Family History Research

Assimilation of Immigrants

on August 14, 2010

America was once described as a melting pot where people of all ethnicities gathered to escape various types of persecution or to improve their life. A great metamorphosis occurred in the melting pot as these ethnic peoples altered their language, dress, religion, and customs and became Americans.

Historians use a model to describe the stages an immigrant’s family went through when they reached America. The first stage describes the immigrant family clinging tightly to their culture and reluctantly learning English to adapt to American society. The second describes the first generation born in America which constantly strove to break away from that culture. The final stage describes the third or later generations, seeking to recover the culture in order to discover who they are and where they came form.

Using this model to analyze the stages families went through can answer many questions researchers might have. For example, why did the children of immigrants not learn the language of their parents? Why did so many of the children of immigrants live in the parents home well into their 20′s?  Why did great grandpa have the same occupation as his father? How did the second generation live as compared to their parents? Why did the cultural aspect of the family resurface after three generations? Asking these types of questions may trigger new questions which will lead to new research avenues.  Comparing the lives of our immigrant ancestors and their children to our lives can raise interesting parallels and new questions. All of these questions and answers will contribute to the rich story we tell about our families.  We must remember though, in comparing and contrasting, to keep in mind the historical time period in which they lived. The time period may also contribute to their assimilation process and roles.

To give an example, I did an assimilation study on the paternal side of my family. The factors studied were transference of language, culture, occupation and women’s roles. The results of the study showed these lines did not exactly follow the model. I found that the parent immigrants did teach their American born children some of their language but the children were not fluent in the parent’s language.  The culture, for some of my families, remained important, but for others, it seemed to be lost until future generations. Where occupations were concerned, the second and third generations seemed to take on new jobs and did not follow in the father’s footsteps. The women in these lines seemed to follow in their mother’s footsteps and become home makers until the third generation when the women began working outside the home in addition to raising their families.

As I look at my life, my roles as mother, wife, housekeeper, cook, volunteer, career woman, friend, etc., I wonder what my immigrant great grandmothers would think of me. Did they have some hidden aspirations to be more than just a mother, wife, housekeeper, cook? Were they active in their communities or were their lives all consumed in the home? Were they allowed to express themselves and be more than the roles determined by the time period? I do not live in the same house as my parents, in fact, I live a state away from them. My children are not being raised to “run across the alley to grandma’s house to visit.”  I worked outside the home and raised children. What would my immigrant great grandmothers think of that? What similarities do I see between those women and myself? I see that as they were, I am a teacher for my children, housekeeper, and cook.

As I look at my brother’s life as career man, bachelor, friend, etc., I wonder what my immigrant great grandfathers would think of him. He did not follow the same career path as his father. He chose to proceed farther in his education. He does not live in the same house or “across the alley” from his parents. What would immigrant great grandfathers think of that?  Compared to those men, I think my brother’s life is vastly different.

I encourage you to look at the lives of your immigrant ancestors and their children, and compare their lives to your own. What similarities do you find? What differences? Are there any parallels between the historical time period in which they lived compared to the current events in your life today? After examining the assimilation patterns of your families, you should have a better understanding of what your ancestors went through to become Americans, and what a great story that will make.

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One response to “Assimilation of Immigrants

  1. Sassy Jane says:

    One of the things I’ve noticed about my own immigrant great-grandparents is that they married within their country of origin, with one exception. The Norwegians married Norwegians, the Prussians married Prussians, the Scots married Scots, but my Swedish great-grandmother and Austrian great-grandfather defied convention and married each other.

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