What do we really know about the people who immigrated to the United States for three hundred plus years beginning in the early 1600’s?
English separatists, it might be fair to say, were people who were principled non-conformists who decided to take their chances with the Pequots and Narragansetts rather than accept persecution for what they believed. They gave up familiar surroundings for religious freedom. Today we sometimes call such people “refugees”.
South Florida’s Cuban-American population exited Cuba rather than live under Castro. Today, they are some of our most patriotic Americans.
When a family leaves Oaxaca, Mexico and travels close to three thousand miles to try their hand at life in an area where Spanish isn’t even the first language, what does that suggest about them? After all, most of those in their village will never leave, preferring to live out their lives in familiar surroundings regardless of how difficult life may be.
To me it says those who decide to leave are more determined to improve their lives than those who do not. It suggests those who decide to forsake all that they know for an unknown have confidence and courage that most of their neighbors do not. It is likely whoever initiated the move possesses considerable imagination and likely has a plan. A willingness to leave all that is familiar behind—just as it always has—suggests uncommon ability that provides such a dreamer with a sense that he/she can pull it off in a strange new land where not everyone welcomes him/her.
Our ancestors very likely were such people. The land of their birth—familiar though it was—wasn’t meeting their expectations. They may have prized more social mobility, economic opportunity, or religious or political freedom than they had—or were ever likely to have—in their native country. You see, our ancestors rolled the dice. They were risk takers, which is just the “ticket” in a free enterprise system.
It has long been my conviction that the United States is an exceptional country because its people are generally the descendants of exceptional people, if for no other reason than they left. Immigrants are typically the exception, not the rule. Those who are willing to put up with less stay put.
Say what you will about today’s immigrants, their essential experience is, in most regards, no different than it has been since 1607. One needs look no further than the vast majority of newly arrived people from south of the Rio Grande to confirm that they, too, fit the profile of our immigrant origins.
The United States is an extraordinary country largely because our ancestors were not ordinary. Whether they came to clear the woods with an axe to make room for a forty acre farm, dig the Canal with picks and shovels, mine and fashion the stone used to build a 175 foot church steeple in Albion, sit on a cabbage planter all day in the summer heat and dust, cut the mature cabbage heads in the mud during another frigid and rainy November, or establish a Mexican restaurant that is the talk of Western New York State, they likely didn’t do it on a whim. Leaving your familiar birthplace to travel thousands of miles to take a chance that life could be better in a strange place never has been anything like trying a new hairstyle.
America is similar to a functional patchwork quilt that isn’t yours or mine; it is ours. It has become an inspiration to the world no matter where ancestry.com tells us we originated. To me, God may have put innumerable different people on earth as a challenge. Might they look past superficial differences and get along? The answer provided by the American experience has generally been a resounding, “Yes”!
Gary F. Kent