The idea of America is something like a Rorschach test — a vast, messy spill whose outlines one fills with their dreams and aspirations, fears and expectations.   

In the ink, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, an 18th-century French immigrant and perhaps the most eloquent eulogist of the American experience, saw what America was not. Unlike Europe, it wasn’t a rancid society underpinned by hoary structures. “Here, there are no aristocratical families, no courts, no kings, no bishops,” he writes in “Letters From an American Farmer,” his account of provincial farming life in then-colonial New York first published in 1782.

Here’s what America was: a tabula rasa, an open space and a catalyst that could sublimate woe and apathy into prosperity and shared purposefulness. “In this great American asylum … the idle may be employed, the useless become useful, and the poor become rich,” Crèvecoeur writes, foreshadowing the 20th-century American dream. At the time, this promise drew a great profusion of Swedes, Germans, English, Scots, Irish and French. 

More than 2,700 new U.S. citizens take the Oath of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony in Montebello, California. | Getty Images

On the face of it, I have little in common with Crèvecoeur — I’m no nobleman; my forebears were German peasants. But I’m a Frenchman, too, and a visitor to this country. Like him, I’ve had a first-row seat to this country’s quest to decipher its own identity. Two hundred forty years after the publication of his letters, the central question spanning his writing still gives off a burning glow: “What … is the American, this new man?” 

To start answering that question, Pittsburgh is as good a place as any.

There, the Cathedral of Learning, a 535-foot-tall Gothic edifice of stone and steel, towers over the Oakland neighborhood. On the first and third floors of the building, set under cavernous, arched ceilings, visitors find “nationality rooms.” Each was gifted by one of the ethnic communities that helped build the City of Bridges — and, by extension, America. 

Here’s the Swedish Room, all in beige tones and furnished with an 18th-century farmhouse-style fireplace. The Chinese Room typifies imperial palace architecture, with walls painted a cherry red and intricate ceiling panels swirling with dragons. Columns in the Greek Room espouse the ionic style of the Acropolis’ Erechtheion; 10 chairs around a wooden table bear the names of famous Hellenic locales and philosophers, carved on the seats.

All three were dedicated before 1942. Today, a total of 31 rooms have taken on foreign accents — Syrian, Ukrainian and Korean, among others. In 2019, ceremonial dancers from the Filipino community advanced in procession inside the cathedral to the melody of a kulintang — a traditional instrument consisting of bronze gongs lined up on a frame. They were celebrating the opening of the Philippine Room, the latest addition to this modern tower of Babel. 

The monument is a testament to the elasticity of America’s fabric and the ever-expanding definition of Americanness. When he laid out his vision for the building in the 1920s, Chancellor John Bowman probably hadn’t anticipated just how diverse America would become. The building now has 31 “nationality rooms,” and two more have been spoken for by local Iranian and Finnish groups, but there’s only so much space. Meanwhile, beyond these finite physical walls, new ethnic groups and nationalities keep building spaces of their own. 

Traveling across the nation today, Crèvecoeur would find a landscape dotted with mosques and Buddhist and Hindu temples. Were he to sojourn in Las Vegas, he could saunter about a sprawling Asian Night Market. Further East, he’d find a vibrant community of refugees from the Congo in Grand Rapids, Michigan, served by no less than 11 Congolese houses of worship. In Miami, he’d stumble upon newly arrived Venezuelans — a burgeoning community. Pushing through the door of an Ethiopian restaurant in Washington, D.C., he’d be able to feast on Ye’ater Kik Alicha we’t, a meal of yellow split peas cooked with oil, onions, garlic, curry and ginger. The nation’s capital is home to the largest concentration of Ethiopians in the U.S. 

The forces that drive and draw immigrants away from their homes are manifold. Some, like me, are eager to avail themselves of the opportunities afforded by one of the world’s largest job markets. Many others flee abject poverty or political, religious or ethnic persecution. 

Consider the Lhotshampa. These ethnic Nepalis have been living in neighboring Bhutan since the 17th century, but starting in the 1990s, repressive elites moved to expel them from the country, which became the “world’s biggest creator of refugees per capita.” The U.S. started taking in these Bhutanese in 2007, and more than 80,000 have since resettled here, including in Texas and Georgia.

Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. | Photo by Raymond Boyd/Getty

America’s embrace of these populations speaks to the central role immigrants play in its epochal tale. As the sociologist Robert Wuthnow notes, they reinforce this country’s belief that it’s a good place to live; after all, “they have had more of an opportunity to think about why it does or does not make sense to live in America.” There’s a corresponding belief, Wuthnow says, that they will be rewarded after leaving their homes and families behind — that if they work hard enough, they will attain success.  

This was true at the time of Crèvecoeur, and it’s still true now. The first immigrants wasted no time before tilling the land and engaging in whatever rustic endeavor would put food on the table, and perhaps help them achieve material wealth. The same ethos animates newcomers today — they labor in some of the most physically demanding sectors of the economy. As of 2017, they represented a third of workers in agriculture, a quarter of construction workers and nearly 20 percent of workers in manufacturing, according to Pew Research Center. 

Immigrants toil away in demanding industries, but they also embrace entrepreneurship — that most American of proclivities — at a high rate. In 2019, they represented 21.7% of all business owners, despite making up 17.1% of the labor force, according to New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy group. Their ventures run the gamut, from mom-and-pop shops to Silicon Valley darlings. 

But as with every story, there’s a darker side to the one America tells itself. 

I often think about Segundo Huerta, an Ecuadorian immigrant who worked on construction sites in New York until his death in 2019. Huerta was undocumented. For years, he’d been trying to bring his family together in the U.S. He died before he could do so when the third floor of the building he was working on collapsed. Labor advocates said it was the result of unsafe working conditions. When I met his widow, Maria-Juana, for an article I was writing, she was pushing a cart stacked with laundry in the Bronx. Her twins, Jean Carlos and Joana, trailed along behind her. Her husband was dead, and she had no choice but to keep going, juggling her duties at a nail salon with raising her kids.

Immigrants become U.S. citizens at a naturalization ceremony in Hialeah, Florida. | Getty Images
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Uncertainty had defined much of her life in this new country, and it would keep doing so. “You never know what can happen in the future,” she told me.

I wonder what Crèvecoeur would have made of Maria-Juana’s quiet resignation. He, too, experienced a devastating loss. While he was away in France, Native Americans raided his farm in Orange County, New York, and killed his wife. Crèvecoeur only found out when he returned to his adoptive country. Despite this cruel twist of fate, he remained in his newly appointed role as consul of France in New York City for seven years, enthralled by the rise of this young nation.

Perhaps this is what keeps drawing new immigrants to this country: the clatter and the noise, the chaos and the alchemy in a crucible the size of a continent. The promise that in this ever-changing landscape, to be different is to belong. I like to think that in a heavenly room somewhere, Crèvecoeur and Huerta get together and talk about America — two immigrants who shared the same dream, two centuries apart.

This story appears in the July/August issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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