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The Ongoing Story: People on the Move

Study Captures Immigrant Voices and Experiences

A book about immigration in Lowell written by UMass Lowell students
Recent immigrants to Lowell tell their stories in a book for the general public, based on ethnographic research.

By Sandra Seitz

Think immigrants today have an easy time compared to prior generations? 

Not true, say UMass Lowell researchers who have completed a major study on ethnicity and immigration in Lowell.

“People have a common misconception that their own immigrant ancestors found jobs quickly, spoke English and didn’t need any help,” says Asst. Prof. Christoph Strobel, who co-directed the research with Prof. Robert Forrant, both of the History Department.

“In reality, the mills had many entry-level positions that don’t exist today. There were strong ethnic organizations to help newcomers. And it took several generations for people to learn English and become fluent.”

Immigration Makes the City Thrive

“In general, immigrants are good for Massachusetts,” says Forrant. “The skills they bring, their economic and cultural vitality are incredibly important to the region. There would be a lot more empty storefronts” without the recent decades of immigration.

“Migration is an important part of human history,” says Strobel. “People are on the move. Societies that welcome and incorporate them have thrived. Lowell captures that energy.”

Students Help to Write History

To conduct the study, the researchers went to the source, interviewing 35 people who represent recent immigrant groups. They also delved into earlier interviews conducted by staff members of the Lowell National Historical Park. (The Park commissioned the study to bring its historical narrative up to date.) And, they searched through archives in the UMass Lowell libraries and the Center for Lowell History.

The research team included graduate and undergraduate students, who learned about historic research by doing it themselves.

“The research was part of my senior honors thesis project (in history) and I co-authored a chapter on the Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking immigrant groups,” says Scott Walfield, who is a graduate student in criminal justice. 

“It was a great experience to have a close working connection with the professors,” he says. “You don’t get that interaction in a normal classroom setting. Professor Strobel really encouraged me to make conference presentations – that gave me confidence – and to go for a grad program.”

Working with undergraduate students as co-authors “takes hours of editing,” says Strobel. “But it’s very rewarding that they produce scholarly quality work.”

Craig Thomas was a graduate student in the Regional Economic and Social Development program when he helped conduct interviews of immigrants in their homes and at social clubs.

“The principal investigators (Forrant and Strobel) were amazing – my experience was shaped by the opportunities they gave to me,” says Thomas, who also researched the history of specific buildings and their use by successive immigrant groups, part of a separate report on “Ethnicity and Enterprise”.

“I was struck by the incredible variety of immigrant groups that came, and continue to come, to Lowell,” he says. Thomas is an assistant planner with the Lowell Department of Planning and Development.

Immigration’s Common Story

In studying immigrant groups ranging from the early Irish in the 1840s to people arriving within the past 10 years, the researchers found some common elements.

“Most immigration starts with family connection: one comes, others join them, maybe many from the same village or region,” says Strobel. “Then there’s a push to establish institutions – a church, a temple – and the presence of these, with their support networks, attracts more immigrants. Then small businesses and services appear.”

Within an ethnic enclave, an older relative might live her whole life without speaking English, shopping at a mainstream store, or leaving the neighborhood. Yet, right from the beginning, neighborhoods also were ethnically mixed.

Recent immigrants have said they are motivated to move to Lowell by presence of the educational institutions, Middlesex Community College and UMass Lowell. Says Strobel, “These may be people with more professional experience and they want to further themselves through education.”

Variations and Surprises

Not everyone stayed.

“I was surprised by the back migration,” says Forrant. “Up to 50 to 60 percent of some immigrant groups stayed a while and left again, either repatriating to their home country or moving on.” The reasons could be various – from disappointment that the streets were not “paved with gold” as described, to a search for better land or working conditions, or a change in politics in the home country.

Italian immigrant history, for example, shows a lot of serial migration during the period when agricultural blight forced people off the land. Others used their earnings to purchase land in the home country to retire to, a situation that often changed “when grandchildren came along,” says Strobel.

Maintaining ties with the homeland is a common immigrant trait, but French Canadians – who lived less than a day’s travel from Quebec – kept stronger cross-border ties than most and were criticized for a lack of assimilation.

“It’s similar today with complaints about remittances, that immigrants supporting people in the home country are not assimilating and investing in the local economy,” says Strobel. Even back in the early 1800s, the mill owners complained that the immigrants (mainly Greek) impaired their own health and labor efficiency by sending so much of their wages in foreign remittances.

Lowell today is one of the most diverse cities in the United States, and celebrates its immigrant groups – but not in the past.

“It’s ironic that from 1940 to 1970, the move was to tear down ethnic neighborhoods to make room for some vision of a modern industrial city,” says Forrant. “Where Fox Hall stands was French Canadian. A Greek section was obliterated to build public housing after WWII. The Lowell Connector (a large highway) was planned to cut right through the city: it ends where it does because of entrenched opposition from the Portuguese, Latino and African-American families who lived there.”

Two Publications Tell the Story

The interpretive results have been gathered into two publications. For the general public, “The Big Move,” published in 2011 by Loom Press, is a collection of eight interviews that bring to life the experiences of new Lowellians: recent immigrants from Southeast Asia, Africa, India and Brazil. 

“Ethnicity in Lowell” is the comprehensive study – an ethnographic overview and assessment of Lowell that starts with the pre-European settlements, the native Pawtucket and Wamesit communities in the Merrimack Valley. The narrative proceeds through Irish, French Canadian, Greek, Jewish, Polish, Lithuanian and Armenian immigrations. After the U.S. Congress passed laws restricting immigration and establishing quotas in 1924, the flow of people stopped and neighborhoods disappeared.

Since the 1970s, the latest wave of arrivals is changing the city. Southeast Asians, Indians, Africans and Brazilians have arrived, bringing new languages, foods and cultural traditions.

To see and hear some original interviews with with new Lowellians, check out the Immigrant Stories video, a summer research project.

Christoph Strobel, right, with Lowell photographer Jim Higgins at a Loom Press book event.