50 years have passed since I first sailed the waters of New York Harbor, coming from Italy. When my father, Luigi Savaglio, heard that a person could make his fortune in America, my parents gathered their four children, packed every earthly possession they could into two large cases and several bags, and departed for the Promised Land. Like others, we left behind all we knew, hoping to trade hardship and uncertainty for prosperity, safety and security. Above all, my father prayed that we would always remain together as a family. As we pulled into the Port of New York, we clutched our cases and bags tightly and we held onto each other even tighter. Huddled together, we joined a cacophony of tongues from every nation.
I recall as if in a childhood dream our night arrival to New York. My father peered off at a distant beacon of light that ultimately revealed itself as the Statue of Liberty. I was then too young to appreciate my father’s fears that the ship might run aground on the shores of a land of tears. He was making such sacrifices for the sake of his children. He knew he would never amount to more than a manual laborer. He wished, though, for a better life and future for his children. Sadly, my father died two years after we settled in America. He never was able to see that his family remained together and that we all fulfilled the American Dream.
It was with a heavy heart that I recently visited Ellis Island. It’s the most iconic of places, both symbolizing and speaking for the great river of immigrants that flowed through its doors over the decades. Within its walls, I walked the many impressively restored halls, rooms and chambers, losing myself as though walking back in time. I partook of an audio tour through which the spirits of immigrants past were able to speak. Sharing their hopes and fears, they talked about the medical exams, mental testing and legal obstacles they had to surmount in order to claim passage through the gateway leading to Manhattan and their new life beyond. Thirteen million people from across the planet earth sought safe haven at Ellis Island. About 2 percent of those were turned back. For those souls, Ellis Island was the place their dreams died.
Beyond the walls, the spirits of immigrants past still prowl the streets of New York. Down all those years, they wander restless and incomplete. They congregate in the many ethnic enclaves that continue to carve up Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx. Their faces can still be seen, their voice can still be heard, among the waves of today’s immigrants. Yesterday, they arrived from Germany, Ireland and Italy, Today, they come from Mexico, Jamaica, the Philippines and beyond.
Back then, they would wake up on Hester and Mulberry streets and dash off to the factory. Today, they taxi and Uber to the office. Neither can afford to be late. Then as now, they would arrive home at the end of each workday wondering how they might make ends meet.
Today’s immigrants arrive at JFK clutching laptops where once they debarked at Ellis Island lugging steamer trunks. Do they peer through the windows of airplanes as they once gazed across the bow of ships, wondering with hope and fear what fate awaits them in this land of opportunity. Now as back then, they are frozen in time, trapped between the world they just left and the one that lies ahead. Each is waiting and hoping that the door will be open to them.
As I walked among the spirits of Ellis Island, I strongly felt my father’s presence. I took the opportunity to say, “Grazie, Papa. Siamo tutti bene. Ti amo!”
The above appeared in the April issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.