My grandfather, Alfredo Puglia, was an “illegal immigrant.” In 1906 he fled Misterbianco, Sicily, and crossed the Atlantic. He was wanted for mayhem; subsequently, America was his only option. On the night before he left, he convinced his childhood sweetheart, Agatha, to run with him.
America was a fledgling nation and needed immigrant hands to build the cities and infrastructures that define us. Papa was a stonemason and built the coke ovens of Western Pennsylvania, which remain on the National Historic Registry. Papa and Nonna raised five sons who were soldiers in World War II.
Although Papa and Nonna snuck into our country across the Canadian border, their contributions to America are exponential as their grandchildren and great-grandchildren now define the American mosaic.
Immigration is a point of contention and is built on a lattice of symbols. It doesn't take much imagination to move from images of people scaling corrugated fences to photos of huddled masses of immigrants on ships passing Lady Liberty.
A line from “The New Colussus,” Emma Lazarus’ poem, “Give me your tired,” is a reminder that America’s past held principles we’ve moved away from. Yet the world has changed since Lazarus wrote these words in 1883. It is ludicrous to determine policy based upon the sensibilities of the past. However, we are a Constantinople, a nation of immigrants, which has worked because those who came assimilated.
La Cañada is part of this crossroad of people who come as immigrants and contribute to the American fabric. In Starbucks I had a recent conversation with Silvia Paredes, a young woman from Mexico who anticipates becoming an American citizen. Silvia works for Yolanda’s Pet Grooming, which is well known throughout La Cañada. “Yolanda is one of the miracles that I have found in America,” Paredes attests.
“The best gift my mother gave me was the freedom to follow my dreams,” she said. Therefore, Paredes attended a prestigious university in Mexico City, studying graphic design. She then qualified for a scholarship to study at Carlos III de Madrid University in Spain. She has a B.A. in graphic design with a specialization in illustration. She is indeed a gifted artist.
“In Spain, I matured and wanted to keep growing.” So she came to America to develop her talents as an artist and to follow the American Dream. I believe immigration is what keeps the American Dream alive.
However, for Sylvia and so many others, immigration comes with a price. The juxtaposition of dissimilarities between culture induces cultural shock — a formidable barrier for many immigrants. Language and custom are typically impediments to assimilation. Silvia has done her due diligence and has studied English at Los Angeles City College and makes a concerted effort to absorb American culture, yet she maintains the values of Mexico.
So often many of us take for granted what America offers. However, when I asked Silvia why she came to this country, she immediately answered with a single word: “Freedom.”
In her eyes, the word is more than a cliché. Silvia Paredes is an example of American values.
“In America, I am free to work. I am free to try and be what I hope to become,” she said.
My conversation with Silvia touched on philosophy, religion, sociology and politics. Articulate on many levels, she maintained an open mind and did not see the world in absolutes. When referring to matters of faith and opinion, she remarked, “This is not my only truth.”
America is an experiment of ideas. But we have an arduous journey to become that “shining city on a hill.” Therefore, immigration must remain a defining principle of who we are.
Silvia showed an inscription on her Instagram: “Living a dream life, working so hard trying to be the best version of me.” She added, “Freedom gives you that.”
I can only imagine what her American story will be.