Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared on Sarah’s personal blog, Seeds of Hope. Permission was given by the author to repost.
In the beginning of the 20th century, many immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe flooded the gates of Ellis Island by the hundreds of thousands. Oftentimes, they came with only hopes and dreams in their hands and not a dollar to their names. My grandfather and his family were among this flock of hopeful immigrants. His mother braved the treacherous journey on boat from Italy to the U.S., risking their own health, livelihood, and all ties to the family they left behind. Like many immigrants leaving their countries today, my grandfather and his family left Italy in search of a work and better opportunities.
I’ve always been fascinated by my grandfather’s stories of what life was like as a stranger in a new land. He would speak of how his family worked tirelessly, seven days a week and on holidays, to make a living in this new place. His family started a small cement garden ornament making business in New York that was called Potenz Garden Ornaments, after my great-grandmother’s maiden name. What started as a humble business on a shoestring budget eventually grew into one of the largest cement garden ornament businesses in New York state.
I think part of why I value remembering my family’s own immigration history is from reading the articles my grandfather has written about the struggles they had to overcome. As he writes in the article “Making it in America,” during the worst parts of the Great Depression he vividly remembers holding his mother’s hand as they took pictures of wealthier families for 5 cents along the Orchard beach in the Bronx. Even when his family had moved up to a higher socioeconomic standing, his family was always working twenty-four seven, delivering statues and flower boxes his father had made to families that had moved into the recent housing development known as Levittown.
While the struggles and the barriers my grandfather and his family faced in coming to the U.S. were ones that many first or second generation immigrants and their families today can relate to, they did not face the same complexities of the immigration system that many immigrants face today, most of all the issues dealing with citizenship. Today, 11 million people live in this country in fear simply because they have not had the same access many European-American & Asian-American immigrants had when coming to this country in the early 20th century. Many of us who are like myself—second, third, or fourth generation immigrants—have simply forgotten our own family’s immigration history, while others of us have chosen to disregard it due to the pressure “whiteness” places on all of us to accept cultural and historical amnesia. However, today is the day we must remember where we have come from, and how our story is their story—that our families too were once in the position that so many recent immigrants find themselves in today: vulnerable and easily exploitable.
In addition to a completely different immigration system to navigate, many of today’s immigrants face a different kind of monster in coming to the United States: the “Frontera,” also known as the U.S. Mexico border. It has been reported that 4,000 people have died while trying to cross the border. In the beginning of the 20th century, many European immigrants died not while trying to cross a physical barrier, but due to barriers that they faced of unsanitary, and oftentimes unlivable, conditions aboard the ships they took to reach Ellis Island. Just as Lady Liberty was a sign of hope for many European immigrants in hopes of reaching the shores of the U.S. for the first time, the Virgin of Guadalupe is a symbol of faith and hope for many Mexican-American immigrants crossing the “Frontera.” I can only imagine that as my grandfather’s mother held her sick son, the sight of Lady of Liberty was not only a sign of hope for her own future, but for her son’s as well.
This image of Lady Liberty, as a symbol of hope for the countless immigrants who have crossed through Ellis Island, is equally recognizable as the words of Emma Lazarus that are engraved upon it that read: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” These words engraved upon the Statue of Liberty left me wondering: Who was Emma Lazarus, and what led her to write these words that welcomed thousands of immigrants as they arrived weary, yet hopeful for a better life?
While it would make sense if she had been among the masses of European immigrants who arrived before her words were forever branded into the Statue of Liberty, much to my surprise, I found she was not a recent immigrant. She wasn’t a first generation immigrant or even a second generation immigrant. According to Esther Shore, a professor at Princeton who wrote a biography about Emma Lazarus’ life, she was a fourth or fifth generation Jewish-American immigrant who grew up in an affluent home. While she grew up in a life of wealth, she lived a life that was anything but ordinary. She began writing at the young age of 16. By the age of 18, she had written a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the greatest American poets of his day, that contained her work. In her later years, she began to question her family’s financial success and gains, realizing that she had benefited from the horrors of slavery through her family’s wealthy inheritance.
Her bold spirit and the relationships developed with the marginalized would eventually lead her to become an advocate at the end of her life for those who were some of the most vulnerable during her day: recent Eastern and Southern European immigrants. In her last years, her poem “The New Colossus,” which contains the words that would be engraved on the statue of Liberty, was published. The poem was brushed aside, but three years later, after she had already passed on, part of it was engraved onto the statue of Liberty—with no mention of her work.
The life of Emma Lazarus should be an example for all of us, especially for those of us who are second, third, fourth or fifth generation immigrants. Let us not forget our own deliverance, so that we may never forget that we cannot stand divided. Deliverance is often seen as being set free from something—which it is—but it must be seen as the active work of remembering as well.
So let us remember and not forget. In the words of Emma Lazarus, “We are none of us free if we are not all free.” Let it be so!
Take action to call your representatives to let them know we need comprehensive immigration reform that leads to citizenship for those who are unable to access it currently. Call 1-888-979-7506 to speak with your representative.
Sarah Northrup is an ESL educator committed to immigrant’s rights and reconciliation. In the future, she would like to continue doing advocacy and community development work in Latin America. You can check out her blog at http://seedsofhope09.wordpress.com/
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