The Promise of Possibility

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Back then, all we wanted was the simplest things: to eat good food, to sleep at night, to smile, to laugh, to be well. We felt it was our right, as much as anyone’s, to have those things. Of course, when I think about it now, I see that I was naïve. I was blinded by the swell of hope and the promise of possibility.

from Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans

On January 2, 1892, a seventeen-year-old Irish girl named Annie Moore became the first person to be processed through Ellis Island, the first federal immigration center in the U.S. Over the next sixty-six years, some twelve million would pass through Ellis on their way to new lives across America, drawn by its “promise of possibility.” Henríquez’s father emigrated from Panama in the 1970s; most of the Central and South American immigrants in her 2014 novel live in the same Delaware apartment building, its Paraguayan-born owner a proud and defiant patriot: “I don’t let anyone mess with me. If people want to tell me to go home, I just turn to them and smile politely and say, ‘I’m already there.’ ”

Tyler Anbinder’s City of Dreams tells real stories gathered from 400 years of New York City immigration. Among the many tales of struggle and determination is that of Pasquale D’Angelo, who arrived from Italy in 1910, supported himself for five years as “a pick and shovel man,” and then landed a dollar-a-day job in the NYC rail yards. The work was hard and dangerous — he recalls coworkers dying under the wheels of locomotives, crushed under loads of coal, suffocated in the steam room — and lodging was an old boxcar; but D’Angelo refused to return home as his father had done:

At first he studied American newspapers, decoding words from their context or enlisting the aid of coworkers. “When I did learn a word and had discovered its meaning,” he recalled, “I would write it in big letters on the moldy walls of the box car.” Once he had command of basic English vocabulary, D’Angelo bought a secondhand dictionary for a quarter and began obsessively memorizing its contents. Word of the “queer Italian laborer” with the phenomenal English vocabulary soon spread throughout the rail complex . . . By this point he had become a regular visitor to the nearby Edgewater Public Library, where he fell in love with the work of the Romantic poets Percy Shelley and John Keats. He also decided that his true destiny was to write.

Write he did — not just the endlessly rejected poems but the memoir Son of Italy, in which he describes going from struggling immigrant to even more struggling writer, living in “the cheapest hole that I could find in the slums of Brooklyn . . . The entrance to it was through a toilet which served ten families.” D’Angelo’s life story brought a brief burst of fame, but he died in poverty and obscurity at age thirty-eight.

Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa’s immigration story reads as a Hollywood script, and indeed a movie is now reportedly being made of his memoir, Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon. An illegal immigrant from Mexico at age nineteen, Quiñones-Hinojosa learned English, put himself through UCLA and then Harvard Medical School, and is now a distinguished clinician and researcher in neuro-oncology. At one point in his “Lessons from the Fields” chapter, Quiñones-Hinojosa reflects that his story is — or has been until now — part of the long and unique story of open-armed America:

There at the ten-thousand-acre family-owned ranch that had been founded during the Great Depression, I was inspired to learn some of the history of this Greek family and discovered that the owner’s grandfather had come to Ellis Island and migrated west, starting as a seasonal farm laborer and working his way up until he had enough money to start a small farm of his own here in the heart of central California. It was wonderful to imagine the stages of growth of that first harvest and picture the crops flourishing over the years so that future generations of his family would be the beneficiaries of his dream. Where else but in America could such a success story be told? What was to stop me from eventually cultivating a ranch of my own? Nothing!