By David Bearinger with photos by Lloyd Wolf
Immigration and the Humanities
Less than fifty years ago, in 1970, only one in every 100 people living in Virginia had been born outside the United States. In 2012, the figure was one in nine.
Current estimates place the number of foreign-born Virginians at just under one million, out of a total population of 8.26 million, and nearly half of these new residents of the state are between the ages of 25 and 44—prime years for work as well as child-bearing.
In recent months, the surge of unaccompanied, undocumented children entering the United States from Central America has received widespread publicity and sparked intense public debate. We don’t yet know the full impact of this particular immigrant stream on Virginia, but we do know that among the children of adult immigrants in Virginia, including documented as well as undocumented migrants, 96 percent today are U.S. citizens. In 2014, in Arlington County alone, 6,755 public school students spoke a language at home other than English, and two-thirds of these were born in the U.S. to immigrant parents.
The implications of these statistics and the changes they foretell are profound. This is true especially in a state like Virginia where large numbers of new immigrants continue to be drawn by work opportunities, good public schools, proximity to the nation’s capital, and in many cases, by the presence of already well-established communities from their countries of origin.
The impact of Virginia’s changing demographics can already be felt across the state: in large cities and rural areas, in public education, in electoral politics and local economies, and in a social fabric that has long been held together, in part, by a sense of shared history, as difficult and complex as that history has sometimes been.
The portrait of Virginia is changing fast. It becomes more complicated almost by the day, growing richer and more diverse and at the same time challenging to an older, simpler understanding of what it means to be a Virginian.
This challenge carries within it an opportunity—many opportunities, in fact. And the humanities have much to contribute as we—all Virginians, whether our roots in the state go back ten thousand years, ten generations, or ten weeks—travel this new road together, creating the map as we go.
An article in the Spring 2007 edition of this newsletter (VFH Views) acknowledged the Foundation’s responsibility—and our intention—to continue work that would help create the broadest possible “portrait” of Virginia and a more complete representation of the state’s complex, sometimes glorious, sometimes painful and inglorious past.
The occasion for the article was the establishment of the Virginia Indian Heritage Program at VFH, an unprecedented partnership between a non-Native organization and the state’s (then) eight state-recognized tribes.
Our work with the Virginia tribes began in 1987 and that work continues, set within the context of our broader commitment to a full, unblinking engagement with Virginia’s history and an equally ambitious effort to understand the state and its communities in the present day.
Prior to 2007 and until fairly recently, the majority of VFH program energy and resources focused on the “braid” of three cultures—European, African/African American, and Indian—that had defined Virginia and shaped its identity from the early 17th century until deep into the 20th.
Within the interplay of these three cultural streams the weight of the Virginia story seemed to rest; for many years the threads of Virginia’s history as we knew it supported this view.
But it’s also true that our work was never confined within this three-part story. A grant almost twenty years ago supported a documentary film on the building of a Lao Buddhist temple near Manassas. Our work with refugee communities in the 1990s led to a groundbreaking series of programs in the field of violence and survival. Early Folklife apprenticeships in Mexican folkloric and Indian Kathak dance, and many other programs—some of them grant-funded, others initiated by VFH staff—stand as evidence that the commitment to exploring the cultural diversity of Virginia and the lives of immigrants and immigrant communities in the Commonwealth has always been there.
But in 21st century Virginia, the “weight of history” is now matched by the weight of the present, and by the need to recognize and help Virginians—all Virginians—understand and come to terms with the complex identity of the state today. We share a past that reaches into the lives of all Virginians, even those who are newly arrived. We also share a future full of the diversity of cultures and cultural perspective that has come to define the experience of living in Virginia in 2014.
Immigration has been part of the Virginia story since the day the Jamestown colonists arrived, followed by waves of English and then German and Scots-Irish settlers.
Over more than 200 years, millions of enslaved Africans were forced to immigrate to the Americas through the transatlantic slave trade; as a consequence, many people of African origin—enslaved as well as free men and women—also became part of Virginia.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, coal companies based in New York and Philadelphia actively recruited men from Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia to work in the mines of central Appalachia, including Southwest Virginia where many of their descendants still live.
In the early 1900s, the vast majority of foreign-born Virginians were from Europe—from Germany, Ireland, England, Russia, and Scotland, primarily. But the picture has changed dramatically since then. Today, 42 percent of new immigrants to the Old Dominion are from Asia, 35 percent are from Latin America, 10 percent are from Africa, and only 10 percent are from Europe.
Currently, El Salvador, India, Mexico, the Philippines, and Korea top the list of countries-of-origin for immigrants to Virginia as a whole, although other nationalities may predominate in specific regions. Statewide, the picture is varied and complicated, the demographics surprising and sometimes hard to predict.
For example, 68 percent of all foreign-born Virginians live in Northern Virginia where they comprise 23 percent of the region’s total population. But in Southwest Virginia, the figure is less than 4 percent.
While the largest percentage of immigrants living in Virginia today are from Asian countries, Hispanics are by far the fastest-growing group among the so-called “new Virginians.”
To illustrate: between April 2010 and July 2013, the Hispanic population grew by 10 percent or more in twenty-nine Virginia counties and cities; in July 2013 Hispanic residents comprised 10 percent or more of the total population in twelve Virginia cities and counties, including places like Arlington (15.6 percent), Manassas City (32.9 percent), and Fairfax (16.2 percent), but also Galax (14.1 percent), Harrisonburg (18.2 percent), and Winchester (15.9 percent).
What does all this mean for Virginia, and what challenges and opportunities does it present for the humanities and the work of VFH? How is VFH responding?
The beginning of the answer to these questions lies at the core of VFH ’s mission, which is service to the state, and in the three prongs of that mission-of-service: to understand the past, confront important issues in the present, and help shape a promising future for all Virginians.
VFH takes no position with regard to federal or state immigration policies. Our interest is in using the humanities to help Virginians—all Virginians—better understand the state and the world they live in. Every program that VFH sponsors, initiates, or supports is offered with this purpose in mind.
So as the cultural fabric of Virginia diversifies, how do we make sure that new Virginians will identify themselves strongly with their new home, becoming full participants in the life of the Commonwealth? How will they come to understand and appreciate the complex history of Virginia and its past that isn’t past but still shapes Virginia in the present?
What tools will help them understand the sometimes uneasy balance between individual rights and between rights and responsibilities in a democratic society? Or how the freedoms and the (relative) prosperity that many Virginians enjoy today were purchased and by whom?
Simply put, how will these new residents come to see themselves as part of Virginia? What will being a Virginian mean to them? Will they be able to successfully blend their dual identities—as a Guatemalan, a Cambodian, or a Sudanese and a Virginian? Can they hold onto the traditions they’ve brought with them while acquiring others?
As for the rest of us, what tools exist—what tools or opportunities can be created—that will help us better understand and appreciate the lives of these new Virginians, both in the places they’ve come from and their new homes here? How can we know and understand, find ways to experience and honor the beliefs and traditions, the hopes and aspirations they bring with them? The values that define their communities?
How will we—as immigrant and native-born Virginians—learn to speak to each other across language and cultural barriers? How will we live and work together within a heterogeneous community where the cultural differences, and our different ways of understanding the world, can be profound?
Alongside these questions, there are others too: questions about work and employment, access to education, housing, and community services. But as important as these seemingly more practical questions are, the questions about community, history, identity and tradition—the humanities questions—may be even more fundamental to the shaping of a promising future that, in many ways, has already arrived.
For that reason the commitment we made forty years ago and reaffirmed in 2007—to create the most complete portrait of Virginia—continues undiminished and this is also why the work seems more important now than ever before.
Over a three-year period beginning in 2009, VFH awarded a series of grants to support photo-documentation of the Columbia Pike neighborhood in Arlington, one of the most ethnically diverse, immigrant-rich zip-codes in the country. Results include physical and web-based exhibits, community programs exploring this diversity, and a book to be published in 2015 and distributed by the University of Virginia Press.
In early November VFH and Arlington County Public Schools will jointly present the third in a series of content academies for teachers on the history of Latino immigration in the United States (see VFH Views, Spring 2014), along with a related community event in which local residents will discuss the experience of immigration in Northern Virginia.
VFH has also launched a long-term, statewide initiative to explore the nature of family, community, tradition, culture, and identity in Virginia through the lens of food. Initially, the project will result in a web-archive of filmed interviews with Virginians of all ages and backgrounds. More than half the participants in the launch event this past August were first-generation immigrants to Virginia.
The Virginia Folklife Program, meanwhile continues its efforts to document and honor, not just the traditions that have long been associated with Virginia, but also those that are recently arrived. These include master-apprenticeship programs in Guatemalan “Alfombra” carpet-making, Ethiopian liturgical singing, Mongolian traditional mask-making, and Mexican mole sauce-making from the state of Aguascalientes, to name just a few examples.
These and other VFH programs open doors to a new understanding of Virginia and the world, to the experience of immigration, and the building of a stronger Commonwealth. New partnerships with immigrant communities are emerging across the state. Current members of the VFH board of directors bring the perspectives of immigration/migration from Iraq, Bolivia, and Vietnam.
The face of Virginia is changing. A new chapter in the history of the state is being written. The humanities are essential in the work that lies ahead, and the mission and long-term commitments of the VFH are closely aligned with the task.