Walter Gallacher finds comfort in immigrants’ stories
Post Independent Staff
GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” At a time of sharp debate over immigration locally and nationally, Walter Gallacher is working to remind us that such controversy is nothing new.
He also is helping to put a human face on the subject, highlighting individuals and families whose circumstances caused them to leave their homes and head to the United States.
Gallacher has been making recordings for “Immigrant Stories,” an oral history project of the Community Integration Initiative ” Aspen to Parachute. KDNK Community Radio is airing abbreviated versions of the interviews each Wednesday at 5:45 p.m.
While some of the accounts come from people who are recent immigrants themselves, others are told by people whose own local roots are deep, yet whose families still shared in the common immigrant experience. Among them are Ashton Durrett, Hank Bosco and Stephen Bershenyi, all Glenwood residents with European roots dating back just a generation or two.
Bosco’s dad, Mike, arrived at Ellis Island from Italy at the age of 12, with just $10 in his pocket. He ended up becoming a successful Glenwood Springs businessman and community leader.
“He did quite well for himself, for having come here with nothing. That’s America,” Bosco told Gallacher. “He wasn’t unusual, I don’t think. There were many, many European immigrants who experienced the same thing.”
Gallacher has noticed other parallels in immigration stories, past and present. One is resistance to many newcomers by those already here.
“I mean, they didn’t want the Irish. ‘No Irish need apply’ ” there were signs in the cities. We weren’t really welcoming to the Italians. They couldn’t speak the language, they had a whole different culture.”
Another constant is that new arrivals often have taken on the hard jobs that others get out of once they are better established, Gallacher said. The first generation or two often must make sacrifices to help the family get its footing.
Something else that occurred a century ago, just as today, is illegal immigration. The grandparents of Paul Salmen, a Glenwood Springs physician who also was recorded by Gallacher, may provide an example of that. They headed to the United States from the Middle East, leaving a baby buried in Spain along the way. At Ellis Island, Salmen’s grandfather was turned away after developing pink eye.
The couple instead went to Venezuela, and eventually traveled by land, probably crossing the U.S. border illegally, on the way to Minnesota. They went on to raise “12 proud Americans,” six of whom served in World War II, Salmen said.
Salmen finds meaning today in his grandparents’ story. “We have more to gain than to fear from our neighbors who are attempting to find a better life in America,” he said.
Gallacher said everyone agrees about the need to fix the nation’s immigration system today.
“I just don’t think it’s fair to blame the people who are sort of caught in the middle of that,” he said.
He would like to see more understanding of immigrants’ circumstances. They don’t want to leave their homelands, but are forced to by things such as racial or religious prejudice, or an economy that keeps them locked into life as peasants, Gallacher said. One immigrant he interviewed spent her childhood living through the war in El Salvador, and watching much of her village be eradicated.
Glenwood resident Alexandra Yajko fled with her family from Poland after rising anti-Semitism there in the late 1960s. Gallacher had worked with Yajko at CMC but he never realized what she had gone through until interviewing her. It was just one of several cases in which he had known people but hadn’t known they had compelling immigrant stories to tell. He hopes that by recording their stories, other local residents also will come to have a new appreciation for immigrants and the challenges they have faced.
Salmen believes Gallacher’s the right person to do that job.
“He’s just got a great manner that I think brings out both his interest as well as his acceptance of people from very different backgrounds,” Salmen said.
Contact Dennis Webb: 384-9119
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