Weeds: We excel at getting along

Happy birthday to us. I mean us, as in the United States of America. Tomorrow is the annual celebration of our nation’s birth: maybe some time at the beach, a little bean bag toss, something on the grill, and fireworks at dusk.

242 years old is a ripe old age for a country. There’s some graying on the edges and a few wrinkles. We’ve been battling a recent bout of dysfunctionality. But we’ve gotten through worse.

I am a son, a husband, a father, a Catholic, a farmer. You have your own list. We all share that we are Americans. (Really, the billion people who live in North and South America are all “Americans.” But we like to use it to reference us United States of Americans, and I will do that here.)

I came of age during Vietnam and Watergate. There was plenty of attention paid to our nation’s blemishes. It was easy to get caught in that current. At the same time, I could look around and see good and decent people doing their best every day. I came to see America was a reflection of her citizens: generally good but flawed, well-meaning but imperfect.

As I aged, my appreciation for this country deepened. I have thought about what it means to be patriotic. When our kids were young, we would attend Memorial Day services at the cemeteries in town. I thought it valuable that they see patriotism as shown on the faces of the veterans there.

That was echoed later when we attended our son’s graduation from National Guard Basic Training at Fort Benning, Georgia. The young men in his platoon were from all over the country, a mix of skin colors. They were willing to do whatever the country asked, likely too young to fully comprehend their selflessness. As the soldiers marched on to the field led by the flag, one couldn’t help but be moved.

In sorting out patriotism in my mind, I always come to two things that are at the foundation of this country. First, we’ve been more or less successful at mixing together groups from all over the world. Second, everyone has the opportunity to succeed. Those two things aren’t to be taken for granted. They are what makes America, America.

One needs only read the news to see that people don’t live peacefully in lots of places on Earth. Here, we hold out as an ideal the notion that we can get along with people of other origins, religions, and races, even if we fall short sometimes.

It is a grand ideal that needs constant honing. Wave after wave of people came to these shores. Often they were met with antagonism. My Catholic and German ancestors were scorned by some. (Perhaps if Native American tribes would have adapted a stricter immigration policy, those conflicts could have been avoided.)

People still come, attracted by the things our nation stands for. It might be helpful to remember that few of our ancestors came as “legal” immigrants. They simply came. Often they were the poor and the powerless. It is much the same with current immigrants. “Huddled masses yearning to breathe free” continue to come.

The other essential quality of America is that opportunity is given to all. That is also something we must guard. We know wealth is being concentrated in fewer hands. An upper class is okay, so long as all children be given the chance to achieve. That means good schools and some sort of baseline of care be available to each child. With these, they can go chase the American dream.

My own small-town models the American story. The earliest settlers of the Sleepy Eye were British descendants looking for opportunities on the western frontier. The surrounding farms were settled by German immigrants, many coming to escape ongoing wars in Europe. Within a generation or two, many of the original business owners had moved on. Children of the German farmers moved into town and took over the businesses. When I was young, diversity meant Catholics and Lutherans living in harmony.

In the Eighties, Latino families began arriving in Sleepy Eye. Local family sizes were declining, and there was need for workers at Del Monte and on farms. It was the free market working. The first groups were migrant workers who left after harvest was done, returning to the South for winter work.

That gradually changed. Latinos began to stay and become part of the community. Sleepy Eye was behind towns like Madelia and St. James in this demographic trend. But there is a well-established population here now.

As is always true in these movements, there were tensions. There were a few bad actors among the Latinos, about the same percentage I suppose that is in any group. I wouldn’t have any trouble naming some bad actors among the fair-skinned German descendants.

The new people in town are after the same things most everyone is after: a chance to make a living and raise a family in a safe place. In a dynamic economy, they have taken jobs that needed filling. It’s possible that BIC Graphic, Schwartz Farms, and Christensen Farms would be here without that inflow of Latinos. But they likely would have struggled to find adequate labor.

The number of Latino kids in our schools has grown. My own kids have Latino friends. As happens with every wave, the next generation mixes. Latino children may have grandparents in Texas, but Sleepy Eye is their home. The generation after that won’t even be aware there was a group that came first and a group that came later.

At risk of generalizing, there are things I enjoy about the Latinos in Sleepy Eye. They have big families who like to hang out together. They are outside whenever the weather allows. They like to gather in our parks and celebrate for lots of reasons. They play music and sometimes even have their car windows open. In these ways, they are like people in the World That I Grew Up In.

Our leaders have often echoed the words of John Winthrop, who in 1630 said that our nation had a special destiny, that it was a shining “city upon a hill.”

Ronald Reagan said in his farewell address, “I’ve spoken of the Shining City all my political life. In my mind it is a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

There have always been soulless people who want an America where everyone looks like them; they want to pull up the drawbridge once they are in. That is not Sleepy Eye’s story, and it is not America’s story. Sleepy Eye is a better place because of the Latinos. It is what we celebrate tomorrow.