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Hintergrund: From Small Town Germany to the Hispanic Metropolis - Hermann and San Diego

Worlds Apart: Two Cities to Represent One Nation

  • Ein deutschsprachiges Straßenschild steht vor einer amerikanischen Flagge; Rechte: WDR In Hermann streets named after Germany’s leading figures are not the only indication for German heritage.

There is probably no better way to discover the diverse lifestyles the USA has to offer than to compare Hermann (Missouri) and San Diego (California). One is a small town with just over 2,300 predominantly white inhabitants, no cinema, no fast-food restaurants, no bowling alley but a thriving tradition of German sausage- and wine-making that dates back to the early 19th century. The other – San Diego – is a crowded metropolis where whites, blacks, Asian Americans and Hispanics live together to create a versatile urban culture.

Taking a closer look at Hermann, one finds a community that, in many aspects, seems more German than many parts of Germany are today. Not only does Hermann hold a "Maifest" and an "Oktoberfest" every year – there is also an annual "Wurstfest" in March to kick off tourist season and celebrate what most non-Germans consider to be the very essence of German heritage: sausages. Thousands of people learn about the history of sausage-making, witness the statewide sausage-making contest and probably eat a lot of sausages while listening to traditional German music and watching old folk dances being performed.

A German colony in America

  • Die Stadt Hermann in Missouri und der Missouri River aus der Luft; Rechte: WDR Hermann, situated on the Missouri River, was founded by a German settlement society.

In a way, the Hermannites' desire to preserve their German identity can be traced back directly to their ancestors. Many of them came to the area under the wing of the "Deutsche Ansiedlungsgesellschaft zu Philadelphia", an organization aiming to establish an independent colony inside the United States, "a colony which should be characteristically German in every particular", as the American scholar William G. Bek wrote in 1907. "They believed that in partial isolation they could enjoy both the advantages of America and the pleasures of the Fatherland." Their ultimate goal was to found a city as the center of a German settlement somewhere in the West, described as follows by one of the founders of the Society in a German-language US-newspaper: "Eine solche Niederlassung (…) würde Tausenden, welche gern das alte Vaterland verlassen wollten, wenn sie nur im fremden Lande dem schönen, gemüthlichen, deutschen Volksleben nicht entsagen müssten (…), eine neue Heimath darbieten."

In the 1830s the Society finally bought some land in the Gasconade River valley, on the banks of the Missouri, and founded the city of Hermann. It was named after Hermann the Cherusker, the Germanic chieftain who defeated a Roman army in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, inducing the end of Roman rule over parts of regions which today belong to Germany.

The Hermann Mix: "Gemütlichkeit" and Guns

  • Lincoln und sein Vater arbeiten in ihren Weinbergen; Rechte: WDR Wine-making is one oft the historic traditions in Hermann which are still alive today.

To this day, the people of Hermann preserve the culture of their German ancestors – another example is wine-making. To make the best of the steep and impractical – if beautiful – territory, the settlers turned the rocky hills into vineyards. By the beginning of the 20th century, Hermann was the center of Missouri wine-making. Only the First World War (1914-1918) with its anti-German sentiments and the ensuing Prohibition could stop Hermann's success. The city's wine industry, however, has recovered since the 1960s.

Hermann seems to be able to combine German "Gemütlichkeit" with the civil libertarianism that has made the USA what it is today.

One example is the widespread possession of guns. People in the area go hunting. Subsequently, many households own one or more firearms. The right to do this touches on the very heart of American politics and culture. It is based on the Second Amendment in the American Constitution, stating that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed". Owning a gun at this time was a measure of self-defense against undemocratic government, invaders from other nations or criminals threatening one's life or possessions. Many Americans still feel that way today. In 2000, the survey "Gun Control in the United States" found that Missouri has rather lax gun laws, scoring 15 out of 100 percent for the toughness of its firearms legislation. Still, Missouri was among the 15 states with the toughest gun laws in the US, which shows just how easy it is to purchase and possess a gun in most states. Gun politics are a sensitive topic in the USA, with a split between urban liberals wanting more control and people from rural areas like Missouri opposing tougher laws, believing that owning a gun keeps the crime rate low. Hermann does have a low crime rate – not surprisingly for a town with less than 2,500 inhabitants.

The Windy Midwest: Dangerous Tornadoes in Missouri

  • Schüler der Hermann High School sitzen nach einer Tornado-Warnung auf dem Schulflur; Rechte: WDR In case of a tornado warning students have to stay in the hall way and away from windows and doors.

While guns may or may not protect the American Midwest from crime, they certainly can't avert a phenomenon that many states in the area frequently suffer from: Tornadoes cause on average 70 fatalities and hundreds of injuries across America each year. While these violent storms occur all over the US, Missouri is part of "Tornado Alley", a north-to-south corridor right in the middle of US territory where particularly many tornadoes hit. Here, warm and dry continental air masses from the west meet warm, moist air from the Central Plains. In the developing thunderstorm, air begins to rotate, forming a column of low pressure which has very fast wind circling around it at speeds of 200 to 500 miles per hour (ca. 300 to 800 kilometers/hour). What sounds interesting in meteorological theory became a horrible reality for the city of Joplin (Missouri), about 250 miles southwest of Hermann, in 2011. In the late afternoon of May 22nd, a violent tornado hit Joplin, killing 160 people and causing damages worth 2.2 billion US-Dollars. The Joplin tornado was the deadliest in nearly 60 years, and one of the costliest. With the extreme weathers of climate change on its way, it probably won't be the last one to hit Missouri. Luckily, people in cities like Hermann can prepare by securing their roofs and walls with special building material, stocking emergency goods or building a basement shelter.

From Missouri to the Metropolis: San Diego and its Neighborhoods

  • Ein Mann wartet in einem Supermarkt in einer Schlange; Rechte: WDR Two-thirds of the people in Rosa's district City Heights are Hispanic.

As tornadoes occur all over the US, San Diego, too, has been hit before. But the storms have been mild and nobody has been injured or killed as far as the records show. Even without tornados, however, a lot is happening in and around San Diego – certainly a lot more than in Hermann. With a population of roughly 1.3 million people, the eighth-largest city in the United States is almost four times as densely populated as Hermann. First founded by the Spanish in the 16th century, the city belonged to Mexico until it was claimed by the United States in 1850 as a result of the Mexican-American War. The original settlement was several miles away from the natural harbor, so a decade later it was moved to the area that is today called Downtown San Diego. The Old Town neighborhood commemorates the beginnings of the city with Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, which includes historic buildings from the mid-1800s.

Downtown and Old Town are just two of the more than 100 different neighborhoods of San Diego. Around the city center in Downtown lie the densely populated urban areas like Hillcrest. It is known for its very diverse culture, for instance in its large gay, lesbian and transgender community.

People here often have a college degree and a good income. City Heights to the north-east, for comparison, has a much younger population on average, but people make a lot less money. Here, two-thirds of the people are Hispanic, many others are Asian or black, and only about 2 percent are white non-Hispanics.

San Diego: Breakdance Capital of the West

  • Jungen und Mädchen üben einen gemeinsamen Tanz; Rechte: WDR Breakdance and other elements of hip hop are very popular among San Diego's youth.

San Diego also hosts areas that are predominantly white, like La Jolla, a small community directly on the Pacific Coast in San Diego's north. Housing here is very pricy and demographics show the population is over 80 percent white. La Jolla is infamous for racial intolerance: Up until 1960, it was a little-concealed fact that Jews could not own houses here. Properties were only sold through real-estate agents who – even after Supreme Court rulings forbade such anti-Semitism – simply did not sell to Jewish buyers. This only changed when the University of California, San Diego, was established in 1960 and many Jewish professors moved to La Jolla. Today the area has a large Jewish community.

Even though episodes like this may cast a dark shadow on San Diego's history, on the whole the city is still known and loved for its diversity and cultural variety. For instance, San Diego is one of the centers of West Coast Hip Hop, the subgenre that brought hip hop from New York on the East Coast to the Pacific Coast. Even though San Diego cannot compete with Los Angeles, where artists like Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube came from, it prides itself to have hosted the "B-Boy Summit", an influential breakdance, rap and graffiti convention, and other similar events for many years. San Diego is also a center of Chicano Rap – rap music created by artists of Mexican descent.

Across the Border: Legal and Illegal Mexican Immigrants

  • Ein Supermarkt mit spanischem Namen und spanischen Werbeschildern in San Diego; Rechte: WDR In the Hispanic-dominated district City Heights it is not necessary to speak or read English.

In a city so close to the Mexican border, it comes as no surprise that about one third of San Diego's population is Hispanic, with a quarter of these Hispanics being of Mexican descent. It is hard to say how many of San Diego's Mexicans have come to the United States illegally but estimates say that of the 500,000 illegal entries from Mexico to the US each year, a large percentage crosses in the San Diego border area. Other sources say that this is unlikely because in urban areas, the border is much more guarded than in the desert or in the mountains. Either way, illegal immigration remains one of the most important political issues in America. Under George W. Bush, the Secure Fence Act of 2006 allowed the construction of 700 miles (1,100 kilometers) of border fence to help secure the border. Before him, Bill Clinton had made border security and decriminalization of the area one of his top priorities. Under Barrack Obama, deportations of illegal aliens reached a peak before the policy was abandoned in 2011. Just like Germany with its "Gastarbeiter", the USA had to realize that the hired workers doing the dirty work – in this case gardening, house-keeping and construction – had come to stay, legally or illegally. The US service industry is largely based on illegal immigrants as cheap work forces. And while illegal immigration from Mexico has certainly brought about a lot of human suffering, it has also given San Diego a lively community of people with a unique and vibrant culture, making it the thriving city it is today.

Update 2020: In May 2019, there were almost 150.000 people arrested trying to enter the USA. With Donald Trump as president, the US followed plans to build a wall at the Mexican border to prevent illegal immigration.