Some things appear to get lost in translation through immigration and generational replacement. A Pew study recently highlighted the declining percentage of Hispanics who self-identify as Catholic. The largest national sub-group among this population has Mexican roots. Today, more than nine in ten adults who are of Italian (93%) or Irish (98%) ancestry were born in the United States. Only 50% of those of Mexican ancestry were born here. Most of Italian and Irish ancestry don’t have an immigration experience that they can personally recall whereas many of those of Mexican ancestry do.
As it stands now, 67% of those of Mexican ancestry self-identify as Catholic. I expect that percentage to continue to fall and converge toward other groups who came here from heavily Catholic countries. You can’t control or predict how children in the pluralism of the United States will see themselves or choose to live.
This turns out to be one statistical result and prediction that I can provide a useful anecdote for. I was recently watching the PBS documentary series The Italian Americans. It detailed FDR’s decision during World War II to brand non-citizen Italian immigrants as “Enemy Aliens,” placing some in internment camps with Executive Order 9066. Before she married and became a Gray, my grandma had an Italian last name. She had an enormous influence on my life. She is why I am Catholic (...as well as the influence of my dad, her son). After watching the documentary I wanted to look back at my grandmother and her family during the period of “Enemy Aliens.” The Census has a 72-year rule. It won’t release anything with identifying information until 72 years after it is collected. This is meant to protect people’s privacy. I found my grandmother in the Census in 1920, 1930, and 1940 as well as fragments from other official documents accessed from FamilySearch (“A service provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”).
With my grandma in the early 1990s
Before looking at the Census I knew my great grandfather was from Milan. He was a twin and their restaurant could only support one family. He left the restaurant to his brother and came to America. He worked for wineries in southern California. The Census and other documents confirmed the stories I had grown up with. What I didn’t know was that he did not immigrate directly to the United States. His wife, my great grandmother, was from Mexico. Their five children were all born in Mexico and spoke Spanish. A sixth child, born in 1920, has her birthplace listed as California. My grandma was the first citizen in her family. My great grandfather had spent more than a decade living and starting a family in Mexico. I found border records indicating that he crossed with his family in 1917 at Nogales. This is all a family history my grandmother had never mentioned to me before she passed away. It was just a lost identity.
So now I have to ask myself, am I Hispanic? That’s an odd question to first ponder in your 40s. We assume people will maintain the identities of their parents. Sometimes they don’t. When people immigrate here they don’t always bring everything with them. In my family the one thing that did survive was our faith. The Catholicism rooted in Italy and Mexico lives on in my kids but I don’t know Spanish or Italian. I love the foods of both cultures but it’s just pasta sauce to me, not Sunday gravy. When I’ve completed the Census I’ve always noted by race as “white” and my ethnicity as “non-Hispanic.” I now have to wonder how I should respond for the 2020 Census based on what I’ve learned from the 1920 Census.
Thinking back to the documentary it is interesting that in 1920 and 1930 my great grandparents went by their birth names, Giovanni and Juana. By 1940, when “Enemy Aliens” entered the lexicon they had been transformed into John and Jennie speaking English in suburbia. The politics surrounding immigrants in the 1940s may have had much to do with their transformation.
If you did not experience your family’s immigration to this country yourself I think it can be very powerful thing to see it on paper. I have yet to find any evidence of Irish ancestry in my family. Then again that is something everyone acquires on St. Patrick’s Day in the United States. I’ll celebrate my authentic heritage Thursday and now on December 12 as well.
Image of 1940 Census interviewer and respondent courtesy of The U.S. Department of Agriculture.