I grew up in the 1950’s in a small city in eastern New Mexico. Those were, comparatively speaking, much simpler times. General Eisenhower was president, the war had been won, and the country was prospering. Anyone who wanted a job had one, so life was good.
I didn’t realize it at the time but that little town was a microcosm of American immigration. The town didn’t exist until 1909. The Santa Fe railroad found an abundant supply of good fresh water that could be had by drilling shallow wells. They decided this was the perfect place for a terminus on their main line that ran between Chicago and California. The rolling plains had few permanent residents before because there was no surface water for more than a hundred miles.
The Santa Fe Railroad built a large switching yard, a round house to service the steam engines, a repair facility for the railroad cars, and large stock yards to handle the shipment of the thousands of cattle that were raised in the area. Not far behind the stockyard came the meat packers who established slaughterhouses next to the stockyards, and with all of this came lots of good paying jobs, with the jobs came people and a small town began to grow. Wells were drilled and windmills began to sprout up across the plains on what had been miles and miles of Buffalo Grass became farms and ranches.
Second generation freedmen came from the south seeking a new start, and began to fill some of the jobs in the repair facilities and on the trains. Newly arrived immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, Poland, Germany and Eastern Europe came west on the trains took jobs and opened business. Mexicans came from the south bringing knowledge of cattle and ranching.
Hispanic families that had been in New Mexico for hundreds of years came from other parts of state to find new opportunity. Cattlemen from Texas, farmers from the east and the midwest came to get free or inexpensive land under the Homestead Act of 1876. That is what brought my parents’ families to the area.
By the time I came along, the town and the country had survived some hard times, World War I, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl days, and was on the way to winning World War II. The town had grown into a small city with a population of 25,000 people, most of whom didn’t care much where you came from, but who you were now. I don’t remember any hyphenated national names, I just thought we were all just plain Americans, but there were still a few lessons to be learned on that subject.
Mr. Garcia was a neighbor who lived three houses down on the same block as our family. He was out in his yard when I walked by one day. I said hello and stopped to talk. The subject of the approaching annual rodeo came up, and I ask if he and some of the other Mexican men were going to ride in the rodeo parade. He and a group of men, dressed as Vaqueros on beautiful horses with fancy Spanish halters and saddles usually rode in the parade every year.
He got a kind of funny look on his face, and asked me where my family was from. I thought that was a strange reply, but I told him that as far as I knew my parents families were from Texas. He said “no, I mean where they came to America from?” I had to admit that I had never thought about it, and that I didn’t really know. He asked if I considered myself an American. I answered yes.
He explained that his family had come from Spain, to Mexico and then on to New Mexico over three hundred years ago, and did I think that qualified him as being an American. I, of course, answered yes, absolutely. Then why, he asked, did I refer to him as a Mexican? He pointed out that most of our families came from some other country, and there is nothing wrong with being proud or your heritage, but that we were now all Americans, and that is what is really important, and that he preferred being referred to simply as an American.
I later learned from his son, that he served in the Marine Corps in the South Pacific in World War II, and had been involved in the invasion of Iwo Jima and several other island campaigns, and was a true American hero. Mr. Garcia was a proud and wise man who taught me a lesson that day.
I remember a drawing that was in most of the American history books at the time. It was drawing of a big pot, with people from all over the world shown going into the pot. The caption was “America, the melting pot of the world.” That the Latin phrase on the Great Seal of the United States reads, “E Pluribus Unum” means “from many, one.” The chapter went on to explain that the greatest strength of America comes from the fact that we were a nation made up of people from many nations, and each culture brought something special to the whole. I haven’t seen an American history book in a lot of years, but I hope that chapter is still there, and that student’s today see, and learn that lesson, because it is probably more important today than ever before.
Americans, whether they have been here for generations or just arrived, need to understand that we have much to be proud of, and that America is a very special place. From the beginning of our history to the present day millions of people from all over the world have endured great hardship to come here, some of their own free will, some not, but it is that willingness to give up everything and work hard for the chance at a better and freer life that has made us what we are today. The mix of culture, knowledge, and custom truly gives meaning to “E Pluribus Unum.”
There is much in today’s news about the problems of immigration and what should be done to stop unlimited free immigration across our open borders, and that concern is justified. We need to know who is coming to America and why. Most are coming seeking a new and better life, but some are coming to do us harm, and we don’t know the difference. We should have a way to separate the two.
The answer is for Congress to pass sensible, workable immigration laws that allow for honest, hard-working people who want to come here to be able to do so legally without years of red tape bureaucratic delays. We need immigrants just a much today as ever. They bring strength to who we are, and what we will become, but only Congress can make that happen.
Why don’t they? The next time you get a chance, you might want to ask your Congressman or your Senator that question.
Born, raised and educated in the Southwest, Jim Dickson served in the U.S. Navy Reserve in Vietnam before a 35-year business career. Retired to St. Helena Island, Dickson and his wife are fiscally conservative, socially moderate and active in Republican politics, though they may not always agree with Republicans. Having lived around the country and traveled around the world, Dickson believes that the United States truly is the land of opportunity.