It seems to me that I have been working with immigrants in the United States for almost my entire life. I began as a young university student and then as a teacher and priest. Finally it was as a lawyer defending the rights of poor Hispanics. My area of specialization was in immigration law and so my clients came from many countries. Nevertheless, although I could identify myself with the Latino culture and I could speak Spanish very well, I did not see myself as one of them. I was born in the USA. I had all of the privileges of citizenship. It was impossible for me to be one of these immigrants in spite of my sympathies for them.
Now I find myself retired and I have much more time to think and to do research. I have begun to study the lineage of my own ancestors. I always knew that my maternal grandparents came from Italy. I knew them personally, I have visited the places where they were born and even the house where by grandmother was born. Although I never knew them, I also knew that the parents of my paternal grandmother had been born in Germany. I discovered even the name of the ship on which my great-grandmother had arrived in the United States. It was the lineage of my paternal grandfather that surprised me. My surname is purely English. It was easy enough to draw a direct line from the middle of the 18th century to the present. I learned that the first male with my surname was an immigrant, more or less. He was a poor apprentice in London. He met a woman who had been born in America, they were married and had children in England. At the age of 50, he himself decided to come to America, bringing his wife and children. He never got there. It seems that he died while at sea and was buried there. His wife brought the children to the colony of New Jersey and they remained there.
It was when I began to research the women, the wives of my great-grandfathers, that I was really taken aback. There was a complete mixture. Of course, several of the families were also English. They had arrived in the 17th century shortly after the first English colonists, the famous Pilgrims. There were several individuals who were children of the English aristocracy, looking for a way to better their lives and to have the freedom to exercise their religion. Some had suffered persecution under King Henry VIII and later Queen Elizabeth I. One of my great-grandfathers was decapitated in the Tower of London. One of my great-grandmothers, once she was in America, was accused of being a witch but was acquitted of the accusation. At the same time I discovered a line of Dutch and French family members. Those from Holland came to New York when it was still a Dutch colony , obtaining lands and farms which they would not have been able to obtain in their come country. The French also surprised me. They were Protestants. One of them had escaped to England sealed in a wooden barrel. They found in America what they didn’t have in France – freedom.
I have come to realize that all of these ancestors are a part of me. I carry inside of me the same physical characteristics. My blood contains the same DNA and the same genes which they have passed down to me. I am one of them just as they are one with me. It is as if we shared the same body. The Chinese and Japanese have developed the cult of their ancestors, not only respecting them, but also coming to the point of worshiping them as gods. They talk to them and bring them offerings and incense. The native peoples of the Americas also practiced similar rituals. The ancient Egyptians practiced mummification and constructed ornate temples in order to preserve the bodies of their ancestors. For many centuries the Jews have maintained complete lists of their genealogy. Each year at Passover they remember their history, beginning with the phrase, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” All of these rituals and customs existed in order to maintain alive those who had preceded them, who had passed to another world and who continued to have an importance in the present time. We Christians ourselves have the cult of the saints. At least we remember those who lived closely to God and who can intervene in our lives to do good.
At any rate, I think that we have lost the sense that our ancestors still influence our lives, that they form and intimate and integral part of our very bodies, our culture, our attitudes, our way of looking at the world. Each time that we repeat the Creed, we Christians say that we believe in the communion of saints. What is that? We also say that we receive the Body of Christ. What does that mean? Is it a spiritual communion? Yes, of course, but much more than that. The saints form a part of our human bodies. Christ becomes a part of our real body, and He lives inside of us in body and soul. I think that it is difficult to understand that if we do not recognize that we are descended from other humans who were born, were married, had children and died, leaving behind their fingerprints in our DNA. We are the product of thousands of generations of ancestors, all of whom are alive through us. Perhaps what is needed is a mystical sense in order to be able to put ourselves on to the same level with our ancestors, but it is only necessary to do an analysis of our blood in order to prove our physical connection.
And so I have comprehended that I myself am the immigrant. If my ancestors, whether grandparents, great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents, immigrated from various parts of the globe, if all of them have come to form a part of who I am, then I have immigrated with them. I carry the immigrant inside of me. And I am not speaking only of myself, nor of other North Americans, white or black, but rather of the whole world, whether they are native peoples, Asians or Spaniards. All of our ancestors immigrated from some other place. All of us carry an immigrant inside of us. When we express some anti-immigrant feeling, when we look down on another person who speaks with a foreign accent, when we undervalue a culture, in reality we are speaking badly, looking down on and undervaluing ourselves. As we are reminded by St. Paul, one part of a body cannot be at war with another part. All of the parts have to function together in a healthy body. The same is true for the mystical body of Jesus Christ and for the body that includes all of humankind.
The immigrant is really me.