I’D LIKE TO GO AHEAD and put one fact about myself out on the table, so we all can deal with the truth head-on: Neither I nor anyone in my family comes from Oregon. My people hail from the South—more specifically, Texas.
When I relay this to people here, most reply with a version of “Where’s your accent?” (For the record, I pronounce “nuclear” just like it’s spelled, but I also say “y’all”—with a drawl so slight that ?most Oregonians can’t detect it.)
I tell people I’m from Texas because that’s where I grew up. But the six Oregonians whose stories comprise “Coming to America” inspired me to take a longer view of my family’s history. At the offices of Portland’s U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, these men and women recently took the Oath of Allegiance. In other words, they became Americans. But even if you spend a week observing the naturalization ceremonies—as editor-at-large Ted Katauskas did—you won’t hear the stories of how the immigrants arrived here. Many, as Katauskas found out in later interviews, were forced to cross oceans and borders by tough realities in their own countries—crushing poverty, ongoing war. One man wanted to find his father. One woman came for education and stayed for love.
To uncover the reasons behind my own ancestors’ journeys, I called my uncle Doug, who works on a cattle ranch in West Texas and who is the repository of our family’s historical record. Unfortunately, most of the stories have been lost. What we do know, Doug told me, are only brief facts: The Currys came from Ireland’s County Cork in the 1840s, during the potato famine. The Edwards came from England.
But my German ancestors, the Zubers, left a more complete history. In 1827, Abraham Zuber received a chunk of what was then Mexico (but is now Texas) from the Stephen F. Austin colony. (Doug keeps the original land grant in a shoe box under his bed.) Abraham’s son, William, later fought in the Battle of San Jacinto; in fact, he was the last living veteran of that fight. More important, before his death around 1913, William penned his memoirs, which the University of Texas Press published in 1971 under the title My Eighty Years in Texas. So, although we don’t know exactly why the Zubers left Germany, we do know what their Texas life was like: how it felt to march through mud in old boots; what it was like to live on horse meat, which William would cook over a fire until it was black.
The power of William’s tale, as well as those in “Coming to America,” is that they help us see immigration not just as a political issue, but as a collection of human stories, and, often, a record of terrible events that have forced people to leave their homes behind. William was, from what I can gather, a third-generation German American, but his book makes it clear that he was American to the core. In fact, I’d be willing to wager that if you’d asked him where he was from, he’d answer just as I do now: “Texas.”
And if you ask the 10,000 Oregonians who will become citizens this year where they’re from? I’ll bet they’d say, “Mexico” or “Lebanon.” Their children? They might say, “Dad’s from Mexico, but my mom is American.” And if their children’s children call this state home? I hope they’ll reply without thinking: “Oregon.” And that will be enough said.