Families everywhere are struggling with how to educate their children during this pandemic. The problem is even more complicated for immigrant families. Parents who are not native English speakers often find it particularly difficult to navigate U.S. school systems or help children with their homework. With the move of so much instruction online, things have not gotten easier.
After a month or so of home quarantine, a team of Boston-area high school students decided they could do some good for area children while keeping themselves intellectually challenged by offering free tutoring services. In April, David Min, Nathan Bornstein, Dan Bi and Dylan Higgins launched Boston COVID Tutoring (BCT). Since then, BCT has expanded to 72 volunteers tutoring 67 elementary and middle school students in subjects including math, science, English, history, social studies and various world languages.
The Immigrant Learning Center’s students are adult immigrants and refugees who desperately want to learn English to improve their and their family’s lives in this country. We have heard first-hand from many of our students the difficulty of trying to ensure their children’s education during this crisis without abandoning their own studies. When Boston COVID Tutoring approached us for mentoring, we were well aware of the need for these services and pleased to be able to help these enterprising young adults create something that will have lasting impact. Through this partnership, The Immigrant Learning Center offers organizational guidance and oversight of the volunteer program to BCT and in return directs immigrant families to this valuable new resource. Everyone wins.
Immigrants are a key part of the U.S. economy in the best and worst of times. Right now, we are facing severe unemployment, stock market plunges and businesses closures due to the COVID-19 epidemic. As the United States struggles to come to terms with the challenges of both a public health and an economic crisis, one segment of the population is already in a unique position to help our recovery: immigrants.
Welcoming immigrants is a time-tested way to ensure resilience and stability as the country moves forward. This was most recently apparent after the Great Recession of 2008 when the presence of foreign-born workers boosted the economy. They can do the same for the pandemic recovery.
Despite the historical record, when people are losing jobs they are tempted to call for restrictions on workers entering the country. The lessons from the Great Recession show us that such measures often backfire.
With the economy shrinking, the United States capped H1-B work visas at drastically low rates. While it seems that would leave more jobs for U.S.-born workers, New American Economy found that the reverse happened. The result was a shortage of high-skilled workers, which stunted revenue and job growth at a time when it was most needed, particularly in high-tech businesses.
The Center for American Progress (CAP) noted that such moments of crisis provide opportunities to see where economic systems are working well and where they must be reformed. During the aftermath of the Great Recession, CAP researchers suggested the country seize upon the chance to address the ways in which the immigration system impeded economic growth. The opportunity to plan for a recovery that helps both old and new Americans grow together is possible, and the country has the data to determine best practices for moving forward. In the midst of such difficult times, the United States can remember the value of diverse population and workforce and move towards unity.
With schools closed and playdates canceled, many children and families are looking for ways to connect with neighbors, their community and the world at large. Moreover, the concerning rise in COVID-19-related xenophobia and anti-Asian incidents can leave children feeling worried for their family’s safety or the safety of others around them. Activities related to immigration, from learning about other cultures to showing support for immigrant essential workers, can be a catalyst for growing connections, promoting empathy and creating a sense of empowerment among children of all ages.
Representation is Important
Providing children with media that positively portrays a diverse range of people is a simple and effective way of promoting equity. Research shows when children see diverse characters in a variety of roles they are less prone to stereotyping, and children who see themselves and their lives accurately represented have higher self-esteem. As one quarter of children in the United States have at least one immigrant parent, positive representations of immigrants are crucially important today.
Many schools and libraries are providing free access to extensive collections of ebooks and audiobooks, but how do you find content your children will enjoy that promotes equity? The Anti-Defamation League’s “Books Matter” collection offers 801 suggestions covering topics from gender to race to religion and more, and each comes with a discussion guide. Online bookseller Alibris has a collection of more than 500 nonfiction children’s books about immigration. There is even a collection of award-winning young adult novels with protagonists from a variety of cultures, from Asian to Latinx to Middle-Eastern, curated by California State University Long Beach.
With many children turning to screens to fill their time, you can help them prioritize shows and games that reinforce compassion. Common Sense Media’s collection of TV shows, games, apps and websites is an excellent resource for preschoolers to teens. Their list of TV shows that inspire empathy helps kids learn the value of putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. The games that support kindness and compassion list helps kids see other viewpoints, celebrate others’ traditions and learn how tough it is to be bullied or discriminated against, and the empathy games, apps and websites list is full of options that teach kids to think about how other people feel and to emphasize the value of human relationships.
Above all, you are the secret ingredient. Engage children and teens in discussions about the importance of diversity and visibility. Encourage them to ask questions about who gets represented and why.
Knowledge is Power
Whether it’s across an ocean, across the country or across town, every family has stories of moving in their history. Hearing family stories about being a newcomer somewhere connects children with their past and can spark compassion for others. To help guide you, Scholastic offers Exploring Family Heritage, a collection of articles and lesson plans for children in grades pre-K through eight. Teaching Tolerance offers a lesson plan for children in grades K through five called Understanding My Family’s History.
For inspiration, your family can explore Meet Young Immigrants, a collection of stories from Scholastic about children recently arrived in the U.S. The University of Minnesota has collected more than 250 first, second and third generation Immigrant Stories representing more than 50 different communities. If you are feeling ambitious, you can even add your own.
Discussing their own heritage can spark children’s interest in other cultures. You might start with your own family’s heritage, or the home countries of your children’s immigrant friends and classmates. Maybe they’d like to start with learning where your immigrant neighbors are from using this interactive map from the Migration Policy Institute. Once you’ve settled on your destination, you can take your children on virtual tours of many museums and cultural sites around the world. These “field trips” will help make other countries and cultures come alive.
In addition to the historical context, Facing History’s Coronavirus: protect yourself and stand against racism also offers the scientific perspective. Offering what is currently known by the scientific community, it encourages reflection about the consequences of discrimination. Providing young adults with factually correct information and opportunities to reflect on the consequences of discrimination makes them less likely to pass on false information and encourages them to challenge coronavirus-inspired racism if, or when, they encounter it. Facing History providestechniques for standing up to racist and hateful speech, both online and in person. They also offer tips and best practices that teens can use when participating inonline activism.These activities can give your children agency and empower them to create a safer and more welcoming world.
As the pandemic underscores the interconnected and interdependent nature of our global community, it is even more important to instill in our children an understanding and appreciation of the diverse cultures that make up our country and the world. By highlighting immigration, we can cultivate a global mindset, empathetic understandingand, above all, kindness.
To help your children understand and show support for New Americans who have been affected by this crisis, below we offer coloring pages and discussion starters to guide conversations with children as you are coloring. For more on each theme, we also provide links to related online stories. Finally, we encourage everyone to proudly post the finished products in your windows as a show of support. The activity allows children to learn how to take positive, affirming action in difficult times, and can help open up conversations about how to support our communities against both public health risks and xenophobia.
Please share your artwork with us by tagging @ilctr (Twitter) or @immigrantlearningcenter (Facebook) using hashtags #DrawingSupport and #IStandWithImmigrants.
We Stand With Our Immigrant Neighbors at Six Feet Apart!
How can we show kindness to our neighbors, even when we can’t visit each other?
Why is it important to support people who are new to our country and to our community?
Do you understand why we must stay apart from other people right now?
You can help your children continue to absorb the message of building friendships under difficult circumstances by listening to Lotus and Feather, a Chinese tale about a young girl who makes a unique friend after a mysterious illness causes her to lose her voice.
As the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic shifts to the United States, immigrants in this country are right where they have always been: on the front lines working tirelessly to ensure our communities stay safe, healthy and supported. Immigrants are over-represented in direct health care, life science research and other industries that have been deemed essential, such as food/agriculture and transportation. As such, there are many ways that new Americans are keeping the country going in this life-or-death crisis.
Immigrants are vital to the health care industry. While the foreign-born make up just 13.7 percent of the U.S. population, they are a full 35.2 percent of home health care workers, 28.5 percent of physicians, 18.5 percent of lab technicians and 15 percent of registered nurses. Immigrants are even more critical in rural areas, which depend disproportionately on foreign-born physicians. As the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States increases, immigrants make a convenient target for people who are frightened and looking for someone to blame. It’s important to note that so many immigrants are stepping up and taking on the risk of infection to keep hospitals running and treat patients.
Behind the scenes, foreign-born researchers are leading the charge to find a cure for coronavirus. In fact, the first potential vaccine to enter clinical trials was developed by Moderna, Inc. The company was founded on research by Derrick Rossi, a Canadian immigrant and a 2015 ILC Immigrant Entrepreneur Award nominee, and the current CEO, Stephane Bancel, is from France. They, like so many others, were drawn to Massachusetts to work in one of the life science industry’s most successful global hubs. Without drawing such international talent, this promising vaccine might never have been developed.
Another company that has entered clinical trials with a potential vaccine, Gilead Sciences, is carrying out its research in both the U.S. and Wuhan province, China. Under the leadership of Executive Vice President for Pharmaceutical Development and Manufacturing Dr. Tiayan Yang, an immigrant from Taiwan, Gilead hopes to adapt medicines that were originally used to treat MERS and SARS outbreaks. Dr. Joseph Kim’s “typical immigrant story” also draws attention to the benefits of immigration in the face of a crisis. Kim’s company, Inovio Pharmaceuticals, is also working on a vaccine, and reportedly gave President Trump the “most optimistic answer in a March 2 meeting.
In the past few weeks, immigrants have shown their inherent social value as essential workers in a variety of fields, including food and grocery services, transportation, sanitation, agriculture and maintenance. Foreign-born workers are again over-represented in all these fields. They make up almost 50 percent of maid services and 25 percent of janitors are immigrants. These professions, which already face health care risks, are even more dangerous as it becomes imperative to clean workplaces, public spaces and health care centers in order to contain an infectious disease.
With no clear end in sight for the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not surprising that many people feel anxious or afraid. Throughout it all, many immigrants are offering messages of hope, unity and a sense of community. Immigrant organizers have been on the frontlines of mutual aid networks in cities like Boston, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles to assist vulnerable neighbors with daily tasks, health care access and financial support. While these groups are first and foremost there to help with material needs, they are also an important way of showing community members that they are cared for and valued. “In times like these, people really do want to help, and it’s so important to push back against the isolation and turning inward and selfishness that can come in times like these if we don’t remind everyone that we have everything we need to support one another,” said Ria Peebles, a Washington D.C. area organizer who is coordinating relief with both U.S.-born and immigrant communities.
As cultural events go online, immigrants are among those finding ways to share art and culture with a public that is staying home. The annual Pittsburgh Irish Festival is leading the charge to put massive, multi-artist events online. Musicians, from Haitian rapper and three-time Grammy winner Wyclef Jean to Chinese-Parisian-American classical cellist YoYo Ma, are making their music available for free. Ma has even dedicated his free performances to the workers who are on the front lines of the crisis as a way to send them encouragement and cheer. His is a powerful example of how everyone can pull together in this time to give each other hope and encouragement.
Vulnerable to Prejudice
Even with all that foreign-born workers and community members are doing to address the many impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak, there have been increased incidences of prejudice and violence toward immigrants. Those of Asian heritage are particularly vulnerable, as their ethnicity is erroneously linked to the likelihood of infection. Americans can combat this fear and prejudice by reminding ourselves of all the ways in which our immigrant community members are working hard at this time to keep the whole country moving forward. Whether it’s in health care, essential sevices or providing us with the hope and inspiration we need to keep going, immigrants should be thanked, not threatened.
In order to understand immigrant trauma, it is necessary to understand acculturation. But what exactly is it? Clinical psychologist and director of the mental health counselling program at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education, Dr. Usha Tummala-Narra, describes psychological acculturation as “the dynamic process immigrants experience as they adapt to the new country.” For some immigrants, this process can be swift and easy, but for many immigrants acculturation can be extremely stressful. Factors that may contribute to this stress include language barriers, financial struggles, changing gender roles and downward social mobility in their adopted homeland.
Inter-generational Culture Clashes
Acculturative stress can be particularly difficult when the two cultures are in conflict. This is especially true for the 4.5 million citizen children who have undocumented parents. Dr. Tummala-Narra says that “first-generation immigrants may experience less psychological distress than second-generation immigrants.” American behavioral acculturation occurs rapidly for children, and Dr. Nakamura writes that “parents may feel that their children are becoming too American too fast, and children may feel their parents don’t understand them.”Child and parent may have different expectations for the child’s autonomy and supervision, and children may view their parents as an obstacle in achieving their goals. While acculturation to American culture is “successful” in these cases, this success and overacculturation can lead to new levels of stress and intergenerational disagreements when the two cultures are in conflict with one another.
Dr. Tummala-Narra has seen a rise in acculturative stress for her patients due to uncertainty surrounding immigration policy, and fear of deportation is noted as the presenting problem in many instances. In addition, some immigrants experience racism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, and this discrimination can be a key cause of acculturative stress. It is therefore no wonder that immigrants of color experience higher levels of acculturative stress, or that many immigrants feel like they have to hide their ethnic identity.
When acculturative stress combined with prejudice strikes, immigrants are less likely to seek out mental health services, says Dr. Nadine Nakamura, of the University of La Verne in California. If they do seek out care, there are numerous barriers such as “difficulty finding transportation or child care and communication problems—not just language differences, but cultural nuances that a clinician might not recognize,” Dr. Nakamura writes.
Strategies to Mitigate Immigrant Anxiety, Fear and Trauma
One solution to combat this stress is to ensure immigrants have consistent access to their “heritage” culture. While it is acculturation to the host culture that gives access to society and institutions for first-generation immigrants, it is the heritage culture that can provide access to cultural resources and support, as well as address trauma. For second-generation immigrants and citizen children, familiarity with one’s heritage culture and native language can ease familial conflict and improve grades and literacy.
Ultimately, acculturative stress can be overcome if it is understood that ethnic identity, which includes heritage culture and racial identity, and national (i.e. American) identity are not mutually exclusive and can successfully coexist.
Hollywood is one of the most iconic symbols of America and, like so much of America, it wouldn’t be what it is today without immigrants. Even in the midst of debates about diversity and representation, it is apparent that immigrants “get the job done” in filmmaking and other performing arts. In fact, one out of every eight workers in the movie industry is an immigrant, including some of Hollywood’s biggest names like Lupita Nyongo, Ryan Reynolds and the Hemsworth brothers.
The 2020 Oscars
It’s no secret that the 2020 Academy Awards (Oscars) have come under fire for failing to keep up with an increasingly diverse industry. Yet the fact that so many heavyweight contenders this awards season are either immigrants or international stars seems to have gone unnoticed. Three out of the five nominees for best leading actress are from overseas: Cynthia Erivo (United Kingdom), Saoirse Ronan (Ireland) and Charlize Theron (South Africa). Also hoping to take home a statue this year are best adapted screenplay nominee Taika Waititi (New Zealand), best original screenplay nominee Sam Mendes (United Kingdom), best director nominee Bong Joon-Ho (South Korea), best leading actor nominees Antonio Banderas (Spain) and Jonathan Pryce (United Kingdom), and best supporting actress nominee Margot Robbie (Australia).
These artists follow in the footsteps of some of last year’s biggest winners like Egyptian-American Rami Malek, who won best actor for his portrayal of singer Freddie Mercury, director Alfonso Cuarón of Mexico, who swept three categories with Roma, and British best actress winner Olivia Colman.
Immigrants were there from the start
German immigrant Carl Laemmle founded Universal Pictures in 1912. Polish immigrant Samuel Goldwyn got his start at Universal and went on to create Goldwyn Pictures in 1916. In 1924 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was born when Goldwyn merged with Mayer Pictures, founded by Ukrainian immigrant Louis B. Mayer. Three years later, Mayer spearheaded the creation of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, which presented its first Academy Awards in 1929.
German-born Emil Jannings was the first person to receive the award. Over the years, many other immigrants have made their mark. In the 30s, Frank Capra (Italy) won three Oscars for best director. In the 40s and 50s Ingrid Bergman (Sweden) won three Oscars for acting, and Miyoshi Umeki (Japan) became the only Asian woman to date to win an Academy Award for acting. Meanwhile, Sam Spiegel (Austria/Poland) took home three best director Oscars. Immigrants were essential to creating the American film industry, and have continued to contribute to its success ever since.
The positive impact of immigrants in the trillion-dollar creative sector is unquestionable. In addition to the many famous immigrants in Hollywood, there is an ecosystem of writers, videographers, production assistants, costume designers, choreographers, editors, technicians, makeup artists and photographers, many of whom are foreign-born. In total, there are currently some 400,000 immigrants working in creative or artistic jobs, and 25,000 are actors, producers or directors.
The desire to draw talented entertainment professionals to the United States is so strong that the industry has its own visa category: the O1-B visa. One of the most flexible visa categories in the U.S., it’s reserved for “individuals with an extraordinary ability in the arts or extraordinary achievement in the motion picture and film industry.” Unlike other visas that have annual limits that are far exceed by the demand for them, there is no cap on how many O1-Bs can be issued. In addition, the O-2 visa was created to allow for staff or assistants to accompany an O1 visa holder to the U.S. At a time when so many restrictions are being placed on other visa categories, these unrestricted visas are a sure sign the country remains determined to welcome artists with open arms.
Why is this important?
The entertainment industry is both beloved and wide-reaching. Film and television content are among the country’s most lucrative exports. By some estimates 70 percent of U.S. studios’ annual revenues come from international sales. The United States presents itself to the world through these works, which both inform and are informed by the rest of the world. International artists bring perspectives and stories that can help American companies capture more of the large, global market.
In addition to the economic impact, the cultural impact of this industry is hard to overestimate. Like it or not, Hollywood influences our cultural identity. Our movies and TV shows are part of our shared experience and help form Americans’ sense of who we are. For many audience members around the world, it is the only frame of reference for what it means to be American. It is a beacon that draws many of the world’s greatest artists to the United States. This country’s strength has always been our ability to welcome talented people and incorporate their diversity of perspectives, regardless of where they were born. The performing arts are simply the most visible way to demonstrate the value that immigrants bring to the U.S. economy and culture.
How teachers can help these highly diverse students make sense of the modern world
Every generation brings a fresh perspective on social and political issues, and educators have to find ways to adjust to these changes. The post-millennial generation of young Americans currently coming of age, known as Generation Z, has already cemented its reputation as politically engaged, highly educated and very diverse. While there are actually fewer foreign-born post-millennials than millennials, they are still highly likely to come from immigrant families. Nearly one-third of “Gen Z” is either an immigrant or the child of immigrants, and almost half is non-white.
While research shows that diversity is beneficial, it can be challenging for students to reap those benefits when anti-immigrant rhetoric and racial tensions dominate the national stage. Professor John Rogers at UCLA notes that 89 percent of high school principals report “incivility and contentiousness in the broader political environment has considerably affected their school community,” and an additional 83 percent see untrustworthy and disputed information fueling inner-school tensions.
Fortunately, there are techniques educators can use to help ensure that young people are getting the culturally competent support they need, even in environments where race and immigration are contentious topics. Some tips are provided in this article. We’ll be diving further into these techniques in our next free webinar Understanding Immigration Today: Current Events in the Classroom on February 12, 2020.
In order to develop these dispositions, students need to feel safe to engage and express themselves. Classrooms can be a place to learn accurate information about current events and hold compassionate, evidence-based discussions.
Gen Zers get their news predominantly from the internet and social media. This means that not only are they vulnerable to seeing false or incomplete information, they are also exposed to confusing opinions and hurtful biases. They need to learn how to tell opinion from fact and fact from fiction. Teachers can help their students by incorporating current events into the classroom and showing students how to evaluate “news.”
There are a number of resourcesforchildren and teenagers that explain the headlines in age-appropriate formats, ranging from NBC Learn for ages seven and older to PBS NewsHour Extra for 14 and above. It can also be useful for students to share opinions in the classroom, especially if there are clear guidelines around using respectful language. By exploring these resources and discussions in a classroom, students can form their own opinions with accurate information in a compassionate and calm environment.
One of our content partners, Re-imagining Migration, creates curricula and related resources for diverse classrooms. They’ve identified five key dispositionsthat are essential for success in a diverse environment:
Understand Perspective: value one’s own and others
Inquire: be curious and the inclination to ask relevant and informed questions
Communicate: build relationships across differences
Recognize Inequality: historical and current
Take Action: everyone can help make the classroom more inclusive
Educators who teach the skill set and attitudes that correspond to these dispositions can help their students face an uncertain world. Even the most dedicated teacher can’t prepare students for every painful situation or ethical dilemma, but they can help students develop critical thinking and emotional resilience.
Let Them Lead
It’s not only young people who have something to learn. Educators have great reasons to put faith in their students and give them opportunities to lead. Sometimes called iGen, this generation has grown up in the digital age with a wealth of information at their fingertips, and they are showing themselves to be both well-informed and highly motivated by education and new experiences. They also tend to value diversity and have a more international outlook than previous generations. As this cohort of young people enters universities and workplaces, they are sure to infuse these values into their institutional cultures and society at large. So while teachers can and should take steps to help their students grow, there are times when students can lead the way.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is known as a time of giving gifts, visiting family and eating traditional feasts. The winter holidays are important to Americans of many backgrounds as this time of year holds important celebrations for Jews, Christians, Muslims (depending on the lunar calendar), Buddhists, Pagans, Zoroastrians and anyone who uses the Gregorian calendar.
With such a blend of traditions, it should come as no surprise that immigration has shaped many of the most beloved American holiday customs, from playing dreidel to gifts from Santa Claus to the final countdown on New Year’s Eve.
European colonists brought Christmas to North America in the 1600s. Their observations were strictly religious, with few of the treats and trappings familiar to modern Americans. Many of the Christmas traditions that Americans cherish in the 21st century originated elsewhere, were brought here by immigrants and became American as they passed from generation to generation.
In the 1800s, Germanic immigrants brought the traditions of Christmas trees. Christmas trees’ appeal expanded dramatically after the Industrial Revolution allowed for ornaments and special candles to be mass produced in Europe and shipped to the United States. Similarly, gift-giving began as a German tradition and increased in popularity as the price of everyday goods fell.
Christmas cards were popularized in the U.S. by Louis Prang, a Prussian refugee and artist. After successfully selling his elaborately designed holiday cards in the United Kingdom, he introduced his new product to the United States. He saw his cards as a way to share fine art, as well as a substitute for the more time-consuming tradition of the Christmas letter.
The classic Christmas tune White Christmas was written by Irving Berlin, a Russian immigrant who practiced Judaism.
Joel Roberts Poinsett may have been an American diplomat and amateur botanist, but the “flor de la nochebuena,” better known as a “poinsettia” in English, was native to Mexico before Poinsett sent cuttings home.
Mistletoeplayed a significant role in both Norse and Celtic druidic mythology before evolving into a modern symbol of holiday love.
Burning a Yule log began as a Scandinavian tradition, meant to bring luck or protection to the family in the coming year. These days, celebrants are more likely to enjoya “bûche de Noël,” a style of cake shaped and decorated to resemble a Yule log that was popularized by Parisian bakers.
Saint Nicolaus, or Sinterklaas, as he was known to the German, Dutch, Ukrainian and Swiss immigrants who originally celebrated him, was expected on December 6 not the 24th. He is still celebrated on that date in communities throughout the U.S.
Some communities continue the Christmas celebration into January. After weeks of gatherings and feasts, Christians from South and Central America have a final celebration on January 6 known as Three Kings Day or the Twelfth Day of Christmas. Christians from Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Greece, Israel, Russia and several other Eastern European countries follow the Julian calendar and therefore celebrate Christmas on January 7.
Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an ancient Jewish holiday that commemorates the rededication of a Temple in Jerusalem after winning it back from the Greek occupiers in the second century BCE. Historically Hanukkah had been considered a minor event in the Hebrew calendar, but for modern American Jews, it can be one of the biggest celebrations of the year. The largest waves of Jewish immigration to the United States took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fueled by both economic concerns and an increasingly hostile environment in Europe. New Jewish Americans were eager to show their enthusiasm for their adopted homeland, and the subject of hard-won religious freedom seemed particularly relevant. Hanukkah is now celebrated by millions of Americans each year and has become one of the most valued traditions of North American Jewish communities. The holiday became a perfect opportunity to participate in American holiday-time feasting and gift-giving while keeping their traditions and building stable Jewish communities.
It was also an opportunity to resist forced assimilation. Some rabbis saw emphasizing the Hanukkah holidays, particularly the food and gifts aspects, as an opportunity to keep Jewish children from being drawn into Christmas celebrations. In the mid-20th century, Jewish children were often pressured into celebrating Christmas in their schools. Jewish parents presented Hanukkah as an alternative tradition for their children to participate in.
Food traditionally associated with the holiday varies across Jewish cultures. U.S.-born people may be most familiar with the potato latke, but Jewish Hungarians traditionally fry up a cheesy version. Cheese is associated with the holiday due to the lesser known Hanukkah story of an Israeli woman named Yehudis, who was said to ply the leader of an occupying Assyiran force with salty cheeses to encourage him to drink himself into a vulnerable stupor. Jewish Italians also enjoy a fried or baked cheese pancake, called a “cassola” and made of ricotta. Italian Catholics have since adopted the dessert as a Christmas dish. Jewish Syrians prefer a variation on the latke called “kibbet yatkeen,” containing bulgur and pumpkin. For Jewish Israelis, jam-filled doughnuts called “sufganiyot” has gained popularity over the latke. Some Jewish Indians enjoy “gulab jamun,” a deep-fried, doughnut-like sweet dipped in a sugary syrup. Jewish North Africans make a similar dessert called “debla,” traditionally shaping the dough into a rose. The exact origins of Hanukkah gelt, a type of small, foil-wrapped chocolate coins, are unclear, but it may be linked to a Yemeni tradition of giving Jewish children a coin every day of Hanukkah to buy sweets.
Kwanzaa is the newest year-end holiday. It is the only December holiday to start in the United States, and it is now celebrated by millions around the world. It was created in the 1960s to reconnect American descendants of enslaved Africans with their heritage. Unlike other immigrant groups who could choose which aspects of their cultures and histories to preserve and which to let go, African Americans were forced to give up their traditions. After police brutality sparked the Watts uprising in 1965, Black Studies professor Dr. Maulana Karenga was inspired to create an opportunity to bring the Black community together. He researched harvest traditions across Africa to create a pan-African celebration, which became Kwanzaa.
For seven days, observers of Kwanzaa celebrate their heritage and reflect on shared principles. The name comes from the Swahili phrase “matundaya kwanza,” which means “first fruits of the harvest.” The extra “a” was added to make the word seven letters long, a number with symbolic significance in the tradition. The seven candles in a “kinara” symbolize the “seven principles” that Karenga assigned to each of the seven days of the holiday: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith).
Traditional Kwanzaa foodsare drawn from both African and American Black communities. Groundnut stews from Ghana and “doro wat” chicken from Ethiopia arecommon, as is soul food or Creole dishes like black eyed peas and jambalaya. The diverse feasts tell the history of Africans and of their descendants in the Americas. On the final day, December 31, celebrants hold a traditional African feast called a “Karamu.” Kwanzaa is a secular holiday and celebrated by people of all spiritual backgrounds alongside other religious traditions. The food, greetings, symbolism and tales shared during Kwanzaa tell a story of forced migration and hard-won rights for African Americans and also build connections to the rich history and cultural traditions of Africa.
New Year’s Eve
The dawn of each new year is celebrated across the globe. Perhaps the most famous observance, the annual Times Square Ball Drop in New York City, was created by an immigrant. Prior to 1904, New Yorkers celebrated New Year’s Eve with fireworks, a tradition adopted from Chinese New Year celebrations. However, early 20th century fireworks were fast becoming a safety hazard in crowded cities. A solution was offered by Adolph Ochs, a German-born, Jewish newspaper magnate and publisher of The New York Times. Ochs collaborated with the city to start a new, safer tradition at Times Square, which had been renamed in honor of the new Times headquarters. Ochs’ idea took hold, and the ball drop has become the grand finale to New Year’s Eve celebrations ever since. Observers often toast the new year with a fizzy glass of Champagne. Clever French advertisers in the late 1800s attempted to tie the drink to a number of occasions, but it was the association with New Years that stuck. Genuine Champagne was made in the Champagne region of France and imported to the United States for the occasion, often to be sold by French immigrants.
Classic New Year’s song Auld Lang Syne was an import from Scotland by way of Canada. Scottish poet Robert Burns penned the version of the song we know today, drawing on an old Scottish folk tune. The song gained popularity in the British Isles before making the jump across the pond in 1929, when Canadian-born immigrant Guy Lombardo led an orchestra in a televised New Year’s Eve broadcast that concluded with a rendition of the song. It quickly gained popularity across the country. He would go on to end his annual broadcasts with the iconic New Year’s tune for decades after.
Those are only a handful of the ways that American holiday traditions have been influenced by cultures from around the world. You can find out more about less popular celebrations held in immigrant enclaves or how the original New Year’s resolutions were introduced in ancient Babylonia or simply make a point of participating in the many celebrations held in your community. For more information about how to celebrate our diverse history during the holidays, check out some of the resources below.
When Manalie first joined The ILC’s Next Steps program to improve her English and advance her career, she asked her teacher to move her down a level. She didn’t believe she could handle the work, particularly while juggling two part time jobs at Burger King and the Cheesecake Factory. Her teacher told her to believe in herself and Manalie stuck with it.
Now she’s leaving the school early because she was accepted into a certified nursing assistant (CNA) program, the first step in her dream of becoming a nurse. She told her classmates that sometimes you won’t think that you can do it, but you can. Her father is currently taking Level 2 classes at The ILC and her sister is an ILC graduate who is now in college. For this family, learning English is a family affair.
Thank you for making stories like this possible through your continued support.
Diane Portnoy Founder and CEO The Immigrant Learning Center, Inc.
Barry M. Portnoy Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards
The eighth annual ILC Barry M. Portnoy Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards were held on October 29, 2019. Check out the website to see photos and learn about this year’s winners.
Immigrant Entrepreneur Nominee Jose Garcia Profiled in Wicked Local Somerville
Wicked Local Somerville recently profiled Jose Garcia, a nominee for our Barry M. Portnoy Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards. Garcia is an immigrant from Guatemala who fell in love with Japanese cooking and opened three Boston restaurants, including Ebi Sushi in Somerville. Congratulations, Jose Garcia!
The Immigrant Learning Center®, Inc. (ILC) of Malden, MA, is a not-for-profit organization that gives immigrants a voice in three ways. The English Language Program provides free, year-round English classes to immigrant and refugee adults in Greater Boston to help them become successful workers, parents and community members. The Public Education Institute informs Americans about the economic and social contributions of immigrants in our society, and the Institute for Immigration Research, a joint venture with George Mason University, conducts research on the economic contributions of immigrants.