The archetypical middle-sized town in the middle of the Middle West, Rockford seems about as far removed from the border as you can get, unless we count the border with Wisconsin, a few miles to the north. And yet, Rockford has been subject to successive waves of immigration that have brought with them (if in muted form) the cultural and political tensions typical of an actual border town. From Yankees to Scots and Irish to Swedes to Italians and Sicilians (there is a difference), with multiple waves of Germans washing over them all (and forming, even today, the largest ethnic group in Rockford), to Poles and Lithuanians and, more recently, Asians (especially Vietnamese and Laotians) and various ethnic groups from the former Yugoslavia, immigrants to Rockford have never fully coalesced into a common identity, giving the lie to the myth of the melting pot.
Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, Midwestern Yankee–dom ceased to provide a common culture that all could participate in, if not exactly share. Through-out the Midwest, the preponderance of Deutsch–landers naturally meant that an anglicized version of German culture slowly took its place, but the anti-German hysteria of World War I put serious kinks in that development, and World War II drove the final nails in the coffin (though remnants survive in such places as Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and St. Louis). Today, Rockford is described as either a Swedish or an Italian (meaning Sicilian) town, and those two ethnic groups dominated Rockford politics throughout most of the 20th century and continue to do so today. (Despite his name, our current mayor, Larry Morrissey, is half Sicilian.)
And now, the latest wave of immigration is transforming Rockford once again. As late as the 1990 Census, Hispanics (meaning Mexicans) made up less than three percent of Rockford’s population. Today, they have topped ten percent and are poised to overtake blacks in the not-too-distant future. Ss. Peter and Paul, formerly a Lithuanian Catholic church, is now commonly referred to as Ss. Pedro y Paulo, and the pastor has been an outspoken supporter of the recent marches in favor of illegal immigrants. Having first colonized the neighborhood along South Main Street (originally Yankee, then Italian, and primarily black by the late 1960’s), Mexican immigrants are now establishing restaurants, stores, and auto shops throughout the city. The Rockford Public School District has an extensive bilingual program (thanks, in part, to our 12-year-long school-discrimination lawsuit), and many businesses (especially banks and restaurants) and (of course) government offices have signs in English and Spanish—an increasing number with Spanish placed first.
When a town lacks a dominant culture (as Rockford does), such changes can cause unease among its citizens (as they have). Combine the sheer number of newcomers with rising crime rates and recent statistics showing that one fifth of Rockford’s population falls below the poverty line, and Rockfordians have good reason to regard this wave of immigration as somewhat different from previous ones.
Besides ethnicity, however, there’s another factor that’s often overlooked when discussing current immigration, and it, too, makes Rockford—and most other towns throughout the Midwest—a sort of border town. This border is also cultural, but it cuts across ethnic groups. In fact, in some ways, more recent immigrants, to the extent that they remain ghettoized through language, religion, and cultural practice, tend to fall on what I regard as the right side of the border, while those who have “made it”—of any ethnicity—are more likely to cross over. In this sense, some recent Mexican immigrants share more with the Poles of Tony Bukoski’s Superior, Wisconsin, than they do with their countrymen who came here 20 years ago. And I’m not talking about the religious affiliation that Catholic defenders of legal (and even illegal) immigration place far too much stock in.
This particular cultural border runs between those who still want to live as most civilized (and here, I’m using a fairly broad definition of civilization) men have lived down through the ages—a settled life, in stable communities, among people like themselves, close by their parents and the graves of their ancestors—and those postmodern nomads who believe that happiness lies not in memory but in amnesia—cultural, familial, even personal. “Know thyself!” means nothing when your self is really no different from your neighbor’s, just as your vinyl-sided ranch that you intend to “own” only long enough so that you don’t lose money when you sell it is, at most, just a mirror image of his house (not home). McDonald’s and Wal-Mart and Microsoft and Hollywood don’t have a monopoly grip on Americans in spite of their preferences; they have become monopolies or near-monopolies because too many people prefer the mediocrity of convenience to the inconveniences of real life.
To the extent that new immigrants really do come here out of economic necessity, and not out of a desire to forget their own past, they may fall on the right side of this cultural divide. Unfortunately, the very fact of their mobility makes it harder for them to remain there. Shorn of their connections to the place and community of their birth, they may find the glitter of fresh plastic all too appealing.
None of this is offered as a defense of current levels of immigration or of the ethnic mix of immigrants today—far from it. I’m in favor of a complete moratorium on immigration—not until the current crop of immigrants has “assimilated” but until we’ve all had an opportunity to put down sufficient roots in our own particular ways—until we’ve built our own churches and our own restaurants and our own grocery stores and our own neighborhoods and become Americans without losing what was best in our particular pasts (and, one hopes, while abandoning what was worst). Then, and only then, could far more moderate levels of immigrants than we currently see be welcomed into such communities, to which they might truly assimilate in a way that no immigrant could possibly assimilate to our “nation” or “culture” today.