Immigration: The Big Picture
Robert Forrant University of Massachusetts Lowell
While emigration to Lowell is sometimes contentious, the world has indeed come to it, changing the cityscape in dramatic ways. Religious and cultural festivals liven the city. Immigrant and refugee entrepreneurs vitalize the business community. In celebrating its century settling immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in Lowell, the International Institute honored 100 of these people and their allies who made a difference in the city. A look at the names of a handful of honorees makes clear the incredible diversity of the individuals and families who eventually made the Mill City home. Through oral histories, images, digital animations, and text, the Library of New England Immigration tells this incredible story.
Tem Chea. Vanna Khim Sik Howard. Joe Hungler. Father Stanislaus Ogonowski. Fred Abasi. Maria Cunha. Victoria Estfan. Lura Smith. George Tsaspatsaris. Tim Chan Thou. Gordon Halm. Jit Magar. Szifra Birke. Frank Carvalho. Deolinda Mello. Luis Pedroso. Sovanna Pouv. Phalea Chea. Hugh Cummiskey.
The site’s integrating themes are Mobility and Transition, Building Community, and Cultural Diversities and Commonalities.
Immigrants are arriving in the United States from all corners of the globe, carrying elements of their cultures with them. A complex process of preserving aspects of their identities while adjusting to a new place and new ways of making a living follows. In Coming to America, historian Roger Daniels notes:
While no person can control completely his or her destiny, and since poor people—and most immigrants were poor—generally have fewer options than do better-off individuals, immigrants were often buffeted by forces beyond their control. But immigrants, and more properly the decision makers in immigrant families, all made at least one crucial decision: They chose to come to America. They were thus, in this sense, movers rather than the moved.
The Irish dug Lowell’s canals and built many of the city’s red brick mills. Newcomers from Armenia, Canada, Eastern Europe, Greece, Lithuania, Portugal, and numerous other countries and regions of the world joined the cotton mill workforce and operated small businesses that catered to the bourgeoning city. This history is observable with a walk through neighborhoods still containing the trappings of that past and the immigrant and refugee present. Neighborhood food stores, ethnic restaurants, social clubs, and religious institutions offer us ways to understand this history. Today, Buddhist Temples, Hindu Swaminarayan, churches that serve diverse immigrant communities, mosques, and restaurants catering to Southeast Asian, Latin American, African, and Indian customers exist throughout the city.
In 2017, 80,376 U.S.-born people lived in Lowell alongside 30,475 immigrants. The top five countries of origin are Cambodia, 24.7 percent; Brazil, 10.5 percent; India, 5.4 percent; the Dominican Republic, 5.1 percent; and Vietnam, 4.4 percent. Although the foreign-born made up 27.5 percent of the city’s population in 2017, they represented 33.7 percent of its working-age population, 34 percent of its employed labor force, and 44.4 percent of its Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) workers. Critically important is that despite making up under 30 percent of the city’s population, immigrants comprised 43.3 percent of Lowell’s business owners, double the national average of 21.1 percent of business owners. Foreign-born households held 31.2 percent of total spending power in the city. Finally, when it comes to education, 25 percent of the city’s U.S. born population aged 25 or older held a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2017 compared to 18.8 percent of immigrants. For an advanced degree, the figures are 10.8 and 7.8 percent respectively.
An Overview of Early History
The story begins with the impact that European colonization had on the indigenous people who lived at the confluence of the Merrimack and the Concord rivers. In the 1600s, two Native settlements existed within the limits of today’s Lowell: Pawtucket and Wamesit. Native Americans in the area were Pennacook, who had settled today’s New Hampshire, Eastern Massachusetts, and Southern Maine. By the conclusion of King Philip’s War (1675-76), they were no longer in the lower Merrimack River Valley. Due to continued English pressure, most Pennacook moved north to join with the Abenaki in Maine or the Western Abenaki in Quebec. Before their forced removal, agriculture played a central role in the Pennacook’s life. Fishing and hunting further sustained their diet and economy. At the time, the Merrimack and Concord Rivers were abundant in fish. Industrialization changed that. Overall, European colonization had a significant negative impact on the Native peoples of New England. Despite missionary rhetoric, conversion to Christianity offered no English protection for Native peoples.
Initially, immigrants hailed mostly from Ireland. By the 1870s, individuals and families arrived from Europe and Canada and comprised the primary source of labor in the mills. In an oral history, William Kyros explained that his father, Constantine Kyriacopoulos, was persuaded by the patrons of a Greek coffeehouse to make a life in America. Impressed by his education, a local priest gave him $50 and directed him to his family in Kentucky. At Ellis Island and short of cash, Constantine’s life took a different turn when a translator suggested that he go to Lowell because of its flourishing Greek community, which he did. He stayed in Lowell all his life.
The Immigration Act of 1924 made it hard for immigrants from eastern and southern Europe like Constantine to enter the U.S. When the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished national origins quotas, Lowell received new streams of global migrants. No longer mostly European, people from Asia, South America, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa turned Lowell into a global city. Just as the presence of foreign-born newcomers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries shaped the city, the latest waves of arrivals are changing Lowell once more. Like earlier generations, newcomers are enriching Lowell with their unique and diverse presence. They own and operate hundreds of businesses, are a significant part of the labor force, and are active participants in and creators of cultural, social, as well as community organizations and institutions.
After suffering population losses for several decades, Lowell’s population rose from 92,418 in 1980 to about 104,000 in 2010. This increase moves counter to the state’s overall population loss. Between 2000 and 2005, for example, Massachusetts had a net loss of 230,000 inhabitants. The state’s loss was somewhat offset by the inflow of 160,000 immigrants, many of whom took low wage jobs in the service, health care, and the ever-shrinking manufacturing sectors. Employment in health care and the service sector—though smaller in numbers than late-nineteenth-century mill employment—served as an entryway into the labor market for new Lowellians. However, it would be naïve to see immigrants only at the lower end of the economic spectrum. Immigrants also filled many of the high paying jobs in technology and medical fields requiring highly skilled and educated labor.
In the nineteenth century, the global industrial revolution and emigration left their marks on the Merrimack Valley. Mills, canals, and a growing population transformed the landscape. At first, industrial producers recruited Yankee women to perform millwork. By the 1840s, growing numbers of Irish immigrants settled in the region. Soon, people from French-speaking Canada, Greece, Portugal, and many other countries joined them. They carried with them their languages, rich customs, deep religious traditions, and aspiration. As the mills grew, employers sent recruiters to Quebec, Greece, Poland, and numerous stops in between for workers.
Frederick Coburn described them as “Adventurous folks from other lands, seeking the advantages of a political democracy… A few members of a nationality establish themselves, and these are quickly followed by others from the same foreign town or countryside.” According to Paul McGouldrick, between the 1840s and the 1880s, the daughters of Yankee yeomen farmers were slowly replaced in the mills by “male and female workers of immigrant origin, who remained the almost exclusive source of labor supply until the 1920s.”
Mill City Mosaic: Voices from Lowell Across Time
John Falante emigrated from Portugal in 1920. He ended up in Lowell after his father died, leaving his mother with seven children. “There was no way to take care of them. So, I had a sister over here in Lowell and when I got to be sixteen she told me I could come over and get a job here and send back little by little what I was making… I got a job in the Tremont Mills.” On that first job, he received $4.00 a week and called it “good money.” Falante recalled that after one week in Lowell, he began attending English language classes in the evening at the Green School on Merrimack Street. He also went to the movies as a way to learn English.
Lowellian Rita Ayotte’s parents were born in Quebec. Her father was nine when he came to Lowell; her mother came with an older sister when she was 15 and had relatives already in the city living in Little Canada. Her father worked in the Suffolk Mill and mother in the Lawrence Mill as a stitcher. Rita’s father was a widow with five children when he married her mother and there were eight more children after that. Rita quit school at 16 and worked in Suffolk Mill for 28 years. “My mother at Lawrence Manufacturing working from 1:30 pm until 10:00 pm. So in the morning, she used to do all of her housework… My mother always worked… With only my father’s pay it wasn’t enough. Then the children were working too.”
Greek immigrant Maria Sampatakakis arrived Lowell at age 12. Finding work in the Merrimack Mills spinning room, said this about the job. “For two weeks, I learned the job for nothing. And then they started giving just a little responsibility on the machines. The pay was $3.00 a week, working from six to six.” Diamond Paleos, born 1906 in Messinia, recalled her sewing circle with other women, repurposing fabric scraps from the mills into children’s clothing. “Twice a week, the people would come, and they give me their sizes for the kids,” she explained. “[Then,] they’ll come the next day to pick them up.” Tales of generosity among neighbors were commonplace. “We had a good life because we were agapimeni (loving each other),” remembered Vasilo Athanasopoulos. “We were not somebody high, somebody low. We were all one, we all wanted to be covered by a roof. We had syggenia (kinship) with one another…All other things are unnecessary.”
Charles Antonopoulas arrived in Lowell at age 21, and “…got 50 cents from a friend, and went and bought a small Greek and English dictionary and tried to learn some English words.” After six months, he got a tailor job in a shop on Central Street. “That shop was the ‘League of Nations’. The owner was Jewish, the cutter and designer were French, the superintendent upstairs in the workshop was Italian. So, we were Italians, and Polish, and Jews about 25 of us working there.” In the 1920s, numerous establishments to drink a cup of Greek coffee dotted the city. “To the men who worked long hours in the sweltering mills, the coffeehouse was their comfort, protection, and reassurance,” described Charles Nikitopoulos. “In the early years, performers and shadow puppeteers traveled the coffee circuit, earning their wages largely in tips. Otherwise, the men smoked, played cards, strummed their mandolins, and talked politics.”
Nearly 70 years later, Colombians arrived in Lowell recruited to help revive the textile industry. As French Canadian, Greek, and Portuguese immigrants before them, they lived in crowded tenements on Merrimack and Market Streets, worked long hours and faced tensions with native and other immigrant workers. Nevertheless, they stayed in Lowell because, according to one worker, “we earned more because we worked so many extra hours, generally twelve, but there were people who worked fourteen, sixteen, and eighteen.” They sent a portion of their wages back to Colombia.
Lucy Rivera’s family came from Puerto Rico in the 1950s when her father was stationed at nearby Ft. Devens. For a while, she was a caseworker at the International Institute of Lowell, helping to settle newcomers in the city. In an oral history, she described the discrimination she and others faced in finding housing. “When they found an apartment, they’d be turned away with different excuses because I had the same experience.” Looking for an apartment in 1972, she answered a newspaper advertisement, but the landlord told her the apartment was taken. Two days later, it was listed in the newspaper again. I called back and the landlord said, “Well, the people before you, they just decided they didn’t want the apartment.” I asked her why she had not called me back and she had no answer. “So, I had the personal experience that you do get discriminated against.”
In a 2008 oral history, Gordon Halm discussed emigrating from Ghana. While in Liberia, he met his wife, who then went to the U.S. in the late 1980s to stay with a brother who was already in the U.S. Still in Liberia when the civil war there started, with help from friends he got out of Liberia and ended up for a time in New York City. Then in 1995, he joined his wife, who already lived in Lowell. Ghanaian Rita Ofori-Frimpong emigrated with a Visa from the Diversity Lottery. As she described it, “A person puts their name in and with very long odds may be selected.” Tooch Van, orphaned in the Cambodian genocide, came to Lowell in a still different way. A delegation from Middlesex Community College (MCC) visit Cambodia in 1995, and Van asked one of the delegation members to dinner. They corresponded for a year before MCC awarded him a scholarship to come to Lowell to study. As Van put it, “That was a ticket for me to come here and live in Lowell.”
Making and Remaking the City
Central to Lowell’s and the country’s history is an ever-changing population story. Newcomers have started businesses, purchased homes, restored old neighborhoods through their sweat equity, and educated their children. In 1900, Greeks owned 19 businesses in Lowell; by 1920, ownership jumped to 232 establishments, including 15 barbershops, 28 coffeeshops, 26 fruit stores, and 33 groceries. Everything was family-owned and sustained through relationships. On weekends, grocers, including the Demoulas family, sponsored neighborhood picnics and trips to the beach aboard their delivery vehicles. “Sunday morning, the streets were filled with families carrying their bags and baskets on their way to Dummer Street and Market Street to board the trucks,” remembered Vasiliki Karas. “At night, when we were returning, we joked, we sang Greek songs and got nostalgic.”
No one can deny that the city’s culinary scene, its music, art, and civic spirit got energized by the thousands of immigrants and refugees who have made it their home over the last thirty or so years. What took place in and around Lowell, Massachusetts, since the early 1800s affirms historian Marc Rodriguez’s observation in Repositioning North American Migration History:
Human history is a history of migration. Migration has long connected North America to the world and organized the wider continent into separate peoples, regions, and, eventually, individual nation-states. Throughout American history, people have moved around within the boundaries of the United States and across the lines that have separated it from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia.
The Immigration Act of 1924 established national origins quota and slowed the entry of new immigrants. The Act purposefully lowered the entry of newcomers from eastern and southern Europe and continued the curtailment of Asian immigration. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act lifted these quotas and opened the U.S. to arrivals from Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. There is today far greater diversity in Lowell than in 1890 or 1920. In their daily lives, newcomers are actively preserving, creating, and reinventing their traditions, ways of life, customs, and practices, just as immigrants did before them.
Post-War Renewal… Eventually
From the 1930s forward, a sharp decline of textile mills, and the once-ubiquitous livelihoods of immigrants and their offspring disappeared. Older immigrant neighborhoods fell to the urban renewal wrecking ball. In 1939, the city razed the dense Greek-American neighborhood around upper Market Street to make way for the North Common Village public-housing complex. The 1937 federal Housing Act provided the impetus for the Lowell Housing Authority to redevelop the heart of the Greek Acre. After construction, the Acre reformed without many of its former residents. “We were forced to move,” remembered Charles Zografos. “Once we moved, hardly anyone came back. Nobody liked it. We were being thrown out of our homes.” Close to 150 structures and 2,000 residents disappeared.
Between 1964 and 1966, the city demolished 325 buildings in what was then Little Canada. Some 2,500 people moved elsewhere. The plan was to clear land for a new industrial park on the edge of downtown. Hale-Howard’s (H-H) Jewish enclave vanished in the early1970s. An older neighborhood and still with a Jewish presence—3 synagogues and multiple kosher shops—at the time of demolition, low income, and immigrant families had moved into the area in the 1960s. It occupied an area of the city near the current Lowell Regional Transit Authority hub. At first, the Lowell Housing Authority had agreed to build housing in the neighborhood. However, in early June 1972, the Lowell Sun reported that the CDA had declared the 3.5-acre site inappropriate for residential use.
One plan that met concerted opposition was for the extension of a six-lane highway through the Back Central Portuguese neighborhood. As proposed, the extension would uproot a close-knit Portuguese neighborhood. The so-called Lowell Connector had already sliced through the Hale-Howard neighborhood, and at least 350 families and two dozen more commercial buildings were scheduled for demolition. Moreover, the area in the 1970s was one of the few places with significant African- American and Latino populations. By the CDA’s estimates, 73 African-American families and 52 Latino families lived in the area slated to become a roadway.
While the Lowell Sun and the Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce favored the road extension, State Representative Ray Rourke opposed the plan. Rourke argued that “many people will be spared broken lives, broken homes, and broken hearts” if the proposal fails. He added, “I may be depicted as an obstructionist and against progress, but I ask, is it progress to displace over 400 families?” The debate over the plan and the high level of community opposition to it halted construction and brought to a close the city’s era of urban renewal. Lowell Sun reporter Frank Phillips summed up the Connector defeat this way: “For the second time in four years, the neighborhood defeated the same proposal that had strong backing from some of the most powerful forces in the city, armed with sound arguments.”
Into this cauldron came Lowell’s newest waves of immigration. Significant housing stock had disappeared, old historic buildings demolished, and several once distinct immigrant neighborhoods no longer existed. The city’s historic district and the long-time retail corridor along Merrimack Street and for several blocks on either side of it got a facelift of sorts thanks to the Lowell National Historical Park and city and private developers. State development dollars flowed Lowell’s way as well. Initial experiments converting mill buildings into rental housing commenced. Amidst these mostly publicly funded efforts, the economy perked up for a time, and the so-called ‘Massachusetts Miracle’—the rapid expansion of the state’s computer and high-tech sectors—generated thousands of relatively low-skill computer assembly jobs in and around Lowell. Just as the textile mills once absorbed immigrants eager for work, home-grown Wang Computer and firms along Routes 495 and 3 employed many newcomers.
The New Migrations
Breathing more life into the city, following the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (Hart-Celler Act), a renewed stream of global migrants made their way to Lowell. Each sending country had a 20,000 admissions cap. For Lowell, this meant a substantial wave of Portuguese immigrants. Portuguese immigrants arriving in Lowell were working almost immediately at factories like Prince Macaroni, Grace Shoe Co., and Commodore Foods. The new laws also established an immigration policy based on reuniting families and attracting skilled labor to the United States. With this, post-1965, immigrants from places like the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Brazil livened Lowell yet again.
Following the fall of Vietnam’s capital, the U.S. admitted more than 400,000 refugees between 1975 and 1980. The 1980 Refugee Act removed preferences for refugees fleeing communist countries, adopted the United Nation’s definition of a refugee, and gave the President the authority to set a yearly refugee admission rate. Most Cambodian refugees fled their country due to the brutal actions of the Khmer Rouge, who ruled from 1975-1979. Money, markets, private property, and schools were abolished, temples desecrated, and cities evacuated. An estimated two million people (out of a population of less than eight million) died. The invasion of Cambodia by Vietnamese forces in 1978 and the installment of a new government by them, forced the Khmer Rouge into retreat. This military interference led an additional 600,000 Cambodians to flee to Thailand and surrounding countries.
When the U.S. pullout out of Vietnam in 1975, significant numbers of people who had supported the United States in the war, sought refugee status or fled. Between 1975 and 1992, some 220,000 people from Laos entered the U.S. as refugees. Many came as a result of civil war. They had either participated themselves or were family members of people who had participated in the conflict that became known in the U.S. as the ‘secret war’ against the communist Pathet Lao. Later, Laotians left because they experienced hardship under the new government, or they wanted to reunite with family members, or they sought economic and educational opportunities.
The federal government attempted to disperse these refugee populations so as not to overburden local government budgets and to encourage the assimilation of refugees. However, refugees often pursued different goals. Once here, various factors led them to move to locations with a growing community of their peers. Asian American scholar Sucheng Chan argues that Lowell possessed three critical elements that attracted Cambodians in the 1980s. First, she maintains, Kitty Dukakis, the wife of then Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, was committed to assisting Cambodian genocide survivors. Involved in local initiatives, she traveled to Thailand and lobbied on Cambodian refugee issues. Second, during part of the 1980s, greater Lowell employers created many low-skill manufacturing jobs in the computer business. Assembly plants hired Cambodians seeking work. Third, a temple existed in North Chelmsford, led by a well-known monk from Cambodia. Oral histories suggest that Southeast Asians wanted to join family members and live within a community that had relatively affordable housing.
By 1984, four to five Cambodian families arrived in Lowell weekly. Southeast Asian refugees found employment at as Wang Laboratories, Apollo Computer Inc., BASF Systems Corporation, and Prince Macaroni. The population reached over 10,000 by 1986. In 2000, according to estimates by the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants,17,371 Southeast Asians lived in Lowell. Unofficial estimates put that number at 20,000 to 25,000 people. About 90 percent of Southeast Asians in Lowell are Cambodians, about four to five percent Vietnamese, and another four to five percent Laotian. There is also a small but growing Burmese community.
In the first two decades of the 21st century, foreign-born and second-generation residents hailed from South and Southeast Asia, South America, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Census data suggests that nearly fifteen thousand Latinx people live in Lowell, as well as eight to nine thousand Portuguese speakers. Three to four thousand Indians reside in Lowell, coming mainly from the state of Gujarat in western India as well as from the southern portion of the subcontinent. The Gujarati in Lowell maintains frequent contact with relatives in India via telephone, e-mail, and through visits. They also interact with relatives in European countries, especially the United Kingdom, and with members of the extensive Gujarati communities spread all over the U.S. Many Indians live in Middlesex Village, which contains Indian stores, restaurants, and two Swaminarayan temples.
While one should never over-generalize the complex and diverse experiences and motivations of immigrants and refugees, many people came to Lowell for jobs. Colombians arrived in the 1960s and 1970s, recruited to fill vacant mill jobs as investors attempted to restart the textile industry in the city. El Primer Enganche – The First Hook – as they called themselves, were a tight-knit community of Colombian immigrants, sought out by mill owners around New England who had trouble hiring skilled workers. They were highly skilled operatives who had worked in the textile industry in the Medellin area. The first known successful recruitment occurred in 1964 and 1965. In 1969, a Connecticut mill recruited 19 mechanics. Out of work in 1970, when the Connecticut factory closed, many Colombians moved to Lowell for work in the Suffolk Mill. Once here, they recruited additional weavers from Colombia.
Eventually, recruitment stopped when the U.S. Department of Labor no longer issued work visas for this purpose. By now, Colombians were coming on their own to reunite their families. Over the decades, Colombian emigration changed. According to one person, the recent influx of immigrants consists of “engineers” and “all kinds of educated people… Most of them speak English, and they want to do an M.A., they want to study, they want to do many things, but it is not like before. There are still people who come to work. But not like before.” A 1983 estimate was that nearly 2,000 Colombians resided in Lowell. In 2020, they make up the second-largest Latinx community in the city.
The growing African population comes from several sending countries, including Cameroon, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Kenya, and Ghana. Their migration stories and backgrounds are as diverse and varied as the continent from which they came. Individuals and families came in search of better economic opportunities. Some were fortunate to win a green card in the immigration lottery. Others fled political crises in their home societies. In numerous instances, economic and political factors together spurred people to emigrate. Africans live in several Lowell neighborhoods with a center of activity in Centralville.
Cambodian, Latinx, Portuguese, Brazilian, Indian, and African businesses and restaurants operate across the city, catering to ethnic consumers’ needs and desires. However, they do not just satisfy a commercial niche within their specific community. These businesses are a vital component of the local economy, serving immigrant customers, mainstream consumers, and newcomers. Survival depends on hard work, long workdays, and often the help of family members. Self-employment represents a way to achieve upward economic mobility.
Organizations and Associations
Immigrant and refugee populations have unique needs, especially when compared to the mainstream. Many people come to the U.S. speaking little English and are unfamiliar with customs, the political system, and public services. Since 1984, the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association’s mission is to improve the quality of life for Cambodian Americans and other minorities and economically disadvantaged persons in Lowell through educational, cultural, economic, and social programs. Founded in 1970, the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers (MAPS), serves the Portuguese and Brazilian communities. Its mission is to improve the lives of Portuguese speakers in Massachusetts and help them become contributing, active participants in society while maintaining a strong ethnic identity and a sense of community. MAPS works with the Brazilian, Cabo Verdean, Portuguese, and other Portuguese-speaking communities in Lowell and across the Commonwealth on community leadership and economic development.
Beginning in 2000, the African Assistance Center—now the African Community Center of Lowell—promoted responsible citizenship by improving the quality of life and supporting the achievement of African immigrants and refugees in Greater Lowell through educational, social, and cultural initiatives It runs assistance programs focused on economic and immigration issues and provides Africans with opportunities to socialize and to network. Other organizations cater to the needs of specific African groups in the city and back home. For example, in 2009, greater Lowell’s Liberian community was instrumental in hosting the inaugural ball for the Massachusetts Alliance for the Restoration of the University of Liberia. The event raised badly needed funds for the institution, which had suffered during the civil war that devastated the country in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Religious and Cultural Life
Starting with the Irish, successive waves of immigrants enriched the city’s religious landscape with diverse belief systems, scriptures, customs, traditions, and architecture. Quite often, they joined and strengthened existing religious institutions, and where necessary, they built new structures like Hindu and Buddhist temples. These places perform an essential role in the lives of immigrants. The congregation at the Elliot Church is about one-third Cambodian, one-third African, and one-third white. Moreover, a significant part of the Vietnamese population in Lowell is Catholic. St. Patrick’s Church is a popular place for the Vietnamese of greater Lowell to socialize and network, usually, on Saturday, the same day mass is held in Vietnamese.
There is tremendous diversity among immigrants who identify as Hindu due to regional and sectarian variations in Hinduism. Peter Occhiogrosso, a scholar of world religions, describes Hinduism as “an endlessly complex and varied collection of beliefs and belief systems, but they are all based on ideas and principles traced to an extensive collection of scriptures called the Veda.” Religious life for many in the Indian community centers on their temples. Lowell’s two Hindu temples are in industrial buildings on Stedman Street and Middlesex Street. Attended by Gujaratis, they also attract Indians who originate from other regions in India. The membership and visitors to the temple tend to live in Lowell, but attendees travel from communities outside of Lowell, including southern New Hampshire, and Waltham, Beverly, and Worcester, Massachusetts. Lowell’s Indian residents also attend the Chinmaya Mission temple in Andover or the Sri Lakshmi temple in Ashland.
African churches proliferated. The International Christian Fellowship Ministries story provides a glimpse into the growth of such churches. A congregation of fewer than twenty members in the late 1990s, it had well over one hundred members in 2003. The group established its first church by purchasing an old restaurant on Gorham Street. In 2007 when an average of 200 members showed up for each service, church leaders searched for a new facility. There are Liberian and Kenyan churches in the Highlands and a Ghanaian church in downtown Lowell. Africans also attend mainstream churches, such as the Presbyterian Elliot Church and St. Michael’s Catholic Church in the Centralville neighborhood.
As in the past, cultural preservation remains a central issue for newcomers. St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, Greek festivals in the summertime, flag raisings, and other commemorations in front of Lowell City Hall, are remembrances of the city’s immigrant past and present. The inclusive and celebratory parade at the start of each year’s Lowell National Historical Park Folk Festival is an elaborate manifestation of this. Groups organize festivals that celebrate their sending societies’ cultures, showcasing music, food, dance, and art for mainstream society. Community organizations host cultural programs, dance groups, and language instruction classes. One of the largest of these efforts, the Southeast Asian Water Festival, takes place every August on the Merrimack River. The celebration attracts 60,000 to 100,000 people every year. Cambodians, Lao, and Vietnamese annually travel to Lowell from across the country for the festival. A festival highlight is the dragon boat races on the Merrimack River. Crews of eighteen to twenty-four rowers compete. There is a wealth of traditional Southeast Asian dance and musical performances. Dancers at times mix in U.S. cultural elements such as hip hop and break dancing, while teenagers and young adults perform rap music, often in Southeast Asian languages such as Khmer. Scores of vendors line the festival site selling foods, crafts, and traditional clothing.
For nearly thirty years, a Puerto Rican Festival has honored the island’s culture and heritage. The celebration attracts Puerto Ricans from across New England. In the past, activities included the dance troupe Estrellas Tropicales, orchestras, parades, and beauty pageants. The Vietnamese community has hosted a Vietnamese New Year celebration since the 1980s, co-organized by St. Patrick’s Church and UMass Lowell’s Vietnamese Student Association. Since 2001, the African community has held the Greater Lowell African Festival, a celebration of African culture, music, food, dance, and traditional dress. “The festival is an opportunity for me to showcase my culture and to get my neighbors and my American friends to sample our food and music,” observed one of the co-organizers of the festival. The Water Festival, Puerto Rican Festival, Vietnamese New Year Celebration, and Greater Lowell African Festival are examples of the celebrations Lowell’s immigrant communities organize annually.
Several organizations actively pursue cultural preservation to teach the younger generations their sending society’s language and culture. The internationally-recognized Angkor Dance Troupe (ADT) plays a crucial role in “keeping Khmer traditions alive for future generations” by practicing, performing, and preserving Cambodian classical and folk dance. Central to the non-profit’s mission is the teaching of traditional dance to the younger generation. ADT provides high-quality arts training and leadership development opportunities as well. Often fusing traditional dance with rap and hip hop, they are reinventing dance into a unique Cambodian-American style. Programs run by the Massachusetts Association of Portuguese Speakers educate the next generation. For example, older women teach children how to sew, crochet, and embroider, skills that many in the community venerate. These are glimpses into the strategies that newcomers devised to hold onto essential aspects of their culture.
Throughout the last nearly 200 years, immigrants in Lowell have lived transnational lives. In the 19th and 20th centuries, they communicated with families via letters, sometimes went back to visit or worked as seasonal laborers, or, after several years of working in the United States, decided to return to their countries of birth. Family connections are maintained by communicating with, and by traveling to visit, their relatives abroad. They spend time and are involved in their daily lives in the U.S. while they also remain, to varying degrees, active participants in their countries of origin. They invest back home, send remittances to family members, and support humanitarian programs in the so-called old country. At times, immigrants also own property in their country of origin. The younger generation maintains contacts through e-mail and instant messaging.
Immigrants sometimes participate in transnational politics. While this is a minority of people, there is enough involvement for Cambodian political parties to have active party apparatuses in Lowell. Among the Lao and various African communities, homeland politics stir passions.
Despite the size of the city’s newcomer population, political representation remains elusive. Hurdles stand in the way of voting. The city’s long-time reliance on an at-large voting system—there is no representation by smaller geographic neighborhoods—for the city council and school committee made it hard for immigrants to get elected to office. While a person may be well-known in his or her community, this does not translate into consistent electoral success across Lowell. A successful federal court challenge to this voting system by members of Lowell’s under-represented populations represents a positive step toward a fairer electoral system. The plaintiffs argued that Lowell’s lack of diversity of the Lowell City Council and Lowell School Committee is a direct result of Lowell’s at-large plurality municipal electoral system. In an at-large plurality winner-take-all system such as Lowell’s, 51% of the electorate can easily control all the seats and win every election. That is what occurred in Lowell. A new, hybrid system of at-large and neighborhood city council and school committee seats will likely change the composition of these committees. The struggle for fair and inclusive political representation continues.
The United States is a nation of great diversity, its people coming from all corners of the globe carrying essential elements of their cultures with them. Historically, immigrants and refugees sought ways to both reimagine and maintain their identity through the preservation, creation, and re-invention of traditions, ways of life, customs, and practices. Houses of worship, foreign-language schools, and social clubs are universal manifestations of this process. Along the way, immigrant markets, bakeries, restaurants, barbershops, coffee houses, and foreign-language newspapers helped to define and redefine the city. This story is one of confrontation and accommodation. Flashpoints and conflict occurred during periods of economic and political instability and fear.
Since the 1970s, Lowell has attracted its fair share of newcomers. Like earlier generations, these New Lowellians are enriching the city with their unique and diverse presence. As their nineteenth-century counterparts did, they built new religious institutions or joined existing ones, started hundreds of small businesses, many of them at the former sites of markets, bakeries, and restaurants owned by previous immigrants. They have contributed to the city’s post-1980 ‘renaissance’ as active participants in and creators of vibrant cultural, social, and community organizations and institutions. While historically, neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves played a more critical role in the lives of immigrants, many immigrants today de-emphasize their importance. There are certain ethnic enclaves such as Cupples or Pailin Square for the Cambodians in the Highlands neighborhood, Hosford Square in Back Central for the Portuguese speakers, or concentrations of African businesses in parts of Centerville. Nevertheless, immigrant businesses are spread out all over the city.
The last word goes to Clementina DeRocco, director of the International Institute of Lowell in the late 1940s and early 1950s. “We’re tied together in the world today, for good or bad. If something happens in Poland, in Greece, we get a large repercussion here. The ‘one-world’ idea is nothing new to International Institute policy, for we’ve always felt that the more understanding we have of people, the better for all of us.”