Names, Identity, and Immigration

Names play an important role our identities.  The selection or creation of a name can be an important statement of independence or connection. Often they carry family or cultural stories.

Stories about changing names are often associated with the experience of migration. A new name for a new identity in a new land.  Some newcomers feel that by changing their own names they might be able to integrate into a new society more easily or face less discrimination based their foreign sounding names. Others tell different stories, many families believe that their family names were changed at the whim of immigration officials, like in the famous Ellis Island scene in Godfather II when Vito Andolini becomes Vito Corleone.

However, Alicia Ault of Smithsonian.com explains that was rare.

On the record-breaking day of April 17, 1907, almost 12,000 immigrants were processed, according to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.

While that seems like a set-up for fudging a difficult name into the record books, or maybe even just making the best guess on a name that perhaps a nonliterate immigrant might not know how to spell correctly, it didn’t go down that way at all, Urban says. Name changes “could happen, but they are not as likely as people have been led to believe,” he says.

Ellis Island inspectors were not responsible for recording immigrants’ names. Instead, any error likely happened overseas.

To leave the home country—whether Italy, Slovakia, Austria, Poland or elsewhere—immigrants had to purchase a place on a ship—whether bound for New York or one of the other U.S. ports accepting immigrants.

At the shipping line’s station in Europe, a clerk wrote the passenger’s name in the ship’s manifest, sometimes without asking for identification verifying the spelling.

In the classroom, discussions about names can provide opportunities to build community, open up conversations about culture, engage students in the study of history through first person stories, explore literary characters, and to foreshadow the dilemmas of integration. Below are selected links to resources that you might use to open conversations about names, identity, and integration.

Let us know if these resources are helpful.  If you have other suggestions, pass them along.  We are hoping to learn from the great work that you many of you have already begun.

Adam Strom is the Director of the ReImagining Migration Project. Throughout his career, Mr. Strom has connected the academy to classrooms and the community by using the latest scholarship to encourage learning about identity, bias, belonging, history, and the challenges and opportunities of civic engagement in our globalized world. The resources developed under Strom’s direction have been used in tens of thousands of classrooms and experienced by millions of students around the world including Stories of Identity: Religion, Migration, and Belonging in a Changing World and What Do We Do with a Difference? France and The Debate Over Headscarves in Schools, Identity, and Belonging in a Changing Great Britain, and the viewer’s guide to I Learn America. Before joining the ReImagining Migration Project, Strom was the Director of Scholarship and Innovation at Facing History and Ourselves.

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