Breaking bread with The Organization of Romanian Americans
On the night of the 28th of August, I had the distinct pleasure and honor of being invited to attend a general fund-raising dinner for the Organization of Romanian Americans. While I had initially been invited under the aegis of perhaps giving a little presentation concerning the historical contextuality surrounding larger issues of nativism, and how such a perniciously time-honored, yet American tradition, has recently jaundiced some peoples perspectives on particular individuals in the immediate California Romanian-American community regarding issues of immigration, such talk had to capitulate to an otherwise overall atmosphere of conviviality, fraternization, and overwhelming hospitality. My heart and stomach were touched with the welcomeness and generosity that were extended to me as both a guest, and a respected scholar. The event kicked-off at approximately 7 p.m.
When I arrived, upon entering the general foyer of the establishment (an accommodation that deceived the eye from outside, for it was comfortably spacious within), the first thing that arrested my eyes, nose, and appetite’s attention–perhaps it could’ve been because I was fasting during the day–was the beautiful assortment of traditional Romanian dishes that were on display upon tables situated near the front door. Immediately upon entering, to my left, opposite the food, was a chef who was making preparations to cook some seafood entries that were spread on a small table before him. Oh man!, those lobsters, oysters, and shrimp really got my stomach’s attention. And since I had to wait another 45 minutes before I could partake of the lovely food on the spread, I settled into the meet-and-greet routine that would assist me with familiarizing myself with the estimated forty-to-fifty individuals in attendance.
I was heartily welcomed by the co-founder of the organization, Iosif Caza, and his daughter–a leader and active board member of the organization; also, she just so happens to be one of my former university students. Again, the hospitality that I was endowed with was mind-blowing to say the least; and, for some reason, I just couldn’t forget the scrumptious food awaiting my indulgence. To truly tempt such gastronomic fate, Mr. Caza, subsequent to introducing me to a complement of the attending individuals, patiently explained to me what each food dish was, and sometimes furnished me with an overview of the cultural significance that such food bore. For instance, when he told me that a round-of-cheese that was milky-white in color and about the size of a cantaloupe was derived from a bovine that was freshly milked–and the cheese cured recently–well, I knew that I would have to try that delicacy. And later I did! It was great! I have never tasted cheese as creamy in texture and smooth to the palate. Alright, enough with the food.
“Oh, you’re the professor,” was how I was greeted and received by one guest when I met him. Another guest, upon striking up a conversation with me later as we patiently awaited our turn in line for the food gently inquired “so, this must be quite a culture shock to you?” Perhaps, and I am merely speculating here, it may have been because I was the only black person there; however, the question was asked absent any offenses of any type. Again, I remind the reader, the atmosphere was completely congenial and welcoming. When I responded that quite the contrary, since I am a professor of ethnic and racial studies and that I am quite comfortable and fond of being in what may ostensibly appear as “foreign territory,” we struck up a conversation respecting the acculturation and assimilation process that many of the Romanian-American youth are experiencing and undergoing in America. I told her that many of the students that have taken an array of history classes that I lecture on, especially those that deal with the invariable acculturation and/or assimilation process that many immigrants experience and endure–whether that process is deemed as a positive or negative thing–the topic is expounded on in historical depth. In addition to the aforementioned dialogic strips, the various conversations that I entered into with other individuals, who were introduced to me as other prominent members of the community–an engineer; a professor; numerous business proprietors; students; and others–addessed a litany of disparate, yet tantalizing themes: “cash for clunkers,” “history in general,” “the Obama administration,” and “the way that the press can manipulate the minds of unsuspecting folk and presumably vitiate their outlook on a host of things.”
The ORA, accordingto its website, was founded and formed “in April 2008 as a non-profit public benefit corporation… with the express purpose of advancing the interests of Romanians… within the United States… and expos[ing] and educat[ing] Romanians and the general public about Romanian culture, music, arts, cuisine, history, etc.” Furthermore, and this is the part that most intrigued me, the mission statement of the group explicates that of the guiding principles that direct the organization, “embrac[ing] diversity as an essential element in the way [that they operate] create[s] an environment free of religious, political and ethnic divides.” As a scholar respecting such an appreciation for said ethnic diversity, and its accompanying accoutrements of religion, sociality, and a myriad of cultural miscellany, I was sold.
Now, excuse me for a moment while I put on my scholar’s cap and answer the looming question, “who are Romanian-Americans?” If we, and here I mean the unsuspecting media public, rely upon the stereotypes that are conveniently provided by the media itself–the images that reduce a people down to caricatures of essentialist meaning and mien–then, that answer has been readily furnished with that synecdochic equivalency of Transylvania representing the homeland of Vladimir the Impaler, and he in turn being reduced down to the fabled mythological figure, the Vampire, as being a typecast of Romanians. Leave it to the efficiency of stereotypes to confound the essence of what a people are, delineating them by what at best scaresthe people into believing that some people just aren’t whole enough. While I was apprised by Mr. Caza that there exists some estimated 50,000 Romanian Americans in the greater Sacramento region, we find that Romanian Americans are distributed all throughout the whole of America; with heavier concentrations residing in the eastern seaboard states (NY, NJ, IA), and within the mid-central states of Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Indiana. And yes, a sizable number make their home in California as well.
But how did they get to America, and better yet, what the hell does nativism, stereotypes, and assimilation have to do with the story that I am conveying here. As you can detect, issues of stereotypes and their complementary components of racism just stoke my ire, for I never have appreciated the banality that purports that the surrogacy of images and tropes is a fine marker for anyone. Again, mention Romanian Americans and the trained, unthinking, knee-jerk reaction is to conjure the image of the peripatetic gypsy that the media has propagated. Oh no, we’ll have none of that here. It’s time to look into a succinct overview of how corresponding notions of prejudice and fear have tainted the image of a people who came from Europe; however, their residence in Europe was on the south-eastern bend of the continent, the portion derogated by their north-western kinsmen who conceived of themselves as superior in ways biological, cultural, and social. Whereas this line of thinking was extant prior to the Romanians departure for America, some old habits die hard, and the misperception-of-sorts followed them.
You see, according to an article by Vladimir F. Wertsman that is aptly titled, “Romanian Americans,” the author adduces that “Romanians have a recorded presence of almost 250 years on American soil… [since] in the late nineteenth century, a Transylvania priest named Samuel Damien immigrated to America for scientific reasons.” Subsequent to conducting various scientific studies involving electricity (that included meeting the likes of such prominent American luminaries as Benjamin Franklin), Damien departed for Jamaica and became obscurant respecting future historical records. The next time that we hear of a significant Romanian presence isn’t until the second major immigration stream of Europeans that traveled to America, 1890-1924; threatening to surpass the old European stock of immigrants who both founded the nation, and the ones that constituted the first major European stream of north-western derivates during 1820-1889.
This was the essence of what I was going to discuss at the dinner, and why particular vestiges of who is considered a right immigrant and a wrong immigrant–though of European extract–still impact how immigration issues are conceptualized. You throw in a mix of draconian immigration restriction laws (Immigration Act of 1917; Immigration Act of 1921; and, Immigration Act of 1924), compounded by nativistic thinking (where the old-stock of Europeans represent the best determinants of how Europeans should be reflected, economic times of distress and discomfort, and the recent terroristic act of 9/11, and voila, you have the makings of those reminiscent fears that people have about other people skirting the legal paths to immigration acceptance. Again, a little bit of historical context provides a soothing antidote to the tinctures of caustic nativistist-like American thinking that blisters and burns when haphazardly applied.
Oh yeah, by the way, those oysters that I alluded to in the opening were eventually sampled by this author, and shall I say, the cook (Paul is his name) did an excellent job of barbecuing those.