News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Monday, November 26, 2007

Were the Pilgrims illegal aliens?

In 1620, a group of strange newcomers arrived on the shores of North America. They spoke a foreign language and were miserably poor. Desperate and hungry, they robbed the graves of the native-born and stole food to survive during their first year in this new land. Called the Separatists in their home country, most of us know these outcasts as the Pilgrims. Despite their illicit arrival and questionable deeds, today we revere the Separatists—with good reason.

Unlike the Spaniards who came to this hemisphere to conquer and convert the natives to their faith, the Separatists wanted to form a new society. They sought the freedom to worship denied them in England. They wanted a chance to thrive without an oppressive aristocracy. Their dream of liberty and prosperity became the DNA of today’s vibrant U.S. culture.

But the Separatists were not saints. Their society was egalitarian—as long as you were white. Although the legends say the natives were invited to that first Thanksgiving feast, eventually there would be no place at the table for the land’s dark-skinned populace. By the end of the 1600s, most natives in New England had been wiped out by disease and war. This tragic chapter in U.S. history is also part of the Separatists’ legacy. Even to this day, many in the U.S. profess equality but practice prejudice.

As we pause to give thanks for the blessings of freedom and plenty, let’s not forget that those Separatists we venerate were foreigners who arrived without Green Cards, committed criminal acts, disrespected local customs, and created social upheaval. Yet their industry, faith, and determination made this abundant land flourish.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez