Monday, November 12, 2018

Immigrants and Ancestors: All Too Familiar Stories

Last week the western church marked the commemoration of All Souls Day, the day on the Christian calendar on which the departed are remembered. Those who have died in the past year are named aloud in catholic tradition services and many parishioners will bring photos of their deceased loved ones to place on the altar. It is a good day for thinking about those who have come before us, those whose lives made our own possible, those whose lives have touched our own and helped us to become who we are.

Keeper of the Family Archives 

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I spent much of the past week sifting through a seemingly endless number of boxes of photos and papers from my family estate. As executor of my Dad’s estate, I became the de facto keeper of the family archives and have been making a valiant attempt ever since the closing on our homestead over in Bushnell last May to put those things into some kind of order. 

Toward the end of my Dad’s life, he became an avid genealogist. Fortunately, he provided me a series of family tree diagrams that places names of family ancestors into context of where they lived and when. Unfortunately, he died before I could ask him who all the people were in the stacks of old photos he had inherited from a beloved aunt in Kansas City. Their black and white, mostly solemn faces stare back at me from a century ago and I wonder if I will ever be able to identify who they were and where they fit into that family history. 

A Caravan like the one on which my immigrant ancestors arrived 

One of the most interesting aspects my Dad had uncovered was the origins of the Coverston family in America. The family came from the region of Germany near today’s Baden-Baden. Their surname there was Kupferstein, a name which took on several spellings as it was Anglicized in the Americas. Coverston is but one of those possibilities. 

The patriarchs of the family were two brothers named Jacob and Heinrich. They came into the port at Philadelphia around the end of the Seven Years War, sometimes called the French and Indian War in the American colonies, in 1763. The first American documents placing the Kupferstein brothers in the New World, now calling themselves Copperstone and later Coverstone, come from the period just prior to the American Revolution. 

Like many of the immigrants from southern Germany, these brothers were religious refugees as much as opportunity seekers. Their region of Europe had been embroiled in religious wars for the past two centuries. Much blood had been spilled since the Reformation arose there 200 years previously with Martin Luther at its helm. There’s nothing quite like the conviction that one’s tribe has gained the singular, exclusive favor of the deity to produce a self-righteous slaughter of those outside the tribe.

Described by scholars of religion as the Radical Reformers, Anabaptist groups from the Mennonites to the Brethren tradition, which my ancestors claimed, saw no need for hierarchy, apostolic succession or sacraments. They practiced a “believers’ baptism” which only permitted adults capable of stating that they bought into the tenets of the faith to be baptized. For those who had been baptized as infants in Catholic traditions, they would need to be baptized again. Hence, ana- (second) baptists.

Anabaptists found much support among the peasant class which had often been exploited and persecuted by the Catholic hierarchies in marriages of convenience with local princes. The Anabaptists were vigorously persecuted when peasants revolted against the lingering vestiges of the medieval society with the full blessing of both Martin Luther (see Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, 1525) and the Roman Catholic apologists. 

Most were opposed to war and prohibited their members from fighting in the military. Some went so far as to refuse to pay taxes which supported wars. Little wonder they became lightning rods in the turbulent maelstrom of Reformation era Europe. As in England where it was a given that Protestants hated Catholics and, within Protestantism, the Puritans and Anglicans hated each other - everyone hated the Anabaptists. 

A Port in a Storm - But Don’t Stay Here

My ancestors' entry point into the American colonies at Philadelphia is not difficult to understand in light of this history. The City of Brotherly Love had been founded by William Penn, himself an Anabaptist of the Quaker tradition. The colony at Penn’s Woods quickly made entry into the New World available to those fleeing religious persecution. 

But that is hardly to say that the elite of Philadelphia particularly wanted the new arrivals to stick around. As historian David Hackett Fisher details in his masterful Albion’s Seed, Four British Folkways in America, Philadelphia’s fathers found ways to quickly move these immigrants westward, out of the city to an area that came to be known as Pennsylvania Dutch country. Deutsch is the word for German and my ancestors show up in public records there shortly after their arrival in 1768.

They would soon be joined by other family ancestors named Reed, Wright and MacAtee from Ireland, Scotland and the borderlands in England. Many of them were adherents of the dour Calvinism of their homelands that became the foundation of an evangelical Protestantism that would come to dominate the belly of America today called the Bible Belt. In an England which had just reinstated its monarchy with its state Anglican church there would be little tolerance for former devotees to a now defeated and disgraced Puritan Oliver Cromwell. 

The Scots-Irish and Borderlands immigrants, seen as contentious, even dangerous, would even more quickly be shuffled out of Philadelphia to the west. Their people would quickly spread down the chain of Appalachian Mountains to the south and west. Retaining some of the Scottish brogue and phrases that they brought with them, the echoes of their history of strife and survival can still be seen and heard in the Hillbilly culture today. 

My own history as the descendant of refugees and immigrants swam into focus as I worked through my Father’s research. And that awareness shapes the way I hear the incredibly dehumanizing rhetoric surrounding immigration today. 

I have not yet found the legendary horse thieves that every family tree supposedly contains. That’s hardly surprising. Ancestral families would be no more anxious to remember their black sheep then than today. But I hardly labor under the misapprehension that there weren’t any. 

What is clear from this research is that my ancestors knew what it meant to live in war-torn countries where political and religious ideologies were seen as more important than the human beings who held them. They knew what it meant to feel they had no choice but to uproot themselves and leave their homes simply to survive. And they knew what it meant to come to a country where the people they encountered would view them with suspicion and judgment, demonize them, even use the power of the law to punish them, simply because of who they were. And yet they came.

Some things never change. 

The High Price of Calling Out Structural Sin 

During the last weeks of the most recent version of obscenity that now passes for US elections, Donald Trump engaged in an ongoing vilification of a group of potential immigrants from Central America headed north toward the American border. He clearly designed this behavior to create a moral panic among his "base." 

The people in question had come places where their lives have been made untenable by violence. Called an “invasion” by a demagogue who unwittingly is projecting his own celebrated greed and willingness to use violence to satisfy it onto them, their flight from their homelands, leaving behind family and everything they have ever known, could hardly be seen as motivated by greed. It was ultimately a mark of desperation. 

But it has not arisen in a vacuum.  

The countries of Central America were the targets of US destabilization and terrorist activity for the last couple of decades of the 20th CE. Driven largely by corporate interests, particularly those of agribusinesses like the Dole Fruit Company, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador were subjected to the might of the world’s largest fighting machine and its undercover “security” agencies. Honduras was essentially occupied to serve as the staging grounds for these ongoing undeclared wars. 

But these wars were driven as much by elements of ideological and religious conflict as the economic interests they legitimated. Campesino unions sought the right to grow and sell their own produce through cooperatives representing a challenge to agribusiness corporate privilege. The peasant families those cooperatives represented sought to insure their children would have a basic education and that their sick could receive basic medical care. These goals were in turn validated by the rise of liberation theology in the region. 

Catholic priests, utilizing a Marxist critique of exploitative economic and power structures, were busy preaching a gospel of liberation. Based in the teachings of Jesus, primarily found in the beatitudes, any structural forces which deprived any child of G-d of the dignity of lives without hunger, fear and oppression were rightly seen as sinful. 

Many of these clerics would ultimately find themselves forced to choose between the institutional church which had educated them and helped them to come to their understandings - only to turn on them in the face of pressure from elites in danger of losing their privilege - and their devotion to the people they served. Some, like recently canonized Oscar Romero, the archbishop of El Salvador, and the Maryknoll nuns who provided medical care to the campesinos, would eventually pay for their ongoing response to that calling with their lives. 

It’s important to recognize that the US supported the oppressive regimes in all of these countries whose elite served as suzerains to global corporate interests. Under the legitimating rubric of opposing a communism that was even then dying on the vine in Russia, enormous shipments of arms were imported into the region, arms left behind at the end of the 1990s as campesino organizations morphed into political parties that would eventually win the day at the polls. 

“This Could Happen to You…” 

But the more pernicious aspect of this two-decade involvement was the training of Central American military men in the techniques of terrorism. The School of the Americas, a taxpayer funded institute in Panama, routinely taught Central American soldiers how to “pacify” resistance through techniques such as tying tires around the victim and setting them on fire, a practice cynically known as “necklacing.” 

In El Salvador, those who would dare challenge the client regime of global corporate interests and the governments who had sold their souls to them often disappeared into the night. Many were never accounted for. Sometimes their bodies showed up in city dumps or on the highway to the airport in San Salvador, their tongues cut out, a clear warning to anyone who would support the rebels: This could happen to you!
This pattern was repeated in country after country from the border of Mexico’s Chiapas province to a supposedly neutral Costa Rica whose air strips would be used by US undercover operatives to illegally import weapons to the Contras and export cocaine to the US to pay for them.  

By the late 1990s, the fighting had subsided in virtually all of these troubled regions. But even with the departure of active US involvement in Central America (including the relocation of the School of the Americas - widely called the School of the Assassins in Latin America - to Columbus, Georgia) the region continues to be subject to the oppressive, exploitative and terroristic legacy that intervention left behind. 

With the dissolution of central governance, armed gangs filled the vacuum. But these are not just any gangs. These are gangs that have a wealth of armory left behind by American undercover agents and a wealth of terrorist techniques those agents taught them. It is an ongoing recipe for disaster. Little wonder a stream of asylum-seeking refugees streams out of the wounded heartland of Central America.

A Lot More in Common Than We Think 

I realize that my perspective about this subject that may differ from those of many of my countrymen and women. On the one hand, unlike many of them, I am now aware of my own immigrant ancestors and the conditions under which they fled their homelands to a New World. I know they encountered prejudice and rejection among those they first encountered only to create new, productive lives in places far removed from their ports of entry. In many ways, they represent the true American Dream – success in the face of adversity - a pattern we readily see in the lives of most immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean. 

I also realize that the time I have spent in Latin America sets me apart from many of my countrywomen and men. Sadly, I know first-hand why the current waves of asylum seekers are coming. Were I in their shoes, I would likely do exactly the same. Indeed, I believe that if many of us actually knew our own family stories, we might find we have a lot more in common with these new arrivals than we think.

It hardly surprises me that the five-star alarm our media provided the Mr. Trump during the election regarding this alleged “invasion” essentially vanished from our screens as the last ballot was cast last Tuesday. The reality is that human beings have been fleeing the black hole of death and destruction into which Central America devolved at the end of the Contra era since the end of the 20th CE. That they are no longer the menacing threat they were caricaturized as being before November 6 is hardly surprising.

But that does not mean there is no threat. 

Even as far too many white American voters bought into a cheap moral panic that a demagogue inhabiting the White House provided them, stoking their darkest prejudices, people who looked more like them than the “invaders” they feared have in fact gone on a rampage.  They have targeted people of color at a supermarket in Ohio, violated a temple in Philadelphia during Shabbat, blasted a public school in North Carolina and wasted patrons of a restaurant in California. 

These are indeed enemies of our country. But they are not invaders coming from the outside. Indeed, we are busy nursing them into deadly potency every day in our own country, arming them through irresponsible fundamentalist readings of our Second Amendment and then activating them with moral panics resounding within our echo chambers. 

Almost without exception, our “enemies” look like us. The come from our homes, our schools, our boy scout troops, our military. We don’t have to look outside our borders to find the real threats to our security. They are here already, waiting for an opportunity to make their deadly intentions known. 

The only thing that disturbs me more than the vacuity of Trump’s projection of American pathology onto nameless, faceless hordes of “aliens” is the willingness of people of supposed average intelligence and basic educations to buy into this deadly stupidity. So many found themselves mortally offended when Hillary Clinton engaged in an incredibly stupid form of reductionism which summed them up as “deplorables.” But the fact they should not be summed up by their worst understandings does not mean that these understandings they hold in the face of easily discoverable facts to the contrary and the behaviors that cause grievous wounds to the body politic which flow from this mindlessness, are not, in fact, “deplorable.” 

The truth often hurts - which is precisely why we tend to project it onto others.

I often conclude my Facebook posts with the admonition, “We can do better.” I honestly believe that with every fiber of my being. But, the ongoing willingness of voters to buy into the destructive fabrications that mark the very essence of Trumpland makes me wonder what it will take to prompt us to do so. 

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston 2018

1 comment:

Mary K Swanson said...

Wow, Harry. What an amazing essay. I too am spending a lot of time exploring my ancestors, and I agree--no one came to the US because they were just looking for a new scene. My Swedish ancestors were starving in their home country, and still caught in a kind of serfdom even in the late 1800s.