When baby boomers in the age of Eisenhower and newfangled TV sets learned in grade school about the waves of immigrants that fleshed out the population of modern America, it was implied with the term “melting pot” that we were all pretty much alike and a part of the stew. And being alike was good in those days of tract developments, deviled ham, and Tang.
Over the following decades, the children of white immigrants were joined by immigrants with other skin tones. The civil rights movement paved the way for African Americans’ achievements, and revitalized what would otherwise have been a pretty bland culture.
Nowadays immigration is a hot-button issue, but people everywhere could take heart by how well it works in places like our Island. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Edgartown has launched a new exhibit, “The Local Immigrants Project.” Two sections of the exhibit outline two separate parts of our immigrant story. As you enter the museum, to the right is a room filled with 66 large, vintage black-and-white portraits of people who flocked here between the years of 1930 and 1945.
There is a middle-aged man in a suit and tie named Francisco Pereira de Canha — a.k.a. Frank Canha in his new life. Mr. Canha traveled from Madeira Island to Oak Bluffs, where presumably many of his descendants live today. Another older gent with glasses and white whiskers was named Peter James Winter from Dundalk, Ireland; he also settled in Oak Bluffs. A handsome fellow, Mariano Rebello, from St. Michael’s, Portugal, put down roots in Edgartown. Another Edgartown newcomer was a Paul Newman-ish-looking man from Shelburne, Nova Scotia.
A senior from the regional high school, Nevin Wallis, took it upon himself to unearth these riveting portraits from the museum’s archives, assisted by curator of exhibitions Anna Barber. Young Wallis designed a wall with the title “One Immigrant’s Story,” devoted to Oak Bluffs immigrant Mary Diaz (1905-1987). Interviews with Mary’s descendants yielded an audio presentation by her niece Ginny Coutinho, and such relics as a handwritten recipe for Portuguese Easter bread and a handknit mango-colored jacket and suitdress reminiscent of Jackie Kennedy. Ms. Coutinho observed: “[I have] memories of port wine in Fostoria wine glasses, with sweet bread, of course.”
Ms. Coutinho also recalls a constant supply of homebaked sweets in a tin. I remember this tradition from my own Grandma Mae’s larder: a tall tin of brownies, a treat I imagine you would only see on a special occasion these days. Grandma Mae was the daughter of an immigrant, my Great-Grandma Olga, our family heroine, whose father had immigrated to America in the 1890s from Lithuania. Tragically, his wife died suddenly of influenza back home; Papa sent passage for his eight children. Olga, at 12, guided her siblings across the sea. then devoted herself, between school and keeping the house neat in Lowell, to raising the young’uns. That’s the marvel of an exhibit such as this one: You can’t help bringing to it memories of your own ancestors among the “huddled masses” who indeed yearned — and learned — to “breathe free.”
After the fascinating room filled with old photos, visitors turn to the northeast room of the museum.
Part Deux of the immigrant exhibit is so cheerful and bright, you’ll be reminded (if you’re of a boomer age) of the old movie ads exclaiming “In bright Technicolor!” Gifted photographer Mila Lowe, herself an immigrant from Moldova and now married to Julius Lowe, has taken photos of modern-day immigrants here on the Island, many of whom you already know, or who, at the very least, look familiar to you. There’s beautiful young Pema Greer (married to Zach Greer) from Bhutan. When I met her at the opening, I gasped, “Bhutan! What are you doing here?” Bhutan, as you may know, is a gorgeous mountain nation where instead of the Gross National Product, they pride themselves on a Gross National Happiness, using that as a guiding principle above all else.
You’ll see Ghislaine from Brazil, Lora with long blond braids from Bulgaria, Elena from Russia with a gorgeous mane of shining brown hair, and Martin from Cameroon, his face decorated with white tribal symbols. Viewing this second portion of the exhibit feels like a cheerful meet-and-greet. When you recognize the people in the photos in Stop and Shop or walking along a Land Bank trail, you’ll hail them like old friends.
It works, this whole diversity thing. And meanwhile, I’m planning to bring back Grandma Mae’s big old tin of brownies.