Author and award-winning journalist Judie Panneton grew up as a child of immigrants. Her own feelings of "being different" led her to wonder about the experiences of other children and how it worked out for them. The result is her latest book, Proud Americans: Growing Up as Children of Immigrants.
The stories included in the book are based on research and extensive interviews with more than forty people from diverse backgrounds who work in many types of professions and live throughout the United States. Panneton's personal interviews explore the joys as well as the pain of growing up as first-generation Americans with children often serving as their parents' guides to learning the ways of their new country.
Dr. Ernie Bodai (whose real first name was Balazs but he accepted Ernie as a name that would make him less different) is a highly respected surgeon whom Panneton encountered while working on a previous book about breast cancer. In him, she found a brilliant and hard-working doctor whose family made every effort to get to America so that he could create a better path for himself.
His family escaped from Budapest several months after the Russians invaded Hungary; his father was a nuclear physicist with PhDs in nuclear physics and mathematics. Like many immigrants, advanced degrees mean nothing when first looking for employment in America, and he and his wife had to accept menial jobs in order to support the family. Despite family and financial difficulties, Bodai went on to graduate from medical school. He also felt deeply the importance of giving back. As a breast surgeon, he sought ways to raise funds for more research and campaigned for the federal government to create a breast cancer stamp that could be used to raise money for scientific research. Bodai persisted for a good number of years before successfully making his case, and at this point, the stamps have raised more than $50 million for research.
A story that deeply touched Panneton was Dorothy Mitsu Takeuchi, 86 at the time of the interview, who had been confined with her family in American internment camps because they were Japanese. Takeuchi's parents were classified as "non-white" by federal law (the Naturalization Act of 1790) so they were not eligible for citizenship but their children, who were born here, automatically gained citizenship status. But citizenship did not protect anyone of Japanese descent after the bombing at Pearl Harbor.
Shortly after Pearl Harbor, local police came to meet with her father, a well-respected businessman in Seattle; her father was taken away by the police, and her family received no explanation or information about where he was going. It was three years before the family had word of his whereabouts. By that time, the rest of the family had been sent to an internment camp near Missoula, Montana. This was by order of President Franklin Roosevelt who in 1942 ordered that all residents of Japanese ancestry be removed from their homes and confined in relocation camps. Takeuchi told Panneton that one of the particularly heartbreaking moments occurred when friends and neighbors, who knew they were being taken away, came by wanting to claim for themselves the Japanese family's possessions.
Approximately 120,000 people were held in these relocation camps, two-thirds of whom were American citizens. Two years later their father joined them, and they were finally released in 1945 when the Supreme Court ruled that the detainment of loyal citizens was unconstitutional.
A more recent example in the book is 22-year-old Janet Rodriguez, who came to the United States seven years ago when she was 15. Her parents are migrant farm workers who obtained green cards to come to work in the fields in California. Janet and three siblings started public school not knowing any English, and her parents requested working separate shifts so they could share childcare responsibilities. This meant that her mother arose at 3:45 a.m. to go to work; her father worked overnight. Her mother's pay at the time of the interview was $6.75 per hour. The family aspired for their sons to attend college but though Janet had a 4.0 average graduating from high school, it took a healthy college financial package and a lot of persuading for Janet's parents to give their blessing to have their daughter attend college. She now works during the day and attends school at night.
Panneton concludes the book with additional profiles of famous immigrants who have come to the U.S. ranging from Maurice Sendak to Steven Chu.
At the conclusion of her research, Panneton invited the nearby interviewees to come to her home for a dinner party. "It was such an honor to tell their stories, and I loved being able to introduce some of them to one another."
Interest in a book like this should be on the increase as immigrants are a growing force in America. More than 60 percent of American children will be children of immigrants by the year 2050. Panneton's background as a child of immigrants who survived the Holocaust has given her a well-founded interest in exploring what it is like for families who are new to this country.
Panneton's web site offers readers the opportunity to tell their own stories of their family's arrival in this country.
This month, Judie Fertig Panneton will be a guest speaker at Goucher College, discussing her book on April 12, and on April 30 she will read from her book at Hinde Auditorium at Sacramento State College.
For more stories of inspirational Americans, visit www.americacomesalive.com
Follow Kate Kelly on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AboutAmerica