Celebrating Syttende Mai or Cinco de Mayo

I’m writing this from the 36th annual Høstfest. This annual event is said to be the largest celebration of Scandinavian heritage in North America. Although my parents didn’t teach me to speak Norwegian, I grew up listening to the musical rise and fall of Norwegian accents and  occasional exclamations of “uffda.” Holidays at our house still include lutefisk, lease, fruit soup and pickled herring.

Hearing others speaking Norwegian as they walk by seems familiar. The foods served are comfort foods for me, full of butter and cream. Traditional Scandinavian music connects with something deep in my soul. I enjoy learning more about the places where my grandparents grew up. The faces strangers look familiar, as though a common ancestor may have supplied us with shared DNA.

Apparently the need to connect with our roots is deep and wide. The Høstfest brings thousands of people from every state and Canadian province. Bus loads of visitors stream in the gates of the State Fair grounds. Motor homes fill the parking lots and already scarce hotel rooms are filled to capacity.

My grandparents, some of their siblings, and even a couple of my great grandparents left the mountains and fjords of their homeland in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They didn’t leave Norway for adventure alone. They didn’t leave because of political oppression or war. They were poor farmers and fisherpeople and opportunities for making a comfortable living were few. My family came to this country as economic refugees.

When my grandparents landed at Ellis Island, they spoke no English. They had little money and few possessions. They were checked for signs of tuberculosis and insanity. Since they were basically healthy, they were allowed into this country, free to seek their fortune.

My email box and Facebook page has had many posts lately about immigration and immigrants, both documented and undocumented. Some strongly support changing our current system for allowing non-citizens to live here. Others, however, seem to attribute all our problems, social, cultural and economic on newcomers. One recent essay, sent to me by a friend, disparaged immigrants for holding on to the culture, language and even religion of their homeland. This writer asserted that multiculturalism was to blame for a lack of unity and cohesiveness in our country. He blamed undocumented worker for low wages and crime. He and others complain that modern day immigrants, especially those from Spanish speaking countries, won’t learn to speak English .

Sitting here at the Høst fest along with thousands of other people who have made this pilgrimage to the middle of the far north, I can’t help but think about immigrants and the struggles new Americans faced a hundred years ago and those they face today.

Yes, things are different today. Our country no longer has wide open spaces waiting for settlers. Unemployment in many places is at the highest rates since the Great Depression. Poverty levels are at record highs. While it is true that my grandparents followed the rules when they immigrated, there are far more rules today. The lines for legal entry into this country as a landed immigrant are years long and the fees to navigate the system are high. My grandparents would probably find it hard to immigrate legally today.

What hasn’t changed since my grandparents came is the reason for moving from the place called home to a strange new land. Most people who risk their lives and being arrested for not having the right papers come to find a better life for themselves and their families. The majority are not criminals or simply looking for a handout. My ancestors were tempted by tales of free land, soil that would grow bumper crops and sugarplum mountains. The desperate poor in our neighboring countries and across the world see television programs and movies where everyone lives in luxury homes and drive new cars.

My Grandparents did not learn English the day they left Ellis Island. My parents were born in this country. Both learned Norwegian first and  spoke English as a second language after they started school. We had a Norwegian-born neighbor who lived here more than eighty years and still did not speak English at her death. There are communities  in North Dakota where a German dialect is still spoken.

Yet we seem to expect something different from new immigrants. They should just want to fit in, to abandon their mother tongue, their traditional clothing, religious practices and culture. We make the rules for coming here nearly impossible to follow and arrest, imprison and deport those who come anyway.

Yet, here I am celebrating the language, traditional dress and culture of the place my family left over a hundred years ago.

What’s the difference between celebrating Syttende Mai and Cinco de Mayo?

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains