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Learning what it Means to be an Immigrant


Learning what it Means to be an Immigrant

Most students come up with some kind of ethnic heritage in their poems, such as “I am from Franco-Americans” (French Canadians). Or “I am from an Italian-American father and an Irish-American mother.” After reading White Bread, I plan to try digging a little deeper next semester into what these ethnic identities really mean to them.

I’m writing from Riga, Latvia, where I’m on a two-week trip with my brother, Charles, and other family members, learning about the city and country where out paternal grandfather, Ingo Maddaus Sr. (1879-1958) was born. Thanks to Charles, who has done extensive family history research in Latvia in seven previous trips here, I now know a lot more about my father’s family history than I did when I interviewed my father, Ingo Maddaus Jr. (1909-2005) for a family history I wrote in 1995.

Ingo Sr. emigrated from Latvia to New York City (specifically to the borough of Brooklyn) with his parents and five siblings in 1884. My great-grandparents, Oscar Maddaus (1844-1896) and Augusta (Ratminders) Maddaus (1850-1937) were ethnic German and ethnic Latvian, respectively. My father grew up in an extended family that included Augusta and five aunts and uncles. Augusta was bilingual in Latvian and German, and read German-language newspapers right up to the time of her death. Despite living in the United States for over 50 years, she never became fluent in English. Ingo Sr. was bilingual in German and English. Ingo Jr., on the other hand, spoke only English, and couldn’t communicate well with his own grandmother. In two generations, my family lost two languages, first Latvian, then German, and we became monolingual Americans, speaking only English.

In White Bread, Christine reports that her mid-western German-American ancestors dropped the use of German language, culture, and religious identity abruptly during and immediately after World War I, as a response to anti-German feeling during that war, when Germany was on the opposing side. The adults sought to shield themselves and their children from the hostility that might arise from being identified as German-American. In my…

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