Beginning in America
Thoughts on the short stories by Anzia Yezierska and Immigrant Women from any culture
“The Native born who saw all immigrants as a threat to the American way of life saw the immigrant woman in particular as backward, ignorant, and degraded.” (p59. Seller) During the peak of immigration I think “Natives” developed these stereotypes out of resentment, fear and desperation. I imagine people that had been living in cities long before there was a large wave of new faces, culture and languages; were afraid to lose their jobs or English speaking neighborhoods that they themselves had worked so hard to form. Stereotyping them as lazy or stupid would deter a potential employer easily; when all actuality, immigrant women were more than willing to work.
In “HUNGER” I was surprised to learn that there was discrimination and resentment among the same populations of people. It made sense to me that a person that was working in a job for a period of time would feel threatened by a new employee coming in and moving up so quickly in any field. But I fantasized in the beginning of some of the readings that the Jewish women and other minority groups like the Irish or Italian; lived in perfect harmony with each other. Shenah is actually oblivious to her co-workers comments as they discuss the fear that she was going to take a lower wage which may change how much money they will make. “Another greenhorn with a wooden head! She whispered to her neighbor as Shenah Pessah removed her shawl. “Gevalt! All the greenhorn hands tear the bread from our mouths by beggin to work so cheap.” (p.6, Yezierska) The character, Shenah was very humble, polite, and grateful to have a job and especially for her co-workers help. Being the new kid on the block, she did not see them as a threat at all. She seemed to be liberated to earn her own money despite the fact that it was hard work. Rose Pesotta stated in Seller’s article “In America things are different. A decent middle class girl can work without disgrace.” (62, Seller) I wonder if that is what Shenah wanted to be, a “decent middle class girl”. Someone that can support herself, earn her own wage, be treated fairly, and with kindness. Even though the story bounced occasionally towards her lost love I focused more on the success of her getting away from her oppressive uncle and gaining a new job and also a potential love interest.
During the readings I was thinking about what my life would have been like if I had been brought up during the early 1900’s as an Italian or Irish immigrant. The thought of sitting behind a sewing machine or working in a laundry shop for 10 to 16 hours seems unbearable and by today’s standards, torture. I started reflecting on my own family and all the hardships that my great-grandparents must have experienced when they came to America in 1893. My mother’s family try to hold on to their Italian culture as much as possible and have always shared stories about how it was for them settling in Krebs, Oklahoma. The experiences that Anzia Yezierska encountered as a Jewish immigrant women helped her share her own stories that helped to provide liberation to other immigrants of any nationality that were living in Cities.
“In the United States most Italian families preferred to have their women work at home, but the need to earn more money drove increasing numbers into the garment factories.” (p65, Seller) My grandmother described her childhood as a happy one, surrounded by her 8 siblings and parents. She has told me many stories of her father’s hard work ethic and how he sent for his family one by one from Italy. The older children that could work in shops or farms went first and then my grandmother with the other youngest came last. There weren’t many factories in Oklahoma when my grandmother was a child. They lived like farmers. When she would describe the “pecking order” of the house, I imagined how hard it would be to run my own home like that with my two teenagers. My grandmother would tell me and my siblings whenever we would get impatient for dinner, that when she was growing up the person who worked in the house was always able to eat first and the children would have to wait. Since her father and brothers were the first to obtain employment and brought their money back into the family, they were the first to eat at any meal. She called it “the pick of the chicken”. My grandmother told me that she would dream of being able to find a job when she got older because of where that would rank her out of 9 children in the pecking order and would decide what part of the chicken she would get. Everyone that was able to did something, if it wasn’t school than it was work. That simple story reminds me that not all immigrant women were longing for big city life or careers. There were still the few that wanted to live like they did in their home country and stay out of the factories; even if it meant having to wait in line at the dinner table.
Hannah Breineh, in “FAT OF THE LAND” experiences a “rags to riches” story despite her character being completely miserable and unhappy throughout the whole story. The expectations that she had of her children are extremely different than the ones that any mother today may have for their own. When Hannah was complaining about not being able to feed her children Mrs. Pelz reassures her “Nevermind, you’ll yet come out from all your troubles. Just as soon as your children get old enough to get their working papers the more children you got, the more money you’ll have.” (p4. Yezierska) To prevent economic hardship one would think that having less children to support would be the logical answer. But with family expectations of the children’s roles and even the gender roles of both male and female children of that time; you were expected to work and take care of your family. In every story; the common theme for these women is a unique love for their family, often sacrificing everything for their children or other family members and presenting a hard work ethic despite what nationality or ethnic group they belong to.
Seller, Maxine S. Beyohd the Stereotype: A New Look at the Immigrant Woman, 1880-1924. Journal of Ethnic Studies, 3:1 (1975: Spring)
“Hunger” & “Fat of the Land” Anzia Yezierska