On Saturday state Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) was among 93 international honorees to receive an Ellis Island Medal of Honor, given to individuals for their inspired service and contributions to the nation, in a ceremony at the national monument.
For 34 years, the Ellis Island Honor Society has bestowed the award on presidents, politicians, celebrities, dignitaries and extraordinary citizens alike. Past honorees include Ronald Reagan, Joe Biden, Coretta Scott King, Lee Iacocca and Muhammad Ali.
Portantino — who was nominated by two former awardees from his 25th Senate District, former La Cañada resident Mary Najarian and Los Angeles’ Cecile Keshishian — accepted this year’s award alongside U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), Dr. Sanjay Gupta, singer Paula Abdul and King Mohammed VI of Morocco.
“The fact that two constituent honorees nominated me is really an honor,” the senator said Monday in a phone call from Sacramento. “The whole event was really a magical experience.”
Recipients are those who have demonstrated integrity and passion and have honored their ethnic heritage while promoting and contributing to America’s national identity, Ellis Island Honor Society head Nasser Kazeminy explained at Saturday’s ceremony.
“America is about people, people who see progress as success and who uphold the values this country was founded on — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” he said. “Whether you have saved lives, fought for our freedom or, with hard work and determination, risen to the top of your field, you have contributed immensely to our nation.”
First as an assemblyman and later as senator, Portantino has authored and supported legislation related to school funding and financial aid, establishment of the California Umbilical Cord Blood Collection Program and gun control, among others.
“I’m honored I’ve been able, with the support of my colleagues, to pass legislation that I think has made California a better place,” he said.
The senator traveled with wife Ellen and daughters Bella and Sofia to New York. The family took a ferry to Ellis Island to attend Saturday’s ceremony in the famed Registry Room, named “The Great Hall” for its immensity. As they departed Saturday night, fireworks illuminated the Statue of Liberty.
The moment was especially poignant for Portantino, whose own forbears journeyed there from Italy a century earlier. Maternal grandparents Mary Valecco and Jimmy Garrone met in New Jersey and went on to raise a family, while paternal grandparents, Phil and Grace Portantino established their own homestead in the new country.
“All of them came to Ellis Island with nothing, looking for a piece of the American dream,” the senator said Monday. “And here we are two generations later in the Great Hall. It was quite emotional.”