May 292012
  • Read Part 1 of the review of “Immigrants and the Dream of Return”, a chapter in Susan Matt’s “Homesickness: An American History” about the impact of homesickness on immigrants between 1870 and 1920. Though the nature of immigration in that period differed from later ones, several of its characteristics apply to this day.
Polish Gear at Roncesvalles Polish Festival 2008

Polish gear at the 2008 Roncesvalles Polish Festival, Toronto, Canada

Selling Home to Immigrants

Entrepreneurial immigrants recognized the commercial potential of homesickness. Food in particular created a huge opportunity.

In the diaries and letters they left behind, immigrants made it clear that next to their families and their family homes, they longed most for their native foods.

Ingredients and dishes from their homelands were in short supply in the new country, which boosted their perceived and monetary value. Business-minded newcomers opened restaurants and stores with imported goods. Matt notes that the popularity of ethnic stores in immigrant communities slowed the entry of chain stores to ethnic enclaves.

Reading the News

Immigrant newspapers flourished, too. For example, there were more Slovak-language newspapers in America than in the old country.

These papers helped keep immigrants invested in their homelands and fostered the growth of nationalism.

Keeping the Faith

Religion took on a greater importance in America than back home. As an Italian bishop wrote, “Faithfulness to religion takes along faithfulness to fatherland.” It further fostered kinship ties with the homeland and the compatriots here, offering significant psychological comforts. New churches rose, including the Polish St. Stanislaus here in Portland, Oregon; religious festivals popped up.

Forming Clubs

Secular institutions, too, emerged to help immigrants make their way in America, including Portland’s Podkrepa Bulgarian and Macedonian Association and Polish Library Building Association. Fraternal and mutual benefit associations were chief among them: by 1920, 75% of U.S. Poles belonged to one. Their purposes were multiple, according to Matt. They offered:

  • “brotherhoods of memory”
  • burial services and benefits
  • social events, including singing parties, dances, concerts
  • restoration of a sense of significance
  • sponsorship of trips home or even repatriations

Fostering National Identity

The neighborhoods, the churches, and especially the fraternal organizations crystallized immigrants’ sense of nationality. Often, foreign governments collaborated with these groups to keep alive among immigrant populations a connection and sense of obligation to home. The organizations tried to tie memories of the family house and the native village to memories of the larger nation…[invoking] the idea of a common past, a shared blood, and a bond to the soil of a distant land. This sense of ethnicity and nationalism grew out of homesickness and, in many cases, was able to develop only after immigrants had left their homelands. Among immigrants, a sense of ethnicity and nationalism grew in the fertile soil of memory and longing.



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