As part of the Art of Memory series, Dr. Eileen McMahon, assistant professor of history at Lewis University, led a discussion on Feb. 18 entitled “Mythical Memories of Immigration: The Collective Amnesia of the Americas.”
Pointing out that all people are immigrants, with the exception of the Native Americans, Eileen McMahon examined immigration myths and realities. The ideas that immigrants came for religious and political freedoms, had the ability to learn English immediately and all became citizens with equal rights are among America’s myths that McMahon attempted to discredit during her presentation.
McMahon discussed the melting pot myth where she concluded that none of what was anticipated has truly happened. McMahon informed her listeners that public policy has often prevented assimilation, where she used examples of slavery, reservations and “white only” citizenship laws as evidence to support her argument.
According to McMahon, when Chinese and Japanese immigrants were first in America, they were considered to be “non-white,” and the law stated that only whites could become naturalized. Without naturalization, it is impossible to become a citizen, leaving the Chinese and Japanese people with no rights. As McMahon stated, in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in California ending Chinese immigration until it was repealed in 1943 because China was an ally of the United States in war.
Although many people seem to think that immigrants today should learn English right away, a law was passed allowing Germans to practice their own language. McMahon also shared that Italians have been speaking their language for generations. Many immigrants kept their culture while it had meaning for them and it actually prevented disorientation and promoted stability.
McMahon provided her audience with insight as to the fact that recent immigrants are doing what everyone has done in the past by building their own neighborhoods, churches and speaking their own language. She reminded her audience that there are white illegal immigrants today, although often times they go unnoticed because of the color of their skin.
As McMahon contended, America has always been multicultural and it is a work in progress.
The Art of Memory series is presented by the Lewis University History Center: Urban, Cultural and Catholic History of the Upper Midwest, which supports a biannual symposium. It is also a part of Lewis University’s Arts & Ideas Program, providing cultural and educational programming for students and the community. These events are free of charge and open to the public. For further information, please contact Dr. Ewa Bacon at (815) 836-5568.
A Catholic university sponsored by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, Lewis offers nearly 80 undergraduate majors and programs of study, accelerated degree completion options for working adults, various aviation programs and 22 graduate programs in nine fields. The ninth largest private, not-for-profit university in Illinois is being honored for the sixth consecutive year by The Princeton Review and U.S. News & World Report.
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