A flood of cars and snorting diesel trucks from lower Manhattan erupts out of the Holland Tunnel here where the Jersey Turnpike soars on blackened girders across a smoky industrial landscape. As the traffic mounts the entry ramps, it passes a restaurant where the busboy is from the Dominican Republic, one waitress is Chinese and the barmaid, Elizabeth Halat, 19, arrived here a year and a half ago from Poland.
She has black hair, sparkling green eyes and a cheerful laugh. Her English is accented but clear, and she says her friends, whose English isn't so good, have a tough time finding jobs. She came to visit her brother, who immigrated eight years ago and married here. Elizabeth Halat decided to stay. "I was a kid -- 17 1/2. After a half year my mother asked, 'Are you coming back?' But I had adapted over here, and I didn't want to readapt."
She makes $4 an hour and is saving for college. What she doesn't like is: "It's dirty over here. In Europe it's clean and nice. And dangerous over here, too!" But she knows there are cleaner places in America. "I want to see all United States," she says. "I want to go by car so I can see how life is." She bought a 1966 Plymouth for $100, then early this month sold it for the same price and bought a new Ford Escort.
She laughs. "It's very difficult to have a car in Poland, because there are not too many!"
The Statue of Liberty stands just a quarter mile off this oil-slick shore -- her torch held high, her back turned to the docks and cranes, freight yards, factories and crumbling brick buildings of bustling Jersey City. Tens of thousands of people here are immigrants, and if plans for next weekend's Fourth of July celebration seem flawed by a certain plastic patriotism, these lives are reminders of the raw hope and struggle that made America.
There are Filipinos and Puerto Ricans, people from all over Central and South America, Haitians, Egyptians, Indians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Ethiopians and, of course Italians, Poles, Irish. Part of Newark Avenue is nicknamed "Bombay Avenue," and north on John F. Kennedy Boulevard toward Union City is an area almost solidly Cuban. Downtown you find Manila Avenue and a public school named for Puerto Rican educator Rafael J. Caldero.
You're unlikely to find fast-food franchises, but the Bombay Bazaar and Ram's West Indian Grocery, Carmen Fashions and Europa Meats and the Salon del Reino de los Testigos de Jehova are not far from one another. At Salato World Travel a sign advertises "Se Habla Espan ol" and "Qui Si Parla Italiano," but parents and children often speak different languages. In a Hispanic neighborhood, one little kid shouts at another, "You nerdo!"
On a lovely cool morning on Manila Avenue the bells of St. Mary's Church ring out clearly, playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the bell master practices for Liberty Weekend. In recent years the city developed a park on the shore near the statue, and people go there to picnic and play soccer. They can catch glimpses of the statue as they go about town, but most of those interviewed say they plan to watch Liberty Weekend on TV. Several say they fear terrorist incidents.
These are working people, pragmatic, driven for one reason or another to seek new lives here. They say they want education for their children, good medical care, money, religious and political freedom -- "opportunity," as they invariably put it. Often they are intensely conservative, clinging to old values and old ways, and they are shocked at the crime, the drugs, the sex and violence on TV. They worry about the effect of all this on their children, about racism, about being exploited.
There are old immigrants and new ones, and the children of immigrants, now grown old themselves. In interviews, the folders of personal papers and photographs come out -- whole family histories, histories lived and others just beginning in a hectic new world.
Life has been a struggle for the Fuentes family.
They sit in the comfortable living room of their apartment -- minus 21-year-old Debra, who is upstairs in bed recuperating from an operation to remove a tumor from her foot. She finishes at Rutgers next year and plans to attend medical school, so the operation was an interesting experience.
The apartment, part of a subsidized private development on Manila Avenue, is modern and nicely furnished. On the wall is a map of Puerto Rico, "la Mas Bella Isla del Caribe," and a picture of a jolly frog playing a guitar. Isabel Fuentes, wearing a pretty dress, sits on the sofa across from her husband, who has just arrived from work wearing a T-shirt and carrying a container of antifreeze.
Francisco Fuentes came here in 1960. He works in a laundry for $5 an hour, has worked there for about 20 years.
"Nineteen, anyway," he says. But the phrase seems to strain the limits of his English. The $5 an hour, he says, is "cheap, anyway."
Frankie Fuentes, 20, serves as translator, although that's difficult too. "My Spanish isn't all that good," says the son, who has a big smile and wears a red T-shirt with a sporty polo logo.
Once the translation begins, the father's wit emerges. His home, he allows, is nice, but "if it were mine it would be even better!"
And his seriousness comes through, along with feelings of disappointment at what life in America has brought.
"Discrimination does exist, and there's no way to blank it out of his mind," Frankie translates. " . . . In hospitals, they don't attend minorities."
"When my children were small I took them to Christ Hospital," says Isabel Fuentes. "They kicked us out to another hospital. If you don't have money, no honey!"
She herself, she says, has been out of work for some time after being laid off. She likes to go shopping in Manhattan, but lack of money limits her to "window shopping."
The laundry where he works, says her husband, "takes advantage of all the immigrants. They boss them around and don't treat them well."
Would he like to return to Puerto Rico?
"He's thought of it, but right now, no," Frankie translates. "When he gets really frustrated, he thinks of it."
"I want to go back because all my family is there," says Isabel Fuentes.
Their daughter's education is reason enough to remain for the time being. In her pleasantly cluttered room, her foot wrapped in bandages, Debra watches TV. She says she has a government grant and is worried about funding cutbacks.
"That would be a shame, because I need all the help I can get," she says. She plans to stay in the United States.
Frankie has no college plans. He was in the Marine Corps, but "I didn't like it very much." He got out early on a general discharge "because they promised me a lot of things like education and travel" and didn't deliver.
Now Frankie says he's starting his own business, distributing cakes and pastries. He's going to "hold off" on marriage.
"I'm concentrating on my business now," he says. "I'm not saying money is the right way, but it sure helps."
"I hate it! I don't like the cold weather. I miss my country," says Iris T. Tirado, a social worker at Puertorriquen os Asociados for Community Organization around the corner from the Fuentes home. She came here in 1964 and went to college. Her mother had moved to the United States to educate her children, and now Iris Tirado remains for the same reason. Separated from her husband, she has a girl and a boy in high school and another daughter in college.
"They've been there. They don't want to go to school there. It's the language. They can't write in Spanish . . .
"When they go through college, I will go back, definitely," she says. "I come from a small island. You can walk forever on the beach and see the deep water."
Ashok K. Tyagi, 31, is an electrical engineer from New Delhi. When he came here in 1975 he was single. After he got a job and was well on his way to becoming a U.S. citizen, he wanted a wife. Back in India, his parents began the search.
"I sent my picture and they kept sending me pictures of different girls. But I rejected a few of them. And finally they sent hers and I liked her."
He laughs and points to his wife, Kusum, 28. She laughs too. She is wearing a bright sari. That afternoon she had been to the Bombay Bazaar to rent a videocassette of songs from Indian movies.
"My parents went to her parents," Tyagi says, "and they liked her. They wrote to me about her -- qualifications, age, height."
Clearly he is enjoying this.
They first met -- first spoke to each other -- on their wedding night in India. When Kusum arrived here, her husband says, "she didn't have a lot of friends. She used to get bored. Now she has a lot of friends, now she's happy."
"No, I'm not happy!" she says, but it is a joke, and they both laugh.
In a kind of play-within-the-interview, Tyagi -- for fun -- rubs the conventions of his strong Hindu beliefs up against supposedly more "progressive" western values. Kusum, who worked as a chemist before her two sons were born and who favors blue jeans and western dresses, keeps silent most of this time, pretending -- for fun -- to chafe at her husband's lead role.
They own their house, where Tyagi's brother and his family live on another floor, and have two sporty new cars. They go to dinner with friends in Manhattan, although Tyagi is a strict vegetarian -- a regime also followed by his wife and children.
"I never eat meat, even fish," he says.
His son Naveen, 4, who is playing in the living room, declares, "I hate chicken!"
When Tyagi's firm sent him to work in Tennessee for a year, "I had a lot of problems. She was not there for cooking. She went to India for three months."
"He ate pizza, french fries, spaghetti," says Kusum.
Tyagi's parents are well-to-do landowners. His father often takes vacations in the States. Tyagi first visited after an uncle here encouraged him.
"I heard all good things, so I came," he says. "It was a little harder than I expected. It was a hard life, not an easy life. You have to work hard here. But we can make money here. Maybe when we retire we may go back to India. I'm not sure. It depends."
The family -- all four are U.S. citizens -- has visited the Statue of Liberty, climbed up the the torch. But Tyagi says he plans to watch Liberty Weekend on TV to avoid the crowds.
He hopes to continue his traditional ways in this new land.
"I can control me and my wife," he says. "For the kids, when they grow, it depends whether they listen to us or not."
From the roof of his house, says Edny Neptune, he can see the Statue of Liberty. Next weekend's celebrations, he hopes, will show people that "this Jersey City is number one." The 64-year-old diesel mechanic says he came here from Haiti 17 years ago looking for a better life, and found it.
"I've got two daughters working at Saks Fifth Avenue," he says, crawling out from under a van he's working on in front of the large house he owns not far off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
"And this one just finished her first year of college," he adds proudly, indicating another daughter who is sitting with a friend on the front porch.
"Computer science," says Nadja, 18, without being asked.
In all, Neptune has five daughters and two sons. His wife Martina works as a private nurse's aide. Like so many immigrants, they love America and have become citizens, but are critical of life here.
"There's too much freedom for the kids," says Martina.
Her husband explains that in Haiti, families tend to look out not only for their own children but for those of friends.
"In my country, if a kid does something wrong, then they stop 'em."
He laughs. Here, he says, if you see a kid making trouble, "you can't say anything! If you say, 'Don't do this, don't do that,' their parents come along and say, 'Hey! What are you doing with my kid?' "
"My kids are different," says Martina.
"You know what I do?" asks her husband, laughing. "I tie them up. I tie them up tight."
Neptune's 89-year-old mother lives with him, but he has other relatives in Haiti whom he often visits. "Monday I fly to Miami and then on to Haiti," he says. "We have to bring some little money to take care of them. I can't bring them all here."
"I think it's a great country, it's a land of opportunity," says Saturnino Domingo, an engineer who arrived from the Philippines in 1968 and has become vice chairman of the Jersey City Human Rights Commission. "Here you have everything you want as long as you do your part.
"I don't know why there's unemployment. To me, there's lots of jobs if only people want to work. You know what is spoiling most people in this country? I think it's the unemployment benefits. Take New Jersey -- most of the unemployed receive $214 a week, and the minimum wage is $3.75 an hour . . . $150 a week."
The Human Rights Commission fields complaints about police misconduct and discrimination in housing and jobs. Domingo says most concern housing.
"Filipinos are not considered a minority. The minorities here are blacks and Puerto Ricans . . . That's how they rate them."
He says he has just taken a new job as building engineer for a Holiday Inn. He moved here after doctors in Manila told him it would help his asthma. Amazingly -- for smog is a fact of life in Jersey City -- Domingo hasn't suffered from asthma here.
He arrived at Kennedy Airport in the fall, clutching his bag of medicine, and roomed with a friend in Jersey City. "I just thought it was a new challenge," he says of those first weeks. He landed a job at a chemical plant in Brooklyn and commuted each day by train.
"It was easy commuting then," he says. "It wasn't even dangerous." His wife Maura followed him to the United States in 1971. Both are U.S. citizens now. They own their house in a pleasant neighborhood, and one of their five sons is an Army captain posted in Georgia.
"We still want to stick with our culture, just like the Italians and the Irish," says Domingo.
"But in this country you have to learn the new culture," says his wife. "Like, they're very simple in the way they prepare food. They just put it in the oven. I like it -- it's very simple, not so tiring!"
Although she was a dentist in the Philippines, Maura Domingo gave that up. Rather than studying for accreditation in America, she took a hospital job to help pay for her children's educations.
Emerson, 20, is studying chemical engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. During the interview he works at the dining table off the living room. There is an electric typewriter before him, and a pile of books.
"Yes, I'm very American," he says in answer to a question. Yet he is amazed when he sees "white American culture," in a suburb, for example. "It's just so different. If you go outside, you feel you wouldn't be mugged."
In school, Emerson says, different racial groups tend to keep to themselves. He has dated mostly Filipino girls. "We seem to get along better if we come from the same culture. But my best friend is black, and my girlfriend's best friend is black."
His parents would like him to stick to Catholic girls, but he says his girlfriend is a Baptist. "To me that's like no difference at all -- so that's how Americanized I got."
John Ly and his family left Vietnam in a small boat in 1979, four years after the Communists took over. The voyage was stormy and terrifying, and the family spent much of a year in refugee camps in Hong Kong.
For Ly, this flight to freedom was worth it. "The Communists controlled everything. They didn't let you go anywhere, and at night you had to go to meetings. Sometimes they would come and live with your family! They didn't let you do business or anything."
Finally a Presbyterian church here decided to sponsor the family, and Ly, 47, found himself -- frightened but hopeful -- arriving at Kennedy Airport and being ushered to these crowded Jersey streets.
"I just felt like it was a dream," says the former sergeant major in Saigon's defeated army. "I feel like I'm alive again."
In Ly's case, being alive involves feeling a certain amount of economic pain. He has a good job at Chase Manhattan Bank as a certification clerk, but the pay is modest and his wife, Minh Quoi, stays home to watch their four young children.
"My salary is just enough for the family, that's it," he says. "How can I get a good promotion when lots of people are out of work? I always worry about layoffs because I don't want to work in a factory."
They sit in the living room of a tiny one-bedroom apartment, rented for $250 a month. Paint is peeling from the green walls.
"We cannot buy anything," says Ly. "That's why I live here. I cannot move anywhere else -- the rent is too high. I need more space. I need more money."
The entire family sleeps in that one bedroom, which is crammed with mattresses, except for Linh, 14, the older daughter. She has her own sleeping alcove just off the entrance hall. On the limited wall space are her pinups: Rob Lowe, George Michael, Michael J. Fox.
Linh is smart -- academically smart in the way that has made Vietnamese children legends in communities across America -- and it is on her that Ly has pinned his hopes for the future. Proudly he pulls out the newspaper clippings, photos of his daughter receiving awards, a gold medal.
During the interview Linh sits with a book on her lap. It is "The Jungle," by Upton Sinclair. Asked for her impressions of the United States, she says, "It's like, everybody comes to America from different countries, and America is like a big family."
"Now," says Ly, "I live for my children's future, not just for myself."
And he adds, "My daughter, she is smart -- thank God! I hope a few years later my daughter may give me a big help."
Maria Palumbo, 101 years old, left Salerno in 1906. The boat trip with her husband took weeks; they were processed through Ellis Island, but she doesn't remember seeing the statue. She was three months pregnant, scared and sick. They stayed with relatives, then got an apartment in Jersey City. She had 10 children, outlived eight. She became a citizen automatically when her husband became one, but she never learned English.
"This is where I came, and this is where I stayed," she barks in Italian. "It's still good!" Her daughter, Anna Orrico, 64, translates as the old woman sits in her wheelchair at St. Ann's Home. Palumbo's husband, who died a quarter century ago, worked on a car assembly line until it closed in the Depression. "I did the best I could with what I could get," she says of that time. She never returned to Italy. "Why would I want to? They were having hard times there, too."
A nun comes by and places a wafer on Palumbo's tongue. "The body of Christ," the sister says, then moves on.
"She was some woman, I'll tell you," Orrico says later, settling down with a cup of coffee in the tidy kitchen of her apartment across town. "She was a good mother. We're a very close family." Nobody in the second generation was a professional, she says, and all stayed here. But now one of her own sons is a securities executive in New York, and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Maria Palumbo live in many parts of the United States.
"It's funny," Orrico muses, "how my mother's generation left their parents to go to a foreign land and never went back to see them. But our generation felt differently; we stayed close. But this new generation goes all over -- Chicago, Florida . . . My children, if their jobs said they have to go to California, they would do it."
She shakes her head.
Outside, on the quiet, tree-lined street, you can hear the roar of jets rising from Newark Airport. Young Polish immigrants live in a small apartment building on the corner. Old men stand chatting by a fence -- the sons of Polish immigrants. An Egyptian Coptic priest and his family live across the street. Indian families have moved into two nearby houses, and their children are industriously sweeping the sidewalks. Puerto Ricans live two blocks down.
And the latest "immigrants" -- yuppies from Manhattan. A dirty brick smokestack marked "Brunswick Laundry" rises over the neighborhood; now the laundry is being converted into expensive condominiums.
On the corner, Felix Staniszewski, 77, a former powerhouse worker whose parents came through Ellis Island, discusses the Indians. "It looks like one big clique," he says. "If they want to buy your house, they won't go into it, they just give you the money. My friend Henry, he held out, got $115,000."
"It's still a pretty good neighborhood," says Walter Wybolt, 77, whose parents arrived in 1903. The men say they were just down at Liberty State Park as "sidewalk superintendents" of the work going on there for Liberty Weekend.
But Staniszewski has some beefs. "We are no more Americans any more," he declares. "We have changed. When I see what's coming over here now in the last 15 years -- nobody puts their flags out. I put mine out. I was an American soldier. And we are one big jailhouse now. Everywhere you see bars on the stores. I'm telling you the truth! Take a look -- it's boarded up. That's America? Naaaawww."
"It ain't what it used to be," Wybolt agrees.
A block away, Carlos Quinones, who is wearing a red, white and blue cap made from a Puerto Rican flag, waves his hand at Krishna Groceries, Ketna Saree Center, Govinda's restaurant and other stores around the corner on Newark Avenue.
"We're loaded with Indians around here," he says.
His friend, Artie Tiradl, 19, born in Jersey City and whose father is Puerto Rican, says, "In a couple years these guys are going to want to fight for the neighborhood . . . once they get settled down."
"But we're not going to let them have it," says Quinones.
The Egyptian priest, Rafail Guirguis, is an imposing figure in his black robe and full beard. He sits in his small apartment, accented by religious artifacts and a photo of his 15-year-old daughter, Maram, with the inscription "We Take Smiles Seriously." On the silent TV screen, Ronald Reagan stands talking beside Warren Burger.
Guirguis, who was assigned to a parish here, praises America's religious freedom and the educational opportunities for his daughter, but says he is shocked at the open sexuality. "I see on TV a girl 16 years old who goes with a boy, and the mother can't control her. She says, 'I'm free! I do what I want.' In Egypt, we don't do that."
"I don't intend to marry an American," says Maram. "Egyptians are, like, more sincere, you know what I mean? You see Americans -- they get divorced, they cheat on their wives or husbands. They're not satisfied."
And Guirguis and his wife worry about drugs, about crime. They drive their daughter to and from the Catholic school she attends rather than letting her take the public bus.
In her kitchen across the street, Anna Orrico says Guirguis is a "nice" neighbor, but "he wants America the way it used to be -- without the change."
She considers this, shakes her head.
"The change has come in," she says, "and we'll never go back."