Obscurity vs. Notoriety: An Immigrant’s Dilemma

“It all started with the Imp!” proclaimed t-shirts at my great-grandmother’s 100th birthday party in 2006.  Mary Schubitsch arrived in America as Maria Imp, a teenager from Austria.  Excluding her bold choice to divorce an alcoholic spendthrift husband, her story of life in America is a fairly common one—but my family’s pride is so strong that you’d think she was the only young woman to risk everything to come to America.  We cling hard, fast and loud to our family’s matriarch and her immigrant heritage.  And why shouldn’t we?  This is a woman who lived for 100 years, after all, a milestone that she almost certainly wouldn’t have hit back on the farm in Austria.

My family’s connection to Ellis Island did not end with my great-grandmother.  In November 2008, hard work (and, I like to think, a little luck from the great beyond!) landed me an exhibits internship at the very place that my “grossmutter” first stepped foot on American soil, 86 years earlier.

While Austrians like Grossmutter loomed large in America, other groups were unable to generate the same kind of presence. “Hidden in Plain Sight: the Basques,” produced by the Basque Museum and Cultural Center of Boise, Idaho, was the last exhibit I saw come to Ellis Island before my departure.  Perhaps it was their tendency to settle out west or the comparatively small number of Basques that came to America, but their story was completely new to me.  The exhibit introduced me to the picturesque Basque Country, an area near the Bay of Biscay that spans both Spain and France.  The Basque people brought many treasured traditions with them from the old country.  At the exhibit’s opening, dancers impressed the crowd in Ellis Island’s Great Hall with the dexterity and athleticism demanded by traditional Basque dances. The sprawling Basque boarding houses of the West were the anti-tenement, offering the luxury of space and the comfort of tradition at small costs.  Their language, Euskara, was a binding force among Basques in America. Frontons, courts used for the wildly popular Basque sport jai alai, still abound in cities like Boise and San Francisco, serving as a visual reminder of the unique Basque culture.

With such strong traditions, how did the Basques skirt by invisibly in America?  On American soil, Basque culture languished in the shadows.  For Americans prone to packaging up each immigrant group neatly, the Basques, with their homeland’s unclear boundaries, were a curiosity.  Understanding their culture required effort that most were not willing to put forth. Their lack of a government-sanctioned homeland produced confusion at best and indifference at worst amongst Americans.  The name of the exhibit highlights the fact that although the Basque culture remained strong and pure here in America, their presence went largely unnoticed.

What is better—to be talked about, or not talked about?  Oscar Wilde thought the former, and it seems like the Basques would agree.  But what about today’s immigrants?  To them, the curse of obscurity may seem to be a better fate than the stigma of notoriety.

Immigration in America today is as contested a topic as it’s ever been.  The recognition so coveted by the Basques is heaped onto new immigrants, whether they desire it or not.  Constant news coverage and political prattle surrounding the issue of immigration is quick to disillusion Americans, not to mention discourage newcomers from seeking help or displaying pride in their heritage.  In such a hostile environment, it seems like seeking anonymity might be a clear choice for new arrivals.

New York’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum is finding ways to challenge this reality and foster new connections between traditional and modern views of immigration. Through its Kitchen Conversations program, the museum uses traditional immigrant stories to spark dialogue about today’s immigration issues.[1] Their Shared Journey’s program teaches new immigrants ways “to advocate for their communities and to organize other immigrants to advance their collective interest.”[2] These programs promote tolerance and encourage new immigrants to celebrate, not downplay, their heritage.

Like countless other Americans, the storied Ellis Island experience is near and dear to my heart.  But today’s immigrants deserve to feel the pride in themselves that I feel for Grossmutter.  While we should continue to celebrate lesser-known immigrant groups like the Basques, we must also address the needs of our recent immigrants and encourage their confidence.

[1]  Ruth J. Abram, “Kitchen Conversations: Democracy in Action at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum,” The Public Historian 29 (2007): 60.

[2] Maggie Russell-Ciardi, “The Museum as a Democracy-Building Institution:  Reflections on the Shared Journeys Program at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum,” The Public Historian 30 (2008): 49.


One thought on “Obscurity vs. Notoriety: An Immigrant’s Dilemma

  1. This weekend I was watching Food Network, and they had a special on Basque food in America! One of the restauranteurs they were interviewing said that she felt like they had been hidden too long. I know on the West Coast basque cheeses have been a requisite on a well rounded cheese course for years. However, I think that the idea of Basque American food has been ignored. Maybe it is time these restaurants began to spread across America. I know my mouth was watering while I watched that special!

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