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Why all Irish Americans are not all white any more

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Cuban-American writer Oscar Hijuelos
Cuban-American writer Oscar Hijuelos.


Every Saturday I have the privilege to teach a class at the New York City College of Technology in downtown Brooklyn. The students are highly-motivated high school juniors and seniors who are reading, writing and earning college credits when they could, instead, be sleeping in on Saturday morning.

I’ve been teaching this class for a number of years, and while there are many immigrants and children of immigrants, it’s probably no surprise that I have yet to come across anyone from Ireland or even a student with identifiable Irish roots.

Suffice it to say, if you come across a Murphy or an O’Neal in my classroom, they look like actor Eddie Murphy or basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal.

So it was a surprise on a recent Saturday when a student — after asking about some of the Irish writing I’ve done — enthusiastically replied that she, too, has Irish roots. You couldn’t tell it by her name or by looking at her.

And yet, to some degree, isn’t that increasingly what it means to be Irish American in the 21st century?

This occurred to me after I read about the untimely passing of the great Cuban-American writer Oscar Hijuelos at the age of 62.  Hijuelos is best known for his novel "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," which was made into a fine movie starring Antonia Banderas.

But one of Hijuelos’ lesser-knows novels also has one of the great melting pot titles of all time — "The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien."

In that 1993 book, Hijuelos took a close look at a Pennsylvania family whose roots lie deep in Cuba as well as Ireland.

Critics praised the sympathy with which Hijuelos explored this family with a split ethnic identity, which you might also more simply call an “American” family.

It should not be surprising to learn that Hijuleos’ own family tree was tinged with green. A great-great grandfather on Hijelous’ father’s side was Irish, hence this Cuban’s fair skin and light hair. (One critic once joked that at Hijuelos readings, attendants expected a suave Ricky Ricardo-type and were shocked to see someone who looked more like nebbishy George Costanza from Seinfeld.)

Of course, there is a temptation to say that Hijuelos isn’t “really” Irish. There is a temptation to say that being so liberal with Irish identity threatens to water it down. That if it can mean anything to be Irish, it might also mean nothing.

This is understandable. One need only look at the much-hyped initiative in Ireland known as The Gathering.

Aimed at the 70 or so million people abroad who claim Irish ancestry, organizers argue that it is a celebration of the Irish diaspora. However, it can also look like the most important shade of green here is the money tourists from all over brought with them to spend on the Emerald Isle.

These are all valid points.  And yet, certain realities are unavoidable, especially when we talk about Irish identity in America.

Assimilation is a fact of life, and as their Irish immigrant roots grow more distant Irish Americans will need to ask themselves what, exactly, it is that makes them Irish? And not just on March 17.

The model offered by Oscar Hijuelos is an important one. Embracing one aspect of your identity need not necessarily mean ignoring all others.

It means understanding what the Irish did when they got here and how they forever changed America — and that includes (I would argue) believing religion, government and continued immigration should play a key role in America’s future.

The future of Irish America, to some degree, depends on Irish Americans willing to (if you will) locate and celebrate their green heritage within a broader, colorful rainbow.

The same week Oscar Hijuelos died, a priest from the Bronx also passed away.

Father John Grange was “a Spanish-speaking son of Irish Americans who helped rebuild the impoverished South Bronx parish where he was raised into a more hospitable and promising place for Hispanic immigrants,” according to The New York Times.

Grange was so immersed in the lives of his immigrant parishioners he once claimed, “I think I’ve lost my Irish identity.”

That’s not what I think. I think he found a new way to express his Irish identity which was a perfect fit for the 21st century.

Read more: Everyday is St Patrick’s Day, what would we be if not Irish

(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com)

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