BACK TO WHAT?
If you want to send somebody “back,” you need to ask, “Back to what?” The next volume of my series, Once Upon a Time in the Texas Panhandle, is entitled, Colleen and the Statue. In the first chapter, teenaged Colleen is about to leave Ireland. In the second chapter, she is in Mackenzie, Texas—my invented town. It’s the 1950s, and she’s a young and single Irish Catholic—a religious and ethnic minority. She often hears Protestant “Anglos” whispering, “Why doesn’t she go back? We should send her back. We don’t need her kind here.”
Those who were whispering didn’t ask themselves, “Back to what?” The Ireland out of which Colleen emigrated was poor. And she was from one of the poorest parts—the Aran Islands, which are off the Atlantic side of Eire and off Galway Bay. In those days, the island people were farmers and fishermen, most of whom had little education and spoke Gaelic as their first language. The young people left as soon as they were old enough to leave—and never came back. In my story, Colleen manages to leave when she’s fifteen. If “they” sent her back from Texas to where she came from, to what would they be sending her?
A recent column by Steve Lopez in the Los Angeles Times (July 17, 2019) is entitled, “Digging through tangled family roots in Sicily.” Mr. Lopez was on vacation in Italy and decided to search for relatives in San Vito Lo Capo, on the northwest tip of Sicily. On his father’s side, Mr. Lopez is Spanish, from Malaga, Spain—hence his last name, “Lopez.” On his mother’s side, he’s Italian—“Costanza.” Both his Spanish and Italian grandparents left their respective countries over a century ago—and never looked back.
Mr. Lopez explains why he knew very little about the Costanza family: “One reason I’m short on family history is that many immigrants including my grandparents, though proud of their heritage, want to live in the present, not in the past. They had their reasons for leaving their countries and were happy to be making new lives in the United States—a lot like today’s immigrants. They became Americans, and that’s how our country came to be.”
After days of searching for someone who knew something about his grandmother and her family, Mr. Lopez finally found a man by the last name of Costanza who was probably his cousin. “I asked if he knew what might have prompted the Costanzas to leave for the U.S. more than a century ago, and he didn’t pause. ‘Hunger,’ he said.”
The Costanzas got off the boat in San Francisco in the early 1900s. More than likely, more than once, Grandmother Costanza, who was barely a teen at the time, heard the unwelcoming English-speaking San Franciscans shout the ultimate insult, “Send her back!” Back to what? Back to “Hunger.”
Likewise, in my novel, if the unwelcoming Anglo Texans of the 1950s had managed to send Colleen back to the Aran Islands, that’s what she would have gone back to. People have to be truly mean, unfeeling, and full of racial hatred, if they want to send people who don’t look like themselves back to hunger.