Go Back Where You Came From: Examining American Xenophobia Through the Poetry of Emma Lazarus and Natalie Scenters- Zapico
The author examines poems by Emma Lazarus and Natalie Scenters-Zapico centered on the experiences of Jewish and Latine immigrant groups, respectively, in order to draw conclusions about the use of poetry to describe, log, and protest prejudice and mistreatment. These poems are contextualized with news stories and relevant socio-political shifts, such as changes to immigration laws and quotas. The author explores similarities and differences between the two groups and time periods, and highlights a lesson not learned over one hundred and thirty years.
Introduction and Thesis
“Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” These famous words, two lines from the poem “The New Colossus” by Sephardic Jewish-American poet Emma Lazarus, once welcomed new immigrants to America as they passed the base of the Statue of Liberty and landed at last at Ellis Island, once the great gateway to America. Between 1892 and 1924, twelve million immigrants arrived at the Port of New York and New Jersey and were processed at Ellis Island beneath the strong gaze of America’s own Colossus (“Ellis Island”). Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus” in 1883 for an art auction funding the pedestal the Statue of Liberty stands upon (JWA). Only one year before, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which made it illegal for Chinese workers to come to America and for Chinese nationals already in America to become U.S. citizens (“Act to Execute”). Lazarus, a descendent of the original twenty-three Portuguese Jews who arrived in New Amsterdam fleeing the Inquisition from their settlement in Brazil, infused her written work with her own pro-immigrant and refugee sentiments in poems like “The New Colossus” and “In Exile,” a poem about a Russian-Jewish refugee who finds a new home in Texas after escaping the violent pogroms of the late 19th century (Lazarus).
Added to the pedestal beneath the statue itself in 1903 after Lazarus’ death, her words found new relevance during the Trump administration , as immigration restrictions and a “border crackdown” alongside violent language aimed at immigrants from South and Central America characterized his “America First” platform. In August of 2019, Director of the Citizenship and Immigration Services office Ken Cuccinelli rewrote the famous lines as “give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge” to defend the then new public charge rule, which denied green cards for those who qualify for food stamps, Medicaid, housing vouchers, and other forms of public assistance (BBC). Cuccinelli’s additions contradict the intentions of the original poem while simultaneously reflecting the reality of America’s harsh treatment and rejection of immigrants— a reality that did not begin in 2019. The United States has long vilified immigrants, and particularly non-Western European immigrants, as undesirables, “job stealers,” and leeches of public aid. These stigmas are rooted in xenophobia, or a fear or hatred of people from other countries and cultures, and racism (Sundstrom and Kim). American resentment of immigrants and refugees can be seen not only today, in institutions like the border wall and child separation programs, but also throughout history, in cases like the tragedy of the MS St. Louis. Through the poetry of late 19th century Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, modern chicana and fronteriza poet Natalie Scenters- Zapico, contextualized with historical accounts and modern intersectional commentary, we can understand the struggles and ignorance these two refugee and immigrant groups separated by decades, languages, and origin faced, as well as the ways they used art to protest their mistreatment.
The Voyage of the Damned
While often portrayed as the “hero” of the Holocaust, in truth, antisemitism had risen in the Americas at a similar rate as it had in Germany, merely in a less overt and outwardly genocidal way. As Jews began to flee persecution in Russia in the late 19th century and Germany in the early 20th century, this prejudice came to light in discriminatory immigration laws and application. Between 1933 and 1945 the United States took in 132,000 Jewish refugees, only ten percent of the quota allowed by law. In 1939, Congress refused to raise immigration quotas to admit a group of 20,000 Jewish children fleeing Nazi oppression. The wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration notably remarked at a cocktail party, “20,000 children would all too soon grow up to be 20,000 ugly adults” (Mintz). Instead of relaxing immigration quotas, American officials attempted to persuade Latin American countries and Great Britain to admit Jewish refugees, passing the “problem” along to someone and somewhere else.
That same year, at the precipice of World War II and Hitler’s “final solution”, the Motorschiff St. Louis left Nazi Germany carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees intending to escape increasingly violent persecution (Ogilvie). The refugees planned to disembark in Cuba, but were denied permission to land despite many having passports. The captain, Gustav Schröder, then turned north to the United States and Canada, trying to find a nation to take the Jewish refugees in, but both nations flatly refused (Ogilvie). The ship ultimately returned to Europe, where a small number of refugees were accepted into the UK, Belgium, Netherlands, and France only to later be caught in Nazi roundups of Jews after Germany occupied Belgium, France and the Netherlands. Historians estimate that approximately a quarter of the Jewish passengers aboard the MS St. Louis became Holocaust victims in Nazi death camps during World War II (Ogilvie). The MS St. Louis’ tragic journey has become known as the “Voyage of the Damned,” inspiring film, opera, fiction, and art. Covert prejudices in America ended in the preventable deaths of Jews in Europe.
Lessons Not Learned
In 2011 a monument memorializing the victims of the MS St. Louis called the Wheel of Conscience was commissioned by the Canadian Jewish Congress and created by designers Daniel Libeskind, David Berman, and Trevor Johnston. The memorial “Symbol[izes] the policies that turned away more than 900 Jewish refugees… incorporat[ing] four inter-meshing gears, each showing a word to represent factors of exclusion: antisemitism, xenophobia, racism, and hatred” (“Studio…”). With the exception of antisemitism, the gears that caused the tragedy of the MS St. Louis continue to turn in the United States, this time at its southern border . Detention and terror characterize Customs and Border Protection (CPB) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) presence in the Borderlands, the name given to the area surrounding the United States–Mexican border and home to many “sister cities” like the ones poet Scenters-Zapico grew up in (Parcher et al.). The number of migrant apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border rose in 2019 to their highest annual level in 12 years (Gramlich). Additionally, in 2019, the average detained population rose 20% from the previous year to 50,000 (Trovall). Data from Syracuse University also showed that an increasing percent of detainees had no criminal conviction.
Language towards non-white immigrants used by former President Trump, particularly towards those from Mexico, coupled with increased detention at the border and deportation from both the border and interior has created a culture of prejudice towards these immigrants. Stereotypes that immigrants are criminals and rapists fed by Trump’s tweets and speeches have only contributed to this “lock ‘em up” culture, and the continual scapegoating of immigrant communities has led to violent hate crimes, like the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue and 2019 El Paso shootings. Protest of immigration policy and implementation can be dangerous for immigrants, undocumented and naturalized. This is why, particularly preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, relationships formed between “more assimilated” diasporic and immigrant groups like Jewish-Americans and highly vulnerable Latine immigrant groups in order to protest ICE arrests, detention, and terror more safely.
In June of 2019, House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visited detention centers along the U.S.-Mexico border and spoke publicly about what she had witnessed there, comparing the cruelty of the detention centers to concentration camps. This comparison drew harsh backlash from both Conservative anti-immigration politicians and prominent Jewish institutions. Many Jewish-American communities and activist groups, however, expressed outrage not at Ocasio-Cortez’s labeling of the centers, but at the atrocities occurring at the border that would suggest such a comparison, as well as the use of Jewish trauma by right-wing politicians as a weapon against immigrants and the progressive politicians speaking out about their mistreatment.
On June 30th, 2019, two hundred Jewish activists shut down the Elizabeth Detention Center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, resulting in 36 arrests. Over the next 2 months, thousands of people mobilized in over 40 #JewsAgainstICE actions across the country. The Jewish political group Never Again Action grew out of these protests, bringing together Jewish-Americans of all ages and histories along with local immigrant rights groups. “We see what is happening to immigrant communities in the US today, and we are called to act as we would have wanted others to act for our families,” the organization writes in its guiding principles, referencing the similarities between modern treatment of Latine immigrants and the historical xenophobia and antisemitism Jewish immigrants faced in earlier centuries. “We knew that the words ‘Never Again’ meant ‘Never Again’ for anyone,” they expound. “We knew what ‘Never Again’ called us to do” (About).
Poems as Politics
Never Again Action organized protests feature art as a means of disruption. At its November 2019 action in Graham, NC, co-led by Never Again organizers and Siembra NC leaders, black-painted coffins hand-lettered with the phrases “Never Again” and “Ice Out of Alamance” were carried by protestors and used to block traffic in front of the cities’ jail-turned-detention-center so that the group could perform a sung shiva, or Jewish spiritual mourning, to honor lives lost in detention (Stephens). Beyond visual and performance protest art, many immigrant rights activists have chosen to speak out through the written word instead, like El Paso-Ciudad Juárez-native poet Natalie Scenters-Zapico. Scenters-Zapico’s poetry centers on life in the Borderlands and highlights the prejudices Americans have towards Mexico, Mexicans, and immigrants.
Two poems in particular highlight the contrast between her own lived experiences and the language of white Americans in the media. “Notes on My Present: A Contrapuntal,” juxtaposes Scenters-Zapico’s complex thoughts about violence, gender, and documentation with former President Trump’s blunt, charged, and bigoted statements about Mexico and Mexicans. Similarly, “Aesthetic Translation” interrupts reflections on growing up as a young woman in Juárez, the “murder capital of the world,” with excerpts from New York Times articles on femicide in the city by white men far away who profit off speaking for dead Mexican women.
In “Notes on My Present: A Contrapuntal,” Scenters-Zapico uses personal possessive and active language, repeatedly starting lines with “I” for much of the poem, claiming ownership over her body, her experiences, and her trauma. On the other side of the poem, Trump uses “we have” and “they are” to separate himself from his subject. Scenters-Zapico speaks in metaphor, her body as a “border,” while Trump speaks in simple thoughts. Scenters-Zapico demands answers of the “Empire,” referring to America and its imperialistic history, while Trump speaks vaguely, all saying, no questioning. On the left column of the poem, Scenters-Zapico writes about inter-community issues of misogyny in machismo and marianismo; on the right, she uses the words of white supremacy, an external threat to that community. “Notes on My Present” not only highlights the inflamed xenophobia and racism of the Trump administration in regards to immigrants, but also the complicated layers of existence and identity immigrants and their descendants must navigate simultaneously. The end of the poem— an ironic proclamation of love not of actual people but of a fetishized and Americanized view of their culture beside an ICE raid and correcting the pronunciation of the author’s very name— is a harsh reflection of the two very different realities of “native-born” Americans and immigrants that hits like a punch to the gut.
In a similar vein, “Buen Esqueleto,” responds to the viral poem “Good Bones,” by Maggie Smith, which examines how to make peace with the dark and gritty aspects of the world without ignoring them (Smith). Scenters-Zapico’s “Buen Esqueleto” follows the format and general structure of “Good Bones” but removes the lens of white and non-immigrant privilege. “Buen Esqueleto” assumes the voice of a Spanish- speaking immigrant and parent. They address their children, “mis hijas,” and list various ways the world will be cruel to them— not in the abstract sense of a thing that happens to some other children, as in “Good Bones,” but in the harsh reality of life in a nation that already hates them simply for existing. The verbs Scenters-Zapico uses are, again, active and in the present tense— things they may have already and will continue to experience. The cruelties of deportation threats, of being kicked off a bus, of police visits are specific and everyday unlike the unrelatable extremes Smith uses in her poem. The truth is that Smith’s children face about the same probabilities of experiencing the cruelties Scenters-Zapico writes about as they do being “broken, bagged,/ sunk in a lake” — close to zero. Undocumented children and children of the undocumented face these cruelties daily. Ironically, undocumented children are likely more at risk of being “broken, bagged,/ sunk in a lake” than children whose parents can trust the police without fear of deportation. While Smith is trying to “sell [her] kids the world,” Scenters-Zapico’s speaker doesn’t see the point in selling good bones their kids won’t benefit from or be protected by. You can’t bring yourself or your children peace with a world in which they are scared to lose their parents if they answer the door. “Buen Esqueleto” highlights the extent to which documentation and immigrant status color all aspects of life in the United States.
On July 14, 2019, former President Donald Trump invoked a variant of the racially charged phrase “go back where you came from” when he referred to four congresswomen of color in a tweet, stating “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came…” (Dwyer et al.). While three of the four congresswomen to whom he was referring were actually born in the United States, the sentiment echoed the experiences of thousands of Americans, usually racial and ethnic minorities, told to “go back” by classmates, coworkers, and random passersby. “Go back where you came from” became a rallying cry of anti-immigrant voters and supporters of Trump’s detention and deportation policies. The phrase has a long history tracing back to at least the late 18th century, and primarily originally targeted at “inferior” immigrant groups including the Irish, Italians, Poles, and Jews (Dwyer et al.). Though these groups have largely assimilated into “White American” identities, Jews are still continually othered by persistent stereotypes of “dual loyalty” to Israel (Davis). “Dual loyalty” is merely another form of “go back where you came from” othering. Both immigrant groups— one historical, and one modern, both largely refugee, and both labelled as undesirable— have used art and poetry to express the consequences of xenophobia. While Lazarus’ “New Colossus” envisioned America as a land for the unwanted and oppressed to find freedom and refuge, Scenters-Zapico’s “Buen Esqueleto” shows how that vision remains unachieved some one hundred and thirty years later.
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