The Most Important Letter

This month’s events in El Paso, the presidency of Donald Trump, the realignment of American political parties over the past fifty years – indeed the totality of American history itself on this, the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first documented black slave on our shores – can be summarized by one powerful letter:


Mariana Chmielowicz was born and raised in the kingdom of Galicia in the late 19th century.Galicia was the poorest region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an amalgam of Poles and Slavs in the middle of what would soon become Europe’s bloodiest battleground.

Whether through good luck, ingenuity or a little of both, Mariana joined thousands of Galicians in emigrating first to Germany then by ship to New York City. She left the day after Valentine’s Day, 1902, with $12 in her pocket and, for the Anglophones of her new home, an unspellable, unpronounceable Polish name. The clerk recording her entry beneath the shadow of the Statue of Liberty on March 1 noted her simply as “Chmiel, Maria.”

She told immigration officials she was joining a cousin at a labor farm in Priceburg, a suburb of Scranton in eastern Pennsylvania whose name would soon be changed to Dickson City.

By 1910, Mariana had met and married Josef Matan, a fellow Polish migrant, who had been born on the western edge of Russia – a couple in the

closing years of the long 19th century fleeing the convulsive final decades of European empires soon to vanish in flame and blood, entering through the golden door beside which the Mother of Exiles lifted her lamp.

“Matan” was a shorter name, but apparently no easier for English speakers to spell correctly. The growing family – three living children by the time Census taker Joseph Eisenberg knocked on their door across the railroad tracks from the Lackawanna River in the working-class Scranton suburbs – was spelled “Matta,” “Maden” and “Maton” on official documents for decades.

But regardless of misspellings, the Matan family received something far more valuable from Eisenberg on April 26, 1910: under the column marked “Race,” he scratched the letter W.

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No matter their language (they couldn’t read or write English yet), no matter their birthplace (European backwaters), no matter their nationality (nonexistent at the time), the Matans had the W.

The Matans rented a house with other Eastern European immigrants in Dickson City, which was filled with Slavs, Poles, Russians, Germans and others seeking a better life in America at the turn of the 20th century while finding – if their experience was typical – prejudice, filth, overcrowding, swindlers, poverty and disease. Josef, now Joe, was a coal miner; his wife, now Mary, stayed home with three children under 7.

But they had the W. By the 1920 Census, they had moved several blocks away, and by 1930, they lived away from the tracks and closer to downtown. Their two older children, Jozefina (Josephine) and Sophia (Sophie) worked at a silk mill, taking advantage of industrial jobs available to them because of the W.

As they grew, the W allowed the Matan children to work where they liked, to live where they liked, and to accumulate wealth without fear of being lynched or driven off their property for doing so. After World War II, banks would lend them money, insurance companies and the federal government would protect their neighborhoods from threats real and perceived, and their children would attend the best schools – or better ones, at any rate.

The W was a key that unlocked the beneficence of the American dream. It transferred seamlessly from Sophie Matan to her husband, Richard Nonnenmacher, who escaped the collapse of Weimar Germany in 1928 and managed to slip in despite restrictive new immigration quotas enacted by Congress four years earlier.

It transferred to their daughter and her husband – whose father, Antonio Branca, sailed past the Statue of Liberty just six months after Mariana Chmielowicz. Mary’s granddaughter and Antonio’s son were born just five years apart, and married in 1953 in Paterson, New Jersey. My mother was born three years later.

The journey from Scranton, Pennsylvania, to Paterson, New Jersey, to New Haven, Connecticut, to New Braunfels, Texas, requires a lot of things: hard work, wise decisions, good luck … and a W.

The importance of that letter stretches back to the beginning of the American experiment.

The W allowed indentured servants to pay off their debts and become heirs to the American promise, while black workers were condemned to generations of slavery.

The W allowed workers in the South to make common cause with oppressive ex-plantation owners against black freedmen, sacrificing their own economic advancement to ensure the impoverishment of those without the right letter after their names.

The W allowed northern abolitionists to turn their back on Reconstruction and allow southern terrorists to overthrow black-led state and local governments and immiserate generations of people through law and force.

When black Americans began fleeing the South for the promise of better treatment in Northern cities, the W allowed their new neighbors – many of them the grandchildren of once-despised newcomers – to flee to the suburbs, aided and abetted by insurance companies, banks and the federal government, while those same entities strangled black homeownership, bulldozed neighborhoods for interstates, and ignored crises of drugs and violence born of the hopelessness they imposed.

The W is seductive. It does not guarantee success, but it blinds its bearers to the ways it contributes to their success.

The W clears the field of obstacles in employment, housing and education. It confers the presumption of innocence in confrontations with law enforcement, turning the primary wielders of government force in daily life into protectors of life and liberty, rather than persecutors and takers of it.

It allows our history to be smothered under a comfortable blanket of ignorance, allows us to attribute the conditions of urban areas to lack of effort, to innate character flaws, to anything that doesn’t implicate the advantages it confers to us.

The W allows us to pretend the difference between the Polish, Russian, German, Italian and Irish immigrants fleeing corrupt governments and economic deprivation in the 19th century, and the Latin American immigrants fleeing violence and corruption in the 21st, is about economics or “getting in line” or stopping “an invasion.”

The W allows us the luxury of tuning out, of making excuses, of going to church and not rocking the boat, of a weak civility that declines to challenge the status quo. It constructs nostalgia for a mythical age of American greatness. It allows its bearers to nurse cultural grievances real and imagined over empathy, love and understanding.

It is a powerful and pernicious letter. We cannot understand tragedies like El Paso without understanding its history. Because its history is our history.

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