Museum exhibit teaches about our immigrant past

in Community/Featured/Headline

More than 3,000 people jammed Courthouse Square June 30, a local demonstration of nationwide protests about the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration enforcement policies and the controversial separation of detained parents and their children. It was in some ways an ironic location for the rally because, just steps away, inside the San Mateo County History Museum, the history of immigration in the county – often just as controversial in its own time – is told in comprehensive and informative detail.

The “Land of Opportunity: The Immigrant Experience in San Mateo County” takes up an entire gallery on the second floor of the downtown Redwood City museum, housed in the courthouse built in 1910.

Museum officials saw no uptick in attendance on the day the protest. This lack of interest was surprising. After all, the exhibit reminds us that we are all descendants of immigrants and that, in a day of so-called identity politics, we have more in common with each other than we realize.

The gallery features segments that spotlight just about every ethnic group that helped write the history of San Mateo County: the Irish, Italians, Japanese, Portuguese, Mexicans, and Filipinos. There is more to come, according to Carmen Blair, the Deputy Director of the San Mateo County Historical Association. The gallery is undergoing renovations to show a different type of migration, an internal one.

“We will be adding the story of Americans who have migrated to the county,” she said. Before the Gold Rush, when California was part of Mexico, American settlers who came to the area considered themselves immigrants. Another addition will be the African-American Great Migration of the 20th century.

“The people who came during the Great Migration experienced many of the same challenges as immigrants did,” Blair said. “By adding these stories, we hope to enhance visitors’ understanding of the people who have made San Mateo County their home and the contributions they have made to the culture of the area.”

Sheila Braufman was the curator when “Land of Opportunity” opened in 2006. She said the gallery pays tribute to immigrants by “telling of the challenges, hopes and successes they endured when coming to this new land. Whether they arrived in the 19th century or yesterday, we come face-to-face with their common experience.”

The “common experience” is stressed throughout the gallery. The kiosk of each immigrant group displays clothing, entertainment, traditions and foods, all of which may give different cultural expression to those basic elements of life. Take dress, for an example of the variety of the styles of clothing. There’s an elegant Japanese kimono, a Chinese silk dress, an Irish step dancer’s costume, a Portuguese Minho dress complete with shawl, and an exquisitely embroidered Mexican fiesta dress from Michoacán. Although San Mateo County was relatively welcoming to newcomers, immigrants still faced varying degrees of discrimination. A cartoon from The Wasp, an 1881 magazine, depicts a sailboat jammed with immigrants plowing through rough seas. The caption reads “Uncle Sam’s Boat in Danger.” Uncle Sam is at the helm of the overcrowded and nearly swamped boat in which immigrants from Asia and Europe huddle together. (The abbreviation “WASP” has, since the 1960s, conveyed a meaning that the editors of the turn-of-the century magazine probably couldn’t have anticipated.)

The story of the Japanese-American internment during World War II is well-known, and the gallery notes that painful experience. What might be news to a lot of people is the removal of some Italians, although on a much smaller scale. In the display, Leo Giorgetti recounts his family’s plight during the war.

Giorgetti’s mother was an Italian citizen although she lived in Half Moon Bay since 1918. She had to leave the family home because it was situated west of Highway One, bordering the Pacific, a prohibited zone. She couldn’t travel five miles from her residence and had to obey a strict curfew.

“It was shameful and embarrassing,” Giorgetti said.

What is clearly the common denominator, however, is the work ethic of all groups. The immigrants who began arriving in the mid-19th century provided most of the labor in San Mateo County. Many of those who worked hard at unskilled jobs would one day become owners of thriving businesses in the land of opportunity.

This article first appeared in the September issue of Climate Magazine