A Meeting of New York City Immigrants a Century Apart

The Tenement Museum preserves the living spaces of turn-of-the-century Lower East Side. (Photo by shawnhoke/Flickr via Feet in 2 Worlds))

How different was the New York City of 1906 for a new immigrant, compared to today? A group of Chinese ESL students recently explored that question, discussing their own experiences with a 14-year-old Sephardic Jewish immigrant from Europe in the early 20th century — part of a historical exhibition at Lower Manhattan’s Tenement Museum, Feet in Two Worlds reported.

The group of students from the Chinese Progressive Association included “kitchen workers, cooks, nail salon and factory workers, students, caregivers and housewives,” reported Cristina DC Pastor, a Feet in 2 Worlds reporting fellow who is also the publisher and editor of an online magazine for Filipino Americans called The FilAm.

At the museum, which preserves and recreates historical living spaces in the Lower East Side, they encountered a teenager wearing an old-fashioned dress and an apron, and speaking in an unfamiliar accent. The students spoke little English, and some of their questions were translated by bilingual guides.

They met “Victoria Confino,” a 14-year-old Sephardic Jewish immigrant. Role-playing as a family of immigrants looking for a place to rent in Lower Manhattan in 1906, the Chinese students did not immediately understand what was going on. But when she ushered them into her tiny living room in a tenement apartment on 97 Orchard Street, the questions poured out.

How much was your rent?
What did you eat?
What did you wear?

These kinds of interactions are the main point of the program, said museum educator Judy Levin.

“The goal of this program is to provide recent immigrants with a historical context in which to understand their own experiences,” said Levin, who moderated the tour.

The students asked about clothing. Victoria said she wore long dresses and leather boots and that she had only two pieces of clothing that she washed every week. She passed around a pair of trousers to show what the menfolk wore. The students found it funny that the striped trousers looked like pajamas. Kit, a nail salon worker from Queens, asked how Victoria washed and ironed her clothes. Victoria showed the students a small basin filled with water and a bar of bath soap. Then she asked Kit to lift the heavy metal iron used to press the clothes.

Students soon began to ask questions based on their own experiences, Feet in 2 Worlds reported: Why did you come to New York? Where did you buy your dress? Where did you sleep? Did you work? Did you have friends? Did you speak English? Did you face discrimination?

The students learned more from Victoria that mirrored their experience: That her family spoke in their native language at home and that she had to learn English in a children’s school. That she sewed aprons for her father’s business and that she did not mind not being paid because she was working for the family anyway. That she liked her neighbors but that she faced discrimination from the Russians. “They laughed at me and called me Minola after the cooking oil because of my pale skin,” she said acting out as if she was being persecuted.

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