The Imperfect Immigrants

Timothy Egan


VISNJA GORA, Slovenia — Exactly 100 years ago a man of 22 left this village on the eve of a great war to build a life in the United States. To Ignac Vrhovec, the tired old ground of his homeland was tangled in his ancestors’ encumbrances and spent by time. After he left, much of that land would change hands, from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to Italy, to Nazi Germany.

He traveled from an eyeblink of a town created in 1478 to a sprawling nation not even half as old. According to family lore, he arrived in the United States with only one thing of value: an heirloom earring, to be sold if he was desperate for return money. Over time, he made a home in Minnesota, started a family, became a success — the story of the American Becoming, the only difference being that Vrhovec was Slovenian, a distinct minority in the stew of our country’s immigrants.

A few days ago I went to Vrhovec’s village with his granddaughter, Lisa Verhovek, and her husband, Sam (the surname’s spelling was modified at entry, and Sam, a former Times reporter, took his wife’s name). The clouds hung low over the forested hills and when they fell away, we caught views of fresh snow in the Julian Alps to the north. Our hosts brought out dried meat and apricots, and we drank a stiff mountain blueberry wine while trying to talk through the years.

In many ways, it was the perfect reverse journey: an American trying to understand more about herself by touching the stone of her grandfather’s home and connecting to lost kin. But it was not without surprises — in what had become of the side of the family that stayed behind, and the elliptical tales of the young man who walked away from this village in 1913. Vrhovec, like so many American patriarchs, left a past full of permanent mystery.

When I had tried to retrace the steps of my own Irish Catholic forebears, I found that the first American on my father’s side had most likely slipped over a porous border from Canada into Michigan, without official sanction. He was the imperfect immigrant. Today, you would call him illegal, and somebody with a talk radio show would be railing about how his “type” were ruining the country.

At a moment when the United States is poised to do something historic about immigration, it’s worth unearthing the exact details of how Egans, Vrhovecs and millions of others came to America. Very few were on the Mayflower’s manifest. Very few were perfect citizens. They were ordinary only in the way of all people who left behind extraordinary circumstances. Their secrets, in many cases, did not travel with them.

Today, many Republicans, cornered into rethinking their absolutist position by the nation’s inevitable demographics, still oppose a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people who have been in the United States for years. They want storybook immigrants, nothing less — a blanket fantasy. Of course, there are those who waited in line, and had the money or connections or smarts to come into the country clean. But so many others, who are productive, proud Americans in every way but their citizenship papers, started their new lives in the shadows.

Slovenia, the land of Lisa Verhovek’s ancestors, has been independent only since 1991. A country of two million people virtually unknown to most Americans, it has seen many sons and daughters walk away. An immigrant might have been a third child in line, facing a future without a stake in the family farm — the curse of old-world primogeniture. Or he may have been nothing more than an able-bodied male, which meant conscription to an army that couldn’t care less for your stories, your songs, your foods. In every immigrant’s saga, the reason to leave is stronger than the ties that bind.

And throughout Europe today, where so many young people face a bleak, even hopeless future, with unemployment for those under age 30 at Depression-era levels, you see and hear the same stirrings that motivated the 22-year-old from Visnja Gora. As well, history is never far below the surface in the former Yugoslavia: what your father or grandfather did in World War II, or before, when alliances were tangled, is reason for old grudges to fester.

For the American woman returned to her family home, it is enough simply to walk on ground that has long been trampled by Vrhovec feet, to embrace a cousin with the same cheekbones, to visit a graveyard holding generations. The home where Lisa’s grandfather was born, a farm on a steep hill, is empty now and mildewed, with weeds growing from the roof. It seemed sad and cast-away on a misty Saturday afternoon.

But the surrounding countryside is green, overgrown from a springtime of heavy rain, and gardens are planted, full of promise. There are enough children in the village to fill a school — the best sign of tomorrow.

We sat with a young Slovenian friend, Ziga Pirnat, with the translator skills of a scholar and the sensitive ear of a diplomat, and heard fragments upon fragments of stories. It was hard to know the truth. But even with the gaping holes in the forgotten early life of Ignac Vrhovec, you could not help being proud of his old country, for giving us a founding American family, and of his new country, for taking him in.

(Article first published 30 may 2013 in The New York Times)

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