The Statue of Liberty stands 151 feet, 1 inch high and weighs 225 tons. The length of her right arm is 42 feet long, her hand 16 feet 5 inches long. Her facial features include a prominent nose that measures 4 feet, 6 inches set between eyes 2 feet 6 inches in width. Standing on her concrete pedestal base, she rises to a neighborhood of 305 feet. Under her huge feet are broken shackles representing liberty’s victory over tyranny.
Lady Liberty needs her mighty dimensions to hold a 23-foot-high cement tablet in one hand; the “Torch of Freedom” high above her head, in the other hand; and the hopes and dreams of millions, upon million, of immigrants cradled in her bosom.
The statue of Liberty was originally created by sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who christened his lovely lady, “Liberty Enlightening The World.” The statue was dedicated to America on July 4, 1884. The Statue of Liberty, as she would later be known, was finally completed in 1886 and she’s been welcoming travelers to our shore ever since.
Between 1901 and 1910, nearly 9 million immigrants, from all parts of the world, came to this country. Like my grandparents, many of these travelers came here from Italy and settled in the Santa Clara Valley. Unfamiliar with the language and customs of their new country, the hard-working immigrants settled in to the poorer sections of town, often taking jobs in industries in which poor conditions, low wages and long hours prevailed.
Back in the old country, the young and naive immigrants had been told wondrous stories of how the streets of America were paved in gold. But when they got here, they discovered three important things: First, the streets weren’t paved in gold; second, they weren’t paved at all; and third, they were expected to pave them!
The children and grandchildren of these immigrants share a feeling of pride at their accomplishments. A thread that runs through each of our lives, connecting one to the other through the generations.
History tells us that millions of immigrants have come to America and how they learned new trades and skills and evolved new lives and careers for themselves. As youngsters we all learned about the melting pot theory of American immigration and population growth. From an official population of some 5 million as of 1790, the first time a census survey was undertaken in our nation, we have grown to an estimated 248 million as of 1990, the last time a decennial census was taken.
The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island foundation, in New York City, estimates that more than 12 million visitors have toured the Ellis Island immigration museum since its opening on Sept. 10, 1990. Authorities at the Statue of Liberty Ellis Island foundation estimate that four in every 10 United States residents have at least one forbear who immigrated through Ellis Island. The Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, D.C., reports that in 1996 (the last available figures) 915,900 people immigrated legally to the United States.
My grandmother had an old saying. Translated in English it goes something like this: “It doesn’t matter where you start out in life; it’s where you finish that counts.” My grandparents lived their lives by that belief. My grandfather worked his way up from delivery boy in a local meat market to become the store proprietor. After learning all about the meat market business he saved enough money to purchase his own shop. With hard work and determination he went on to become a successful businessman.
My grandfather never spoke much about his early days in America, or the long ship ride over the ocean, but he often mentioned the awesome feeling he experienced as a young boy when his steamer ship from Naples, Italy, approached Ellis Island. The moment was engraved in his memory. He recalled the almost eerie silence that fell over the ship; how his papa, who he had never seen cry, was now weeping openly as Lady Liberty came into view, embracing his wife and three children with uncontrollable joy.
My grandmother and her two young siblings came to America as orphans. After losing their parents to influenza, the young trio pooled their resources and boarded a ship for America. To them, the sight of Lady Liberty meant hope for a new and better life. The grand statue had come to embody the spirit of their new land – exemplifying hope and prosperity.
Whenever I asked my grandmother where she found the courage to take that voyage of a lifetime, she would invariably say, in her native Italian: “A ship is safe in port, but that’s not where a ship was meant to be.”
She was right of course. A ship is meant to challenge the elements, ride the high seas and risk being sunk. Desire alone just doesn’t cut it.
Tales of our immigrant ancestors are repeated again and again across America. From father to son, from grandmother to grandchild, we keep the legacy alive with every story told, with every memory recalled.
On the plaque of the Statue of Liberty is the poem, “The Great Colossus” written by Emma Lasaras. The following words from that poem hung proudly framed on the wall of my grandparents’ home throughout their lifetime: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teaming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”