Where We Come From

First-generation immigrants to the U.S. have a well-attested (a Google search for “the old country” returns over six million hits) but little-studied tendency to romanticise, both in positive and negative ways, their experiences and impressions of their countries of origin. Even if it’s never openly expressed, they will be intuitively aware of the context required to give meaning to their experiences.

If their children choose to identify with their heritage, they end up reconstructing those cultures. Second-generation immigrants, who have no primary experience, unconsciously base these reconstructions on the anecdotal evidence of their parents and their consumption of media. They then invent narratives to fill the gaps, effectively creating new cultures, again unconsciously. The fact that these conceptualisations are fundamentally inaccurate is secondary to their immediate practical function: to maintain and nurture heritage-based communities in an alien and chaotic environment apparently devoid of cultural anchors. Unfortunately they can have catastrophic consequences.


During our short, cloudy Irish summers, the streets of our towns are routinely filled with Americans who are derided for their pathological obsession with genealogy and crass, borderline-racist misunderstandings of Irish culture, all the while insisting that they are as “Celtic” as the rest of us.

Irish people are surrounded by Irishness all the time, like a fish in water. Even if they could communicate, trying to make fish aware of water would be at best redundant, and they might not understand because they have no frame of reference. Irish people reflexively interpret all the hopeless attempts to engage with Irish culture (e.g. wearing green, leprechauns, saying “top of the morning” for any reason) as stereotypical gibberish.

To an American who feels culturally Irish and who has imagined a non-existent version of Ireland, it must be disappointing to save up for a holiday to the land of his great-grandparents just to learn that everyone here thinks he’s a superficial simpleton.

This explains the relatively low-consequence crimes of cultural naivety committed by starry-eyed heritage tourists in Ireland. The consequences of a disordered view of the homeland are significantly higher, however, for descendants of people from, for example, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran or Iraq.

In much the same way that our misunderstandings about how memories are formed is harmless until it’s not, an immigrant community’s misunderstandings about how identities are formed is harmless until it gets people killed.


Most Cuban-Americans are (or are related to) people who left (willingly or unwillingly) around the time of the communist revolution in 1959, which turned Cuba from a more-or-less Roman Catholic fascist playground for rich East-Coast mafiosi into a secular communist thorn in America’s side.

In the early 1960s, in a joint mission with the Vatican called Operation Peter Pan, the US government secretly flew 14,000 Cuban children (whose parents were concerned about what turned out to be baseless anti-Castro propaganda that Cuban children would be sent to Soviet work camps) to Florida. The programme was stopped by the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1966, the US government passed the Cuban Adjustment Act to fast-track citizenship for resident Cubans.

By 2010, the Cuban-American community numbered over 1.9 million, 67% of whom lived in the state of Florida. Most of those are descended from anti-Castro, middle-class, pro-American (regarded by many as traitors and collaborators) or right-wing Cubans. As a result, it has become almost impossible to have a sensible discussion about Cuba in the United States.

For instance, there is a light-hearted show on Netflix called One Day At A Time, a Cuban-themed reboot of the 1970s Norman Lear sitcom. The showrunner is Gloria Calderón Kellett, who is of Cuban ancestry. Whenever the show talks about Cuba under Castro, there is a tone shift from light-hearted entertainment to po-faced preaching. During one of these jarring scenes, a non-Cuban character respectfully listens as the Cuban characters educate him on his Che Guevara shirt. There is another very silly sitcom on Netflix called Mr. Eglesias which also involved Gloria Calderón Kellett as a director. This show also suffers from a similar jarring tone shift whenever the subject of communist Cuba comes up.

We often hear the stories of people who had an unpleasant experience of communist Cuba but there is never any mention of the U.S. support for the corrupt, fascist dictatorship of Batista, to which Castro’s revolution was a direct response, or the U.S. military occupations of Cuba from 1898 to 1902 and again from 1906 to 1909. Any history of the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba is utterly nonsensical without this context.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it would be very difficult to get any criticism of United States foreign policy on a prime-time sitcom. Americans never seem quite ready for the sort of Vergangenheitsbewältigung which did so much to rehabilitate Germany.

Nevertheless, I have spoken to people in Florida who identified as Cuban but who knew nothing of Fulgencio Batista. This may be because their parents never mentioned him and American media has certainly done nothing to redress that balance.


Most Vietnamese-Americans are (or are related to) people who left (willingly or unwillingly) Vietnam in 1974. Some second-generation Vietnamese friends of mine would struggle to outline the cause of the invasion of Vietnam. The given history of Vietnam is: the Chinese occupation; the French occupation; the U.S. invasion; the communist takeover.

The distance between the French occupation and the U.S. invasion was occupied by Ngô Đình Diệm, the Roman Catholic president of Vietnam from 1955 to 1963. At the 1954 Geneva Conference which was convened to discuss the future of Vietnam, he (supported by the U.S. and the Vatican) rejected a general election. Everything that happened during the following decades was fallout from that rejection of democracy.

Most of us will be familiar with the image of Thích Quảng Đức, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, lighting himself on fire in Saigon in 1963 while in a meditation pose. He was protesting not the American invasion but the oppressive Roman Catholic regime. Diệm was deposed in a coup later that year, throwing the country into a carousel of military coups and juntas. Moreover, the monk was not an isolated lunatic. He had the support of the entire Buddhist community in Saigon.

Diệm was part of a long and ongoing tradition of dictators who oppressed entire sections of his people (in this case, Buddhists made up around 80% of the population) but still managed to attract massive American “investment” due to a pathological anti-communist stance.

In an echo of Operation Peter Pan, the U.S. organised another secret evacuation (Operation Babylift) of over 3,000 children for ideological reasons from Vietnam right after Ho Chi Minh took over. During these years, many pro-Americans (regarded by many as traitors and collaborators) and right-wing elements fled to America. Any history of the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam is utterly nonsensical without this context.

Even now, second-generation Vietnamese-American friends of mine, some of whom have never heard of Diệm, were shocked to discover, when finally visiting Vietnam, that it’s a perfectly normal, functional country, in direct opposition to everything they learned to expect from their parents, their social network and their media choices. Even non-Vietnamese Americans are choosing to retire to Vietnam because of the standard of living.


Most Iranian-Americans are (or descended from) people who left (willingly or unwillingly) during the Islamic Revolution in 1979, which turned Iran from a secular fascist dictatorship led by the Shah into an Islamic theocracy led by the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Iranian-Americans who refer to themselves as Persians share images of pre-revolutionary Iran, where men could drink alcohol and women could wear skirts without being arrested. Many of these Iranian-Americans have, in my experience, never even heard of Mohammad Mosaddeq, who led the first democratically-elected government in Iran’s history. That government was overthrown in 1953 by the CIA after Mosaddeq moved to end foreign control over Iran’s oil supplies. He was replaced by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah, who ran the country as a police state.

Twenty years before Mosaddeq’s leadership, that Shah’s father, Reza Pahlavi, enacted Kashf-e hijab in 1936, which banned all Islamic dress. Hijab-wearing women were beaten in public by police, had their headscarves and chadors torn off and their homes forcibly searched. This was also no golden age of secularist democracy for Iranians.

In 1979, Iranians were so sick of the Shah and SAVAK (his brutal paramilitary police force, set up by the CIA and Mossad), foreign control over Iran and the constant waves of strikes that they took to the streets. The Ayatollah Khomeini took over and Iran was turned into an Islamic state by a landslide referendum. Any history of the relationship between the U.S. and Iran is utterly nonsensical without this context.

During these years, many pro-Americans (regarded by many as traitors and collaborators) and right-wing elements fled to America. In the U.S., they are plucky heroes fighting against communist or Islamic oppression, avatars of the American Dream. Their children know little of the outrages of SAVAK. All they “know” is that the young people of Iran are not allowed wear short dresses and they want to drink beer.

In 2011, supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s challenger for president, Mir Hossein Mousavi, took to the streets to protest continuing human rights abuses and what they saw as a rigged election two years previously. The Western media hysterically reported on every tiny detail of the protests, which led their audiences to believe that something interesting might happen. The more sensible money was on a quick return to the status quo, which is what happened, and Mousavi remains under house arrest today.

The Western press loved Mousavi, who lost the 2009 election, because he’s broadly pro-free market and does not believe in going out of his way to annoy the Americans. In any case, the results of the election were inconsequential, because the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the Supreme Leader of Iran, and he’s bulletproof.


A more recent manifestation of the effect of immigration on public discourse and policy concerns the political unrest in Venezuela over the last few years. Anyone familiar with the history of the relationship between the U.S. and Latin America will be alarmed by any American moves to interfere with the largest proven oil reserves in the world.

The U.S. has interfered with every country in Central and South America and on no occasion has that interference resulted in a stable democracy. In fact, on most occasions, it has intentionally removed the democratically-elected government and installed a right-wing dictator. This happened in Guatemala in 1954 and Brazil in 1964 and Chile in 1973. Any history of the relationship between the U.S. and Venezuela is utterly nonsensical without this context. While few Americans may be aware of this painful history, almost all Latin Americans are.

This ignorance is what allows otherwise sensible commentators to come out with things like “the most vehement tweets I see defending Maduro’s regime are in English, and the most vehement ones attacking it and calling for a change in government are in Spanish,” forgetting that most of the working class people in Venezuela probably don’t have the time or the resources to potter around on Twitter explaining themselves to their erstwhile colonial occupiers. Because the main language of Twitter is English and access to both English and Twitter can be socially-determined, it allows us all to form an incomplete picture. For instance, the massive anti-U.S. demonstrations on the streets of Caracas were conveniently omitted from most U.S. media.

So the only Venezuelan voices we hear are those of second-generation immigrants, who, as we have seen, may have a fundamentally disordered view of both the contemporary and historical politics of Venezuela, and right-wing, pro-Americans (regarded by many as traitors and collaborators) and rich people. How else could you explain the decision to publish this tone-deaf article, which might as well have been sub-titled, “Yes, but how does all this affect rich people?”

U.S. Foreign Policy

Is it really possible that American foreign policy has not in any way benefited from, or been influenced by, the hordes of capitalist, right-wing, reactionary opinion formers with a grudge who believe they know what’s best for a country their parents or grandparents left decades ago?

There are many possible reasons for the hyperbole in Western reporting of Cuba and Vietnam and Iran and Venezuela among others, including the perennial problem of yellow-press sensationalism and the political need to position various countries as “the enemy”.

Another reason, almost never spoken about, must be the quality of the sources journalists use to cobble together their stories. As long as journalists and Washington policy-makers rely on information from ex-pats and immigrants, there is a real risk that at least some of the information will be unusable and lead to gross distortions.

In the case of Iraq, for instance, the justification for the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq was based a least partially with the collusion of Ahmed Chalabi (convicted bank fraudster and CIA operative who hadn’t been in Iraq since 1958) and Ayad Allawi (another CIA operative who hadn’t been in Iraq since 1971 and whose organisation, the Iraqi National Accord, was the source of the famously incorrect “45 Minutes” Dossier, which even they admitted was untrue). The necessarily second-hand understanding of the political situation in Iraq by these men turned out to be either exaggerated or demonstrably wrong with tragic consequences for 4,431 American soldiers and 200,000 Iraqi civilians.

America is a land of immigrants, and the immigrant experience distorts reality. If the only voices white Westerners hear when countries destabilise are ex-pats, émigrés living in America and disaffected right-wing citizens, the U.S. will continue to make poor foreign policy judgements and dysfunctional containment strategies.

Barry Purcell is a writer based in Ireland.