Manual Crossing the Rio Grande: An Immigrants Life in the 1880s

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An immigration official interrogates you about your political affiliations and the amount of money you have with you. Most of the people on board with you are also granted entry.

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There will be no limit on the number of immigrants until On one trip back to Sicily, you meet Lucia and fall deeply in love. You leave again for New York but promise to marry her the next time you return. Bartolomeo Vanzetti left , handcuffed to Nicola Sacco right. Norfolk Superior Court, in Dedham, Massachusetts, But her father dies unexpectedly and her family loses the store, so you, Sofia, and the children move to Boston to join your brother.

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You arrive in the city as Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti stand trial for murder. You change your name to James and move your family to Charlestown, where fewer Italians live. You return to Italy and marry Lucia. Soon, she is pregnant. Before departing, you have your photograph taken with Lucia in a studio in Naples. This is the only image of your wife that you will carry with you to America.

With an apartment in Little Italy and a steady job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, you are ready to summon Lucia and your infant son, Roberto, and make a life in America. But immigration law has changed. Under the Emergency Quota Act of , each country gets a maximum number of immigrants. Visas are given on a first-come, first-served basis at the port of entry, and the number of Italians seeking entry far exceeds the quota.

If Lucia and Roberto make the passage, they might get turned away. Lucia and Roberto arrive in New York, but their ship is held in the harbor. The Italian quotas have already been filled for the month. The boat returns to Italy.


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Now, your best chance of reuniting with Lucia is to become a citizen — which would allow you to bring your wife and child into the country, regardless of quotas. But the process could take five to six years from your last entry to the U. Finally, you apply for visas for your family. In early , Lucia and a now 6-year-old Roberto join you in Boston. A telegram arrives from Italy. Your father has died from influenza. Your aging mother is alone because all of her sons are in America, and you worry for her health. You go to Italy and care for your mother.

But when you try to return to the U. You stay in Boston and send your mother more money — making it harder for you to support your own wife and children. Finally, in early , you become a citizen, but your mother dies before you can get back to Italy. You buy a house in the nearby beachside suburb of Revere. You join the American Committee for Italian Migration, and actively support campaigns to change immigration law to remove the national origins quota system that made your experience so difficult.

You live with your parents, who are tenant farmers on a plot belonging to your uncle, a merchant in the port city of Guangzhou. As the third son and illiterate, you have little chance of ever inheriting the farm or buying your own land. You go to Guangzhou to find work, but after a few months in the dockyards, you hear about opportunities in the U. You will repay the company on a monthly basis until the price of the passage is cleared.

Your uncle warns you about the tactics used by devious agents or chu chai tau swineherds. You travel to Hong Kong and then to San Francisco with the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, spending more than a month at sea with poor nutrition and sanitation. When you disembark, you are checked by a health inspector and herded into a detention shed. Customs officers pat you down and rifle through your single bag, searching for opium or anything they could charge a duty on. You gather your belongings and head into San Francisco.

This is your first experience in a city where most people speak English. An employment agent with a sign in your native Cantonese offers you work near Sacramento, where landowners are employing laborers to drain swampy marshes and transform the delta into farmland. The work is backbreaking, but it is also familiar and you are surrounded by fellow Cantonese speakers.

You have become friends with Li Jie, a fellow Cantonese immigrant who moved to California with his parents as a child. Wang Jie is recruiting laborers. The growing Chinese community of San Francisco appeals to you, so you move back.

You travel to Hong Kong and then on to San Francisco with the Pacific Mail Steamship Company; you spend more than a month at sea with poor nutrition and sanitation. Searching for opium or anything they could charge a duty on, customs officers pat you down and rifle through your single bag. You are transported to Utah to work on the final stretch of the Transcontinental Railroad, where you join Chinese immigrant laborers from the West and mostly white immigrant laborers from the East.

Many white workers see the Chinese as a threat, and violent incidents break out. After the tent where you eat and gamble is burned, you are sent to harvest cotton in Louisiana. Your debt takes longer to work off than you were led to believe: The company deducts pay for your shabby accommodations and paltry food allocation. You have completed your three-year contract and are eager to leave the heat of the Southern plantations. A return to the farm work you did in China is appealing.

With a sturdy livelihood, you are able to return home from time to time and help your parents pay off their debts. Soon thereafter, you journey alone to the U. You send for Ling and your infant son, Zhang Wei, who was born in your absence, to join you in California, but you underestimate the difficulty of gaining admission. The Page Act of prohibits entry of any Chinese woman who might engage in prostitution. But the law is applied overzealously, and in practice it is extremely difficult for any Chinese women to immigrate.

Despite your protests that they are your legitimate wife and son, Ling and Zhang Wei are denied entry and return to China. You could attempt to have your family smuggled over the Canadian or Mexican border, but it is a dangerous and expensive journey. Or you could save money to travel back to China and accompany Ling and your son back.

Perhaps if you travel together, you can persuade the authorities that Ling really is your wife. Canada does not yet have any restrictions on Chinese immigration, so they are admitted without difficulty. You meet them at a small inlet and head to Seattle. The company buys a property near the docks with a small apartment upstairs for your growing family. But as the economy worsens, white mobs, hostile toward foreign laborers who will work for lower wages, attempt to clear out the Chinese population.

Your wife and children are afraid to go outside. You want to return to San Francisco, but if you leave you will lose your position. When Washington attains statehood in , its constitution includes a statute that prevents those ineligible for citizenship from owning property. He shutters the office, and you return to San Francisco. You have finally saved enough money to travel back to China and pay for a return trip for your family of three, but in the meantime, the Chinese Exclusion Act is passed in , barring entry to all new Chinese laborers. As a resident laborer, you could leave the U.

Your separation from your family is now indefinite. You send a portion of your salary home to your wife and child, in addition to money you are still sending to your aging parents.

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You then hear that, in your absence, Ling has found another husband and has had more children. Do you continue to send money to your son Zhang Wei, whom you have never met and who may not even know that you are his father? Or do you leave Zhang with his new stepfather and resign yourself to never meeting him?


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