Burbank: Our immigrant ancestors built their lives and our nation

By John Burbank

My friend invited my wife and me to celebrate her husband’s 70th birthday. We enjoyed an evening of great food and wine, stories of the past and hopes for the future. The stories of the past were such powerful American anecdotes that we all thought that my friends should write up their family histories. But they are too busy or modest for that. So I am taking a stab.

This couple represents the backbone of America. Roy is a retired firefighter. Raye is a family practice physician. Raye’s ancestors were members of a Hispanic community that received a land grant from the King of Spain for land in New Mexico in the early 1600s. She thinks that there may have been some Spanish Jews in her family who hid their faith, converted to Catholicism and fled the Inquisition in Spain to Mexico, then when the Inquisition reached Mexico, fled farther to what became New Mexico. So Raye’s family, like millions of families who came to the New World, and are still coming, were immigrants and refugees from hostile religions, governments and cultures. Of course, the region was part of Mexico then, long before the United States invaded and appropriated Mexican territory in the mid-19th century.

Raye grew up on a remote cattle ranch in New Mexico. Her first language was Spanish. Her family didn’t have a lot of amenities. The winters were cold, the summer days hot. Their house didn’t have the best insulation. She was driving a tractor at age 8 to pick up hay bales. She killed a rattlesnake with a hoe as it coiled to strike her grandfather. She helped her father round up and brand cattle and castrate and dehorn bulls. Her father worked this ranch even as he went blind. Now it is worked by her brother.

Raye’s grandmother was a healer with amazing hands. As Raye says, “she could place them on you and with massage and her words make you feel better.” Raye inherited those hands, and began a career serving those most in need of medical care. In 1994, she was named Washington’s family doctor of the year. Now she is a professor and practitioner, mentor and leader at the University of Washington Medical School.

Her husband Roy remembers his grandfather riding a bicycle in his 90s. (And Roy is still riding his bike, this year with Raye on the RSVP ride from Seattle to Vancouver.) His grandfather, the bicycle rider, was born a slave in 1856 in Mississippi. So Roy’s ancestors, probably more than two centuries ago, also came to America, stolen from Africa, shipped over the middle passage, and forced into slavery in America. His ancestors most likely picked the cotton that helped make cotton king and fueled the growth of the American economy, built upon, whether we want to admit it or not, the institution of slavery.

Roy’s grandfather made his way to Canada, and there married a German immigrant. This would have been illegal in the U.S., with our governments forbidding interracial marriage. The family settled down in Michigan and Ontario. Roy’s dad worked in the auto industry, and was a member of the UAW. Roy graduated from high school in Detroit and signed up for the army. He spent his military years in Korea, came back to Washington state, and stayed. He graduated from Western Washington University, tutored for a while, and then found his niche as a firefighter. He was stationed around Seattle, spent some years as the public information officer for the fire department, trained new recruits (and occasionally came home with a half-melted hart hat), was in charge of the fire boat on Elliott Bay, put out fires on land and on the water, on Lake Union and Shilshoe Bay. Then he had the wisdom to say enough was enough and retired to not a life of leisure, but of keeping up with his wife, which few of us can do.

Why write about Raye and Roy? Because they are America. Their ancestors immigrated from other lands, either forced to or in fear of their lives. Their ancestors were not the captains of industry or political leaders, but the workers and people who made it possible for there to be captains of industry and for political leaders to be able to speak and lead. In their own lives, they have been mentors, groundbreakers, pioneers and quiet heroes. They are Americans. They are us.

John Burbank is the executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, www.eoionline.org. Email him at john@eoionline.org.

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