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Pieces in the Prairie Mosaic

Addressing 131 New Americans taking the oath of citizenship in the Sanctuary Events Center, I spoke of the essential tragedy of immigration and the responsibilities of American citizenship, as defined by Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I resume those remarks today to define how immigrants, and all of us, fit into life in this country.

As Americans, you and I accept the definition that Tocqueville stated for us and the charge that Lincoln issued to us. We do not just declare our loyalty to America. We are America. We are not renters or tenants or subjects. We own the country. We have rights, we have opportunities, we have responsibilities.

Among these responsibilities is how we go about fitting into this country. Here is another book. I wrote the introduction for it, but its main author is a great man named William C. Sherman, a Roman Catholic priest--we call him Father Bill. The book’s title is Prairie Mosaic.

Like Father Bill, I am an author. Authors search for metaphors, that is, comparisons and symbols that help us explain things. In writing about newcomers, we authors and scholars used to employ the metaphor of the melting pot. People came here from all over the world, we said, but once they got here, they ceased being Norwegians or Germans, or Bosnians or Somalis. They laid aside not only old loyalties but also old identities, old languages, old traditions, old religions, and they just blended into the general American population.

The metaphor of the melting pot is false. My family still practices the faith of our immigrant forebears, we never gave it up. And I am a card-carrying member of the Sons of Norway, an organization dedicated to preserving the memories and traditions of the old country.

Here, on the cover of Father Bill’s book, is the true and right metaphor for America: a mosaic. A mosaic is a great work of art composed of many smaller pieces. Each of the pieces is beautiful in its own way. We wish to preserve the beauty of each of the individual pieces. The pieces fit together, however, to make something larger, and also beautiful.

The pieces are you and I and the beautiful immigrant cultures we represent. The larger thing, the mosaic, is the United States. The motto of the United States is the Latin phrase, e pluribus unum. It means, out of many, one. It does not say, instead of many, one. It says, from the many comes one. It says that we take our beautiful identities as Norwegians or Germans or Bosnians or Somalis and we fit them together as a mosaic, the United States, the pieces joined to one another by the idea of America.

Welcome, my friends, to the mosaic that is America. And as I close, let me, as an old man, give you one more piece of advice about being an American. To keep America vital and vibrant, we need to tell our stories. Do not forget your own stories, the stories of hardship and hope, of fear and faith. Tell your stories to your children, to your children’s children, and to all the rest of us. Make something of yourselves, achieve your ambitions, but remember the stories, and tell them.

As you pursue your ambitions, and tell your stories, you make America a greater and more perfect union. Thank you.

~Tom Isern

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