In honor of Independence Day, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published a four-part series on the families of some of the immigrants who settled in the city. The four groups represented in the series were Greek, Polish Russian and Chinese. The stories focused on the tales ancestors told of their struggle, survival and success. I found the stories interesting and the concept both timely and appropriate. It seems to me that for every American who can trace their family’s arrival to the Mayflower or a landing on Plymouth Rock, there are thousands more whose family traveled in steerage and entered the country through Ellis Island.
The stories all had a common theme of an ancestor who emigrated from their native country in hopes of finding a new and better life in America. The legacy that each left for their family was one where hard work and perseverance coupled with opportunity leads to success. For some, it was with grandchildren who earned Ph.D., or successful businesses that found their roots in the sacrifices and efforts of the ancestor. The Polish family in the series used a grandmother’s cooking to inspire a chain of barbecue restaurants, Risky’s.
Most American cities have a rich history of the contributions made by immigrant families who may have been attracted by the work they hoped to find. In Fort Worth, it was the thriving meat packing plants operated by Swift and Armour on the north side. In my hometown, it was the auto industry. I remember my mother telling the story that when she first arrived from rural Virginia she did not know how to answer neighbors when they asked her nationality. She would tell them all she knew — she was American. This was long before the rise in popularity of genealogical research. However, in the melting pot environment that was developing in American cities new arrivals tended to assemble and bond with people with similar national backgrounds. It is also where most turned to for help and assistance. The Chinese who came to Texas to help build the railroads, according to the newspaper series, later immigrated first to Mexico and came to the U.S. by means of an underground railroad because of exclusion laws.
The network of national origin also contributed to some of the stereotypes Americans hold for some nationality groups. The Irish cop was a staple in early movies and television shows, as was the image of Italians in the waste management or cement industries. The ethnic restaurants aside, many businesses have provided an avenue for a specific immigrant group mainly through the help and support of their countrymen that came before. One of the more recognized in Texas and the country is the growth of Indian-Americans in the hotel industry. A number of years ago it was not uncommon to see motels advertising that they were American owned. I am not sure if it was intended to be discriminatory, or merely a way to point out a feature they thought would give them a competitive advantage. Whatever the motivation, it clearly did not work. According to a story in USA Today, 43 percent of the more than 47,000 hotels and motels in the country are owned by Indian-Americans.
Few other industries can claim such a large minority influence and it has occurred in a relatively short period of time. USA Today said that it has only been 35 years since the first Indian motel keepers arrived from Gujarat, a state in western India, most with the surname Patel. They started in the early 70s buying budget motels. They saw them as safe investments and they often saved money by living in their motels. Today there is the Asian American Hotel Owners Association with membership mainly from Indian-Americans. A convention this spring in Charlotte, N.C., attracted more than 3,000 members and vendors. The conventioneers were courted by top executives from nearly all major chains there to recruit franchisees. While Indian-Americans still maintain their dominance in budget properties, with their clout continuing to grow, they are moving into the larger, luxury end of the hotel industry.
The recent immigration bill in the U.S. Senate failed to garner enough votes for passage in large part because of the complexity of the issue. The topic is not going to go away however, and I think the more we remember and understand the role immigrants have played in our history the more we add balance to the security side of the equation.
Robert Brincefield is publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.