Why did you come here? (4/4) “Enrique Tessieri: Am I a foreigner?”

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By Enrique Tessieri

It’s funny that I askedthis important question, “am I a foreigner” in Finland, sixteen years ago. What astounds me is that I am still asking the same question: Do I belong here? Do you accept me for who I am?

I wrote this chapter in the book during Finland’s worst recession in a century, when unemployment rocketed to near-twnet-percent levels. The most vulnerable groups were immigrants at the time. Unemplyment for this group stood at around 50%!

Like today, when the winds of recession are blowing over Finland and Eurppe, back then racism and xenophobia were on the dramatic rise in Finland. Contrary to today, no party like the Perussuomalaiset had yet capitalized on people’s xenophobia because there were so few foreigners. In 1994-95, there were 55,587 immigrants in the country accounting for a mere 1.1% of the population, according to the Population Register Center.

A former student, who is a Finn with a multicultural background, told other students with similar backgrounds the following: “The first important step is accepting yourself. Extend your hand of friendship if possible to those that may loathe you.”

Those that change history are those who have the vision and courage to grab the issue by the horns.

I write in Why did you come here: “I believe that a hundred years from today people like myself will not be called a foreigner by some Finns. If we are not overcome by hatred and war, Europe and Finland will resemble a dynamic melting pot [culturally diverse society would be more appropriate today] of cultures.


…Am I a foreigner in Finland? That is a difficult question to answer. If I could move to this country a hundred years from today, some people would not label me as a foreinger. People who are members of two, three or more cultures will be a common sight in Finlad in the late-twenty-first century.

I used to feel lonely because of my Finnish and Argentinan [as well as U.S.] background. I did not know anyone who belonged to these two [never mind three] cultures.

After receiving a degree in anthropology in the United States, I moved to Argentina to do my military service. Prior to that, I had only lived 2.5 years in that country. Argentina turned out to be a political nighmare. The country was in the midst of a civil war. I am still hounded by the cemetery silence that prevailed in Argentina during those years when over 9,000 people (sic, over 30,000 people) vanished.

I first heard of Colonia Finlandesa back in April 1977 at the Finnish Seaman’s Church of Buenos Aires.  Colonia Finlandesa, founded in 1906 in the subtropical jungles of Misiones, was the largest Finnish colony in South Ameridca It did not take me long to begin fieldwork on the few remaining Finns still living there.

Most of the old people were living off their pensions from Finland, while the younger ones were stubbornly striving to support their families by growing a few hectares of tobacco and other cash crops. It was a very modest existence.

One of the people I vividly remember meeting at Colonia Finlandesa was Svea Gumberg, who was only three months ole when her parents brought her to Argentina in May 1906.

“I remember my father rushing out of his bed at night with the rifle to shoot at the jguars [yaguareté] that ate our dogs and at the wold boars that ate our crops,” she said. “It was difficult to shoot these beasts because it was pitch dark.”

The last time I visited Colonia Finlandesa was in June 1988 [now 2007]. There was only one Finnish-born settler left. His name is Reino Putkuri, who came to Argentina as a child from Kitee The years have erased all the bonds he had with this country. He told me bluntly, “It wasn’t my fault if I was born in Finland.”

There’s a picture of Antti Lemmetyinen’s sauna that synmbolizes the fate of the colony. One of the most beautiful sauns in Colonia Finlandesa, in 1978 it was almost falling down for lack of care and had turned into a temporary pigsty. In 1984 the structure was gone.

Ethnically speaking, I can’t even say after five generations of Finnish heritage in Argentina if there is such a group that can call itself “Finnish-Argentinean,” when I take into account the large number of out-group marriages.

For example, if a song of a first-generation Finnish settler learned Finnish at home and married a daughter of a German immigrant, they would speak Spanish together. As a result, their children would learn Spanish as the language of their home.

In many ways, the same thins is happening to foreigners in Finland. They are slowly being integrated into this society. And their children are full-fledged Finns.

I believe that a hundred years from today people like myself will not be called a foreinger by some Finns. If we are not overcome by hatred and war, Europe and Finland will resemble a dynamic melting pot of cultures [I would change this part and state culturally diverse society instead].

I am very happey that my grandchildren will be fortunate enought to see that day.

  1. Mary Mekko

    Enrique, if you are Finn by descent, why do you look or act so differently from the other Finns, that they still ask you “Why are you here?” Are your mannerisms still foreign, or is it the accent, or difference in dress?

    I did not look like the Finns in the early 1980’s, and people noticed that I was a foreigner with thick hair and different mannerisms and dress, but I was treated very well. It was a delight to visit Finland, which is why I stayed for six months doing what is now called “couchsurfing”. Yet, never would I have thought that at some point, in such a culture, I would be considered one of them. I would always be a foreigner to the Finns, albeit accepted, and people would of course still be asking me (if I had stayed) “Where are you from? Why did you come?” The Finns are very proud of their country and want to sincerely know why you have come.

    In your case, with Finnish ancestors, you really have an interesting answer – that your own family left for Argentina and then decided to come back! Finns must find that very interesting, as we here on the forum do.

    When you were living in Argentina, what did you do for a living, or your parents, if not you? Was it hard to earn money, were you poor?

    • Enrique

      Mary, I think all this stuff about “looking like” some group is a pretty narrow-minded and ethnocentric way of looking at things. Do you know what a Finn looks like. All that is a figment of your imagination. Finns, like any group in the world, are pretty “mixed.” The Garden of Eden was never located in Finland.

      I guess you didn’t read my biography carefully. I have only lived a few years in Argentina. I grew up south of you in LA.

  2. Jaakko

    This is a very difficult question. I sort of agree with both, with Mary and Enrique. You can often tell by the look where the person is originally from. Some people can even notice the difference between native Finns and Swedish, even they have many similar characteristics. In Enrique case this is quite easy: he is a Finn with immigrant background.

    If the person has lived his whole life in Finland, but has immigrant parent(s), is he a Finn? For example, probably many don’t disagree when I say that Jani Toivola is definitely a Finn, even he might not look like one when you picture a Finn in your head. I have very mixed opinion about the subject 😛

    Many European countries are still very homogeneous, but if we are going to USA, it is very hard to say how does american look like.

  3. Foreigner

    I really do not mind at all when Finns ask “where are you from.” I am damn proud of my homeland, and use this as an opportunity to educate them about my country! Lets face it; I do not look like a Finn, and am not offended when Finns see me as a foreigner, because that is exactly what I am in this country. I have no desire to be considered Finnish!!!!

    However, I can see the offence it causes if someone like Jani Toivola (who was born and raised in Finand), is constantly asked “where are you from?” It can be disheartening and damn right offensive to such “multicultural ” Finns. My children were born in Finland, and one of their parents is Finnish. However,I always remind them that they are not Finnish nor X (my nationality), but a mixture of the two. They are therefore not offended when Finns ask them where they are from. Then they proudly say that “I was born in Finland, but I am both Finnish and X…” They are likewise not offended when people in my homeland ask them that same question.

    I think that the problem arises when parents are ashamed of their own countries, and tell their children that they are Finnish, renouncing the other part of the child’s culture. I know of a child with Indian born parents here in Helsinki who told me he was Finnish! That is crazy to me! To me this child’s parents had taught him to be ashamed of his Indian culture and background. In my opinion, a more appropriate response from that child would have been that “I am born in Finland, but I am also Indian…”

    Stop being ashamed of the countries where you are from.You will never be considered Finnish, so be proud of your home countries here in Finland!

    • Enrique

      Hi Foreigner, that’s perfectly fine if you are proud of who you are. That’s your right and all power to you. It’s up to the person. I taught the same thing as you to my children. I told them to be proud of their multicultural background. This, as you can appreciate, is sometimes difficult for kids since they don’t want to stand apart from the group.

  4. Jaakko

    Agree with Foreigner. I don’t considered it a bad thing, if somebody asks where you are from. It is not meant as a negative thing (in most cases), people are just curious sometimes if you look/sound different. Even in some parties native Finns might asks from another native Finn “where are you from?”, but in this case it means from which city the person is originally from.

  5. andi

    The question ‘where are you from?’ is one which I always ask when I meet new people. This to me is just a polite way of breaking the ice and really no different that making some comment on the weather. So many times the answer has been some town or area that I have been to or that interests me or the other person and has led to long and interesting conversations.
    My own answer to the question these days is to name the small town in eastern Finland where I have been living since 2005, as it is now my home town and I feel as if this is where I am from.
    I do know some people who say that this question can cause offence, and when asked in a certain tone of voice can be made to sound derogatory or insulting, but I also know many more people who say that it is just a way of getting to know somebody new.

    As for the question of where you come from originally, that is another matter and one that can lead to very long winded answers from some people.

    • Enrique

      Andi, the question “where are you from” depends on the person. Some like it, others don’t. I don’t get asked that question any longer except rarely. Maybe because I live in a town where everyone knows each other. But if a person asks me where I am from, I will tell him. I will then ask the same question to the person.

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