PITTSFIELD — An immigrant is someone who comes to a country to live there, and with each person who migrates from place to place comes their heritage — traditions, achievements, beliefs, etc., that are part of the history of that person's place or group of origin.
It's why, in downtown Pittsfield, Mass., you can find markets selling British, African, European, along with American goods, and why in Brattleboro, Vt., you can find both Mexican and pan-Asian restaurants, French crepes and Turkish chicken Kokorech.
Throughout June, celebrities and lay community people alike have been observing and celebrating the third annual Immigrant Heritage Month, by going beyond the political rhetoric of immigration by simply sharing stories and showing cultural and historic contributions.
Writes Pittsfield resident Isabelle Kaplan in a reflection of Immigrant Heritage Month, "Any page of our phone directories shows the diverse origins that identify us in our communities. The names of businesses around the Berkshires show the contribution of our immigrant population to our economy. ... Because of this heritage, immigration defines each one of us, defines our communities and defines our country."
Kaplan, who serves as a board member for Pittsfield's Berkshire Immigrant Center (BIC), also notes that for most immigrants, whether they came over on the Mayflower or via airplane last week, the journey is almost never easy. Since the first Pilgrims arrived in 1620 to the shores of what eventually became the United States of America, people have struggled to adapt to a new surroundings and cultures, while finding new homes, looking for work and making friendships. Nowadays, immigration involves passports and visas, and a complex and lengthy process to naturalization, in addition to all the same obstacles and adjustments as those who have gone before.
In the Berkshires, the BIC helps with easing burdens and providing logistical legal assistance to those looking to resettle.
Berkshire Immigrant Center Program Coordinator Brooke Mead said she hopes the Immigrant Heritage Month campaigns can help remind people that immigrant stories belong to the heritage of the majority of this nation, hence the need to help new immigrants settle and succeed just like their predecessors.
"We do feel like there's always more need for outreach about the importance of immigrants in our country, our state, and our county," Mead said.
Kaplan noted that according to survey data, 41 percent of storefronts on North Street, and more than 100 businesses county-wide are owned by immigrant entrepreneurs and business professionals, including 25 percent of all hotels and travel lodging in the area.
Because immigrants are an integral factor in population stabilization and economic growth in the Berkshires, Mead said that more agencies are lending their support to helping Berkshire Immigrant Center sustain its outreach. She said that the center has met with 1Berkshire, an economic development and marketing agency, to develop ideas, and earlier this month, the city's Interprint and Unistress Corporation pledged $5,000 to match all contributions made to Berkshire Immigrant Center, a 501 (c) 3 charitable organization, until July 4.
So far this year, the center helped over 150 people on their path to citizenship, and serves more than 800 immigrants and their families each year by offering direct services, referrals, legal and procedural counseling, and general support free of charge or at below-market cost.
But the agency, which also serves residents of neighboring Connecticut, New York and Vermont, only has two and a half case workers, and relies heavily on grants and volunteers, along with fiscal and programmatic oversight from the Massachusetts Immigrant Refugee Advocacy.
"There really isn't institutional investment in immigration," Mead said, which is another story.
But there is some growing support of the immigrant narrative and heritage, locally, statewide and nationally.
To help kick off Immigrant Heritage Month, Berkshire Interfaith Organizing on June 5, joined like groups in other cities — including Lawrence, Lowell, Haverhill, Fitchburg, and Swampscott — to show support through a public heritage celebration. Pittsfield's event was held on Park Square.
"Immigrants make huge contributions to Berkshire County; they constitute an increasingly important part of our community and our economy," wrote the Rev. Joel Huntington, of the South Congregational Church UCC.
Back on April 11, the 20th anniversary of Immigrants' Day was observed at the Massachusetts State House.
And throughout June, celebrities and public officials living and working the U.S. have backed up the #IAmAnImmigrant movement, ranging from actors George Lopez, Tracee Ellis Ross and Alan Cumming, to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who have been sharing stories about their blended American heritage.
Kaplan noted how integral corporations, like Yahoo and Google, were started by immigrants, and how historical achievements have also been achieved and shared by immigrants, from the theories of Albert Einstein to the music of Yo-Yo Ma.
"Want it or not, we are a nation of immigrants. Immigration is our history and it is our story," she said.
Learn more about or contribute to Berkshire Immigrant Center at http://berkshireic.com or by calling 413-445-4881.