Remarks at National Immigrant Integration Conference 12-12-16


Indya Kincannon
(865) 215-2040

400 Main St., Room 691
Knoxville, TN 37902

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9 a.m. Monday, December 12, 2016
Omni Nashville Hotel, 250 5th Ave South
Nashville, TN

(Mayor Madeline Rogero delivered these welcoming remarks at the opening session of the conference, following remarks by Mayor Megan Barry of Nashville and country singer Emmylou Harris. Photo: Mayor Rogero at the conference with Drocella Mugorewera, Executive Director of Bridge Refugee Services.)

Good morning! Are y’all having a good time in Tennessee? We’re glad to have you here.

Emmylou (Harris), you are a national treasure. I have been a fan for a long time. It is inspiring to see such a great artist dedicate herself to this work!

Mayor Barry, thank you for hosting us this week in your fantastic city, and thanks for your leadership on this and so many crucial issues that affect us.

I appreciate our close working relationship and our work with other Tennessee mayors, particularly those of us known as the Big Four – Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga. 

This is a state with great cities – and as we all know, cities across America are the frontline for issues of immigration and diversity.  

We face the challenges and rewards of bringing together people from many different backgrounds, ethnicities, nationalities and cultures.

Cities don’t set national immigration policy, though we are severely affected by its inadequacies. 

Regardless, throughout our nation’s history, cities have been the beacons of opportunity, and the economic engines that have attracted newly arrived immigrants and refugees.

Apart from Native Americans, all of us, or our ancestors, came here from somewhere else – willingly or unwillingly. All our families have arrival stories, whether they’re from last week, last decade, or hundreds of years ago. 

It’s important that we know and remember our own stories, for it informs our work and opens our heart, and broadens our understanding of the hopes and the struggles of immigrants today. 

We are about to discuss the South as America’s new gateway for immigrants. It’s interesting for me to note that my ancestors came as immigrants to the south almost 250 years ago.

I’m often asked about my last name – Rogero. It doesn’t sound like it’s from around here, does it? My Rogero ancestors came in 1768 from the Spanish island of Menorca in the Mediterranean Sea.  

They came as indentured servants with their parish priest and 1,400 others on eight ships (mostly Menorcans and some Greeks and Italians) to work on an indigo plantation in New Smyrna, Florida.

They endured malaria and abusive and exploitive conditions before fleeing north to St. Augustine where they settled and made their home.  

Today, 248 years later, the city of St. Augustine still honors those immigrants and their history with an annual Menorcan Festival and a statue in the courtyard of the Catholic cathedral honoring Father Pedro Camps and the Menorcan families. 

Now, on my mother’s side, my Italian ancestors, they didn’t arrive until 1885. My great-great-grandfather brought his family to Florida to escape the constant border wars that he feared his sons would be forced to fight.  

They moved from the city life of Ronca in northern Italy, and after being swindled in a real estate deal, ended up in the rural outskirts of Jacksonville, Florida.  

My great-grandmother Domatilla at 16 years old wasn’t happy about moving from the city life she loved to being a poor country girl. That’s probably why she always looked so sad in family photos.

But it was my Italian grandparents who really feared for their family. They raised 10 kids in Jacksonville during World War II when Mussolini was in power in Italy and Japanese-Americans were being hauled off to internment camps. My grandfather feared that Italian families would be rounded up too.

He also feared the KKK, which had one of their most powerful chapters in Jacksonville at that time. The KKK also hated Catholics and immigrants, so my mother and her nine siblings were taught to walk the long way home to avoid where the KKK was known to be.

So, we could go around this room and hear story after story.  And I love to hear the stories – of Europeans, Asians, Africans, Middle Easterners, Latinos, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists.

The stories are all different, but many of them share a similar foundation: a search for better lives, opportunities, escape from oppression, and also struggles to be accepted and welcomed in their new homes.

In the mid-1970s, I was fortunate to work with Cesar Chavez, helping to organize farm workers in California. 

The immigrant families I met there – Mexicans, older Filipinos, and even Arabic-speaking young men from Yemen – these immigrants were similar to my own ancestors: hard-working, dedicated, and often exploited. 

The nationalities change, but the challenges remain the same.  

That is why it is more important than ever that we speak up, and that we reaffirm our commitment to be open and welcoming – to respect the value and the dignity of all of our residents. 

We must be unafraid to say what we know to be true: 

That the diversity of our cities, our states and our nation is a great strength, not a weakness;

That every new wave of immigrants and refugees for the past 250 years has faced intolerance and bigotry from those who came before;

That each of those waves of immigrants – documented and undocumented alike – has fueled our growth, enhanced our culture, and enriched our communities; 

And that every time we have let fear of newcomers drive our politics and our policies, we have made terrible mistakes that have betrayed the spirit and the promise of our founding.

So that’s why we are here.  When I look around this room, I am so very optimistic that together we can and we will uphold the spirit and promise of these United States of America.

Thank you all for being here, and thanks to the National Partnership for New Americans and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition for hosting this important conference. Thank you.