Author: Matthew Masur

History in the Age of Trump: Immigration (Part II)

Part II

Part I of this post explored parallels between the 1924 immigration law and President Trump’s 2017 executive order restricting immigration to the United States. Links in this essay will open PDF copies of New York Times articles from the 1920s. Links should open in a new window.

While the lessons of history may be ambiguous, we can learn a lot about our own society by looking at how we understand past events. The first part of this post was inspired in part by a picture on Facebook:


There are numerous problems with this meme, not least of which is the attempt to use the past to suggest that the ancestors of white Americans were more noble or patriotic than recent immigrants to the United States. To suggest that early 20th-century Italian-Americans were much more likely to assimilate than their modern counterparts is likely not true. In fact, Italian-Americans in the early 1900s had a reputation that was not all that different from immigrants today. Italians attempted to preserve their culture, often in the face of intense pressures to “Americanize.” Moreover, some native-born Americans questioned whether Italians’ religious faith—in this case, Catholicism—was compatible with American civic life. In other words, Italian-Americans were not that different from other immigrant groups that came to the United States, both at the time and in recent years.

There was another element of the Italian-American experience that bears interesting parallels to today. In 1919 and 1920, terrorists launched a series of deadly bombings in the United States. The culprits were American anarchists who may have been inspired by Luigi Galleani, an Italian-American radical based in Lynn, Massachusetts. The great majority of Italian-Americans were not involved in anti-government activities, let alone deadly bombings. Nevertheless, some Americans came to believe that immigrants—especially Italian ones—represented a very real and dangerous threat to the nation’s security. Galleani was deported in 1919, along with several other Italian radicals. A Justice Department crackdown on radicals included a 1920 raid in Paterson, New Jersey that led to the arrest of twenty-nine Italian anarchists.


Italian Anarchist Luigi Galleani

In this climate of anti-immigrant and anti-radical hysteria, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti gripped the nation’s attention. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were two Italian-Americans who were accused of murdering a guard during a robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1920. The two men, who were alleged to have ties to Galleani, were tried, convicted, and eventually executed in 1927. Though their culpability has been debated (and research suggests that one or both of the accused were in fact involved in terrorist activities), most historians argue that their trial was hopelessly compromised by the virulent anti-immigrant and anti-radical views of the period.

The fate of Sacco and Vanzetti brings us back to the issue of immigration that started Part I of this post. The 1924 immigration law ostensibly protected the United States from dangerous elements who wanted to destroy American society. Italian-Americans were the victims of these policies. Today, Italian-Americans who want to denounce recent immigrants for their failure to assimilate look back nostalgically to a time when, in their understanding, their great-grandparents came to the United States and admirably and enthusiastically transformed from Italians to Americans. This characterization obscures the long history of nativism in the United States and the debates about security that have often informed immigration policy. It also does a disservice to earlier generations of immigrants, who face intense prejudice and opposition–not unlike immigrants today.

Note: The Donald Trump presidency has already caused historians and other observers to look to the past for parallels and guidance. Some commentators have emphasized that Trump’s policies bear striking similarity to earlier periods in American and European history. Others have emphasized that Trump’s administration has broken with longstanding traditions in American political life. This series will attempt to place Trump’s presidency in a historical perspective in a way that contributes both to our understanding of past events and current affairs.


History in the Age of Trump: Immigration (Part I)

Part I

Note: The Donald Trump presidency has already caused historians and other observers to look to the past for parallels and guidance. Some commentators have emphasized that Trump’s policies bear striking similarity to earlier periods in American and European history. Others have emphasized that Trump’s administration has broken with longstanding traditions in American political life. This series will attempt to place Trump’s presidency in a historical perspective in a way that contributes both to our understanding of past events and current affairs.

**Links in this essay will open PDF copies of New York Times articles from the 1920s. Links should open in a new window.

The images are striking: immigrants stuck in limbo, having arrived in the New York but detained and denied entry due to new, stricter immigration regulations. Those affected include men who risked their lives fighting for the United States who now find that they are unwelcome in the country they defended. In one case, a woman from the Middle East arrives in the U.S. to be reunited with her husband, a religious cleric who had come to the country legally more than a year earlier. The woman and their young daughter are taken into custody and then ordered to return home, prompting a frantic legal battle over their future.


Holding area at Ellis Island.

These stories do not describe events that took place in the past week—they describe conditions in 1924, just after Congress passed legislation that dramatically reduced the number of immigrants eligible for entry into the United States. The new law created bottlenecks at American ports, including Ellis Island. Critics of the law were dismayed to note that soldiers who had fought in World War I but later left the country found themselves stranded, uncertain of when they could return. Other opponents complained that the law unfairly targeted certain ethnic groups. Italians, who had made up a large percentage of immigrants to the United States since the early 1900s, saw their numbers slow to a trickle. Religious minorities also suffered under the new law; the family mentioned in the opening paragraph were Jews from Palestine.


On this blog, we try not to overstate the link between past and present. Immigration restrictions in 2017 are not the same as in 1924; America now is very different from America then. Nevertheless, President Trump’s executive order has drawn attention to America’s historic position as a beacon for immigrants, along with its equally long history of trying to exclude “undesirables.” Trump’s critics are right: his executive order is un-American, a betrayal of our core principles. At the same time, it is also quintessentially American, a modern manifestation of the nativist tendencies that have always existed in this country.

Part II of this post explores the fears that immigrants in the 1920s were violent radicals who threatened the American way of life. It will also consider how that history relates to current attitudes, and provide another illustration of how past events can be misconstrued in a modern context.

Last Day–heading home from Havana

On our last day in Cuba we had the morning in Havana before we had to leave for the airport. This gave us all a chance to pack and do some last minute shopping. Several of the students went back to the market, and others went on a mission to buy some coffee to bring back to the states.


The professors on the trip decided to take a walk near the hotel, where we passed the Club Capablanca, a famous chess club. Sadly, it was closed—seemingly permanently. Then we tried to find an antique car so we could take a spin down the Malecon and have a cup of coffee.


Initially most of the cabs were occupied, but we finally ended up in a rather beat-up old green Ford. We took a ride to the old section of town, where we had a great cup of coffee while watching the activity on the local square. For our return to the hotel we hailed this stunning metallic orange ’57 Chevy convertible. It was a great way to end the trip in style.


As a final souvenir, just before getting on the bus for the airport, I took a picture of a mural on the wall near the hotel. It traced Castro’s journey before returning to Cuba in 1958. I’ll be interested to see if it is still there when we return–perhaps in 2017.

Bay of Pigs Museum and Trinidad

After a relaxing evening on the beach, the next morning we visited the small but interesting museum dedicated to the Bay of Pigs invasion. The tour started with a short propaganda video. Then we browsed the leftover military equipment and other relics from the invasion.

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Not surprisingly, the museum presented a rather nationalistic account of the invasion, which pitted American-backed “mercenaries” against heroic Cubans.

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After the museum we hopped back on our somewhat trusty schoolbus for the drive to Trinidad. The trip took us through more of rural Cuba, where we saw rice, sugar cane, and tropical fruit production. The bumpy roads were also dotted with occasional propaganda posters, including the most explicitly anti-American billboard that we saw on our trip.

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We arrived in Trinidad around lunch time. Trinidad is a beautiful old colonial town that was once a center of sugar production nestled in the Escambray Mountains.

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The cobblestone streets, brightly colored walls, and terra cotta tile roofs lend the city its distinctive character.

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While in Trinidad we took a tour of a home that had been owned by a family that had earned its wealth in sugar production. The house was kept in excellent condition and decorated with antique china, furniture, and art.

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We left Trinidad in the late afternoon for our long return trip to Havana. Although it took us several hours to get back, the journey was made easier by this beautiful sunset (and the Bucaneros that we picked up at a rest stop along the way).


Santeria, Salsa, and the Bay of Pigs

On Wednesday we had our final academic lecture. The speaker was diplomat-turned-academic Dr. Carlos Alzugaray. He spoke to the students about the historic shift in U.S.-Cuban relations announced in December 2014. He also outlined some of ongoing points of contention between the two countries, including the future of Guantanamo, payments to Americans for lost property during the 1959 Revolution, and Cuba’s inclusion on the State Department list of states that sponsor terrorism. Dr. Alzugaray’s connections to the Cuban government and the timeliness of the topic made this an especially interesting lecture.

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After Dr. Alzugaray’s lecture we had a brief closing ceremony and received certificates from the Marti Center. Somewhat unexpectedly, the staff of the center asked if one of our students would say a few words about our experiences in Cuba. Sam gamely volunteered (or, more correctly, we volunteered him) and he offered a heartfelt thanks to our friends at the Marti Center.

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After the lecture we visited the Guanabacoa Museum, a museum dedicated to the practices of Santeria. The museum was off the beaten path, and it was our first time really venturing out of the city center. The museum itself did not have the impressive architecture or exhibit space of the Fine Arts Museum, but it was fascinating nonetheless. Among other things, we learned that initiates to Santeria wear all white clothing, a phenomenon we had witnessed several times around Havana.

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When we left the museum we drove back to the main part of Havana. We passed a group of Cubans gathering to commemorate the explosion of La Coubre, a ship that was bringing weapons to Cuba in 1960 that mysteriously exploded, killing almost 100 people. I was not familiar with this episode, but it occupied an important place in Cuban memories of U.S.-Cuban relations. Cubans described the explosion as another example of America’s historic efforts to protect its interests on the island. We ended our afternoon back at the Jose Marti Center with a short salsa lesson. I have some video of our lesson, but I think I will do everyone a favor and keep it under wraps. We actually did pretty well, considering the fact that none of us had any experience with salsa dancing.

On Thursday morning we all boarded a somewhat rickety school bus for a trip to Playa Giron, the beach where the Bay of Pigs invaders landed in 1961. One the way we saw–you guessed it–some old automobiles and some propaganda posters.

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We also stopped at a “nature center” where they had a crocodile (cocodrilo) breeding area. Sam paid a peso to feed the animals; you can just barely see the food in the crocodiles mouth and the wire running up to the top of the photo.

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Our hotel at Playa Giron had this nice painting on the wall. Am I the only one who thinks the guy on the bottom left in the blue shirt looks a little bit like Barack Obama? I’m not sure what to make of that.

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After several days in the city it was nice to spend some relaxing time on the beach. But our time at Playa Giron was only meant for relaxation. For our class we had read a book about the Bay of Pigs landing, so standing on the beach we could compare the information from the book with our own observations. Several students found that being at Playa Giron gave them a more complete understanding of why the mission ultimately failed.

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Of course, for some of our time on the beach we put our academic discussions to rest and simply enjoyed our surroundings.

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More Havana: Art, anti-Americanism, and Automobiles

Tuesday morning we returned to the Jose Marti Center for another lecture. It was probably our first exposure to a strict “party-line” account of U.S.-Cuban relations during the Cold War. The lecturer showed a rather one-sided Cuban documentary on American policy after Castro came to power. Students had a chance to ask questions, but the answers were long and unresponsive, and tended to repeat the points in the movie. The second lecture, unfortunately, was missing all the things that made the previous day’s lecture so good: enthusiasm, a spirit of inquiry, and respect for the audience.


After the lecture we went to lunch. I hadn’t noticed the day before, but the restaurant had a poster showing the “Cuban Five.” One of them had apparently dined at the restaurant a couple of weeks earlier, shortly after he was released as part of the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations.

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Our next stop was the Havana Museum of Fine Arts. On the way there we passed the Jose Marti statue on the Malecon. The statue points at the U.S. Interests Section. Nearby is a memorial to Cuban victims of terrorism, particularly those Cubans alleged to have been killed in American operations. Cubans apparently demonstrate at the memorial to show their opposition to American policy, such as during the Elian Gonzalez dispute. A little further down the road we saw this mural of Che Guevara. Taken together, the lecture, the memorial, and the Che mural showed that opposition to the U.S. government is still prevalent in Cuba. Nevertheless, the personal encounters we had during the trip were almost all friendly and warm–even when people knew that we were Americans. The Cubans we spoke to often pointed out that they had problems with the American government, not the American people.


The Museum of Fine Arts was great. Unfortunately pictures weren’t allowed in the exhibit halls, but I was able to take this photo in the courtyard. We spent most of our time looking at Cuban painting from the 20th century, many of which seemed heavily influenced by Picasso and other Cubist painters.

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After the museum we stopped at a local market. The students shopped for souvenirs, including hats and jerseys from the Havana Industriales, the local baseball team. The adults decided to go next door for a cold beverage. Then we all headed back to La Habana Vieja for some more sight-seeing–and a little bit of contemplation.

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Before heading back to our hotel we stopped to look at some of the old taxis parked near the Malecon.


Professor Pajakowski had been hoping we’d see some Studebakers, which were manufactured in his hometown of South Bend, Indiana. We didn’t have any luck, but then he spotted a bright pink car about a hundred feet away and we walked over to take a look. There, parked away from the Chevys and Fords, was a lone Studebaker. I think Professor Pajakowski had to resist the urge to ask to take it for a spin.

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First Full Day in Cuba

By the time we arrived in Havana it was dark, so the first thing I did in the morning was look out my hotel window. This is what I saw.

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I immediately noticed the cars. I had heard about all of the old cars in Cuba, but I still never got used to seeing so many brightly colored antique (by American standards) automobiles. The other thing I noticed was the buildings. It didn’t appear like a single building had been constructed in the last forty or fifty years. The most “modern” buildings in the skyline appeared to date from the 1950s or maybe the 1960s, but not later.


This is not to say that the city didn’t have its charm. We were only a few blocks from the ocean, and the rising sun reflected off the windows of a nearby building. Compared to Manchester, where the temperature was in the single digits, Havana was not bad!

After breakfast we all boarded a bus to head to the Center for Jose Marti Studies, our academic home during our time in Cuba. The Marti Center is located in a beautiful house where Jose Marti’s son lived. The bus ride to the Marti Center brought us along the Malecon, Havana’s seaside roadway.

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At the Marti Center, Dr. Pedro Pablo Rodriguez gave a lecture the life of Jose Marti. It was an excellent lecture, covering Spanish colonialism, Cuba’s complicated racial history, and Marti’s life and political activities. It was informative and engaging, and I’m not just saying that because Dr. Rodriguez is a fellow historian. The white board at the end of the lecture reminded me of some of the best classes that I had taken as an undergraduate.


After the lecture we went to lunch, followed by a visit to the Jose Marti memorial. The memorial is a large tower overlooking a wide boulevard and surrounded by some of the key government buildings. Two of the nearby buildings are adorned with images of the revolutionary heroes and Castro confidantes Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.

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The inside of the memorial has ornate mosaics with quotations from Jose Marti. Unfortunately, we could not make it to the top of the tower because the elevator was out of order. Outdated or malfunctioning technology and crumbling infrastructure are, unfortunately, quite common in Cuba.

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We rounded out our first full day in Havana with a walking tour of La Habana Vieja–the old section of Havana. Here the buildings are old but architecturally impressive and full of charm. People strolled about, kids played soccer in the square, and street musicians performed for the tourists.

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We were there at just the right time of day. The setting sun cast a glow on the surroundings and the moon was visible over the historic buildings.

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Stay tuned–more to come . . . .