Where Does Your Family Come From?

I used to think a belief in democracy was one of the qualities that all Americans share. Not these days. I used to think an essential optimism and positive belief in the future was at the core of what defines Americans. That attitude, while still powerful, has become more challenging. I might argue that a commitment to individualism and the right to choose one’s own path is central to what drives and describes Americans. In contrast, collective ideas like the American Dream—work hard and you will have a better life—don’t hold sway the way they once did.

But in an effort to consider what defines Americans, I always return to the fact that almost everyone inhabiting the United States came from somewhere else (with the exception of indigenous populations, which today are estimated at about 2 percent of the total country). When I used to live outside the US, I was always struck by how immigrant stories were so essential for understanding the experience of being in America. That view is surely influenced by my own background since my father was born in Berlin and escaped Nazi Germany when he was 10.

So for this Saturday discussion, I thought we all may have something to share by reflecting on family heritage and answering the question: Where does your family come from? Maybe you’d like to share what that journey from somewhere else looked like or how far back in your family tree you go to recall it. Or maybe your definition of that question takes you to a particular city or town in America where your family has lived for generations. (In my case, that city is Chicago on my mother’s side, my hometown.) With all of our different experiences and histories, with all of our remarkable diversity, a journey from somewhere else (and, embedded in that, a hope for something better) connects us.

Photo credit: Uwe Krejci via Getty Images.