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Famous Immigrants

Jim Carrey

Life opens up opportunities to you, and you either take them or you stay afraid of taking them.

Carlos Santana

One day there will be no borders, no boundaries, no flags and no countries and the only passport will be the heart.

Licensed to Practice State Law in Colorado and California

Immigration Stories

“Nearly all Americans have ancestors who braved the oceans—liberty-loving risk takers in search of an ideal—the largest voluntary migrations in recorded history. Across the Pacific, across the Atlantic, they came from every point on the compass—many passing beneath the Statue of Liberty—with fear and vision, with sorrow and adventure, fleeing tyranny or terror, seeking haven, and all seeking hope…Immigration is not just a link to America’s past; it’s also a bridge to America’s future.” – George H. W. Bush 

James Mello

Country of Origin: Italy

The Primianos

by James Mello

My Grandfather, Rocco Primiano, came to America from the mountains near Naples in 1905 to join his brother Nick and to seek a better life.  My Grandmother, Assunta Primiano, was brought here with her two sisters by their father, to find husbands for them in the new land.  This always scandalized my mother, but I think it was an act of courage and even love on his part.

Rocco and Assunta married in 1908 and immediately started their large family.  My mother Elena, or Ella as she was called, was born in 1910, the second of 10 children, 9 of whom lived to adulthood.  She and her older sister became surrogate mothers to their siblings born 10 or more years later.  This large family lived on the lower floor of a two story house on Water Street in the heart of the Italian ghetto.  There were two bedrooms, but the parlor and living room were adapted for sleeping.  There was one bathroom.  My Mom slept with two of her sisters in a single bed, and their paternal grandmother slept across the foot of the bed.  Rocco was a mechanic in the textile mill just down the road, and he got Mom a job there winding spindles when she turned 13.  The workday began at 6am and ended at 6pm, six days a week.  Mom brought her pay envelope home every week and placed it beside her father’s dinner plate, right up until she married at age 25.

I was the first grandchild born to my Italian family, and I got a lot of love and attention.   Life spilled out into the streets and yards and alleyways around my grandparents’ house.  Large families were the norm, and kids of all ages were always about.  My Portuguese family was tight and inward.  My Italian family was bursting at the seams and included not just us Primianos but the Savianos, Jannittos, Vitullos, Delsantos, and many other families that lived there.  We children were everybody’s kids…I was known as Ella’s kid…and it felt safe and stimulating and happy.  We had little to spend on toys.  I remember being amazed to see a baseball with its leather cover still on.  The ones we played with were covered with black friction tape and I thought all baseballs came that way.  Dad bought me a used bicycle when I was 6 and I rode it all over town, including to my grandparents houses.  Kids had a lot more freedom to roam then.  Traffic was slower in our little town, and drivers knew to watch out for 6 year olds on bikes.

Mom was a good Catholic, which meant that we had to go to church, say our prayers, and the like.  Dad went along with this until late in life, when he just said he had had enough and quit going to church.  In this, and in much else, Dad was a liberator.  But Mom and my Italian Aunts and Uncles were all convinced Catholics.  So every Sunday we went to Mass in the morning and to Water Street in the afternoon, in good weather.

From mid-May until October or later the whole Italian clan would gather in the yard and environs at Grandpa and Grandmas and have a picnic and talk and play….and bond.  Each family brought food and drinks so there was always plenty to eat, and the adult men had beer or wine or maybe whiskey, but never to excess as I remember.  The women didn’t drink, at least not there.  These get-togethers continued into the 1960’s but gradually ended as we children grew up and as age caught up with our grandparents.

How lucky I was to be able to drink from this well of love and togetherness at the Italian end of town, and to come to understand the treasure of shared labor at the Portuguese end.  My Italian grandparents and Portuguese grandmother lived long enough to see my children and they can remember at least a little of the old generation.  Sally and I live in a different setting today, but we are aware of the value of family interconnectedness and shared work and we practice it with our own children, grandchildren, and now two great granddaughters.  What a privilege it was to grow up among these people.

I think this story could be told by many people who grew up like I did, with just the names changed.  I think that many of our recent immigrants are made of the same stuff as my grandparents, and could contribute as much or more to the future of this country, if we will let them.

James Mello

Country of Origin: Azores, Portugal

Growing up Portuguese

My grandparents on my Mother’s side, the Primianos, emigrated independently from Italy. They met and married here.  My grandparents on my Dad’s side, the Mellos, emigrated from the Azores. They had 6 children before they came.  Every facet of my life has been influenced by these forebears.   Here are some of the things I remember.

Both sets of Grandparents, the Primianos and the Mellos, lived in Warren, Rhode Island, where my parents met and married in 1935.  I was born in 1936.  Warren had been a whaling port in the 18th and 19th centuries, populated by Protestant Yankees…Methodists, Baptists, and Episcopalians of English and Scottish descent.  Their beautiful churches survive, but the congregations are nearly gone, displaced by waves of immigrants who settled in Town.  The Irish came first, followed by the Italians, French Canadians, Portuguese and Poles.  Naturally the new immigrants tended to settle each in their own neighborhoods, and each built much more modest Catholic churches where the native language was spoken by the Priest.  Since my parents were Portuguese and Italian and could only speak English to each other we went to the Irish church.

I never learned the fine details of why my Portuguese grandparents left the Azores, but clearly they felt they could do better for their families here than there.  Lots of Portuguese had come here before them, so there must have been some descriptions of conditions here going back to the old country.

My Grandpa, Eugenio Mello, had been a horse-cart driver there, and when he got here he got a job on the railroad laying track and maintaining the line.  He and my Grandma, Maria Gloria Mello, bought a small house on about two acres on the outskirts of Town.  That piece of land was where I was introduced to farming.  It was used to graze a cow, feed two pigs, and provide vegetables for the family.  Cash crops were strawberries, and some lettuce and onions.  My Grandpa died when I was 6, and everyone in the family pitched in to help Grandma raise enough to pay her taxes and have a little extra.

Working together as an extended family in strawberry season was a wonderful experience for me, although at the time I wanted to be playing with my friends instead.  Everybody (Dad and Mom, Uncle George and Justine, Uncle Joe, Aunt Laura and Andrew, Cousin Frank and Millie, Grandma, and about 8 grandchildren would start picking right after supper, about 5:30, and we would pick until dusk.  The young kids would bring baskets to the pickers, the older kids would carry the full baskets to the collection tables, and anyone over 12 was expected to pick along with the adults.  I was an average picker at best.  There was no pay for this work, although Grandma would try to slip me a quarter or half dollar once in a while, which I was strictly told not to accept by Dad.  Since Grandma could not speak English and I could not speak Portuguese it was difficult to politely refuse, and Dad would have to intervene.

One of my fondest memories of strawberry picking was the time when we all relaxed at the end of the day.  The adults would sit under the big apple tree and I would climb up into the branches.  The conversation would range over many topics and would be conducted in English and Portuguese, and was often heated and loud.  These were passionate people with strong opinions and prejudices and they were not good at finding common ground.  But there was never any question that we were one family, even if opinions differed on nearly every subject.

In the larger context, these brave people made the best bargain they could with the system they found here.  The Yankees owned the land and the enterprises, and they hired my folks for as little as they could pay them and still keep them around.  Factory work was 12 hours a day, 6 days a week.

Both of my parents were taken out of school at 13 (Mom), and 14 (Dad) to work in textile factories.  This was a real tragedy for Dad, who had a good mind and, I think, could have gone much farther if he could have made it through High School.  My Grandparents came here as foreigners, my parents assimilated, and my sisters and I inherited the richness of opportunity that America affords, or did back then.

This same story could be told by those coming here today, but the difference for many of them is that they must stay in the shadows.  My Grandparents were exploited, of course, but at least they had rights and were not likely to be exported.  Like people everywhere, I am sure that there are criminals and slackers among those who have come here recently, but those I have met seem like decent people willing to work hard, just like my folks.

I was the first child in my family to go to College, and while I visited Warren each year with my own growing family I never expected to go all the way back to my farming roots.  But in the late 1970’s we, my wife Sally and me, bought 25 acres of hilly ground in Rixeyville, Va. and started our own farming operation.  We grow two species of Christmas trees, and organic vegetable garden, shiitake mushrooms on oak logs, and honey bees.  We sell the trees on the farm, but we bring everything else to sell at the Warrenton Farmers Market on Saturday mornings.  So in the twilight of my years I have my hands in the dirt and my eye on the weather, just like my Portuguese ancestors, and a great legacy it is.

Over the last 110 years the freedom and opportunity that drew my grandparents to America has rewarded us Mellos richly.  One notable beneficiary is our son Craig, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2006.  At the invitation of the President of the Azores Craig, and his Mom and Dad, visited the Islands in 2010.  At the Church in the town of Maia we stood on the spot where my Grandparents were married, and where our story begins.  The story continues with 9 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren, who will someday contribute to this great nation of opportunity.

Linda Vuong

Country of Origin: Vietnam

Refugees of Vietnam War

I am a first generation Vietnamese-American whose parents are survivors and refugees of the Vietnam War. In 1975, the invading communist army (“Viet Cong”) successfully overthrew the South Vietnamese government. To gain as much control as possible, the Viet Cong used tactics such as regulating food distribution, taking prisoners, and executing anyone who resisted. Families lost their homes and often their loved ones to the Viet Cong.

Southern Vietnamese natives had one choice- leave the dangerous country and seek refuge elsewhere. Escaping Vietnam was extremely dangerous. It was risky because if caught, the sentence was execution by the Viet Cong. Nevertheless, if escape was achievable, the hardship does not end. Refugees were packed into tiny boats with scarcely enough room to sit. There was no food and if lucky, passengers were given one cup of water a day. It was common to die from disease and starvation. Well aware of the dangers, my parents risked their lives and left Vietnam on a refugee boat. My parent’s mentality was their escape would end one of two ways. They would succeed and arrive in a new land, or they would die trying to escape. Either way, they would be free of the communist regime.

Luckily my parents successfully escaped. After spending 13 days at sea with no end in sight, they arrived at the refugee camps in Malaysia. My parents lived in Malaysia for eight months before leaving for America. Although my parents had no money and no family in this new land, that did not frighten them. They heard about the many opportunities available in America. With no knowledge of the English language, my parents both managed to go to trade school. My father became a machinist. He got a job at a large company where he worked at for 30 years before retiring in 2010.  My mother received her cosmetologist license and went on to own her own business. Both my parents worked hard every day to support my education. I am proud to say I am a first generation college graduate, and the first in my family to become a lawyer.

America truly is the land of opportunity. My parents came to this country as refugees with no money, no family, and no fluency of the language. However, with hard work and a little tenacity they can proudly say they achieved their American Dream.

Jesenia Ventura

Country of Origin: El Salvador

Immigration from El Salvador

I look back and ponder on where and who I would be if my parents never made their arduous journey to the United States. They came to America in 1984 fleeing from a war stricken El Salvador in hopes of a better life and future for them and my brother and sister.

The Civil War in El Salvador started in 1979 and ended in 1992 after claiming tens of thousands of lives. The two primary actors in the El Salvador civil war were a guerrilla group, called the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), and the government military of El Salvador. This war was the beginning of my family’s immigration story.

In the uprising of war my parents were living in Soyapango, Cuidad Delgado, El Salvador. They were witnessing the military and guerilla confronting each other with bombs and guns on an almost daily basis. They would see dead bodies, some even decapitated, on the streets outside of their home. My mother has memories of hiding under the bed, in stores, in office buildings etc. when she heard gun shots and later stepping outside to see bodies scattered. Within months my parents lost their home when the guerilla came and told them that the house had to be given to them if not they would have to serve in the guerilla. They had no choice but to flee and move to the capital in San Salvador.

After moving to San Salvador, my paternal and maternal grandparents were kicked out of their homes as well. My father built small rooms next to their new house to move each of their families in. If you think three is a crowd, just imagine sixteen people in one home and my parents were adding one more with the birth of their first child. The birth of my parents’ first child was nothing short of a miracle. It occurred during the time of a country wide curfew that was issued, which for my mother meant she was to have this baby at home. My parents could not leave their house because they would have to break curfew and suffer death or injury by the military or the guerilla. This home birth, which was in dire need of medical attention, almost cost the lives of my mother and my brother.

Living in San Salvador was just as dangerous as where they lived before. They still witnessed fatalities of the severe confrontations between the military and the guerilla. Six months after they had moved my parents were anxious to have their own home again. When they arrived, it was to a bombed pile of rubble that once was their house.

In 1984, two years after the birth of their second child, they decided that the life of fear and panic was not one they wanted their family to live. They scraped up the little money they had to make the journey and still did not have enough for all of them. My mother was distraught at the thought of having to leave her small children behind, however the thought of a better and safe future and sparing them a dangerous journey made it worthwhile. My brother, then four, and my sister, then two, were left with my paternal grandparents in the meantime that my parents made enough money to send for them.

My mother entered the United Stated in December of 1984 by crossing the Rio Grande. Her trip lasted ten days. Days that were spent starving and freezing. She remembers the river being so cold that there had been ice floating in it. She had to use an inner tube because she did not know how to swim. Once she had reached her destination upon entering the U.S. she noticed she had thorns in her feet that she never felt because her feet had numbed due to the freezing water. When she had finally arrived to Virginia she was so sick that she was unable to speak for a week. It amazes me at the strength and courage it took her to endure this, because where I would have given up her motivation for a better life for her family kept her going.

Upon arriving my mother worked as a nanny and my father in construction. In 1986, the opportunity for my mother to adjust status in the United States to a Lawful Permanent Resident arose. She had been working for a house cleaning company that filed a petition on her behalf. The petition was approved and was extended to my father, my brother, and my sister. In 1991, they obtained their visas in El Salvador and came to the U.S. as lawful permanent residents. This meant that they had to leave me and my sister with family friends for fifteen days to be able to afford it.

My mother has now been living in the United States for 30 years and it has become her home. Her life, children, and grandchildren are all here. She has returned to El Salvador on few occasions to visit her parents, however she long ago stopped feeling like it was home. I owe my whole life to that decision my parents made 30 years ago. I am grateful to them and have much appreciation for what they endured. My mother and I are now looking forward to enjoying my mother’s journey to becoming a U.S. Citizen. For her this journey will be much less strenuous than the one she made in 1984, yet she feels it will be much more gratifying.

Linda Dronenburg Austin

Country of Origin: Holland

An Immigration from Holland

by Linda Dronenburg Austin

Thanks to the many years of research on the part my relatives, I now know that I am an 8th generation American on my father’s father’s side of the family. My maiden name is Dronenburg and I am a decendant of Friedrich Ambrosius Tranberg. Friedrich was born in 1709 and immigrated to America in 1738 on the Ship Winter Galley. It sailed from Rotterdam, Holland with 252 passengers and landed in Philadelphia, PA. He took the Oath to the Government and was Qualified on September 5, 1738. He sailed with a group of Paletines. They were Germans sailing to America because of religious persecution.  Since there were so many Paletines sailing to America in 1738, about the only way to get on a ship to America was to attach yourself with them. We do not know Friedrich’s country of birth, but suspect it was a Scandinavian country. There have been many variations on the Tranberg name, but thanks to the Dronenburg DNA project, we know that all variations of the name Tranberg are related. These included Thronburg, Drohnberg, Thronberger, Tronoberger and Thornberg. The first person to spell their name Dronenburg was Jacob Dronenburg in Generation No. 3. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1774 and died in 1832, Frederick County, MD. My branch of the Dronenburg family centered around Frederick, MD.

Terry J. Sam

Country of Origin: China

Immigration of Joe and Mabel Sam

By Terry J. Sam

I am an American of Chinese heritage. I was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1937. My parents were born and raised in China and immigrated to the United States, my father in 1921, my mother in 1933. Their immigration was dominated by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first US immigration law. It barred most Chinese immigration for ten years and was renewed and extended to other Asians through the decades by later laws until its repeal in 1943. By definition Chinese were the first illegal aliens.

During the life of the Act most Chinese immigrated to the US with false identities. They created paper sons, who existed only in paper records. Here is one of several scenarios of how it worked. In the year after a visit home to China, a Chinese legal US resident receives a letter from China about a new son born in China. The new son is not real. He is a son only on paper. Fifteen to twenty years later, the family in China sells the paper son identity to a family with a son ready to immigrate to the US. My father immigrated with the identity of Joe Sam, a student and the son of Joe Wing, a merchant. As a student he was permitted by the Chinese Exclusion Act to enter the US. Merchants also were permitted US entry by the Act.

The US Immigration and Naturalization Service noticed all of the Chinese families with sons but not daughters and established the Angel Island and Seattle interrogation centers. Chinese immigrants were interrogated at length to assure that the immigrants’ identities were true.

Employing paper son identities had consequences on my family’s life well beyond my parent’s immigration. It affected our family name, confused me about family relationships, and put us in constant fear of discovery by the Immigration Service. We heard rumors of the deportation of Chinese families including children born in America.

My father’s true name is Lin Tau Wong. (Family name of Wong is last by the custom in the US.) His paper son identity is Joe Sam. (Family name of Joe is first by the custom in China.) The immigration official in Seattle recorded his name as Joe Sam, and he became known officially as Mr. Sam

In 1928 dad began establishing the records of new paper sons. In his Petition for Naturalization he lists five children, not the three that I know —Joann, Donnie, and me. The paper son birth events are italicized and underlined. Notice that each paper son birth is preceded by a trip to China by Joe Sam in the preceding year.

  • 1921 Lin T. Wong arrives at the port of Seattle as Joe Sam on June 10
  • 1921 – 1924 Joe Sam resides in Chicago, Illinois
  • 1924 Joe Sam moves to Detroit, Michigan
  • 1927 Joe Sam visits family in China returning to the US in 1928
  • 1928 Joe Len born in Canton China on August 20
  • 1932 Joe Sam visits family in China returning to the US in 1933
  • 1933 Joe Hoy born in Canton China on Oct. 21
  • 1933 Mabel Woo arrives at the port of Seattle on August 10

The Joe Len and Joe Hoy identities would have been marketable during and shortly after World War II, so they were probably not sold and used. My siblings and I enjoyed citizenship by virtue of our birth in Detroit, Michigan. We owe our citizenship birthright to Wong Kim Ark. In 1895 he was denied reentry into the US after a trip to China to visit his parents. He filed a writ of habeas corpus asserting that his birth in San Francisco entitled him to American citizenship. In 1898 the US Supreme Court ruled for Wong Kim Ark, declaring that all children born in the US are American citizens, even if their parents are ineligible for naturalization.

© 2014, Terry J. Sam

Cyrus Salehi

Country of Origin: Iran

My immigration story

I came to America from Iran in 1973 on a student visa to continue my college education. I resided in Rockville MD, and started my education at Montgomery College in the engineering curriculum. After one semester of taking English proficiency courses and passing the test, I started my full-time college in engineering curriculum and at the same time I requested permission from the Immigration Office for legal part-time work in the U.S., which was granted and helped me both financially and with establishing relationships outside of the educational environment. It took me 3 years to complete my Associate Degree (AA) and I immediately transferred to Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. School of Engineering and Architecture, majoring in Civil Engineering. In 1979, three years after transferring, I received my civil engineering degree, and accepted to continue my masters degree in Engineering Management while I was granted teaching assistantships in the department of engineering and architecture. In 1981, I completed my MS in Engineering, got a full time job, met my future wife in college, got married, and have lived happily ever since.

I have been living in Virginia with my family, my wife and two daughters, since 1985. After more than 30 years of working as a licensed professional engineer in Virginia, I decided to retire two years ago to enjoy the rest of my life with my family and friends and travel. I always have appreciated America and the Americans who gave me the opportunity to achieve my goals, to advance, and to be a professional citizen for my society.