Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

'A story that should describe all newcomers to America'

As happens every year, this weekend brought volumes of St. Patrick's Day-related media, from historical tidbits about Irish immigration to the United States to lists of ways to celebrate. One of the most fitting tributes was an essay in the New York Times by author Peter Behrens, a Montreal native of Irish descent whose most recent book is "The O'Briens."

In his piece titled "It's About Immigrants, Not Irishness," Behrens writes about "a story that should describe all newcomers to America" and a history familiar not only to the Irish, but to those who have since succeeded them as newcomers. An excerpt:

Before the mass exodus from Ireland provoked by the great famine of the 1840s, new arrivals to North America were either settlers or slaves. The Catholic Gaelic Irish were the first cohort consistently labeled as "immigrants" in the modern, quasi-pejorative sense, and their experience established a stereotype, a template, applied ever since to whichever national or ethnic group happened to be the latest impoverished arrivals: French-Canadians, Chinese, Italians, Eastern Europeans, Hispanics.

It"s embarrassing to listen to prosperous 21st-century Americans with Irish surnames lavish on Mexican or Central American immigrants the same slurs " "dark," "dirty," "violent," "ignorant" " once slapped on our own, possibly shoeless, forebears. The Irish were seen as unclean, immoral and dangerously in thrall to a bizarre religion. They were said to be peculiarly prone to violence. As caricatured by illustrators like Thomas Nast in magazines like Harper"s Weekly, "Paddy Irishman," low of brow and massive of jaw, was more ape than human, fists trailing on the ground when they weren"t cocked and ready for brawling.

Soon it was another people"s turn. During the 1890s, when hundreds of thousands of French-Canadians were quitting rocky farms in Quebec for jobs in New England textile towns, The New York Times wrote, "It is next to impossible to penetrate this mass of protected and secluded humanity with modern ideas or to induce them to interest themselves in democratic institutions and methods of government."

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