One of my earliest memories as a little girl in the Midwest in the early 1980s is of the smell of graham crackers. But it wasn’t from our pantry–it was from the backseat of our car, where I sat next to a woman wrapped in colorful fabric, quietly looking out the window at her new country. My mother was driving a Vietnamese woman, a recent immigrant and refugee, to the fabric store to purchase material so that she could make clothing for family, likely facing a harsh Illinois winter for the very first time.
The scent of the blend of spices that infused the garments the Vietnamese woman–probably cinnamon and coriander–was at once familiar and foreign to me, as was the fabric she used to make her clothing. My mother, too, smelled of the things she cooked for us, and she made our clothes. These were tangible proof of her love and care for me as a child. I understood at a very young age the fundamental connection that mothers have with all other mothers.
I grew up with the stories of people who had undergone considerable hardships to gain the safety and security that I got for free just by being born in the United States to parents who were citizens and who looked like the majority of people around them. I heard of a boy, just ten, who had swum across the Mekong River, bullet scars on his back from the shots intended to stop him. And families did not always come to our community intact; often they had had to leave others behind, or had lost spouses, children, aunts, uncles, and cousins along their escape routes, with no time or space for burials and funerals.
The Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees who settled in our communities and helped shape life in the Midwest in the 1980s were not strangers to us. They were fellow human beings in crisis. They became part of the fabric of our lives. We ate together, sewed together, laughed and cried together. Together we felt the cold wind of winter and huddled against the evils of greed, violence, and war. We connected their stories to the stories from our own histories, of great-great-grandparents hiding in caves in Germany to escape religious violence, of the sounds of soldiers’ boots and the ache of missing familiar smells and tastes handed down to us.
The rhetoric of the immigrant as a threat to our communities is unfamiliar to me at a visceral level, even though I understand that this is also, unfortunately, part of our legacy as well. My immigrant ancestors did not always greet the “other” with warm and accepting arms, but often with suspicion and even violence. The Midwest as it is today was made possible by the murder and displacement of millions of native peoples and the systematic oppression of the descendents of slaves.
We can choose which parts of our legacy as Americans we want to nurture, and which we need to be on guard not to perpetuate.…