors. People who left their homes to build safer or better lives — for themselves and for their children. With this monthly series we want to show that migration is not an historical aberration, but a surprisingly common element in family histories worldwide.
As a migration researcher as well as a first-generation migrant descended of migrants, mobility has been a major feature of my adult life. I find it difficult to separate my own migration story from that of my ancestors because it is precisely their decisions and trajectories that enabled my own.
Like many Americans, I am the product of migration. My surname identifies my father’s heritage in Italy; his great-grandparents, who met and married in New York, came from different regions of Italy in the early 1900s. One side of his family—the Scalpinos from Sicily—left an area of rampant unemployment on the promise of jobs in the growing manufacturing sector in the coastal cities of the US. The Vanores, from further north, also made the journey to the US in the hope of finding better opportunities. Beyond a vague timeframe and pictures of weddings and baptisms, the details of how these two Italian families made it to and settled in the US are uncertain.
The plot of my mother’s migration story has a few more twists. Her father was a second-generation migrant, the son of two Polish immigrants who both left Poland in the interbellum period. My great-grandfather, Walter Najdowski, arrived in the US along with his 11 siblings sometime around 1920. My great-grandmother, Marta, arrived in the US as a very young child; she and her parents lived next to my great-grandfather, and when her parents died shortly after their settlement in the US, she was brought up by Walter’s family. My maternal grandmother came from a very different immigration context. She was descended of Irish immigrants who had left Ireland just before the potato blight and subsequent famine, sometime around 1840. The Shea family was incredibly enterprising; indeed, they hold the dubious honour of creating the first credit-checking company in the US, a service that has prevented over-indebted Americans from receiving loans for generations.
Despite their different motivations and circumstances, the pioneer migrants on both sides of my parents’ families followed similar paths. Both made their way to bigger cities in the US and settled, both out of necessity and choice, in largely (co-)ethnic neighbourhoods. In both places my ancestors found their niches as entrepreneurs. Four families—the Scalpinos, Vanores, Najdowskis, and Sheas—turned to entrepreneurship out of necessity, in part because of limited jobs during times of recession and in part because of discrimination and exclusion on the local labour market. My mother and father were both products of families who simultaneously repressed and celebrated their immigrant identities, encouraging their children to forget their mother tongues but to keep their traditions close — particularly those involving food.
Like many US citizens, the process and consequences of my family’s migration histories are obscured by a lack of retelling. For my ancestors, as for many migrants now, being an ethnic or cultural ‘other’ brought stigma and shame, and the oral transmission of their migration narratives suffered as a result. In contrast to now, when many Americans talk of their ethnic origins with pride and find their distant relations somehow exciting and exotic, my family found their foreign origins anything but.
My distant family settled in the US at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment was peaking and when immigrant integration was equated with assimilation, the expectation that migrants would discard their language, customs, and beliefs—at least in public—if they wanted to take part in the US social project. The variety of slurs used to describe immigrant populations attest to this; my grandfather, who was born in the US, was still considered a ‘dumb Polack’ because Polish migrants were among the last of the larger waves of European immigrants and therefore also among the last to learn English. As an adult he made the conscious decision not to speak Polish, especially around his children.
The ‘punchline’ of my ancestors’ migration stories is that they were not the ‘ideal migrants’ in terms of skill level or cultural affinity. They were generally low skilled, poor, Catholic, and from rural areas—all characteristics that made them politically undesirable and economically marginal. Despite these characteristics, they did not produce children that were any less American or any less capable of contributing to the labour market. Despite their relegation to ethnic neighbourhoods and self-employment, they still very much belonged to the collective US society.
The experiences of my ancestors are not unlike those of many contemporary migrants. Proponents of migration, particularly those who support greater welcoming of Syrian refugees, often focus on the economic returns of highly-skilled migrants, highlighting how migrants can fill specific gaps within host-country labour markets. This logic appeals to a desire to see migration as a ‘net benefit’, something that can be immediately quantified and justified. At the same time, it ignores that migrants of different backgrounds are often not so dissimilar from an average; they want jobs that help them survive and their children thrive, as most people do. The only difference is that by a pure accident of birth, these benefits must be earned rights rather than natural entitlements.
It is on this final point that this mygration story packs the heaviest punch for me: through no accomplishment or effort of my own, I was born with the right to one of the most coveted passports in the world.