Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 9, 2009

Being a Hyphenated North American


This article was first published in Emag, the inflight magazine of Eastern Airways, one of the UK’s principal regional airlines. To download a PDF copy of this inflight magazine, click here.

Boise, Idaho… a “liberal” and stunning city in a very right-wing Republican state (the US is a nation divided). And yet…

And yet Boise and region are the best example I’ve seen where it’s “cool” now to be a hyphenated American… whereas previously it just wasn’t the done thing. The US of A has always been The Great Melting Pot… hand on heart, swearing allegiance to the Stars and Stripes… America the Beautiful… send me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free… and we will assimilate them into one Republic… which, by the way, was born out of revolution.

But let’s put the past in the past.

On the other hand, Canada historically has been The Vertical Mosaic, in which almost every Canadian is hyphenated: starting with English-Canadian, French-Canadian, Italian-Canadian etcetera. However, unlike in the U.S. where indigenous people are Native-Americans, in Canada they are the only non-hyphenated group, preferring to be called First Nations Peoples.

We fly the flag but we don’t venerate it. Some of us know all of the words to the national anthem… sometimes. Most of us have difficulty spelling the name of our first prime minister. Sir John A Macdonald? McDonald? MacDonald?

“Washington” is so much easier.

The Basques of Idaho, however, show a new resurgence in the whole roots thing, the anti-melting pot. Hispanics are now the second largest “ethnic” group in the US… African-Americans (the first to affirm their heritage and hyphenate themselves) are in third place.

It is, after all, a global village and the “decline of the American empire” — according to some — is well underway. Sic transit gloria graeca, romana, austrohungaria, britannica, americana?

The Basques of Boise, however, have a saying: “What the grandparent chose to forget, the grandchild embraces.”

This third-generation resurgence exemplified by the Basque-Americans, however, is also the case in Canada. I recently came back from Alberta and Manitoba… doing the Métis thing. The Métis (now officially a third aboriginal nation in Canada) are also embracing the past: no longer ashamed to be a “mixed breed”.

And… there is no-one more Irish than an Irish-American — especially in New York on St Patrick’s Day. Remember Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald in The Bells of St. Mary’s? Even if that ancestor fled some misery or another a long time ago.

The history of North America is one of new arrivals … and each new arrival gets picked on until he or she is replaced by another new arrival. Those stereotypes of Irish immigrants to North America were a joke, but not a joke. Then suddenly every president (or so it seemed) was finding his Irish roots.

Anyone for a hyphen?

For more information on Boise, visit the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau.


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