This op-ed story was produced during the Fall 2020 Youth Voice Workshop.
What can we learn from discrimination my ancestors faced 100 years ago?
Small town Wisconsin was not a good place to have the last name “Deutscher” in 1918. With World War I drawing to a close and U.S. involvement intensifying, my great-great grandparents, John and Augusta Deutscher, found themselves facing a growing challenge: xenophobia against German Americans.
When we celebrate Veterans Day each Nov. 11, we often don’t remember that this holiday, originally known as Armistice Day, commemorates the end of World War I. At the time it was first celebrated, many German Americans were feeling the effects of some of the war’s unintended consequences: rampant nativist attitudes, accusations of disloyalty, and even imprisonment and violence.
Not only were my ancestors insulted and seen as outsiders by their community, but they were forced by law to carry “enemy alien identification cards” any time they left the house. Across the country, German Americans were met with fear, hostility, and a system working against them. Some states banned German language schools, jailed German newspaper editors, and mobs conducted burnings of German books. In Southern Minnesota, a German American farmer named John Meints was kidnapped, tarred and feathered, and thrown across the border into South Dakota. His neighbors threatened him with death if he ever returned. My ancestors, who had been living in the U.S. for nearly 40 years before the war, found themselves the targets of a culture of fear which singled them out and persecuted them solely for their country of birth.
Unfortunately, I see many of the experiences of my great-great grandparents being repeated today. Immigrants like my mother, a Costa Rican-American, are targeted by growing fear and resentment of people from other countries and cultures. While immigrants today are not labeled “enemy aliens” and forced to carry identification cards, they face the same nativism and distrust German Americans faced 100 years ago. It isn’t uncommon to see these attitudes coming from the descendants of those same German immigrants who overcame the anti-German sentiment of World War I. As the great-great grandson of German-American farmers living during World War I and the son of a recent Central American immigrant, this saddens and disappoints me.
Our society is fragile right now, and there is no place for xenophobia in it. It’s a lesson we should have learned 100 years ago. It isn’t right that people like my mother have to face the same kind of prejudice that my great-great grandparents overcame. In a country like the United States, where immigration is at the foundation of nearly every family’s story, the fight against xenophobia should feel as personal for our society as it does for me.
This Armistice Day, let’s learn from the past and affirm that the fight against xenophobia is everyone’s fight.