E Pluribus Unum


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“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-tossed to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Emma Lazarus

I didn’t grow up a very patriotic child. I was confused by the contradictions in my life.  At Catholic school, we obediently pledged allegiance and sang in our sing-song voices of the “Land of the Pilgrim’s Pride”.  Then, at home, I watched my much older siblings being swept up in the hippie movement with its slant against blind patriotism. They sang, “This land is your land.” My reaction was to take a more passive role, choosing neutrality over activism. In truth, I was caught between two worlds. I wanted to be the “good” child: school was where I thrived, after all. But I looked up to my brother and sister, and longed to join their causes.

If there was anything I believed about my country as I was growing up, however, it was the above quote and its passionate sentiment. One of the most important and special aspects of my country was its welcoming arms to immigrants. This I saw with my own eyes. This I could understand, because it resonated in my own family and the families of my friends. My mother’s family was from the Ukraine. My paternal grandmother still spoke the German of her parents, and my surname, given by my paternal grandfather, hailing from Ireland, was Kane.  My little working class neighborhood in Jersey City was home to my friends Susan Calabrese (Italian) and Paul Zukowsky (Polish). I had classmates who were African American and Puerto Rican. Lady Liberty stood proudly not far from where we lived and learned. So when they taught us that America was a melting pot, I understood this in my bones and in my blood. It made me happy, and yes, proud to be an American. E Pluribus Unum, it said on my coins: “Out of Many, One.”

Eventually, we realized that we should NOT promote the concept of the melting pot. The word “melting” implied a degree of assimilation that caused people to discard their ethnic traditions in favor of a blander American culture. Sadly, my husband Charlie’s grandfather gave up his Italian newspaper after little Charlie innocently asked him, “Can’t you read English, Grandpa?”  The reason was simple: first generation Americans fervently wanted to blend in, and rejected their old ways in their eagerness to become American. Only later, with hindsight, did we realize that this was not necessary. Or no longer necessary, because our society had reached a point at which cultural differences were not a threat, but a rich part of a beautiful tapestry being woven by the people.

So: out of many, not one, bland culture, but, indeed, one country. A country with a wealth of diversity and traditions, a multi-colored collage of individuals sharing the rights and freedoms our constitution bestows. Intoxicating stuff, really.

Not being a Pollyanna, I realize that problems have long persisted and prejudice and xenophobia remain insidious toxins. In spite of that, we have as a country been evolving in the right direction overall. Consider the fact that we just had a black president for eight years!

Until now. While I deeply believed that our open door to the “huddled masses” was a powerful part of our country’s identity that would never be rejected, it now appears that I was wrong.

Just days after the first Syrian refugees arrived here in Rutland, Vermont (a little family of four who came here for a better life for their small children), the entire refugee program is threatened to be discontinued due to Trump’s aggressive anti-immigration policies: treating all people of Muslim descent like criminals, and building walls between borders. This is not the America that made me proud. Are we becoming a place that people will flee from, rather than flee to?

Unfortunately, “reasoning” with the POTUS will get us nowhere. He is not a reasonable man. That is why last Saturday I joined the millions of protestors around the world to raise my voice against Trump. It was this formerly neutral child’s first protest march, and it was a powerful inspiration to stand next to my daughter and son among so many beautiful voices and spirits.

Tomorrow, I will join a group of protestors in Rutland, Vermont, to stand up and fight for the Syrian refugee program.

We cannot watch in helpless outrage as the very fabric of our country is unraveled.©

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Boston Commons January 21, 2017

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