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Our Plural History | Springfield, MA
For more than a century, Springfield's North End neighborhood has served as a first home for some of the city's various immigrant communities. The contemporary Puerto Rican flavor of the North End is apparent in this banner depicting traditional Carnival masks and the coquí, Puerto Rico's unofficial mascot.
Photo by Richard Norman Ph.D.

recent arrivals


Following the Second World War, immigration to the United States continued. This new wave of immigrants often differed from earlier waves of immigration in terms of languages, customs, and cultural traditions. Whereas during the industrialization period the majority of newcomers hailed from Europe, these newer immigrants come to America's shores from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the former Soviet bloc. Despite these demographic and cultural differences, the newer immigrants' reasons for coming to the United States have been comparable. Many have come in search of new opportunities and freedoms, others as refugees of wars.

Like those who preceded them, these new immigrants have been viewed by many as threatening U.S. national identity and culture. These fears are often amplified by issues of race, language, and religion. Furthermore, the cultural distinctions that divide newcomers and the native-born often correspond to class divisions that have spilled over into the political arena.

Language has become an especially contentious issue in recent decades as more and more immigrants hail from Spanish-speaking nations. Spanish speakers are now the largest ethnic minority in the U.S., and many Americans resent the perceived weakening of the link between the English language and national identity. In the Connecticut River Valley, Latinos have been successful at both creating communities built upon their shared identity and traditions, and enlivening the broader American culture.

The religion of immigrants has always been a concern to opponents of immigration. The events of September 11, 2001 amplified this concern. In particular, Muslims in America, whether citizens or not, have come under increasing scrutiny for their beliefs and their ability to "Americanize." While the United States has no official religion, many place Christian ideals at the heart of the American identity, intensifying suspicions of immigrants of different faiths.

Economic opportunities have long motivated immigrants to come to the United States. The traditional path to upward social mobility for many immigrants was the availability of industrial and manufacturing jobs in places such as the Connecticut River Valley. In recent decades, however, overseas competition and the reorientation of the U.S. economy towards services and information technologies have reduced opportunities in Springfield and elsewhere for low skilled workers to earn a good wage, move into better neighborhoods and save for the future. Immigrants and the native-born alike struggle during hard economic times, with immigrants often blamed for the hardships faced by all.

Many in the U.S. worry about the effects of open borders and illegal immigration on matters of national security and American identity. Some complain that these "illegals" enjoy the benefits of education and social programs while contributing little in the way of taxes. Such debates frequently overlook the broader economic contributions made by these groups, however. Furthermore, such objections tend to ignore the fact that illegal immigration is a long-standing problem; indeed, it was a means for entry exploited by many earlier European immigrants.

As in the past, opponents of immigration today question these newcomers' abilities and willingness to conform to their own perceptions of American national identity. Such concerns have been voiced before about the Irish, Polish, and African-Americans, for instance, yet in each case those groups have both taken on American ideals and enriched the culture through their experiences and unique contributions. African-Americans in Springfield played a crucial role in challenging racial discrimination and segregation and in the process strengthened the nation's commitment to the ideals upon which the country was founded.

Immigrants have been coming to the United States, legally or not, from the beginning.

Many from beyond our borders still regard the U.S. as a land of economic opportunity, or as a haven from religious or political persecution. Americans have always lived with diversity and struggled with tolerance. Contemporary concerns about economic decline pit the native-born against newly arriving immigrants. Religious and linguistic differences continue to roil the culture. Race and social class still shape political outcomes and social arrangements. And in places like Springfield and the Connecticut River Valley, Americans continue to learn the practice of pluralism.

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