ANY BOOK ABOUT IMMIGRANTS is a book about us all. Which is why Ulli Steltzer’s photo essay “The New Americans,” published this month by NewSage Press, touch es all of us in more ways than we know. Although it is a cliche to say we are a “nation of immigrants,” it means far more than that most of us are descended from foreigners. It also means that the very tenor and nature of life in the United States have been defined in large part by the immigrant experience of displacement and loss, even for those of us whose ancestors arrived here generations ago.
In Steltzer’s photos of Southern California, you see generations of immigrants caught between the tidal pulls of past and future, of one world and another. For most of them, the result is the creation of a third and inner world--the condition of exile. It is a world in which the sense of separateness, and even orphanhood, becomes more of a home for the immigrant than either the nation left behind or the America newly entered.
It is this perpetually repeated experience of immigration and exile that seems to color all American experience. It is, I think, one of the things that lies close to the heart of what most Americans seem to feel. Many of us, like the immigrants, seem to have ended up without a world in which we feel at home. The present seems to escape us. The good and true continually lie behind us or ahead. Always in transit, usually distracted, we are rarely satisfied with things as they are. “Home,” for all of us, is something to be regained, created, discovered or mourned--not where we are, but where we dream of being.
And that brings us to what Ulli Steltzer is telling us with her photographs of new immigrants in Southern California. The only nation any of us will ever have in America is the one out there right now, crowded with “alien” others, a nation made new and alive again--as it always has been--by the presence of strangers. Steltzer’s photographs are merely glimpses of that nation, windows through which you can see it flash by. But the door to that nation lies elsewhere. It lies inside the self, in the willingness to seek it out and enter it--to make it one’s own through knowledge and touch. Those who find that door and open it will gain a world. Those who do not will lose one.
As Ulli Steltzer knows, it is as simple as that.
Excerpted and adapted from the introduction of the book “The New Americans.” Photographs by Ulli Steltzer. Introduction by Peter Marin. Published by NewSage Press 1988.