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

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.

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…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.