When Wellesley resident and Emmanuel College Professor of Sociology Catherine Simpson Bueker began researching the “multi-directional ways” in which immigrants have affected the town over the past 100-plus years, she couldn’t have imagined just how multi-directional that influence might be.
For example, in looking at Chinese immigrants, influences spanned from restaurant menus to healthcare services and from town policies to national politics. On the national front, the Wellesley Townsman editor urged residents in 1943 to write their senators to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act, and in particular called on friends of Soong Mei-ling, aka, Madame Chiang Kai-shek (First Lady of the Republic of China) from her time at Wellesley College. The Act was repealed, and notable thanks to the town came from Dr. Tehy Hsieh, an economist and lawyer from China living in the area who was a major liaison between the Chinese community in the Boston area and established residents.
“This was an example of a small town flexing some muscle in response to a possible federal policy change,” says Bueker, whose research over the years has focused on “the ways in which people engage civically and politically in American society and how they become a part of the public sphere.”
Locally, the owners of Chin’s Village restaurant on Rte. 9 pushed for and won support for changes in local alcohol serving rules. In the community, Chinese cooking classes were being taught in the 1960s by non-Asian residents.
Bueker’s current research focuses on the impact of Chinese as well as Italian and Jewish immigrants and their children on individuals, groups, and organizations—specifically “established” Americans (3-plus generations)—using Wellesley as a case study. Traditionally, these immigrants were concentrated in certain areas of town, such as Jewish residents near the “bird” streets close to the temple, Italian residents near the high school and Italo American Educational Club, and Chinese residents near Hardy Elementary School. Because of this, residents in certain areas of town weren’t necessarily all that aware of what was happening in other parts.
The research tests a theory called “neo-assimilation” which Bueker describes as “the idea that as immigrants enter into the United States, it is not just that they change to become more like ‘established’ Americans (those born in the U.S. to U.S.-born parents), but that established Americans also change.”
Bueker further illustrates the point:
“We often think about our society as being pretty static and closed, kind of like a lake, that individuals enter into. Immigrants swim across the lake and by the time they, or their children, make it across, they have assimilated’ to the waters in which they are swimming. In reality, we know that society is constantly changing, but we don’t think about that day to day. Really, we should think about society, big or small, as more like a river moving through the landscape. The water upstream is different than the water downstream as a result of who enters along the way. The swimmers are changed in the process, but so is the water.”
Data collection has been undertaken by Bueker and 3 student researchers, with Wellesley Townsman archives being a key resource combined with some 80 interviews of lifelong residents as well as community leaders, the local business community, and various organizations (including ours).
Newspaper advertisements have been particularly telling of trends, such as which foods were being promoted in grocery store circulars. Overall, using the archives since the early 1900s has allowed for a consistent longitudinal view of how those immigrant groups have affected the community, whereas the individual interviews provide additional color, detail, and opinion, but rely on people’s not-always-accurate memories.
Here’s a timeline representing the diffusion of Chinese medicine and healthcare practices in Wellesley:
The research is being conducted through a 2-year Russell Sage Foundation grant that goes until the end of 2024, and the output from it will include a book, articles, and a research paper to be presented at the American Sociological Association meeting in Philadelphia this August. Research should be completed by the end of summer.
How the findings might apply to other communities will be nuanced, Bueker says, as immigration varies from place to place, both in terms of the number of immigrants, the level of education of immigrants entering communities, and their income levels. “I do think the findings will be applicable, but with a footnote,” she says.
Erika Hanloser Kliem says
There were German or related, like Austrian immigrants as well in the 1960s forward. The famous “Cheese Shop” and the large German Specialty Food Store near Grove and Route 16. There was also a master German furniture restorer further down, I think on 16. He was fantastic! How do I know, as a Weston resident and first generation German daughter of immigrants and married to a German immigrant, I sought out these specialty stores for visiting relatives and my husband and his brother and family who lived in Wellesley Hills.
Bob Brown says
Thanks for sharing this Erika…