Universal phenomenon

by historian Giorgio Cheda

We should not forget that emigration is a universal phenomenon in human history. It has always had negative aspects, because emigrating means breaking family and social ties, having to face enormous difficulties in integrating into a different environment. We are all familiar with these problems, of course. And they are apparent in this little world of ours in the letters the emigrants wrote. If you read just a few of these letters, you will find evidence of these very negative aspects – problems that were difficult to resolve in an environment that was different in terms of language, culture, geography and so on.

But looking beyond these negative aspects of emigration, and viewing things in the long term, they can be seen as having a positive effect. For example, emigration brought about changes in mentality, in openness towards other people and different situations, cultural, religious and political. I would say that emigration is a structural necessity for society, for the individual and for the individual as a member of a family or group. It enables him to open up to other people, to become aware of different situations, different social structures, philosophical and religious ideas – different from those held and rooted in his place of origin. So it also represents enrichment from a cultural point of view.

Let’s take language as just one example. I have come across many letters, especially from California, which were written in English. Not because they had forgotten Italian, but because they wanted to conceal from other members of the family business matters that concerned only the father, who was here in Ticino and spoke English, and the son, who continued to manage the ranch, and had bought and sold and done business in California, and only wanted to inform his father and no one else. Therefore he wrote in English. So there was also a cultural enrichment.

Some emigrants wrote their diaries in English, not in Italian. This, too, represents a cultural enrichment for peasant farmers from our valleys here in Ticino. In this respect, too, I think emigration should be seen as fostering openness towards others, an opportunity to get to know other worlds, other cultures, and other lifestyles. It opened up possibilities which people who spent all their lives in a small mountain village would not have experienced.

(read interview with Tomás Jiménez of Stanford University on immigration issues in California)

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