Nearly every American has an immigrant experience in his or her near or distant past. As such, we're all bound up in a loose, new-world commonality: We all have roots in other places. How American culture ultimately grew out of myriad incoming traditions is a subject of never-ending conjecture.
Mark Harelik's The Immigrant, now in a musical production by the Denver Center Theatre Company, tells one such story of migration -- that of Harelik's Russian-Jewish forebear, Haskell, who was a traveling peddler in the decidedly un-Jewish expanses of Texas. But even as Haskell's particular journey awakens our curiosity about the immigrant experience, we wonder how Harelik's singular perspective can possibly meld issues faced by Mexican or Vietnamese or Pakistani immigrants in America, or even those faced by the Jews who settled in the more familiar confines of New York's Lower East Side.
These questions and more will be addressed this week at A Journey in Common: The Immigrant, the Theater and the Community, a two-day public symposium taking place February 10 and 11 in conjunction with the play. The gathering, which features Harelik and director Randal Myler along with two panels of scholarly voices, promises to be a lively, non-academic discussion mixing current issues with personal ideas and experiences. The amalgam of minds represented includes experts on Jewish and Mexican immigrant experiences, who will explore parallel obstacles met by both groups: intolerance, poverty, lack of education and the like.
But there's a also a deeply personal angle that can't be brushed off. "There is no 'the' immigrant experience," says historian Jeanne Abrams of DU's Center for Judaic Studies. For instance, all groups migrating to a new land are bound to encounter intolerance, but some choose speedy assimilation as a cure, while others seek out the familiar -- transplanted communities of people who speak the same language and observe similar customs. Every family history plays out a little bit differently.
Abrams, who will be on Sunday's panel, notes that The Immigrant's Haskell is typical in that he chose to become a peddler in the United States, a common occupation for Jewish-American refugees here. But he's also an anomaly when he lands in Galveston, Texas, where necessity demands some degree of assimilation with the non-Jewish community around him. In a kind of cultural tradeoff, says Abrams, he learns to blend in.
"Some of it depends on the resources you bring with you," says CU-Boulder history professor Patricia Limerick, who moderates Monday's symposium panel. "Transferable higher-education degrees, cash, connections -- all these things can make an enormous difference in the kinds of opportunities found." But you ask Limerick, immigrants bring resources of another kind, and American immigration issues are now more relevant than ever.
"Here's a nation formed by immigration, which should make it one of the great Monterey language schools of the world," she states. "What happened?" In a country built on a foundation of dozens of world cultures, she observes, "no one speaks Pashtun, no one speaks Arabic. We have this great intellectual resource, yet out of some kind of anxiety about wanting to blend in, nobody wants to remain different. Somehow, we've squished that resource."
But Limerick is hopeful. Renewed trans-cultural awareness could be growing in an America injured by terrorism and beset by a whole new body of playing rules. "A shift in perspective is waiting to happen," she says. "What we perceive as a burden is actually a treasure."