After the Crossing Transcript

Sep 6, 2019

Back to the After the Crossing episode.

Elise Guyette (during walking tour): So, the first really large group of migrants who came after the Yankees were the Irish. And of course they came because they were trying to survive by leaving the famine.

Elise Guyette and Gail Rosenberg lead “Edible History Tours” in Burlington. People sign up to walk a mile and a half around the city, sample food at five restaurants, and learn a little bit about local history. The group has gathered around Elise behind Union Station, where train travelers once arrived.

Elise (during tour): And to Vermont for some reason, there were more women who came. And when these women got here, a lot of them went up and they became servants for people up on the hill. “Up on the hill” means you had made it, you had a lot of money and you moved up to the hill.

Gail Rosenberg: We think that stories are remembered more, one, when they’re stories and not just a listing of dates and what were considered the traditional heroes. And the other is the food.

Elise: Foods really carry memories, and I think we all know that. When you smell something familiar, it can carry you back to your childhood or where you grew up. So food, and their smells and the traditions around preparing them really carries a lot of culture with it.

The tours begin with a snack of quinoa salad, which leads to a discussion about the area’s original inhabitants, the Abenaki. Many tourists may have not heard about Vermont’s Native American community. Or understand that people other than Yankees have lived in the Queen City.

Elise: It really surprises people, all of the different groups that we have here from all different continents that came here and built this city.

Gail: Lebanese, Jewish, Irish, French Canadian, African Americans…

Elise: Chinese, Italians…

Elise is the author of Discovering Black Vermont: African American Farmers in Hinesburg, 1790 to 1890. Even before Vermont became a state, African Americans lived here, sometimes with Abenaki families.

Dutch settlers were present in those early days, as well as French farmers who came down from Quebec. In fact, the first French newspaper in the US was published in Burlington in the 1830s. A larger wave of Quebecois immigrants came to Chittenden County after the Civil War, to work in the woolen mills.

Elise (During tour): They were called the Chinese of the East. Because it mirrored the huge migration of Chinese to the West Coast. And it was not said kindly. They weren’t terribly nice to migrants, and not necessarily now, either. But a lot of the French Canadians lived down here on the waterfront.

The tour group crosses Battery Street.

Elise (During tour): We call where we are right now the Semitic block. Nobody else does, this is just what we’ve decided to call it…There was a fruit warehouse, fruit and vegetable warehouse owned by a Jewish man from Lithuania. Down at the other end, there was a restaurant owned by a Syrian man from Damascus. And down at the corner was the fruit company owned by the Fayettes who came from Beirut. So there were Christians, Muslim, Arab, all down here working together as friends and colleagues.

The plaque on the Statue of Liberty promises freedom for the tired and the poor. But there’s also a practical reason why our country—and our state—should accept newcomers.

Elise: Research has shown that people who migrate, they’re generally pushed out of somewhere. And there’s some kind of a pull to someplace else. The people who do actually move are the ones who are the most courageous, the most enterprising. They’re the kind of people that you want in your society because they’re going to keep it complex and vibrant.

This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society and Vermont Humanities. I’m your host, Lovejoy. Every episode, we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.

Today we’ll hear stories about people who came to Vermont as immigrants, from the 19th century through 2019. And we’ll examine the tension between Vermont’s public image, and its approach to immigration.

But first we’ll visit the basement of the Vermont Historical Society with Executive Director Steve Perkins and Public Program Manager Amanda Gustin.

Steve Perkins: We’re looking at a large steamer trunk, I think would be the best description of this. It’s a green kind of cardboard and wood construction with metal banding on it. As we open this up, I don’t know if you can hear it opening, but we can smell the scent mothballs coming out of it.

The yellow writing on top of the chest says: M. Fukuda, “Seven out of seven.” David Minoru Fukuda was born to Japanese parents in San Francisco in 1921. He spent the first 13 years of his life in the United States, and then in 1934 he moved with his family back to Japan, where he went to medical school.

Steve: He was indeed in Japan during World War II. And what has been written was that he experienced the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, and as a third-year medical student helped treat the victims of that bombing.

Amanda Gustin: So, I think it’s kind of interesting that he’s born in America, he goes and he spends his young adulthood and much of his schooling in Japan, and then he experiences the bombing at Nagasaki, which is done by Americans, and then he still chooses to come back to the United States for his residency.

Steve: There was a program in the 1950s that encouraged folks from other countries to participate in a residency program at the University College of Medicine, and he was an anesthesiological resident there, and ended up staying in Vermont, and serving as a doctor here for the rest of his career.

Dr. Fukuda worked at the Barre City Hospital, and then the Central Vermont Medical Center, for the rest of his career – thirty years practicing medicine in Vermont.

It’s easy to believe that Burlington, as our largest city, is unique when it comes to immigration. And most refugees to our state are indeed settled in Chittenden County. But other Vermont cities have a similar history of immigrants coming from all over the globe to join their communities. Like Rutland, Brattleboro, and Barre.

Steve: I think even in the 1950s, if you wanted to talk about the most culturally diverse areas of Vermont, Barre was right near the top. Barre was a very vibrant immigrant-driven city.

Still, few people of Japanese descent lived in Vermont at that time. So Dr. Fukuda and his wife, Michiko Nakamura, were often asked to host visiting Japanese dignitaries by the state of Vermont, or by large corporations like National Life.

Amanda: We have a lot of objects in the Vermont Historical Society that represent the experiences of immigrants and of people of different cultures who lived here in Vermont, who built their lives here in Vermont. But often when we talk, and we think about immigrant experiences, we think about the choice to make the journey in the first place. So, I kind of love that we have this trunk to represent that moment. There’s a before and after, but there’s always that decision to move.

“Guadalupe” [in Spanish]: When you call your family in Mexico, they think you’re in paradise because you’re in America. They say, “Wow, you’ve really made it and you’ve got so much money,” but in reality, it’s really hard here and it’s nothing like you imagined it would be back in Mexico. Everyone wants to come here, with all of these opportunities, but you struggle. You struggle a lot.

This young woman from Mexico has asked to be called “Guadalupe.” In the opening pages of her comic book, we see her riding in a car after crossing the border to the United States. The driver says: “It’s too dangerous to stop. You’ll have to urinate in a bottle.”

In another panel of the book about her life, Guadalupe says:

Guadalupe: People believe that crossing the border is the hardest part of the trip, but the worst part is finding a way to survive after you arrive.

[sound of cows]

When many people hear, “Vermont,” they picture cows. Like the black and white Holsteins on Ben and Jerry’s ice cream cartons. But much of the work on Vermont dairy farms is now done by people from Latin America. Over a thousand migrant laborers from Mexico and other countries milk cows, fix tractors, shovel manure, and take care of calves in our state.

Julia: So we’re a free health clinic for people who do not have health insurance and people who are underinsured, who meet financial eligibility guidelines.

Julia Doucet is an outreach nurse at the Open Door Clinic in Middlebury. About half of the clinic’s patients are agricultural immigrant workers. Recent changes to immigration policy have meant that undocumented workers are choosing to stay longer in Vermont, since crossing the border is so difficult.

Julia: So people don’t have the freedom to see their families every few years like they could before. And so with that long separation from their language and their culture and their family, you see increased depression, anxiety. There’s a lot of stress.

Many of the workers don’t have driver’s licenses, and they stay close to the farms out of fear of being deported. The problems caused by this isolation led Julia to imagine a series of stories about the lives of these workers. The project became called “El Viaje Mas Caro” in Spanish: “The Most Costly Journey.”

Julia: And so really what it was was a way for someone to share a story that we could share with other workers and say, “Look, you’re not the only one who is sitting at home drinking alone because you have no social outlet and you miss your family. You’re not the only one who struggles to speak to your boss because he speaks English, you speak Spanish.”

Marek Bennett: We were always really clear, the primary goal is to serve that community, and to make sure there’s a real value in seeing your story told, or held up and shared, or seeing somebody else’s story, and being able to say, “Oh yeah, I’ve had that experience.” Well, it’s made into a book.

Marek Bennett is a cartoonist from New Hampshire. He has written comic books based on Civil War diaries. He also runs workshops about ways to tell stories through comics.

Julia: I have never appreciated comics and I have never really read them.

But comic books turned out to be an excellent way for the clinic to help farm workers share their stories with each other. Comics are common in Latin America and can be enjoyed by people of all ages and literacy levels.

Julia: Even if you can’t read, you can really follow the story. And some of the pictures are so poignant that you really don’t need words to understand what’s going on.

Comics also seemed to help readers consider controversial issues.

Marek: I think comics are really good at, in a non-confrontational way, showing you somebody else’s little piece, in a way that you’re reading from panel to panel, and you’re interested in what happens next, and you’re involved. You’re turning the page to see what happens next, and it’s a chance to present another, or even multiple viewpoints, of a complex issue.

To make the comics, Julia, other clinic staff and volunteers, and faculty and staff from the UVM Department of Anthropology and UVM Extension’s Bridges to Health Program collected stories from migrant workers. The Vermont Folklife Center helped connect cartoonists to the workers’ stories to create the books. The Folklife Center, along with its partners, has now released 20 books of stories, in both English and Spanish.

Julia: So that was our original goal, was literally to mitigate isolation and loneliness in that population. I found that the storytellers themselves seemed to actually get the best effect from this project.

Guadalupe first settled in North Carolina but moved to Vermont to be with the father of her child. Her partner became abusive, and she eventually left the home they shared. A panel in her book shows her sleeping with her toddler in a truck beside a wintry Lake Champlain.

 Guadalupe [in Spanish]: It was good for me too, because it was a way of getting it off my chest. It was something I carried with me for so many years, and I never talked to anyone about it, so it was good for me to get out all these details, so many details, and then it really felt like a weight was lifted off of me.

Julia: Where it’s had the biggest impact, which was not something I had even considered, is really in the English-speaking community. And the people who weren’t aware of these workers or had read about them in the news but hadn’t really understood what their experiences were.

Marek Bennet helped create several of the “El Viaje” comic books, including one about a mechanic who asked to be called, “El Migrante.” The migrant.

 Marek: He’s not here because he wants to fix tractors in Vermont. He’s here because this is the only way his kids can go to school, and he’s putting his kids through college. And the choice he has to make is, he’s out of their lives. Not entirely – they communicate by phone – but he’s not there in Mexico with them.

Some of the workers have shared their comic books with their families back home.

Guadalupe [in Spanish]: So when my story came out, I mailed it home to my mom, and she read it, and without saying anything she knew that it was about me. They were sad to hear about the situation, but they also understood and supported me. My mom said to me, “I’m so glad you’re not with that person who hurt you.”

Today Guadalupe is married to a man who is a good father, and they live in a home in Vermont with their two children. They plan to return to Mexico someday, but are glad that their children are learning English and going to school.

Marek: I say, “I do local history.” “Oh, what are you working on?” “Well here’s a story about a guy who came up from Honduras, and how they came to be here in New England.” “Really? I didn’t think that was a New England story,” but yeah it is. Did you just put milk in your coffee? Well, you touch upon this story.

Debates about who belongs here, who the “right” kind of people are, and whether Vermont even needs more people— these are conversations that have been happening almost since the state was founded.

Paul Searls: Alonzo Valentine had this idea that French Canadians were dissipated, and that the local Yankees had all married their cousins and that the rural landscape—human landscape—was a mess and was full of dissipated people. And that somehow Swedes were better than those people and would distinguish themselves as superior to the locals. But what actually happened was that the Swedes that Valentine recruited, and then which people largely forgot about, they became just like the people who were surrounding them.

This is Northern Vermont University professor Paul Searls. His new book is Repeopling Vermont: The Paradox of Development in the Twentieth Century. He’s discussing Alonzo Valentine, who was directed by the state in 1889 to look into the problem of declining population in Vermont’s rural areas.

Paul: I began to wonder if maybe Valentine was actually the biggest genius you ever imagined. As if he had been sitting around with a bunch of his friends in early 1889 and been like, “What we need is a gimmick. We need something sort of ridiculous, that will let people around the country know that Vermont farms can be purchased relatively cheaply. And what are we going to come up with? How about recruiting Swedes? Wouldn’t that be a good idea?”

The debate about the wisdom of this idea raged across the state.

Paul: People who on the one hand said that this was a wonderful idea and would surely prove the salvation of rural Vermont. And on the other hand people in the state who absolutely could not understand on any level, why recruiting Swedes and giving them farms made any sense at all. A constant refrain was if we have so many abandoned farms, I know plenty of young kids in Vermont who would like to have them for themselves.

Paul: The strange thing is that, as much as Valentine was talking about Vermont being full of abandoned farms, the 1880 census is the one that shows the largest numbers of farms at any time in Vermont’s history. And so, this program didn’t make any sense to people on a number of levels.

Paul: And I think the most important level on which it didn’t make sense to people in rural Vermont, is the idea that somehow Swedes would become better Vermonters than, say, French Canadians or Irish people.

The plan to bring people to Vermont from Sweden is not as random as it seems.

Paul: And the idea was, of course you could engineer the human landscape by pushing out the French Canadians and bringing in Swedes, because don’t you know, Swedes are tall and have straight teeth and blonde hair and most of all, they’re Protestants. So therefore, they will surely become better Vermonters more quickly than French Canadians ever could.

Valentine did get money from the state for his plan. And around fifty people from Sweden came to Vermont in the spring of 1890. They settled in three towns: Wilmington, Vershire, and Landgrove. Results were mixed.

Paul: Some newspapers were saying the Swedes were very happy and very contented and charmed by the possibilities for acquiring farms and were very glad to have emigrated. Other reports said that the Swedes were very unhappy and that they were leaving and that they were miserable and in a state of poverty.

The group in Vershire left almost immediately, but the communities in Wilmington and Landgrove stayed – without any further support from Valentine. In the fall of 1890, Valentine applied to the legislature to renew his position so he could continue his work. His appeal was denied.

Paul: And so what you begin to see is that the Swedes began to intermarry. They began to build personal relationships. They began to become very much quite immersed in the local community.

The experiment with recruiting people from Sweden to come to Vermont may have remained a strange footnote. Except that Valentine’s efforts to promote Vermont foreshadowed how the state would market itself in the 20th century.

Paul: And what happened over time was that, what many people in Vermont in the 1880s saw as Vermont’s greatest weakness—its rural landscape, its small towns, its tight communities of people who didn’t like change—came to be Vermont’s greatest asset. Because there was a taste for those things in other parts of the country.

Paul: Vermont’s greatest attraction was that it was unlike the places where people were coming from. It stood in contrast to those places, and so therefore Vermont needed to be carefully cultivated over time to continue to look like what outsiders expected it to look like. And that particularly means that Vermont’s communities needed to remain on a small scale.

This need to market Vermont as a tourist destination has impacted how Vermonters have seen immigration.

Paul: By the time you get into the 20th century, Vermonters wanted to attract people to the state, but they didn’t want the state’s communities to dramatically grow or look different. They wanted people certainly who grew up in small towns to remain in those small towns. And they wanted people from outside to move to those towns and invigorate them and help grow the local economy. And they wanted them to remain the same size, which is a trick.

This is the paradox that Paul writes about in his book.

Paul: And so Vermont has, to this day, a strange relationship with immigration. In that, it is fundamentally important that we attract people to this state, and so that those people can help grow the state and improve the state and make it more prosperous. But Vermonters also, to an extent, don’t want the state to change at all. They like it the way it is and they’ve put an enormous number of safeguards in place to prevent Vermont from changing too dramatically.

The Burlington Edible History tour can deflate some stereotypes that people hold about Vermont. Such as it being heaven for beer lovers; many are surprised to learn that we didn’t have a legal brewery in the state for about 100 years. And that food in Vermont can be something other than Yankee fare, like pot roast and baked beans.

Elise: Sometimes when people use the word ethnic, they think that Yankees is like this big normal group and they’re white, they’re Yankees. They’re Anglo-Saxons, they’re Protestants. And then they think of the word “ethnic” incorrectly as something different from, something exotic, “people of color.” And that’s something else that we try to get across through this tour. There is a Yankee ethnicity, everybody has ethnicity and they’re all equal in many ways. They’re just different cultural traditions.

The tour stops at a new restaurant on Main Street—Poco—to sample a cream cheese dish. The restaurant started as a food cart. Here’s Gail.

Gail: Some trends that people know about—food carts, farm to table—seem new and they were a way of life of the migrants. And we have found food carts and trucks back in the late 1890s. They were on Main Street. They were by City Hall.

Elise: We find people with little push carts and then they graduate to a horse and a wagon, then they graduate to cars, and then they graduate to a grocery store and it’s still happening today. It happened with the number of people that we researched in the 19th century. Today Skinny Pancake started that way. We have Hong’s dumplings now on Pearl Street, she started out on Church Street.

Similarly, the Burlington Jewish community had its origins in a group of traveling peddlers.

Jeff Potash: We know in this area in the 1880’s that there were peddlers that were plying the lake on either side. The Jewish peddlers would try and assemble on Friday nights. Being Orthodox from the old country it was tradition to come together for the celebration of Sabbath on Friday nights and they needed at least ten males in order to actually conduct the service.

Jeff Potash is a historian who is fascinated with how a community of Jewish immigrants maintained itself as a culturally distinct part of Burlington for almost four generations.

Jeff: A French-Canadian coffin maker, of all things, on North Winooski Avenue let them use his shop on Friday nights. And so it’s no accident that the origins of the Burlington Little Jerusalem community situated itself in that little immigrant spot around North Winooski and Archibald street.

Jewish families soon followed. The new arrivals to Burlington were part of a huge migration of Eastern European Jews to this country. Many of these new Vermonters came from Lithuania, and they founded a synagogue in 1885. By 1900, there were nearly a thousand Eastern European Jews living what was called “Little Jerusalem” in Burlington.

Jeff: One of the key dimensions of a European shtetl, of a village, was that it produced the essential goods and services to maintain an Orthodox Jewish community and that essentially meant it had to have a Kosher butcher, they needed to slaughter animals in the Kosher style, they needed to have Kosher butchers, bakers, grocers.

Jeff: And subsequently the idea of community and the idea of reconstructing or recreating a village was at the foundation of what they were imagining when they came to Burlington.

Along with Aaron Goldberg, Jeff gathered oral histories with people from the area’s Jewish community, and researched how other Vermonters reacted to the new arrivals.

Jeff: What’s fascinating to me is that Vermonters have a very definite notion of what Jews are even though they rarely see one. For instance, I was looking at advertisements in the 1880’s, “We don’t carry Jew goods. We don’t practice Jew tricks.” So they knew in their minds that there was something about Jews that was different, that was attached to traditional prejudices.

Though the newcomers faced prejudice and exclusion, they were mostly accepted by their new neighbors.

Jeff: Within Burlington when the Jews come in in the 1880’s and 90’s they’re an oddity. They don’t seem to suffer any persecution, quite the opposite, they seem to be tolerated, and by 1900 the Free Press is writing about this Jewish colony in Burlington, describing just how industrious they are.

Over generations, the Jewish community in Burlington followed what became a time-honored path for immigrants: becoming Americans. Like Guadalupe’s children learning English in 2019.

Jeff: There are pivotal moments in time: the first Jewish lawyer in Vermont, the first Jewish doctor. These underscore that people who are very much invested in social mobility and uplifting themselves to make substantial use of educational opportunities.

Little Jerusalem truly moved from being an insular and culturally distinct community with the Second World War and the arrival in 1947 of a new Rabbi named Max Wall.

Jeff: His initial sense is he didn’t want to be here, but given that, he is planting the flag of what was then modern Judaism, conservative Judaism.  He comes in ’47 and ultimately with extraordinary success by ’52 builds a massive new synagogue on the hill on a piece of property that originally restricted Jews, and reaches out in a dramatic way to colleagues across the religious spectrum, becomes best friends with Bishop Joyce and the Episcopal Bishop and just really launches a sense of inner faith interaction on a scale really which is transformative. It’s a different era.

Rabbi Wall reached out to the greater community, and Jews opened businesses that were then patronized by all Burlington residents. The Burlington Jews may have gradually become Americans, but they still remembered their origins, their history. Their shtetl in the Queen City.

Jeff: The people with whom we interviewed were astoundingly positive about the uniqueness of their experience. And they loved to talk about the distinctiveness of that community and the degree to which they were largely isolated and insulated really up through the Second World War.

Jeff: And that, I think, is what continues to inspire me. It’s a curious question in my mind, how and why did that happen in, of all places, Burlington, Vermont?

Before Your Time is presented by Vermont Humanities and the Vermont Historical Society. This episode was produced by Ryan Newswanger and Amanda Gustin.

Thanks to our guests: Elise Guyette, Gail Rosenberg, Steve Perkins, “Guadalupe,” Julia Doucet, Marek Bennett, Paul Searls and Jeff Potash. Gina Robinson translated Guadalupe’s statements. And thanks to the Open Door Clinic and the Vermont Folklife Center for sharing with us the stories from the Most Costly Journey comic book series.

Before Your Time comes out every month. Search for it and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you like what you hear, tell a friend to check it out. You can find photos, comic books, and links related to this month’s episode on our website, before your time dot org. Thanks for listening!