The Immigrant’s Choice

Jennie Cooley, "Border Crossing"

Jennie Cooley, "Border Crossing"*

Census figures indicate that the United States is steadily moving towards becoming a country with no majority race or ethnicity as the Hispanic population continues to grow.  Some of the anti-immigrant sentiment (and the weird hysteria in some quarters about sharia law being established in the U.S.) may stem from white panic over this development.

Recently I wrote about the 1976 Italian film Bread and Chocolate and wondered whether the self-hatred evinced by the protagonist is common amongst immigrants.

Novelist Rachel Kranz, in a response, noted that similar themes appear in the short stories of Anzia Yezierska, an eastern European Jewish writer who wrote in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Rachel writes,

Throughout her work is the ambivalence about whether she should celebrate or despise the culture she comes from–as she is working as hard as she can to escape it. How can she celebrate it if it is despised by Americans? How can she escape it if she doesn’t really belong in the WASP world? In the end, she writes movingly about the dilemma of not belonging anywhere, which is as much a class issue as a cultural one: one brilliant story portrays an immigrant mother whose children “make it,” and who feels at home neither within the filthy, uncomfortable poverty she used to know nor inside the sterile life of “Riverside Drive” where she lives with her nouveau riche daughter.

Rachel adds that her own parents were first-generation Americans (which is to say, born in America) and that “the question of whether or not we were ‘real’ Americans was very much part of my own childhood.”

Adrienne Rich has a well-known poem about immigrants that is powerful in large part because of its apparent simplicity.  Rich depicts immigration as a stark choice—either one goes through the door or one doesn’t.  The decision has immense ramifications, both positive and negative.

For instance, if you go through the door, Rich says, “there is always the risk of remembering your name.” Also, in the way described by Rachel above, things will “look at you doubly.”

Rich notes that one does not need to go through the door to “live worthily.”  It is possible “to stay at home/ and to maintain your attitudes.”  But Rich also knows that immigrants are often driven by extreme duress (by Guatemalan death squads in the 1990’s, for instance).  Therefore she must also add that it is possible “to die bravely.”

The door itself, she says, offers no promises.

Here’s the poem:

Prospective Immigrants Please Note

By Adrienne Rich

Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.

If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.

Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.

If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily

to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely

but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?

The door itself
makes no promises.
It is only a door.


*The artist Jennie Cooley’s website may be found here.

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This entry was posted in Kranz (Rachel), Yezierska (Anzia) and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Posted April 12, 2011 at 2:50 am | Permalink

    That’s so interesting, to see the Rich poem (which I love) as an image of immigration, because I always thought it was about coming to political (or other) consciousness. You go through the door, and you realize who you are & what your situation is, you see the doubleness of everything (what it looks like literally, empirically, but also in its structural and political sense). And you don’t HAVE to go through it, you can be a good person, you can even be principled and brave. But there will be things you won’t see, maybe things that would have made you or your life richer. In many ways, my 900-page novel-in-progress is trying to do what this poem does. I love the idea of much blinding you and evading you…and at what cost, who knows? I also love the idea of the door not making promises. People want political consciousness (or spiritual awakening) to DO something for them, and it does, or it can…but that’s not the point–YOU have to do something with what you get from the insight…

  2. Mary Ellen
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Where do you find your pictures? I love this yellow and black image!
    Mary Ellen

  3. Robin Bates
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    I too find it a wonderful picture, Mary Ellen. Thanks to the magic of google, I’m often able to find the work of contemporary artists and hope that they won’t mind my using their work if I publicize their website. Jennie Cooley can be found at:

    Rachel, thanks for opening up the poem this way. You’re right, what is so empowering about it is that it sees people as actors with choices. I also agree it is very much the message of your novel. All the more reason the world needs it.

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  1. By On the Pope, Walls, and Robinson Crusoe on March 7, 2016 at 8:08 am

    […] Adrienne Rich: The Immigrants Choice […]


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