My grandmother was an immigrant. At age 16 she traveled by boat from Sicily and was processed through Ellis Island. She didn’t speak a word of English, she didn’t have any money, and she certainly did not have any viable job prospects waiting for her. To put it simply, she didn’t appear to have anything to offer America the day she stepped off that boat.
What she did have was a heart of gold, a desire for something better, and a tight-knit extended family that had previously immigrated to America. The whole lot of them lived in a two block radius in a poor Sicilian neighborhood in Los Angeles where the children were surrounded by cousins, meals were truly “family style” and there was always a bed for the newest arrival.
Welfare, food stamps, and health insurance were as foreign as the English language and never an option. To survive, families had to work together. Grandparents helped with the children while their parents worked; uncles helped nephews get jobs; and everyone shared what little they had to create opportunities for the next generation.
In less than 70 years in America that poor, uneducated, Sicilian teenager gave America back as much as it gave her. She paid taxes, helped build a house and vineyard, and provided for her family. Her first child graduated from Stanford University, and all of her grandchildren and great grandchildren have graduated from college and become hardworking, patriotic Americans. They include doctors, lawyers, farmers, techies, artists and engineers. Her homemade bread, Sicilian meatballs, handmade cannolis and Christmas cookies have become part of the fabric of her mixed Scottish, Cuban, Jewish, English, and German progeny. America became a better place when it let my Nana through its doors.
There’s a lot of noise about immigration in America today. As a nation of immigrants, we have to find a way to embrace and accommodate people like my grandmother. I’m not advocating free passes for criminals, slouches, gang members and others who have forfeited their rights to the American dream. But, for each one of them, there is another person willing to work hard (usually at jobs no one else wants) simply for a chance. Thank you America for giving that chance to my grandmother.