Immigration history told through letters in the 'Heart Connects Us Project'

A heartbreaking collection of letters between American immigrants and their families back home is now on view at the Elmer L. Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota. The exhibition, titled "A Heart Connects Us: Immigrant Letters and the Experience of Migration," is part of a multimedia project of the same name aimed at constructing the emotional portraits of immigrants in the United States. Original letters and translations are interspersed throughout the gallery, along with photographs from Croatian, Finnish, Italian, Hmong, Latvian, and Ukrainian immigrants dating from 1899 to 1990.  

"My Riccardo," writes one woman to her future husband. "Three hours have passed since I left you and still I cannot calm myself from the emotion that I felt." The letter is written to journalist, poet, playwright, and anarchist Alessandro Sisca (whose alias was Riccardo Cordiferro) in 1900. Sisca emigrated from San Pietro, Guarano (Cosenza) to the United States in 1892. Lucia Facio continues: "It's impossible for me to cancel from my mind the silent harrowing scene when the steamboat left. The acute, screeching whistle, I still hear it in my ears like a gloomy echo."  

Another letter writer from Laos writes to a family member in the United States. "There are the ones who died, the ones who starved to death, the ones who became sick and died," writes Va Txong Vue to Yee Cher. "I am going crazy. Just telling you makes me crazy." The letters of the Vue family are actually transcribed from cassette tapes from the 1980s and 1990s between those who left Laos and immigrated to Petoskey, Michigan and those who were left behind.  

The exhibition also contains a documentary by a Latvian researcher who talks about how she currently communicates with her grandmother in Latvia via Skype. "I feel blessed to communicate so freely," she says, especially as her research demonstrates the amount of desperation immigrants have shown in their letters, knowing that they'll never meet again.  

The collection is indebted to the work of Theodore Blegen, who strove to reveal a "grassroots history" through his scholarship at the University of Minnesota and at other institutions. According to materials provided at the exhibition, Blegen, who was a Norwegian-American immigrant, sought a more "human view" of history relevant to the American public. To Blegen, who was the dean of the graduate school at the University of Minnesota, letters were a way of remembering the men and woman whose voices had been overlooked in historical accounts of the early 20th century. He was one of the first scholars to use letters written by immigrants.  

The Heart Connects Us project is part if the Immigration History Research Center's (IHRC) larger Digitizing Immigrant Letters project. In addition to the letters displayed at the gallery, the project is available online, and planning is underway to expand it into a multi-institutional collaboration, connecting letters from both sides of international correspondence when possible.  

A Heart Connects us runs through April 8, 2011 at Elmer L. Andersen Library at 222 21st Avenue South in Minneapolis.  

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