Legacy in the land of opportunity

Mary Skafidas and Andrew Tisch compiled and edited "Journeys: An American Story," 72 essays that recount the histories of families arrival and experience in the United States. Photo courtesy of Loews Corp.
Through family lore and personal testimony, a collection of 72 essays explores the myriad ways new immigrants have journeyed to America.

They came on cargo ships and transatlantic flights. They came to escape poverty, to seek a better life. They are Eastern European Jews with lives bleak as a Dickens tale whose grandson became the billionaire mayor of New York City. They are also the refugee fleeing persecution who became the first Vietnamese-American woman elected to Congress, and the son of Ugandan refugees who went to Harvard. They are Michael Bloomberg, Stephanie Murphy and Adem T. Bunkeddeko, Americans whose immigrant pasts are captured in “Journeys: An American Story,” a collection of 72 powerful essays edited by Andrew Tisch, co-chairman of the Loews Corporation, and Mary Skafidas, head of investor relations and corporate communications for Loews.

We caught up with Tisch, who told us how speaking to new immigrants galvanized the collection, why America is more mosaic than melting pot, and why he still believes in the American Dream.

You were inspired to put together this collection after speaking at a swearing-in ceremony for new immigrants. Tell me why.

I had recently joined the board of the New-York Historical Society, and among other things they have a very nice auditorium that they loan out to immigration and naturalization services about once a quarter. For one of the swearing-in ceremonies, they asked if I would offer greetings to 100 new immigrants from 41 countries. I said sure, I’d be happy to. As I preparing my remarks, which really had to do with how my family got here, I started to think that unless you’re a Native American, everybody’s got a story about how they’ve got here. Then, when I attended the swearing-in of the new citizens, I looked around the room and saw 100 faces, and I said, “I’ll bet you every one of these people has an interesting story.” And I started to talk to people, and ask them “What was your story?” and everybody got very animated when they started to think about what their family’s story was.

The book is organized by theme. How did you decide on the structure of the collection?

We agonized for weeks about how to do it. I’m not sure whether I had the idea or whether Mary had the idea, but we said, why don’t we do it somewhat subjectively, by why people came here because that seems to cross all the boundaries.... So we have people who were seeking something, people who were fleeing something, people who were rescuing, the lovers, the survivors, the trailblazers.

Given our current political climate, the section that I found really powerful was “The Undocumented.”

We’ve had undocumented [immigrants] for centuries. The derogatory term for Italian when we were growing up was WOP, if you remember. Do you know what stands for? It stands for “without papers.” In the undocumented section, we have people who came over without the proper documents, [but] when you look at the contributions that they’ve made, it’s the same as everybody else.

The timing with your book is impeccable.

If I had this kind of timing in everything else I did, I’d be able to predict what tomorrow morning’s Wall Street Journal would look like. We knew immigration was a story. We certainly had no idea that it was going to be the story it is right now. And quite frankly, I’d give up a significant amount of the potential sales for us not to have the problem.

There’s always been these two competing narratives about America, one that we welcome immigrants to our shores, the other that we’re exclusionary at crucial times. How do you think we’ll look back on this moment? Can you put it in historical context for us?

We’ve always been somewhat reluctant to let the stranger in. 2018 represents the centennial celebration of the Immigration Act of 1918, the year of the Asiatic Barred [Zone] Act, which sought to limit the number of Asians coming into this country. When the Italians came, we didn’t want them. When they Jews came, we didn’t want them ... when every group came in, the groups themselves had to prove their worth, and they proved their worth by starting at the bottom and working hard, and by establishing themselves and becoming part of the great mosaic that is America. We’ve always been somewhat xenophobic, but never really unwelcoming.

Why do you refer to our country as a mosaic?

Everybody thinks of it as the melting pot, the ingredients all thrown in to have one desired taste. We look at it as a mosaic of rocks in different colors and textures and sizes. And the most important thing in any mosaic is the grout, the sand and glue that holds it all together, which is opportunity, and freedom, and justice. If you don’t have the right grout, all that you end up with is a pile of stones.

One common thread throughout these essays is that people identify as both American, and as a product of their or their family’s country of origin. Was that your intention?

It wasn’t our starting intention, but you know, I was aware growing up that I was both an American and a Jewish-American. That you can have more than one loyalty without being disloyal. These are all stories in the words of the writers, but they all bore that same thing out. You can have multiple identities, and still be every bit as American as everybody else is.

Do you think the American dream is still alive?

Absolutely. I think it’s alive. I think it’s got to be nurtured. We have to make sure that people realize that there is opportunity here. The American dream dies when the sense of opportunity dies. When you look at what’s been created here in terms of economic opportunities, look at some of the great companies that have been created by immigrants.... [W]hen you look at the ability to go from nothing to being worth billions in one generation, or the ability to have true freedom of expression, there’s no other place in the world. We have to make sure that we continue to offer that to people that live outside this country, and that we make them feel welcome here.... [W]e may seem like we’ve strayed a little right now, but we always seemed to correct ourselves. I have every confidence that we can do so now.