52. The Melting Pot

Every ten years, we have a fight about the census. Who and what should be counted, and how should it be done? For most of us, it is of passing interest: clearly important in theory, but not so much on a personal level.

Yet the census can provide us with all sorts of very granular personal information. I was able to look up my mother by name, Margaret Y. Casella, and there she popped up, age 4 and a half, with her siblings in the 1920 census. At that time, she lived on Peoria Street in Chicago. Her block was 95% of Italian descent, with one person who was Irish and one who was Polish and one who was “mixed” Italian-Irish.

Shortly thereafter, her family moved to Mozart Street in Logan Square, a block that she always described as a melting pot of ethnicities and faiths, albeit entirely white. Sadly, the 1930 census report is too faint to read, but there she is in the one from 1940, recorded as a 25-year-old nurse. And sure enough, the block is indeed a melting pot of white ethnicities, with nearly everyone originally from Illinois or surrounding midwestern states.

We were in Chicago a few weeks ago to visit our daughter Lizy, and took the opportunity to seek out the old house on Mozart Street. It’s a lovely house, although by today’s standards, a little hard to imagine accommodating a family of thirteen. The owner, alarmed by our picture-taking out front, came out to investigate. When we said what we were there for, he invited us in; it gave me a jolt to see the stairs that my mother ran up and down, and the kitchen where my grandmother cooked her legendary holiday feasts where all were welcome. The current owner told us he had bought the house 30 years ago from a Mexican-American family; he himself was of Irish descent.

So this is the melting pot story that we cherish in America, at least for some. People come to this country, and for reasons of money or class or language or culture choose, or are forced, to live together. Through hard work and education and lucky breaks, they are able to “move up,” so that in a generation or two, their life circumstances are indistinguishable from the other Americans around them, except perhaps retaining a charming custom or delicious cuisine for the rest of us to enjoy. How have we forgotten this as we block those seeking to replicate this story?

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