The Great American Table

Originally published in the Express on March. 15, 2016

“They all come to look for America.”

            -Simon and Garfunkel

We celebrate St. Patrick’s Day for the same reason we celebrate Cinco de Mayo: Americans love to drink.

But in celebrating the holiday, people walk the fine line between being appropriate and being racist, which results in many falling into racist behavior.

It’s all with good intentions, however. People are not sitting around and drinking by themselves. They’re hosting parties with family and friends, cooking massive helpings of boiled food to be consumed with absurd quantities of spirits that go beyond the heart’s content.

Through all of the end-of-the-rainbow brouhaha, it’s easy to forget what St. Patrick’s Day is really about.

It is said in Christian lore that St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland after they interrupted him during a 40-day fast.

But as with many legends, the truth is lost within the romantic. St. Patrick was a Catholic missionary who came to Ireland with the intent of spreading the Gospel, using the shamrock as a symbol for the holy trinity (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). As a result of his work and the legends about him, he became Ireland’s patron saint.

This still does not explain why Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. The correct question, though, is why St. Patrick’s Day should be celebrated.

It is said in American lore that the Irish — along with countless other ethnic groups — fled their homes to seek a better life in America.

The immigrant arriving by boat in New York Harbor is an iconic American image. Along with the wave of Irishmen fleeing the Great Famine came the customs of their homeland. St. Patrick’s Day, naturally, crossed as well.

But St. Patrick’s Day should not be just another reason for Americans to party. Instead, it should stand as a symbol of how this country values its people. Since the arrival of those Irish immigrants, their descendants have assimilated into the broader American culture. The diaspora has shrunk since the times of the Great Famine, and today, the Irish occupy only a small corner of the Great American table.

In the latter half of the 20th century and the start of the 21st, immigration from Europe has been reduced. Instead, much of the new American migration comes from countries to the south and the west of the U.S.

It’s time to browse around the rest of the table.

According to Voices of America, 77 percent of Americans choose some form of ethnic cuisine when dining out. Of the top 10 most popular cuisines, four of them are from Asian countries — China, India, Japan and Thailand.

The Pew Research Center says that Asian-Americans are the fastest growing immigrant group as of 2010, making up 36 percent of immigrants in the past decade.

The impact of Asian-Americans in politics, science and the arts have made them great contributors to this country. Take the late Daniel Inouye as an example. He lost an arm as a serviceman in World War II, earning him the Congressional Medal of Honor. He represented Hawaii in the U.S. Senate from 1963 until his death in 2012. During his term, he served as president pro-tempore of the Senate, making him the highest ranked Japanese-American in the country.

Also, let us not also forget the contributions of immigrants from countries to the south. Since the founding of this nation, Hispanics and Latinos have served in every capacity available.

The Huffington Post reported that 17 percent of members of Congress are of Hispanic or Latino descent, the highest percentage thus far.

The Civil War admiral David Farragut was the first Hispanic admiral in the U.S. Navy. He is also known for his heroism at the Battle of Mobile Bay where, legend has it, he said, “Damn the torpedoes — full speed ahead!”

The current United States poet laureate is Mexican-American Juan Felipe Herrera, who also served as the Poet Laureate of California.

In 2015, one of the recipients of the MacArthur “Genius” Award was Puerto Rican composer Lin-Manuel Miranda. His groundbreaking work in musical theater has laid a path for actors of color since his debut musical, “In the Heights.”

It is these achievements and more that give us reason to celebrate the opportunities that this country has created for its immigrant descendants.

It is important to remember the next time you are pinched or drink green beer on March 17 that to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day is an act of honoring the diversity that makes our country strong. It’s sharing what’s on the table.

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