Dan Morain

Lessons from a pilgrimage to Ellis Island

A park ranger walks through the registry room on Ellis Island in New York in October 2013. The island that ushered millions of immigrants into the United States received visitors for the first time since Superstorm Sandy.
A park ranger walks through the registry room on Ellis Island in New York in October 2013. The island that ushered millions of immigrants into the United States received visitors for the first time since Superstorm Sandy. Associated Press file

Antonio Santamorena arrived at Ellis Island on March 11, 1905, part of the huddled masses in search of a dream.

He was 23, from the southern Italian town of Stigliano, and had spent 19 days aboard the Napolitan Prince, a rusty steamer that had accommodations for 25 first-class passengers and 1,150 third-class passengers. Santamorena was third class.

On Ellis Island, he was detained overnight, fed a few meals and released to a sister, who lived in Italian Harlem, later known as Spanish Harlem. He had the equivalent of $2 in his pocket.

I learned all this earlier this month when I made a visit, a pilgrimage really, to the museum at Ellis Island, and spoke by phone with a National Park Service historian, Barry Moreno, a fount of information. Santamorena was one of 3.2 million men, women and children who arrived from southern Italy at the end of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th century. He wasn’t special, nor particularly welcome.

In 1909, Puck, a widely read humor magazine, published an unfunny cartoon, now on display in the Ellis Island museum. It depicts Uncle Sam as “The Fool Pied Piper,” decrying a lax immigration policy, and showing rats with human faces – long noses, dark complexion, drooping mustaches – swimming to our shores. They’re labeled bandit, assassin, murderer, black hand. European leaders are dancing, gleeful that they have outsmarted America’s stupid leaders by ridding themselves of such vermin.

I have no idea whether Santamorena saw the 1909 edition of Puck. Probably not. But he surely felt the prejudices of the time. How far we have not come.

As he has done from the start of his nativist, xenophobic campaign, Donald Trump sounded his anti-immigrant theme at last week’s debate: “We have some bad hombres here, and we’re going to get them out.”

Roger Salazar, the son of an immigrant mother from Mexico, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s White House and one of the top Democratic consultants in this state, answered Trump’s tripe with humor, tweeting a democratic point: “Just filled out my ballot. This #BadHombre is with the #NastyWoman.”

Salazar remembered that as a young kid, he visited his father’s tire shop in Lodi, and other mechanics welcomed him warmly by calling him a slur, the significance of which he would not comprehend until later years. In 2016, he hears people thanking Trump for saying what they’re thinking.

“I really did think we were past it,” Salazar said.

Last week, at the Catholic Charities fundraiser in New York, named for the late New York Gov. Al Smith, Hillary Clinton noted that the people in the audience, decked out in gowns and jewels, and tuxedos and white ties, are immigrants, or the children or grandchildren of immigrants, who “took advantage of the American dream and the greatest system that has ever been created in the history of the world to unleash the individual talents and energy and ambition of everyone willing to work hard.”

Many started like Antonio Santamorena. In his day, they were Italians, Irish, Germans and Jews, the “others.” Their religions were different, they prayed to unfamiliar saints, and they didn’t know English. Patrons doing the bidding of wealthy factory and mine owners seeking cheap labor would recruit men from small towns in Italy, and smuggle them to the new world.

In those days, there were deadly terrorist attacks in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York. Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley in 1901. His foreign-sounding name aside, Czolgosz was born in Michigan. In 1917, the U.S. government printed posters asking: “Are you 100% American? Prove it!” It was a pitch to buy U.S. bonds. Authorities deported anarchist Luigi Galleani to Italy in 1919, and people linked to him responded by carrying out bombings and assassination attempts.

“There are a lot of parallels, unfortunately, because I thought we had moved on,” UC Davis history professor Kathryn Olmsted said. Immigrants were and often are portrayed as criminals or terrorists, and not true Americans, who want to “change America in ways that will make it unrecognizable.”

As many Italians did, Santamorena returned to his homeland to find a wife, and brought her back. They settled in Yonkers. He got his hands on some used bricks and built a home on Manning Avenue, across from Sawmill River Parkway. He found work with the city of Yonkers as a laborer, bought grapes each fall to make his own wine and butchered hogs to make his own sausage.

They had five sons, who went to public schools and to war, and came home. One owned a garage; another was a caddy; one was a career Navy chief petty officer who died of the sort of cancer one got from working in the holds of ships around asbestos. One became a cop. One changed his name to Morain and moved to California to find his fortune, which he made and lost.

Questions linger today, as they did in 1905. Do Trump’s most anti-immigrant rantings reflect a part of who we Americans are, or are they the last gasps of a culture on its way out? My grandfather died before I could meet him, but I must have inherited a few traits. He thought better days were ahead. How else could he have boarded the Napolitan Prince?