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Boomer Bytes #76: Melting Pot or Salad Bowl?

Editor’s Note: Below is another column in Steve Canipe’s series called Boomer Bytes. The column, as the title suggests, will focus on a variety of topics that may be of interest to baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. But Canipe also hopes to start a conversation with younger generations, too. Check out an introduction and Canipe’s (first self-titled) column here.

Melting Pot or Salad Bowl?

By Steve Canipe

There is a poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty written in 1893 by Emma Lazarus. It says in part, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” What exactly does that mean? In the early days of the country, when we were looking to expand, it was basically an open invitation to those who wanted to improve themselves and seek a better life in this “land of opportunity.”

We were the salvation for many of Europe’s “refuse” who were discarded by their countries, written off as being worthless. Perhaps some of them were but the vast majority of immigrants in the early days brought skills but perhaps more, they brought ambition, a desire to work hard, to succeed in their adopted country.


Many of these new arrivals stayed in the cities where they first arrived – Boston, New York, Philadelphia. But many left these arrival ports and headed inland and west. Countless people were here to try to make a better life for themselves and their posterity. They had read our Constitution and believed the clause which read “..to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity…”

These were Irish, Italian, German, French, English, Polish, etc. They spoke different languages and had different customs but they had a goal to become Americans and in so doing to forge a new future that was better than what they had left behind in Europe or other parts of the world from which they came.

In the beginning the new immigrants stayed in enclaves with their like brethren. Here they could speak their native tongue and expect to have it understood. The first generation of immigrants had children and they went to American schools and learned English and United States history. They had begun the incorporation in the great melting pot of Germans, Poles, Italians, Irish, Jews, Muslims, etc. The key was that they all wanted to be here and those of us here basically wanted the new influx of labor.

The immigrants worked hard and many really prospered. Some did not do so well and joined gangs and some died. In other words, while most were good people, there were some criminals among the incoming people. There was a process of amalgamation into mainstream American life and it began with education. Without doubt hard work made it possible and risk-taking to cross an ocean deep in the bottom of the great ships plying the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific…but mainly in the early days the Atlantic.

My own ancestors, the Kneip family came from Germany via Rotterdam on the ship named Ranier and landed in Philadelphia in the colony of Pennsylvania in 1749. Two young Kneip brothers settled in the Philadelphia area and when war with Mother England came, they fought for their country – the new one in the process of being formed. I don’t know exactly what happened of course but my direct ancestor Christian served and after the War for Independence was won was given land in the new country. Choosing to leave Pennsylvania, Christian and his family traveled the Great Wagon Road south along the eastern ridge of the Appalachian Mountains until they came to the little settlement of Salisbury in North Carolina and they were there during the first census of the new country taken in 1790.

Soon after the federal 1790 census, in 1795 they moved to western Lincoln County located in the Catawba River valley. They settled along a small creek named Indian Creek about 7 miles west from the settlement of Lincolnton. At the time, Lincolnton was larger than Charlotte. So although they were German by heritage, they were being Americans in spirit!

Flash forward to the 1990’s and the waves of immigrants who are still trying to come to the United States. These folks are in many ways just like those early immigrants. Some are criminal but most are just hard workers wanting to better themselves and their families. But these folks are different from the early migrants in several ways – some, maybe many don’t really want to stay here, they want to make money to send to folks back in their home countries (although not all want that). They are a different color than those of us who have been here longer. It was pretty hard to tell a German form a Frenchman, from an Englishman unless they talked. But our Hispanic immigrants not only sound different they look different.

Maybe it is their different appearance that is causing so many bad feelings toward immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America. My observations, based purely on personal experiences, are that the Hispanic folks that I have met and had interactions with are extremely hard workers and are not afraid or unwilling to take on dirty and almost thankless tasks. Maybe it is the illegal status that some are resorting to in order to get to this country – they certainly seemed to fit Lazarus’ poem “…tired, …poor, …huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Do we need to think and consider our reactions to this new wave of immigrants? I would opine that we probably do need to reconsider our reactions. Politicians need to rethink their spurious objections and if there are real ones they have, then try to work together to fix them.  I know there is a major concern over the use of the English language. I believe this should be the equalizer, just as it was for the earlier waves of immigrants. If Spanish is spoken at home, I say great – I like bilingual people, but in the world of school, work, and business, English needs to be the language of commonality. At least this is my opinion.

I think it is important to face our prejudices that in some cases may be tainted by looking at skin color. With the Poles, Italians, Irish, etc…except for language they were really looking the same as the rest of us. They could easily blend in with the populace. This wave of current immigrants, like those earlier from Asia look different and enough so that it is easy to see the difference. I hope it is not true that this is the prejudice that is preventing the acceptance of this wave of strong and hard-working people form achieving their dream.

Issues of “taking American jobs from Americans” is spurious at best since the Hispanics seem willing to do work that “regular Americans” are not willing to do – so while there may be jobs wanting – there are no “regular” Americans wanting to do them!! I’ve heard this from a number of tree farmers in Watauga and Avery counties – without the migrant workers their trees would not get ready for harvest. It is hard, hot, dirty work that a lot of folks are unwilling to do.

So what do you think about this? Is it true that we need to be more open and accepting or do we want to throw a blanket over the Lazarus poem and not do what we have done so beautifully before – create an amalgam of people – the melting pot? If we don’t we will continue to have the very separate and distinct groups – more of the salad bowl – much distinction between people – who all seem to be trying to be American.

Is the poem still true or have we only given some semblance of lip-service to it? “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Let me hear your thoughts below or send an email to me at [email protected].