Thanksgiving Day is an occasion to mark an American myth. This
Thursday we celebrate the bounty of the land as we gather around
the dining room table to gorge on turkey and all the fixings. But
the myth we tell ourselves of the Pilgrims coming to New England
makes Thanksgiving a time when we might also recognize our nation’s
Thanksgiving Day is an occasion to mark an American myth. This Thursday we celebrate the bounty of the land as we gather around the dining room table to gorge on turkey and all the fixings. But the myth we tell ourselves of the Pilgrims coming to New England makes Thanksgiving a time when we might also recognize our nation’s immigrant tradition. Those European religious refugees who came to the New World looking for a new life survived thanks to the compassion of the residents they met here.
It’s a nice legend we tell ourselves about Thanksgiving. We beam at the ideal of two different cultures coming together as friends and co-existing peacefully as equals. We keep alive the textbook image of Europeans in heavy black Pilgrim garb and Native Americans in loincloth and beads happily sitting together at a roughly-hewn wooden picnic table enjoying a bounteous banquet one autumn afternoon.
This Thanksgiving myth conveniently hides the horror of the holiday. Because of their agricultural incompetence, half the Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower in 1620 died of malnutrition and the resulting diseases during their first Massachusetts winter. The local Wampanoag Indians felt sorry for their plight and showed them how to grow beans, corn and pumpkin, and revealed to them the best places to hunt and fish. The Pilgrims survived because of the kindness shown by the natives. In return for their generosity, the natives received diseases such as smallpox, chicken pox and measles. The Old World microbes decimated their numbers because their New World bodies had not naturally evolved any immunity.
It’s estimated that in 1600 about 100,000 Native Americans lived in New England. Seventy-five years later, less than 10,000 survived. European colonists found tribal villages empty of human life. The communities had been obliterated by European germ warfare. And the colonists rejoiced, praising their biblical God for clearing the real estate of the original residents. For the next 250 years, the conquest continued. From Plymouth Rock to Little Big Horn, the story of America has been about how immigrants from Europe spread across the continent, clearing away the natives almost as callously as clearing forest land of trees to make a farm.
I have a hunch one reason Americans have long had a tradition of treating immigrants with harsh intolerance is because in our national psychology we bear in mind the sins we committed against the original North American population during our own period of immigration from Europe. Maybe deep in our American soul, we harbor the dread that one day we must pay for our sins. We fear that one terrible day, like the people we found here, we’ll lose our land and legacy by cultural conquest.
Our nation’s economy, public health and national security depend substantially on the production and processing of food. And unlike that first New England winter when many Pilgrims perished, we are blessed with a continuously-flowing cornucopia. Like it or not, our national food supply rests almost entirely in the hands of our immigrant workforce. Three out of every four crop workers you see toiling on American soil were born outside our borders. And at least half of America’s crop workers are not authorized to legally labor here. They work the sweaty and dirty jobs most American citizens refuse to do.
The extreme poverty they and their families face in Mexico force them to cross deserts and rivers to do these jobs. Traveling from their homeland, they risk death for the chance to do back-breaking work for long hours in extreme environmental conditions. Living here in often squalid conditions, many of our nation’s crop workers daily deal with inhumane treatment and financial abuse. They are well aware that if they dare complain, they will be sent back home by the immigration authorities.
Much like the Pilgrims depended on the Wampanoags for their mortal survival nearly 400 years ago, we modern Americans depend on immigrants from our southern neighbor nation to produce the food we need to keep us alive. And like the Wampanoag, many of the people we see laboring in the farm fields of the South Valley and the rest of the U.S. carry in their DNA the genes of the original immigrants to North America – the people who crossed from Asia during the last ice age.
Thanksgiving Day is an occasion for us to reflect on how tightly America’s food supply and immigration are tied together. The myth we created of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags coming together to share a meal in friendship can serve us well as a lesson for how we should treat with compassion our nation’s immigrant crop workers. As you enjoy dinner with friends and family this Thursday, give gratitude for the men and women immigrants who made your meal possible.