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The Tentacle


May 2, 2006

Before Latinos, the Scotch Irish

Roy Meachum

At this writing, it's safe to say yesterday's demonstration of Latino power will provide comfort for both sides on the anti-immigration issue.

Under threats from unsympathetic employers and rumors of federal raids against the foreign-born - even those legal residents, the crowds figured to be less than projected earlier. (As I learned reporting Vietnam protests, official counts cannot be trusted.)

But opponents, including the White House, must have been surprised at the turnout prompted by a combination of desperation and a singularly Hispanic trait: "dignidad" translates as much more than dignity. It has everything to do with an individual's sense of self-worth.

In the event, the matter can not be settled in a single day and when it's over, you can safely bet the family farm that Latinos will eventually win the right to call themselves fully American, as much as any other hyphenated group. Historical precedence vindicates their struggle.

In the early days, when blacks did not count as human beings, but merely property, the Scotch Irish lived in the English colonies by the tolerance of the ruling class. They were needed for clearing the frontier, holding off the French and generally doing whatever owners decided was not worth their slaves' time or attention.

That's how the first Meachums reached these shores, hiring out as 12-year bond servants to escape the British, who had shipped them over on prison ships from Scotland to the next big island west. They reached here because the contracts provided passage along with daily substance.

My ancestors belonged to the European colonials' lowest social order until the Great Potato Famine produced the Irish in great numbers. While the wave of new arrivals could at least speak English, certainly as clearly as any already here, they brought along their "alien" creed.

A matter of mere decades earlier, British rulers had decreed execution for Roman Catholic priests, accused of smoothing the pope's way onto the throne. The pejorative for them, and all their fellow church members, was "Papists;" not a compliment.

The "old country's" attitude arrived in this new land and prompted the creation of The American Party, whose members were called Know Nothings. When asked about their party, members protested they knew nothing.

But everybody "knew" these "real Americans" hated "Micks" and "Mackerel Snappers." They didn't mind taking smacks at Jews and free blacks but their numbers were so small. Before The Civil War "race" riots killed Irish men and women; babies were not exempt.

In 1855, Marines hauled their cannons into the streets of Washington because the violence threatened the Executive Mansion, as the White House is still officially called.

The Know Nothings that day meant to drive out the Irish from their squatters' camps close to Union Station, at the foot of Capitol Hill. The newcomers lived in mud and amid such filth and squalor that no later slum even approached.

What saved the Catholic Irish presence in these determinedly Protestant United States was The Civil War; they died by the thousands. The survivors suffered segregation. No "real American" wanted his daughter to marry a Papist, but their right to remain was questioned no more!

Getting out of the way of Europe's 1848 political turmoil, Germans and Scandinavians suffered little serious prejudice. Only a small minority adhered to the Papists' creed. They not only earned their battlefield citizenships, but they had the "decency" to get out of sight. Most trekked inland to the good soil of the upper Middle West where Indians still outnumbered whites.

In terms of Americans' natural bigotry, Eastern European Jews' single advantage may have been the fact they were not Catholics. They benefited from staying close to their own, which reduced their spreading to the hinterlands.

Only the very brave ventured into small cities and towns, where they were frequently accepted and became successful merchants, doctors and lawyers. Virulent anti-Semitism was reserved for coastal metropolitan areas; but they never suffered the widespread violence directed at the Irish.

The Italians should have been so lucky.

World War II's demands for forcing Americans to live with folks from other regions had much to do with Italians' eventual acceptance. The subsequent mass mobility generally destroyed the notion that they were "wops," who only drank "dago red" wine and subsisted on spaghetti and meatballs covered in thick tomato sauce.

Most were from southern Italy and Sicily, where centuries of foreign rule had bred secret societies, formed primarily for protection against the invaders. In New Orleans, we learned in school about the Black Hand, which was blamed when a mob lynched 11 Italians, in 1895.

Actually, the clamor for revenge flared spontaneously when a court freed nine other Italians accused of murdering a popular sheriff. Newspaper accounts told how some of the city's "popular leaders" cheered the mob to invade the jail and remove the victims. Could the "leaders" have been telling their bloodthirsty followers what they wanted to hear, to get votes? We'll never know.

There were other similar incidents in Mississippi, Kentucky and Florida, but also in non-Southern states: Colorado, Illinois, Washington and New York. In Louisiana, five Italians were killed in an argument over a goat; the town is called Tallulah.

Bigotry against Italians survived well after World War II. While exempting their friends, neighbors and acquaintances, many Americans bought the notion that most Italians, especially Sicilians, had connections with the Mafia, one of the secret societies created to provide protection against foreign rule. The Black Hand (Mano Nero) belonged to that group.

"The Mob" or "Cosa Nostra" (Our Thing), as the Mafia was known, lives on in TV's "The Sopranos." In real life, the organization has shrunk to a shadow, either turning legit or loosing out to the competition provided by community hoods.

Most importantly, Italians have become absorbed in the society. The "Little Italy" neighborhoods no longer exist. Moreover, they have joined the general trend toward placing down their list of priorities the subject of religion. Many are now Christmas-and-Easter Catholics.

But in an America that sees Protestants link arms with priests nobody's a Papist anymore.

In the midst of the heat accompanying Latinos' efforts to change immigration laws, their Catholicism is no issue. Their protests have been joined by people of all faiths, including Shintoists and Buddhists: Asians who quietly infiltrated U.S. communities over the past 10 years.

In Frederick it seems the construction industry and companies that demand hard labor are peopled by Latinos, who also occupy most fast food slots. How many of them are legally in this country?

In a real sense it matters not; the only thing that counts for most Americans, including local folks, is getting their personal projects and their hamburgers done and on time.

That means resentment for the widespread Latino protests including most of all the demonstrations that might actually inconvenience them.

But resentment, as I have written, has not resulted in keeping out immigrants in the past; it won't now.

Like it or not, good and bad, they're coming!



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