The Immigrant Experience

One hundred years ago today, 10 June 1910, my grandmother and her older sister stepped off the S. S. Neckar onto Ellis Island in New York City. They had left Palermo, Sicily on 28 May.

Last night I was listening to a podcast of an interview with novelist Isabel Allende, who was went into exile from her native Chile in 1973 after a military coup. Her words speak for the experiences of millions of others:

It’s very hard to leave behind everything that is familiar and go to another place to make a life. You do that only because you’re desperate, because going back is worse. But the dream of what you leave behind stays with people, and it haunts the first generation.

Being an exile is very different from being an immigrant. An immigrant, ultimately, chooses to go. The person in exile has no choice. In that case, the only way out is going back. So they never unpack, and in their minds they’re always waiting to go back. An immigrant looks to the future. An exile looks to the past.

What I try to tell the immigrants my foundation works with is “You can live in the United States, you can adapt here, you can get to love this country the way I love it, without losing any of what you bring with you. You don’t have to lose the language, you don’t have to lose the traditions, the food, the family. No! The idea is to add, add as much as possible, and be totally bi-cultural.” But immigrants don’t understand that, because they feel so alien, so left out, that they think if they don’t become American, completely Americanized, they will never belong. But I say “You will never belong anyhow. Your children will. So forget about it. Your children will, and you will always have a foot there and foot here. And that’s ok. That’s the way it is.”

Novelist Isabel Allende, speaking at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center on 14 September 2009

To the memory of my grandmother, Onofria Napoli, 1894-1977.

Leave a Comment