by Malika Rakimi
In her poem “I Open a Box,” Maria Mazziotti Gillan creates an illusion of her childhood memories that were locked up inside of her, and she wanted to share them with everyone – especially immigrants – to help them see the light after being imprisoned behind the shadow of poverty and discrimination. She depicts a strong visual image through the photo she found inside the box of an entire city welcoming immigrants and hosting them. Maria is an example of a gifted immigrant who spent her lifetime living, growing up, and working in the most historic and industrial city in America.
“Sitting on a small chair, wearing overalls and shoes that must have been hand-me-downs because they are so worn the sole is coming loose. I’m not more that 18 months old and cannot have been walking all that long,” Maria shared.
She reveals in these few lines her long path coming from Italy bearing dreams and hopes for a better future and questioned herself if it was worth to come all that way to live in Paterson. She shared the same destiny with other immigrants who came from different countries, as well. She is wondering if the decision her parents made would allow her to see the brightness of a beautiful day or would just draw her down into poverty.
Since Paterson was called the Silk City – a city of opportunities – it meant it was a place where anyone can fit and find their best. The diversity that Paterson had at that time opened the doors to millions of immigrants coming for different reasons. Some came to enhance their living, others were there to escape persecution and discrimination, but they all had a common denominator which was a light that could brighten their path for a better fate.
Any reader, whether he lives in Paterson or not, can clearly see the profound image that Maria Mazziotti Gillan draws about Paterson. She evokes the warmth of a childhood between the walls and neighborhood created by Italian immigrants. On the other hand, Maria gives a voice to a past generation that lived a bitter reality from poverty to discrimination. Yet they were the bridge that Americans crossed to build America. They took all of their values and materials and created a fancy carpet where they could step without hurting their feet.
“The doctor didn’t even come to the room. He washed his hands, wiped them on one of the rough linen towels I brought from Italy, and stood in the doorway,” Maria describes.
I found it very profound that Maria used the image of rough towels that came from Italy to serve the high class people as an image of an immigrant’s life. She reveals the sacrifice and self-denial that any immigrant offers in exchange for a new identity.
I like Maria’s poem since I felt the innocence and the honesty of the writer when sharing her sights and emotions related to her roots and childhood. Through a single image, she gives an entire story of a city full of positive and negative sides. I challenge any immigrant who lives or has lived in Paterson to deny the bitter reality of being outside the curved box with many hidden holes inside.