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 with only hopes and dreams in their hands and not a dollar to their name. My grandpa came here from Italy when he was a young boy. His family left Italy in search of a work and better opportunities in the U.S. I’ve always been fascinated by my grandpa’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 NY that was called Potenz Garden Ornaments, after my great-grandma’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 hearing my grandpa talk about the struggles they had to overcome. During the worst parts of the Great Depression he vividly remembers his parents having to take pictures for families on the beach so they could make 5 cents. Even when his family had moved up to a higher socioeconomic standing his family was always working 24/7 delivering statues and flower boxes his father had made to wealthier families that had moved into the recent housing development known as Levittown. While the struggles and the barriers my grandpa and his family had to face in coming to the U.S. were ones that many 1st or 2nd generation immigrants and their families can relate to today, my grandfather and his family 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 have had when coming to this country in the early 20th century. Many of us who are like myself 2nd, 3rd or 4th generation 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/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”/the border. It has been reported that 4,000 people have died while trying to cross the U.S. Mexico border. In the beginning of the 20th century many European immigrants died, not while trying to cross a physical barrier, but due to barriers of 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 Virgen 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 (my grandfather) the sight of Lady of Liberty was not only a sign of hope for her own future, but for her son’s as well.
The words of Emma Lazarus that are engraved on the statue of Liberty are quoted again and again saying “”Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, but who was she? While it would make sense if she had been one of 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 1st generation immigrant or even a 2nd generation immigrant.
According to Esther Shore, a professor at Princeton who wrote a biography about Emma Lazarus’ life, she was a 4th or 5th 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. At the age of 18, she wrote 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 from her family’s wealthy inheritance.
Her bold spirit at a young age, and 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” that has part of the words engraved on the statue of Liberty was published. The poem was brushed aside and 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 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 5th generation immigrants. I wrote a spoken word piece not only to honor the work of Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus”, but also with the hopes of stirring up action among those who have forgotten or cast aside their own immigrant history. 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*
A New Frontera
Not like the formidable frontera that seems to travel in an endless expanse
Marked only by its trails of decay, misery and death
There stands a new, yet strangely familiar figure
Her hands are weathered from holding the torch that beckoned so many to her safe harbors
Yet her feet are firm; she has stood the test of time
Deliverance has made its home at her gates, welcoming strangers with her warm gaze and arms stretched out as if in a warm embrace
Huddled masses relentlessly pounding upon her breast, seeking a place of comfort and rest
But, through the night of standing watch
She was disarmed
With alarming fright
By people supposed to protect her
Land-dwellers. People from the left and the right,
One did not need to look far to the shore to see the abundance of florescent light,
Blindly pressing onward with their backs to the past
Like the Israelites of old forgetting stories of deliverance from the hand of an oppressor
The flame upon her torch slowly became a flicker, and then an ember until it was no more
Her gift of guidance had been cast aside in pursuit of a greater treasure, those who once cried mercy only called out for the “American Dream”, letting their new life be built upon the sweat, blood, and strife of those seeking deliverance of their own
This stolen light was a beacon of hope in a stormy night to the huddled masses that arrived at her feet pleading for freedom, for safety, for rest at the feet of the Virgen, more than just a statue, but a Mother Divine
This Mother of Exiles pleaded for a match, anything, with which to light the charred embers that served to remind the huddled masses what had been before the night… and why she must not give up the fight
From the land cries filled the night sky,
“We do not have enough to share with all of you, so go back to where you came from!”
Perplexed and distraught but never dismayed,
The huddled masses gathered the hand-carved crosses, religious figurines and old story cloths they kept as faint reminders of where they once came as a humble offering to reignite the untamed fires of freedom
Some of those on the shore already jumped away, into the vast abyss between the Lady and the land to return, as if on a pilgrimage to where their forefathers and mothers began
A sacred moment; A holy communion, some might say of meek and powerful reclaiming the stories of old, of the sweat, blood and pain that it took them to reach
A holy communion marked by the strength and sacrifice of a Mother who wouldn’t turn away those who came with hopes and dreams in their scarred hands
The fire is ablaze. The flame has been rekindled.
This light cannot be contained.
Its light spreads to even the farthest corners where traveling familias pray to the Virgen as they cross the Rio Grande, where children sit waiting for a sign of blue sky as visions of life beyond the bars of the refugee camp flash before their eyes, where parents weep asking why they left it all behind to find they were still at the bottom of the heap, where undocumented youth are told they must “get to the back of the line” where no line remains when they committed no crime but must daily endure the shame of being called “illegal”, without a name
Erupting into the night sky, the Mother Divine cries once more like she did at her birth with silent lips, “These tired, weary masses have come to breathe free, leaving their life behind to be crucified with only a vision of what might be. Woe to you who have shown little mercy, little hospitality, and little hope to your own. Your hearts they grew bitter and fear did replace that child-like wonder when you first saw my face. Now you have lived here two, three or four generations long, but I beseech you, I plead you, I beg you, do not forget where you have come from
Remember that those weary hands were once your grandfather’s who struggled to provide a humble home laying bricks that would become the foundation for towers so high no one could imagine they could reach up to the sky
Remember that those tired feet were once your mother’s as she stood all night and day enduring the terrifying shrieks of the monstrous machines in a room suppressing her own hopes and dreams, just so her children could finally learn how to breathe, becoming the CEOs of a company she once worked, locked in a tower on the 30th floor sweating away.
Remember that those enduring spirits were once your parents as they labored each day hoping neither for fortune nor fame, but for a chance to give you a vision they never could have seen for themselves. One track laid upon the other through their unrelenting spirit paved the way for a railroad that would be used across the nation, stretching as far as if it were the Golden Gate bridge leading you home
Remember these longing souls were once your fore fathers and mothers willing to lay down their own lives so they could see the day when you would be free, not to further oppress or divide but to join the huddled masses to cry out for something better, for a hopeful future to all who might make their home in a place of better tomorrows than today.
Her last words ring out as a voice of a prophet calling her people back from the wilderness, to a place of unity instead of divide, to a place of courage instead of fear and to a place of hope instead of despair
Shining brighter than ever, her torch still guides those who seek comfort, safety and rest
Like a queen leading a magnificent parade
This procession becomes a triumphant song of divine welcome
For all who may be yearning to breathe free.