Before Beyoncé, Netflix and even the internet there stood the Statue of Liberty. Generations have seen her and she continues to be an international icon known around the world. I have had the privilege of visiting and conducting tours of both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island on a daily basis as a professional, licensed New York City tour guide and GANYC member.
For a base-line understanding of the Statue of Liberty, some basic facts: Built in 1886, inspired by the French (Édouard René de Laboulaye) and designed by them (Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi), an international effort made the statue a reality. Groups in France and the US privately funded the construction and installation of Lady Liberty in NYC, with much assistance from individual donors contributing less than one dollar. The copper skin for the statue was sourced from Norway.
For over a century the Statue of Liberty has been a symbol of hope and prosperity, especially for those who came to America during the earliest years of the statue’s existence – especially 1892-1924, when Ellis Island was actively used as our nation's main port of entry. Millions passed by her façade and many immigrants recall seeing the Statue with fond recollection, an embodiment for many of the hopes and dreams they had moving here. A recent guest on my tour recounted his immigration to America just 20 years before, searching and spotting that familiar statue from the window of a plane – as exhilarating to see as by those who had come via steamship 100 years before. Lady Liberty has inspired numerous stories, songs, musicals, poems, advertisements and varied works of art. Many replicas have been created – from the miniature souvenirs you can find on Liberty Island and in Times Square, to the larger models in France, Las Vegas and on the big screen, including the walking one in Ghostbusters 2 and, spoiler alert, Planet of the Apes.
Of the inspired works, one work in particular often finds its way into our international consciousness – “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus. Among its words, “Give me your tired, you poor, your huddles masses yearning to breathe free…”
Ms. Lazarus was obviously referring more to the Jack types packed in the lower deck third class/steerage areas, rather than the Rose types up in first class with their luxury, titanic staterooms and expansive promenades. Not to say that one’s immigrant passage experience is any less or more authentic based on the amount one pays for the journey, but a huddling mass certainly does lend to some more dramatic flair, rather than a recounting of how many chambermaids attended to one’s blessed bosom.
Even those who didn't see the statue coming over were well familiar of its representation. Some of my own ancestors, coming from southern China in the 1800s, landing on the West Coast, starting their lives in America, coming to the big Gold Mountain, were full of the hopes and dreams that only their progeny would live to experience. They, like other immigrants of the time, toiled as farmers, taking the only jobs available to them, working and living on land they couldn’t own or afford. But they made do – fellow immigrants and other Americans helped them, did business with them and they were able to prosper.
For me, being born in Los Angeles, it’s been something of a homecoming to be in New York City, living my own dream. In the city that never sleeps, with all its dazzling lights, the cramped spaces many of us live in – this is where I want and choose to be.
The final declaration of the Lazarus poem reads: “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” The golden door of America has and always will be the opportunity for those that come here to freely choose where and how they want to live, for their descendants to have the same and better lives in a golden land of welcome, inclusion, diversity and cooperation. The Statue of Liberty is the natural, most prominent embodiment of that, and for that I’m incredibly grateful and appreciative that I can see and experience our international icon everyday in the city and land I proudly call home.