Yesterday I had a road trip to Lexington. It was a beautiful day for a road trip, and as usual I got off the interstate about 20 miles outside of Lexington so I could drive in through horse country. On my way back to Louisville I found myself fixating on the c. 1800s rock fences (built without mortar, or “dry laid”) that dot the Bluegrass countryside. As a child I knew them as “slave fences” and was taught that the fences were built by slaves. But as I found out over the past 15 years, along with most of my fellow Kentuckians, these fences were actually built by Irish immigrants based on techniques used in Ireland for centuries. In fact, the Kentucky Bluegrass area has the highest concentration of still-existing “dry laid” fences in North America. Historical markers near many of these fences now proudly proclaim the Irish immigrant origins of these fences, and there is a massive preservation effort going on, lead by the Dry Stone Conservancy in Lexington. [Check out http://www.drystone.org/.]
As I drove on down Leestown Road toward the interstate I thought about the hardships Irish immigrants faced when they first came to the U.S. I thought about the backbreaking labor involved in cutting and placing the stone fences. I thought about the suspicion and hate the immigrants faced. I thought about how immigrants of those times were restricted either formally or informally to certain classes of jobs in order to protect the jobs of “real Americans.” Then everything came full circle.
As I turned onto the interstate, I noticed a prison work crew picking up trash. All of the prisoners were Latino men. I’ve noticed that most prison work crews on the interstates as of late are dominated by Latinos, and the parallels to the plight of Irish immigrants were not lost on me. Persons of color, and I suspect the same goes for immigrants, are disproportionately imprisoned in this country, so it shouldn’t be a shock that I’m seeing Latino-dominated prison work crews. Even if you take the inequities of the criminal justice system out of it, stories are legion of Latino immigrants being forced into low-paying jobs even when they are highly educated. Heck, one of Bug’s former daycare teachers was a Cuban-Mexican immigrant who was trained as an architect. And lest we forget, Latino immigrants are all assumed to be here “illegally,” whether they are or not, and are treated with suspicion and disdain.
The cycle never ends. From the Irish and Italian immigrants, to the Chinese immigrants who built our railroads, to the Latinos of today — immigrants are treated like dirt and as societal outcasts yet we build our country on their backs and enjoy the fruits of their labor. It seems that very little has changed over the past 150 years where immigrants are concerned.
ADDENDUM: In case anyone is wondering (or perturbed perhaps?) that I didn’t address black slave immigrants and all the backbreaking work they did to build this country– that is because I view that as substantially different because they were forcibly brought here and were treated as animals and property. The other immigrants were voluntary, and even with the insults to their heritage and intelligence they suffered, there’s just no comparison. I don’t know if that makes a real difference, but to me, I didn’t feel like I could do justice to the hardships and contributions of slave immigrants in this post.