By Elaine Camarota
The Scene: Central Park. The Time: A sunny afternoon. Children are running, playing, and enjoying the release of after school. Zoom in to a bench where the caregivers, all women, sit, mothers, grandmothers, and nannies. One woman is the focus. The other women ask her advice, the kids gather around, and she is fully engaged. Laughing and helpful she’s intent not only on her charges but present in the moment and alive. Who is this woman? It’s Savi!
The final line of “The Colossus,” engraved on the Statue of Liberty is: “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
An immigrant from Trinidad, Savi is just one special woman who made it through that golden door.
Savi is the nanny for my 3 New York grandchildren. Together we’ve played with the children, folded clothes, cooked, swapped recipes, and shared pieces of ourselves.
Here is her story gleaned from conversations over 6 ½ years:
She grew up in a very traditional Indian family. Her great-great-grandparents came from India as indentured laborers. The family were farmers and comfortable. And she was happy. Her grandparents bought an estate in the country, 49 acres on the northeast side of Trinidad. Her father farmed oranges, cocoa and coffee. When she was 7 her parents moved back to town. She missed her grandmother, so at age 14, after primary school, she moved back and lived with her until age 20. She got up at 4am every day, did chores and learned to cook. She helped her aunts make breakfast and lunch for the workers. She cleaned and took care of her diabetic grandfather until he died. In the afternoons she went to school to learn the floral trade. At age 20 she went to work for V.S. Naipaul’s sister who had a florist/gift shop. It was known as the “Saks of Trinidad.”
Her brother had a car repair shop. That’s where she met her son’s father who worked there. Unmarried, she got pregnant at age 24. It was a big disgrace in her Muslim family. Six weeks after she learned she was pregnant, she was married in a Hindu Temple and converted to Hinduism. She stopped eating beef and started eating pork. She lived with her husband’s family who excluded her and told her, ”You are an outsider.” She didn’t even have a bed of her own. She was the breadwinner because her husband didn’t get much work. She was miserable. She prayed to die. Then she asked forgiveness and prayed for help: “Show me a way!”
She saved money to get a visa for the US. She had to prove she had money and a job, something to prove she would return to Trinidad. She got a one-year visa saying she wanted to visit family but stayed only 9 weeks. Her aunt was sick; there was no support and no job offer. When she was offered a baby-sitting job, her son back in Trinidad was only 3 years old. So she went back home after only 9 weeks.
Life was even harder back in Trinidad. Living conditions were terrible. Her husband couldn’t find work and started drinking. Her marriage was troubled and she was stressed. They separated and she supported her son alone by working in a small florist shop. She stayed 7 years. When life there became intolerable, she applied for and was given a 10 year visa on condition that she stay in the US only 6 months at a time. She asked her mother’s blessing. (Savi cried as she told this part of her story.) She gave it but could not say goodbye in person. Instead she said goodbye in a video. That’s the last vision she has of her mother.
At the end of 6 months, returning to Trinidad did not seem a viable option if she wanted to retain her sanity and humanity. So she overstayed her legal visa and became an illegal immigrant. (Since coming to the US her mother and one of her brothers have died and another brother got married. It would be 8 years before she saw her son again.)
The title of this paper is Through The Golden Door:Perspectives from the History of Immigration.
Savi is a relatively recent immigrant. But all of us in this room are the descendants of immigrants. Until about 30,000 years ago, no humans lived in the New World, the last continents, aside from Antarctica, to be settled. Asian migrants crossed the land bridge connecting Siberia and created cultures from the top of North America to the bottom of South America. Known first as Indians, they became American Indians, later Native Americans, and finally People of the First Nation. The rest of our forbears came later, after Columbus “discovered” America. I began by thinking about immigration as one aspect of American history. Now I realize that immigration IS the history of America.
What do Immigrants have in common?
Some immigrants left their homeland because, like my paternal grandfather, they believed “the streets were paved with gold.” Some came under duress for political and religious beliefs. Some citizens were even exiled, perhaps the bitterest reason of all. Here is Dante writing in The Divine Comedy about being a political exile from his beloved Florence:
Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta più caramente; e questo è quello strale che l’arco de lo essilio pria saetta.
TU PROVERAI SI’ COME SA DI SALE LO PANE ALTRUI, E COME E’ DURO CALLE LO SCENDERE E ‘L SALIR PER L’ALTRUI SCALE.
… You shall leave everything you love most:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste
of others’ bread, how salty it is, and know
how hard a path it is for one who goes
ascending and descending others’ stairs …
(Dante Alighieri Paradiso XVII, 58-60)
That sense of displacement is common to all who move from a familiar place to a new one. New language, a new culture, even new food can be profoundly unsettling.
When Antonio Banderas moved to NY from Spain, to make a movie, The Mambo Kings, he spoke no English, so he didn’t understand anybody. He stayed in a hotel and was afraid to call room service. When he saw the name tag, Rodriquez, on a man working at a nearby deli, Banderas would go there, talk to Rodriguez, buy sandwiches, and take them back to his room.
And the ambivalence of the native born toward the newcomers doesn’t help. Do we love immigration and hate the immigrants or do we love the immigrants and hate immigration? Time, place, and economics, lend themselves to constantly shifting attitudes. When America was young newcomers were welcomed. A new nation needed citizens to work and fill the vast land. The borders with Mexico and Canada were open. People came and went without notice. Who were they? First were the British colonists, the French, and the Spanish. Next came the Africans brought here as slaves, but that is a whole other story. In 1790 the white population of the US consisted of the English, the Scotch, the Irish, the Germans, the Dutch, the French, the Swedish, and the Spanish.
A friend of mine provided me with a fragment from a diary written by her ancestor, titled “From Europe to America,” written in 1832 and translated from the German. The author shares his experiences about leaving one’s homeland and having to adjust to a new country.
Frederick Lenz was a weaver who faced bankruptcy when Germany was in financial crisis. He made a difficult decision:
“At once the thought occurred to me to emigrate. But, on the other side the crushing thought – to leave my dear wife and two children and my old father 80 years of age, my dear brothers and sisters and my dear friends and my beloved fatherland with its mountains, hills, valleys and rivers where I have been so happy. To part from all of these was a great trial for me.”
Mr. Lenz was cheated out of the money he gave an unscrupulous man to transport him to the ship and was delayed in trying unsuccessfully to recover it. Unbelievably, he was cheated again out of payment to board the ship. The ship sailed but after a week on the seas a huge storm forced it to return to Bremen where there was another delay until the weather was more favorable. More storms at sea caused sea-sickness that lasted 4 days and the boat resembled a hospital. Three more storms followed during that month of sailing causing the same misery among the passengers. When the weather was fine, musicians on board provided entertainment. Lenz left Bremen August 1 and arrived in Delaware Bay outside Baltimore September 19. Before the passengers were allowed to disembark, a doctor came on board and checked them all for contagious diseases. Unlike some voyages where people died, on this trip 2 babies, a boy and a girl, were born.
“The journey from Europe to America is accompanied by so many difficulties that it is difficult for one to tell all to one who has not been through the same experience. When one travels from the place of his birth to the ocean, the trip is not only accompanied by difficulties, but in each country through which one passes, one is looked at from lower and higher classes with contempt. Few Germans show to an emigrant a gracious spirit, consequently, many families are to be pitied who have a long journey from their birth place to the ocean. If they are not accustomed to travel they will be defrauded on all sides partly in hotels over-charging, also in exchanging money with which you are not familiar.”
As time went on, the primarily Anglo-Saxon citizens opposed the entrance of new ethnic groups.
Quiz question #1:
Who wrote this racist rant?
“Why should the Palatine Boors (the Germans) be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.
“Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white people in the World is proportionally very small. All Africa is black or tawney. Asia chiefly tawney. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spainards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are Germans also, the Saxons only accepted, who with the English, make the principal body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the eyes of Inhabitants of Mars or Venus, why should we in the light of Superior Beings, darken its people? Why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is Natural to Mankind.”
It was Ben Franklin, one of my childhood heroes, in his pamphlet, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind (1751): Turns out he was an early American nativist.
And then there was the eugenics phenomenon that affected attitudes toward immigrants. At its peak of popularity eugenics was supported by a wide variety of prominent people, including Winston Churchill, H. G. Wells, Theodore Roosevelt, and George Bernard Shaw. And, of course, Hitler.
Quiz question #2
Who made these points in a speech advocating the creation of a Population Congress?
- to keep the doors of immigration closed to the entrance of certain aliens whose condition is known to be detrimental to the stamina of the race, such as feebleminded, idiots, morons, insane, syphilitic, epileptic, criminal, professional prostitutes, and others in this class barred by the immigration laws of 1924.
- to apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted, or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.
Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, and a eugenicist, on immigrants in a speech at the New Historical Society.
She referred to immigrants and poor people as “…’human weeds’,
‘reckless breeders,’ ‘spawning human being who never should have been born.” (Pivot of Civilization, 1922)
On the other hand, Leonel I. Castillo, Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization, May 13, 1977 to October 1979 has a more positive take on immigrants. His grandfather entered the US in Victoria, Texas from Mexico, in 1880. Paying half a dollar automatically made him a US citizen. He fought to acquire burial grounds for Mexicans and finally was given some land from a group of German Lutherans.
In reminiscing with Studs Terkel about his time as director of the INS, Mr. Castillo is sympathetic to the plight of immigrants.
“New Immigrants are trying all over again to integrate themselves” into this society….” They have the same hunger. On any given day, there are about 3 million throughout the world who are applying to come to the US” and be part of this system. They want to “share the American dream” and must fight “the same battles.”
“Most of the undocumented here without papers, without legal permission, think they’re gonna go back home in 6 months. (That’s what Savi thought.) Relatively few go back. Like the Vietnamese boat people, they are willing to take their chances here because the US is “the freedom place.” Usually it’s not the poorest people who come here. “Sometimes the whole family saves up and gives the brightest” child “the family savings.” He sends money home to the family. (Savi supported many of her relatives, sent money home, and offered advice to family members with problems.) He works hard, has energy and wants to advance despite often miserable living and working conditions. Restaurant owners have said, if they have a choice, “they’ll always hire foreign nationals first. They’re so eager and grateful.” And they can pay them much less.
Castillo talked about families sending the ‘brightest child’ across the border.
Quiz question #3: Are the immigrants as a group among the brightest who came for opportunity or the dumb ones who just couldn’t make it at home?
Here is some evidence from the state church of Sweden which assigned its pastors the task of annual intelligence evaluation of their parishioners with regard to general knowledge and literacy.
“A comparison of those Swedes, rural as well as urban … who emigrated . . . with those who remained in Sweden, reveals that everywhere, irrespective of the corner of the country chosen, emigrants generally made higher marks than the rest of the population. They were brighter in school, had a wider picture of the world, and were the kind of persons to whom it would occur to leave their habitual surroundings. . . . The . . .emigrants abroad seem to have had the highest intellectual level; a fact that says something about the loss to their native country that large-scale immigration caused. . . .” It “contributes to an understanding of the immense economic expansion that occurred in the major countries of immigration, especially in the United States.” (Roger Daniels 19__)
I love the Statue of Liberty. When at the end of sixth grade I graduated from Edgar Allan Poe School in Philadelphia, the graduating class presented a play, “Miss Liberty’s Light.” As Miss Liberty I dressed in a white sheet, had a gold cardboard crown and carried an aluminum covered flashlight as my torch. I recited the lines inscribed on the Statue:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless tempest tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Ever since then I’ve loved those words and the giant bronze woman who stands at the entrance to Ellis Island. Like many Americans I viewed the arrival of European immigrants in a romantic light. Families arriving together with nothing but the promise of liberty and justice for all to seek the American dream. Reality differs. There were many impetuses for immigration. The primary one was economic. People saw the hope of a better life. Most families did not travel together to the New World. The men usually came first, got settled, then sent for their wives and children. Or found wives here. The exception was Ireland which sent its young women to work as domestics in middle and upper-class American homes. They assimilated quickly and learned the ways of the native born. Those immigrants who fled religious or political persecution tended to stay. Those who came for economic opportunity often returned to their native countries. Some never returned and never saw their families again.
Although there were many ways to enter the US, when most people think about immigrants, they conjure up visions of Ellis Island. That is where many of my ancestors entered, and never having been to Ellis Island, I decided to investigate. So Thanksgiving week a year ago I boarded the Staten Island Ferry, took a million photos of the Statue of Liberty from the boat, and stood in line with hundreds of others, Americans and visitors, many with children, and waited to be admitted to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. From 1892 to 1954, over twelve million immigrants entered the United States through the portal of Ellis Island.
In 1890 it was designated as the site of the first Federal immigration station by President Benjamin Harrison. Prior to 1890, the individual states (rather than the Federal government) regulated immigration into the United States. Castle Garden in the Battery served as the New York State immigration station from 1855 to 1890 and approximately eight million immigrants, mostly from Northern and Western Europe arrived. These early immigrants came from nations such as England, Ireland, Germany and the Scandinavia. Throughout the 1800’s and increasing toward the end of the 19th century, political instability, restrictive religious laws and deteriorating economic conditions in Europe provided an impetus for the first large wave of immigrants that settled and populated the United States. Around the time of the Civil War, my mother’s paternal grandparents landed at Castle Garden.
When Castle Garden became too small to accommodate the largest mass human migration in the history of the world, the Federal government intervened and constructed a new Federally-operated immigration station on Ellis Island. The new structure opened on January 1, 1892; Annie Moore, a 15 year-old Irish girl was the very first immigrant to be processed at Ellis Island on January 2. Over the next 62 years, more than 12 million were to follow Annie to Ellis Island.
While most immigrants entered the United States through New York Harbor, others sailed to Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Francisco, Galveston, Savannah, Miami, and New Orleans. First and second class passengers who arrived in New York Harbor were not required to undergo the inspection process at Ellis Island. Instead, these passengers underwent a cursory inspection aboard ship.
But “steerage” or third class passengers? These immigrants traveled in crowded and often unsanitary conditions near the bottom of steamships with few amenities, often spending up to two weeks seasick in their bunks during rough Atlantic Ocean crossings. My mother’s maternal grandfather was a musician who made a living providing entertainment for passengers on the ships. I don’t think he was playing for the immigrants in steerage. The steerage and third class passengers were transported from the pier to Ellis Island to undergo a medical and legal inspection.
The Ellis Island inspection process would last about three to five hours. The ship’s manifest log contained the immigrant’s name and his/her answers to twenty-nine questions. This document was used by the legal inspectors at Ellis Island to cross-examine the immigrant during the primary inspection. Many immigrants had their names changed. Recently my daughter found out in her investigation that our name was originally spelled “Cammarota,” not “Camerota” as it is now.
Two percent of the arriving immigrants were excluded from entry. Some of those rejected had a contagious disease. Others were suspected of becoming a public charge or an illegal contract laborer.
In 1907, more people immigrated to the United States than any other year, approximately 1.25 million immigrants were processed at Ellis Island in that one year
From the very beginning of the mass migration that spanned the years (roughly) 1880 to 1924, a vocal group of politicians and nativists demanded increased restrictions on immigration. Laws and regulations such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Alien Contract Labor Law and the institution of a literacy test barely stemmed this flood tide of new immigrants. 1921 marked the beginning of the end for Ellis Island as a major entry point for new immigrants. In 1921 immigration Quota Laws were passed, followed by the passage of the National Origins Act in 1924. These restrictions were based upon a percentage system drawn from the number of ethnic groups already living in the United States as determined by the 1890 and 1910 Census. Nativists tried to preserve the ethnic flavor of the “old immigrants,” those earlier settlers primarily from Northern and Western Europe. The perception existed that the new immigrants mostly from Southern and Eastern Europe were inferior to those who arrived earlier.
And what about the Queen City of the West? Like much of the Midwest, Cincinnati was heavily settled by German immigrants. Despite their success in our city, WWI affected attitudes of Cincinnati residents: A marker at Findlay Market tells the story of “Anti-German Hysteria” during WWI :
The United States’ declaration of war on Germany in April 1917 resulted in a tragic display of hysteria directed against everything and anything German. In Cincinnati, German teachers were dismissed from public schools, German professors were censored, German collections and publications were removed from circulation at the Public Library, businesses with German names had their names “Americanized” and, by police order, only English language public meetings could be held.
As a result of the anti-German hysteria during World War I, name changing became the rage. The Cincinnati City Council followed the trend by changing German street names on April 9, 1918. Among those changed were: German Street to English Street, Bismark Street to Montreal Street, Berlin Street to Woodrow Street, Bremen Street to Republic Street, Brunswick Street to Edgecliff Point, Frankfort Street to Connecticut Avenue, Hamburg Street to Stonewall Street, Hanover Street to Yukon Street, Hapsburg Street to Merrimac Street, Schumann Street to Meredith Street, Vienna Street to Panama Street, and Humboldt Street to Taft Road.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson declared Ellis Island part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. Starting in 1984, Ellis Island underwent a major restoration, the largest historic restoration in U.S. history. The Main Building was reopened to the public on September 10, 1990 as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Today, the museum receives almost 2 million visitors annually. It is also always on the verge of going broke. Thanks to a $100,000 gift from American Express last December, the Museum has been able to buy some time to continue restoring the 29 historic buildings on the site.
Quiz question #4: Were other English speaking countries more welcoming to immigrants than the US?
I investigated. I visited the Immigration Museum in Melbourne Australia, a country in some ways similar to the US. There I learned that the first immigrants were convicts exiled, like Dante, to Australia from their native lands. But, unlike Dante, who wrote divine poetry, these men were forced to do hard labor and built most of the beautiful early structures from stone that they quarried, cut, and dragged. As in the US each new group to Australia has had to struggle to be accepted. Last year the museum ran a program for teens, a mix of native Australians and recent immigrants who came together in groups to discuss similarities, differences, and to resolve conflicts.
And what about Canada, our polite and civilized neighbor to the North? Before1914 large numbers of European immigrants, and native-born workers, moved back and forth across the shared border with the US in large numbers in search of work. During the 1920’s, the United States adopted a more exclusionist policy, in sharp contrast with Canada which continued to actively encourage immigration at least from Europe. Both countries, however, continued to prevent the large scale entry of non-white immigrants until the 1960s. Both countries rejected the appeals of desperate German Jewish refugees for sanctuary from Nazi persecution. And Canada, like the US, was slow to establish programs that would help non-English speaking immigrants adjust to life in North America. Finally, both countries embraced many of the features of the German guest worker system in which temporary laborers are sent back home when the work is finished.
When I was growing up, I was told that the US is a melting pot, where all citizens came together to become Americans. Later, I was taught that instead our country was a mosaic of different ethnicities, each with its own customs and traditions, living peacefully side-by-side. Neither description seems accurate. Between the global economic meltdown, the specter of international terrorism and the irrational fear of Muslims, it looks bleak for a sensible immigration policy any time soon.
During the summer I signed a petition to Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky senator. He responded in part:
“As former chairman and current senior member of the Senate, Foreign Operations Appropriations subcommittee . . .I have been proud to play a role in allocating U.S. foreign assistance to individuals suffering persecution in other countries, and I am intent on preserving this tradition. That said, I am also deeply concerned about the nation’s fiscal crisis and believe it is more important than ever that congress prioritize spending. I also maintain that national security concerns must be of utmost consideration when reviewing the cases of refugees and other potential immigrants.”
Tensions and ambivalence abound between the natives and the newly arrived. In Alabama, which has the harshest anti-immigration law in the nation, it would cost the government $2.8 billion to deport all 120,000 undocumented migrants in the state. Each deportation costs American taxpayers $23,482. Parents and children are separated and migrant workers’ children are afraid to go to school. Much of the tomato crop has rotted as many of the migrant workers who normally work these fields have moved to other states to find work after Alabama’s immigration law took effect.
Given the world-wide ambivalence about immigrants, are there signs of hope in the present? Maybe.
Kentucky is one of the most homogeneous states in the country. Yet, recently in Florence, KY, Gateway Community & Technical College offered an ongoing workplace Spanish course for workers in hotels and other hospitality industry companies. It was designed to “improve communications between employers and Hispanic employees.”
Or consider this tidbit. On page one of the Dining section of the March 23 New York Times, a story, “Around a Midwest City, The World Comes to Eat,” explored the phenomenon of restaurants run by immigrants that now anchor shopping centers. The city featured? Indianapolis, once known as the 100 Percent American City. No more. Since 2000 the number of residents in the Indianapolis metro area born in another country has increased by more than 60 percent. The newcomers are from Mexico, India, China, Korea, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Japan, Nigeria, Peru, Pakistan, Venezuela, and Ethiopia. The immigrants are settling not in the urban centers but in the outlying suburbs. And they are cooking their ethnic foods in strip malls surrounding the city.
I investigated. I went to the Honey Creek Plaza and found Ethopian, Cuban, Indian, Mexican, Peruvian, Vietnamese, and Chinese restaurants cozily placed side by side. While sampling traditional Peruvian food at Machu Picchu restaurant, I noticed a poster on the wall. It announced a one-night event entitled, “Chew on This.” Sponsored by the Indiana Humanities Food for Thought program, its purpose was to “encourage Hoosiers to think, read, and talk with neighbors, friends, and strangers about ethnic identity.” Open to the public it included an after-party at Big Car’s Service Center of Contemporary Culture + Community with complimentary beer samples from a local brewing company.
Remember Dante’s complaint about having to eat the horrible salted bread of people outside Tuscany? Immigrants open restaurants to feed their countrymen who hunger for a familiar taste of their homeland. It has the added benefit of introducing the rest of us to new foods, new seasonings, new possibilities. Are there any foods more ubiquitously American than pizza and bagels?
And remember Savi. Much has happened since we met 6 ½ years ago. She has divorced her husband, married an American, and now has a green card. Last year she saw her son for the first time in 8 years. She was able to fly to Trinidad to participate in his Hindu coming of age ceremony. She has enlarged and improved the house she owns on her family compound. She is lucky to have had her immigrant experience in New York City, a city that is full of immigrants and belongs to the world as much as it belongs to America. Despite adjustments and sacrifices, she joined the large immigrant community from the Caribbean in Brooklyn and had family and friends already here. Her plans? After my grandchildren are old enough that she is no longer needed, she plans to retire from the nanny business and open a gift and floral shop in Trinidad, like the one she worked in years ago. She expects to divide her time between the US and Trinidad and hopes her son will travel with her here. He is reluctant. Nineteen years old, he has never been on a plane and is afraid to fly. Time will tell. Stay tuned for future immigrant adventures in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.