It’s not just on St. Patrick’s Day that I am proud of my Irish heritage, but it seems my heart fills with joy this time of year especially as I remember my paternal grandmother’s family that came from Ireland to Boston in the late 1800s. In honor of the Sullivans and Troys, I drink a pint of Guinness with honor and reverence every March 17. I eat potatoes almost every day because they are delicious and locally produced, but also because they are what my ancestors have eaten for centuries.
This is not to say I’m not proud of the other branches of my heritage. I’m part French, part English, and part Danish, I’m told. Each part of me represents a journey, a struggle, and hope for a new life in the United States free from persecution and full of opportunities.
For the Irish immigrants who came to the U.S in the 1800s, life was particularly hard. They left Ireland due to a famine, during which people died for lack of potatoes. It’s hard to imagine what it was like to be without your staple crop, to watch family and friends die and to sail to a new country not knowing what awaited you.
Today it is cool to be Irish, but at the time it was hard to be an immigrant. Instead of celebrated they were discriminated against. Laws such as prohibition were passed specifically targeting Irish immigrants.
Yet today as we tap our feet to “Whiskey in the Jar” and eat corned beef and cabbage, there are immigrants fleeing starvation across our borders and we have built a wall and send them back. Today, Central Americans and Mexicans are hungry, without opportunities and desperate to provide a better life for their children. We, the children of immigrants, are closing the borders and calling them “illegal aliens.”
Mexicans and Central Americans depend on corn. It has been the staple crop for centuries, and is not only their food for daily tortillas but also a huge part of their culture. One of my favorite things to do when visiting El Salvador or Honduras is to watch the women grind their corn and make tortillas for the day, which they eat with every meal.
So what happened? After the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA, passed, cheap subsidized corn from the United States flooded the Mexican market. Farmers who grew their own corn or sold a little in the local market could no longer compete with the low-quality, cheap U.S. corn. Fertilizer prices jumped up, and the price of corn dropped. According to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, approximately 1.7 million small farmers have been forced off their land since NAFTA passed in 1994.
Protests in Mexico against this trade policy have made a rallying cry: “Sin Maiz, No Hay Pais,” or, “Without Corn, there is No Country.”
I ask myself, what would I do if there were no jobs and I couldn’t afford to feed my children or send them to school? Would I make the long and dangerous journey to work in a country where I was discriminated against? Would I seek out the lowest paying, hardest jobs and save all of my money to send home? Yes, I would.
NAFTA has hurt Maine, too. Thousands of Maine manufacturing jobs went sent overseas, devastating small Maine mill towns. Some of those workers now work out of state all week and drive home to see their families on the weekends, so they can provide for their children.
I wonder when this corn crisis of the late 1990s and early 2000s will be understood as we now understand the potato famine. Unlike potato blight, this is a manmade crisis, based entirely in our international economic policy.
This St. Patrick’s Day, let’s take a look at the way we treat all immigrants.
Sarah Bigney of Bangor is an organizer with the Maine Fair Trade Campaign.