Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary Source: Photo Gallery

Ethnic Identity

A Sense of Belonging

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Before coming to America, most immigrants didn't think of themselves has being "ethnic." They spoke the same language as everyone else, ate the same foods, went to the same houses of worship, and celebrated the same holidays. They honored the same traditions as their parents and grandparents. They may even have dressed the same and worked the same jobs as generations before. Most everyone shared the same culture -- they were in the majority. (We say "most" because there were minority religious and ethnic groups who came to America to escape discrimination by the "majority.") They "belonged."

Things changed when the newcomers arrived in America! Suddenly, they were different. People spoke a different languages -- and not just English, but the languages of other immigrants, too! Immigrants wondered: Even if others shared your religion, how could you worship together unless you could understand each other? How would your children learn? Who celebrated your holidays and ate the foods you liked? What did people do for fun here in America? How would you make friends? Who could help watch the kids when there were no grandmothers or aunts nearby? How did you find a job without your friends and family's help? Where did you belong?

After seeing how different they were, immigrants longed to belong again. They turned to others who shared their language and culture. Those who had been here a little longer helped the "greenhorns." Together they built churches, schools, clubs, and organizations to make a community. Businesses sold traditional foods, newspapers in their languages reported news from the "Old Country." They identified more with their ethnic group in America than they did back home! (Even today, St. Patrick's Day is more popular in America than it is in Ireland!)

These photographs show some of the many ways immigrants banded together with others in their ethnic groups. How did each of these traditions, events, organizations, or places help new immigrants feel like they belonged?

Click on the images below to view a larger image. To help you see as much as possible from these photographs, use the tool "Reading a Photograph."

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