Syndicated from the Reform Party of Chicago
I am an American – Bill Wojtas
In the earliest years of the twentieth century, all four of my grandparents emigrated here from Eastern Europe to escape the ravages of war, poverty and hunger. To be honest, I can’t even say that they came from Poland, because in 1903, Poland as we know it didn’t exist. My Father’s parents came from what was known as Galicia, which was controlled by the Austrian Empire and their entry documents indicate that they are Austrian. My Mother’s side, from the Warsaw area was occupied by German Prussia. In essence, my ancestors were so oppressed; they no longer had an identity or a country.
They spoke Polish and came from cities, which at one time were part of the Kingdom of Poland, but by 1900, war was the dominating factor in Europe and the land of my Father’s Father was no more. They had to leave and come to the one place where they could escape death, America.
I have no idea how my Mother’s parents got here, that secret died with my grandparents on her side. He father died when she was a child and her mother died when I was a child. I didn’t have the luxury of gaining this lost information from them and my mother, who passed as well, did so without giving to me that story. My Father’s parents, who were older, came to America in their 20’s. My grandfather, like many men, hopped a freighter to escape conscription into the Austrian army. He came in to the USA undocumented at Ellis Island and settled in Chicago. My Grandmother, with two children in tow, arrived at Ellis Island in 1903 aboard the Kaiser Wilhelm II with fifty dollars in her pocket.
As with most foreign immigrants, your official name became whatever the agent at the island heard and my Grandmothers Maiden name was forever changed from Surma to Sulma. Why she used her maiden name, I’m not sure, but she did. She was soon on her way to Chicago to re-unite with her husband and start their American Journey.
So, both my parents were born here in the 1920’s and 30’s. Yes, I come from an old family, so my world views as a 44 year old in the 21st century are heavily influenced by 19th century standards (my fathers’ parents were born in the 1880s).
My Parents spoke Polish, but the stigma of being Polish in America during the Post WWII era was unpleasant. Being a Stupid Pollack or “DP” was a common issue for those that still had a problem with the English language or had an accent. Most of the 1st generation wanted to distance themselves as far from their Polish heritage as possible to better fit in to Anglo-American society. It was so bad that my oldest uncle, born in 1900 in the “old country” and who had a polish accent was segregated from the rest of the family, until his death in the 1980s. Not sure what the story was and why, but it was a fact, and the story was that he felt he was different, because he was the one “Polish” Brother in the family.
The fact is, my parents immersed themselves in the Anglo-American culture and in essence became what society deems to be “American”. This they passed on to me. I was a typical American kid growing up in the 70s. Until my dad passed. The whole situation was strategically hidden from me and I’m not certain why. I was 6 years old, and I can assume that was the reason, but I suppose I will never know. Perhaps that was how they dealt with the issue of loss and childhood at the time. In any case, my mom had re-married a man from South America, Colombia to be exact.
To make things difficult, he had the appearance of a light skinned African American and my mom was a pure blonde Polish Barbie doll. So growing up in Chicago during the 1970s was interesting. From what I understand, both my Mother’s family and my father’s family were not too pleased and it had a negative impact on relations between my mother and the family. My aunt (dad’s sister) did a good job shielding it from me and one of my mom’s half-brothers stayed close to us, so it wasn’t all bad.
The good thing was that even though my step-dad embraced all things American, he still hung on to his culture and exposed me to it. We soon moved to Southern Arizona in the early 80’s where I was one of about 5 “white” kids in my high school class. But I wasn’t a cowboy, so I didn’t fit in with that crowd. I found myself immersed in the rich and beautiful Mexican culture with my “adopted” brother and his family (they pretty much adopted me!).
I grew up with a worldview of diversity and learned early on that racism is not something which will move this country forward and has no place in our society. Growing up seeing the effects of an “interracial” marriage and being a part of the Hispanic culture gave me insight which shaped my decision making processes as an adult.
One of the biggest eye openers was my time in the military, where I saw racism at its finest. Segregation was the norm and tension was high. I didn’t fit in with the whites, who were mostly all rednecks, and I can’t say that I fit in with the other groups because of obvious reasons. I ended up being a loner, with a small group of guys in a similar situation, who for the most part, became life-long friends. I wasn’t about to compromise my beliefs to fit in with any group. I found my home and immersed myself in the Japanese culture, where I lived for several years. I associated with other guys who did the same things to become what the guys in the military called “Okinawa Long-Timers”. Once again, broadening my worldview and my ideals of diversity.
Why am I telling you all this? Because it gives you an idea of what shapes my opinions. I grew up touched by diversity, I did not grow up in an Anglo-American vacuum. I am an American, a wholesome single chunk of pure Polish ham dipped into a melting pot of diverse flavors.
I am an American, I was born in Chicago. Poland is a far off place, that I have yet to visit. I don’t speak their language, I don’t know their culture and I love their food….but I also like Chinese food and Mexican food. I have nothing to do with Poland, their politics or their way of life. I am not Polish despite what genealogical records may dictate. Yes, I have an obscure and totally unpronounceable surname and I am often asked what it is. My answer is, “American”. “No, no, but where is it from?” “Chicago”, I say with a smile and receive a disapproving look. “A typical good Chicago style Polish name” I give in return, “but I am an American”.
I was born here, I served my nation in the military and as a civilian. I love my country and will serve again in a heartbeat if ever asked. My blood is red with swirls of white and blue, and for my Marine Brothers, flecks of gold. I identify as an American, not a Polish American, not a white American and I am absolutely not an Anglo American. My ancestors were busy being poor and oppressed in Eastern Europe during the time this country was forged, when colonists fought the Native Americans and when slavery existed. My family is not responsible for those things and My people didn’t escape their own bonds of tyranny until the 1980s, “Solidarność”!
So who are we? We, meaning the people who live within the jurisdiction of the Constitution of the United States, are Americans. If you are born here, if you were naturalized, if you live here illegally, but truly have the ideals of this great nation in your heart, you are Americans. (Immigration reform is not a topic here, so stop thinking it! Different paper.) It doesn’t matter where your grandparents were born or where your parents came from. It doesn’t matter if you are black, brown, red, yellow, white or green. If you hold these truths to be self-evident that ALL people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, you are an American. If you have picked up arms to defend those rights or are willing to do so against those enemies foreign or domestic, you are an American.
We are not Catholics, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or atheists. We are not Democrat or Republican, Federalist, Libertarian, Reformist, Independent, Green, socialist, communist or anarchist, we are Americans first and foremost. In the words of an early American, John Dickinson, “Then join hand in hand, brave Americans all! By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall!”. “Let us trust God, and our better judgment to set us right hereafter. United we stand, divided we fall. Let us not split into factions which must destroy that union upon which our existence hangs. (Patrick Henry)” These words ring so true today.
We are so hell bent on defining ourselves as something other than just plain Americans. We try to taxonomize ourselves into the smallest possible taxonomy. I am a white male Catholic Polish Reformist American, really? So me and my 100,000 other WMCPRA buddies can all hangout and feel cool….not. As long as we try to make ourselves different from others in this nation, we will never succeed and move forward as a whole nation. We will continue to bicker with each other on what is best for the few rather than the many. We have taken our quest to be a nation of individuals to the extreme and it may eventually destroy us. Being an individual is important and has led to many beautiful and creative inventions and inspirations as a nation, but sometimes we need to think about a society and what works best for the mass rather than to make the few or a single person content.
You know where this is going, right? Philosopher Jeremy Bentham, an 18th century theorist in Law wrote, “It is the greatest good to the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong.” These words are the basis of a more famous modern day quote used by Leonard Nimoy, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” We the people, that is the key. We the people, in order to form a more perfect union. We are the people, of the United States. WE, the key word!
Who are we? We are Americans, a single body of people living within the bounds of our nation, governed by the document which was written to preserve the foundations of our new system of belief. That government is by the people and for the people. The people as a whole, the many, the masses who make up our great nation. Not a hodge-podge individuals or a small but vocal special interest groups or any singular race, creed or interest or vocation. The laws of our nation need to govern us as a people, an entire society and the most important thing to realize is the hard truth, that you cannot make everyone happy all of the time.
Is the decision, rule or law for the good of society, to maintain good order and to provide for our nation as a whole? If the answer is yes, is it morally right to question it because it isn’t in the best interests of White Male Catholic Polish Reformist Americans? In my honest opinion, it isn’t. If it is in the best interests of our society as a whole, it is morally right to accept it and adjust ourselves to live within the bounds of the rules which govern us.
That ideal is fine, but what do you do if the nation is equally divided, down the center, fifty versus fifty percent (or close enough)? I don’t have the answer to that, but it is important to consider that this would be a situation where we will need to master the art of compromise and come up with a solution that meets the basic needs of both sides. Compromise is the key. Divided we fall, remember that phrase? Without compromise, our forward momentum stalls and we as a society, a nation as a whole will fall flat. In my honest opinion we are seeing that very thing today.
As I watch the news, world events, and those around me, I realize that our nation has stalled. We are in the process of falling flat on our faces as a nation. The world is passing by what was the greatest power since the Romans dominated Western Civilization. Why?
We are divided. We cannot get along with each other within the confines of our own nation, how do you expect us to influence the world around us in a positive manner? White versus Black, Christian versus Muslim, those of faith versus atheists, Americans versus illegal immigrants, democrats versus republicans, colonials versus Native Americans, the list can go on and on. We are all fighting each other for a little plot of land on the map of a shrinking country. It is all about ME! What conveniences me is most important despite the negative impact it has on those around me. I don’t care about any one else, just me. In addition, it is never my fault, it is always due to the shortcomings of someone or something else that I am less than perfect. It isn’t my responsibility. This is the modern day creed of many in our culture, though we refuse to admit it. We see it everywhere, while driving, standing in line in the store, in our courts, on the news, in our classrooms, offices and even in our churches. Look around and admit it, you see it as well and no one is innocent of allowing even a little of that to influence our lives. I personally have done a happy dance because I made everyone in the busy check-out line stand and wait 10 minutes so that I can save twenty five cents on something just to prove a point to a cashier who can care less. I have personally not let that car merge in to traffic just because I WAS THERE FIRST! I am not afraid to admit my transgressions. It allows me to look deeper at myself and show me that I am not the only person in this country or on this world.
As long as we see ourselves as individuals living purely for our own benefit and not as parts of a greater society which transcends the boundaries of states, tribes, creeds, or whatever label we can create, we will never succeed as a species and eventually end up creating our own demise simply because we just can’t get along with that which is different from ourselves. We are Americans, but even greater we are all human and a part of a shrinking world of finite resources which we will eventually need to learn to share in order to survive as citizens of this world.
The brotherhood of man; that is who we are and that is what we have forgotten.