Years ago, I created a radio documentary about my grandparents coming to America. For
months, I sat at kitchen tables holding microphones in front of elderly relatives, and asked
them to tell me their stories. Later, back in Chapel Hill, N.C., where I was in graduate school, I listened through hours of thick Russian accents and transcribed it all.
One of my favorite stories was a short one. Tante Leah — my Zadee’s sister — had just arrived at Ellis Island, and Zadee was escorting her back to Shenandoah, Pa. by train. My grandfather had settled in the anthracite coal mining region of Pennsylvania, where he could sell goods to the miners.
As Leah told it, the train passed by Paterson, and her brother pointed out the window –
imparting one of his first lessons to her.
“Silk factory,” Zadee said. And you have to fill in the thick accent here. “Silk good. Factory no good.”
Except for my father, all the people I interviewed for that documentary are gone. I don’t think my children ever heard those accents. The closest they came were the voices of Boris and Minka, who appeared in a Passover episode of Rugrats. It is very easy, in the space of a few generations, to completely forget that you came from people who spoke an entirely different language, left their parents forever, and made their way in a strange land as “greenies.”
When you think about immigration in America these days, you largely think of Texas and
California, of border fences rising out the desert, of starving and dehydrated Mexicans being smuggled into the country in the back of trucks. At least I do.
You don’t necessarily think of New Jersey. But according to statistics from the Migration Policy Institute, New Jersey ranks fifth in the country for the number of foreign-born residents and third for the percentage of foreign-born residents.
A few weeks ago, inspired by the 86-journalist collaboration by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, we put out a call to action to do a collaborative reporting project in New Jersey. Last Monday, 10 of us gathered for a brown-bag lunch in Schmitt Hall, on the campus of Montclair State University, and decided on immigration as our subject.
We agreed on what has become obvious to me after six months of compiling a daily news
curation of New Jersey: immigration is an undercovered topic in New Jersey journalism. (more...)