Watch out for the acetylene torch!
This Valentine’s Day, “carrying a torch” holds new meanings for me. Besides being an old-fashioned term for infatuation, it brings literal torches to mind. I am a student in a course in “Balanced Sculpture,” with the help of an able instructor learning to create my own versions of Alexander Calder’s now-classic mobiles and stabiles. This involves my wielding and welding with an acetylene torch, among other metalsmithing tools. Some sculpture pieces are riveted together, another technique I have learned. My Rosie-the-Riveter mother and machinist father would have been both proud and bemused at this return to our working-class roots.
Coincidence and current events, though, also bring a specific, iconic torch to mind—the one proudly on display on New York’s Ellis Island, upheld by the Statue of Liberty. As a New York City native, I was used to seeing Lady Liberty, her monumental form just part of the city skyline. I did not even visit this national landmark until well into adulthood, returning to New York City with my husband and young son as sightseers. Even though I was the grandchild and great-grandchild of immigrants whose ocean voyages ended at Ellis Island, I had not felt a pull to visit its immigrant inspection buildings, now a museum, until then. But chance and the nightly news have me rethinking this scenery.
For reasons unknown to me, a human-sized replica of the Statue of Liberty adorns a lakeshore driveway near the Minnetonka art center hosting my class. A quick literature search reveals just how often Lady Liberty has been physically recreated for civic or commercial purposes. There are even other Liberty replicas here in St. Paul and Duluth I have not seen. I may not learn the story behind that Minnetonka statue unless I feel pushy enough to knock on a door and ask! But it is the immigrant experience with Miss Liberty that came to mind again just last night, as I and my husband engaged with a different art form.
We attended a moving performance of Promise Land, a play created by the local theater ensemble Transatlantic Love Affair, staged at the Guthrie Theater. In the words of its directors, this production “tell[s] the story of two people finding their way in this country, searching for home away from their homeland.” In other words, immigrants. A post-play discussion revealed that this play was first conceived a handful of years ago, becoming part of the Guthrie’s announced season schedule last year. It is only bittersweet coincidence that the new Trump administration’s stance on immigration makes Promise Land’s themes so topical.
This is certainly not the first time that fear and racism have shaped U.S. immigration policy. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is just one instance that comes to mind. Yet this is the moment when I, my friends, and family can take action to protest such bigotry, such beliefs so antithetical to American ideals and values. This is the moment when we can add our voices to ones that question whether the Trump administration is acting against the U.S. Constitution, even as we recognize that its creators were flawed individuals who themselves variously upheld slavery.
At one point in Promise Land, as the assembled actors peered out into the audience, recreating the awed response of immigrants viewing America’s shore line for the first time, I imagined their viewing the Statue of Liberty. The harsh realities the play’s central characters, a young brother and sister, encounter align with the sweatshop dangers that typified New York City immigrant life, even though there were other official ports of entry. The reality of America was so often less golden than the streets or mythical mountain that figured in immigrant dreams. Harsh work conditions and rapacious individuals too often took advantage of immigrants.
In Promise Land, though, it is not an acetylene torch that accidentally causes harm but a factory boiler that explodes. Or, to recast this in terms of current events, it is the massive machinery of government, misused or overused, that is currently damaging American values and people’s lives, not individuals whose hopeful eyes still light up at the sight of Miss Liberty. These would-be immigrants are “carrying a torch” for her and the U.S.A. that will shine brightly long past Valentine’s Day . . . if U.S. policy under President Trump’s administration does not extinguish their dreams or further tarnish our lawful ideals.