Sirens Calling

The Constitution and Emma Lazarus

By Jorge H. D. Prósperi, June 2019

“America… land of opportunity!” This is the sweet siren that has been heard by immigrants across vast oceans and borders throughout the world. Luring – enticing to live a life beyond daily survival, of rewards beyond servitude, of freedom to believe in a deity and prophets of choice or not, of public schooling beyond one generation, of pathways to citizenship, of voting rights, of unalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness… with legal representation, process and laws to protect each right.

Liberty statue in New York Harbor, Ellis Island
Statue of Liberty, USA

Who would not want such blessings for themselves, family and future generations? Who would not want to walk among fellow citizens enjoying the same privileges? Who would not sacrifice to journey across torturous seas and landscapes, regardless of the arduous challenges, to be part of such a nation… to be part of its indivisibility with liberty and justice for all‽

Two specific sirens have been calling out to the world to journey to such a land. The first were the fundamental principles called the Constitution. Like most Americans, immigrants do not know all of the original 4,000+ words or the current 7,000+ words, but the preamble is more succinct beginning with “We the people” followed by declarations to pursue a more perfect Union, establishing Justice, insuring Tranquility, a common Defense, promoting a general Welfare, and securing Blessing of Liberty, not only for current times, but for Posterity. Every word is a consequential testament to the quality of life pursued by every human being on the planet. The Constitution became a beacon – a magnet to all who sought such moral and human values. It became a deafening siren to the world.

Emma Lazarus portrait
Emma Lazarus (National Park Service)

The second siren was sounded by Emma Lazarus, the fourth of seven children born in New York in 1849. Her ancestors were originally from Portugal and resided in New York before the American Revolution, and were among the original twenty-three Portuguese Jews who arrived in New Amsterdam (settlement that eventually became New York City). Her ancestors had fled the anti-Semitism from their settlement of Recife, Brazil.

Emma Lazarus was ahead of her times. She became an author of poetry, prose and was an activist – a rare combination to say the least in the 1800s. Lazarus advocated on behalf of impoverished Jewish immigrants and against antisemitism. She was a student of emerging critical thinking on progress and its relationships to poverty. 

She lived only 38 years but during her short stay on earth contributed towards providing insights on immigration. Her writings produced sensitivity and enduring lessons regarding immigrants and the need to view them with dignity.

She wrote the sonnet “The New Colossus” in 1883, which includes the inscribed lines on a bronze plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Emma Lazarus

My father and mother heard the two sirens from across an ocean while toiling on pampean soil. A mother destined to a life of servitude and a father who had the courage to want more for his family. My family and I sailed in the 1950s past Emma’s words on a Swedish freighter as clandestine cargo. It was not a cruise liner docking for a few hours for a tour of New York City lights, but rather a warrant-less passage and journey with custom officers at both ends being compensated with a life’s earnings to stamp entry without questions.

Immigrants at Ellis Island USA
Ellis Island Immigration

Life changed from that point hour by hour, every furtive step taken with anxiety, caution and fear. Where to go first? Not knowing who to trust – trying to put distance from anyone in a uniform. Desperately trying to decipher incoherent directions by those who had experienced the same horror. Would they be waiting as promised?

With every step a mother and father hearing the sirens, believing… a mother’s hand holding on fast to her child, facing constant risks and fears… a tempest-tossed for a better life. Believing… “¡Mi hijo!” … what was not ours will be yours.