Immigrant eyes

October 19, 2012

Rick Kogan

My grandparents were immigrants, one set from Russia; the other, my mom’s parents, from Ireland.

As you are listening to this, a person is getting out of a car or a bus, a plane or a train and breathing for the first time Chicago's heady air.

This person is from Thailand, Mexico, Bosnia, Jamaica, or perhaps Poland. This person is being met by a pack of tearfully happy relatives. Or this person knows not a soul here but for a name and address scrawled on a piece of paper stuffed in a pocket.

And yet, whatever the differences in their language, dress, color, religion or culture, these people share a common trait: eyes filled with an anxious hope.

Such eyes have been looking upon the city from the time it was a prairie, when the first immigrants--those wily French explorers and missionaries--arrived for a quick look-see; and when the first man settled.

That settler was Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable: A French-speaking black man from Haiti, who built for himself, a house on the northern banks of the Chicago River and traded furs with the only real native Chicagoans, the Potawatomi and other Indian tribes.

Du Sable eventually split—perhaps he was the first to be done in by Chicago winters—but others poured in, slowly at first and then as streams of Scandinavians and Dutch, Irish and Poles, Lithuanians, Greeks, Bohemians, Jews, Africans, Mexicans, Asians... 

They came for many reasons: political unrest in their homelands, poverty or persecution. For some it was adventure—but for most it was hope. They had purpose and dreams and, as Nelson Algren saw it, many of them had "dollar signs for eyes." The city made men rich, but it broke some hearts, too.

Early on, immigrant groups settled in ethnic clusters that gave Chicago a distinctive character and a durable cliché--city of neighborhoods.

In society monoculture works poorly. The social richness of America, of Chicago, comes from the diversity of its tribes.

And when people speak of new immigrant groups, they refer not only to the foreign born, but to their children.

There is probably no group in our population that has made and continues to make more distinguished contributions to American life than the sons and daughters of immigrants.

Maybe that is because the children are less burdened with fear than their parents. They breathe for the first time Chicago’s air and it makes them happy and hopeful.