I am an immigrant who ventured across the Pacific Ocean on an Air China Boeing 777 to “take over the economy”, or so I have been informed by the media. When I first picked up Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, a historical fiction regarding the California Gold Rush, I was fifteen and ignorant–a history enthusiast carrying a number of assumptions gathered from the books I had read. I had never considered using a figure of speech so rudely hyperbolic as “taking over the economy,” but I generally assumed that people immigrated in hopes of improving their economic situation. As early as the 16th-century Mogul Empire, Persian artisans had migrated South in hopes of selling their crafts, and caravans traveled the Silk Road, trading fabrics for spices. Today, the United Kingdom continues to view their massive influx of Latvian immigrants as a burden, despite the fact that Latvia has struggled to rebuild their economy in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
In the scope of my understanding, migration had always been painted as product of economic ambition. I failed to recognize that the aforementioned events were only included in history books because they stood out. I had not been exposed to the everyday stories, and these stories were essential to comprehending the diversity of human values. In Isabelle Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, I expected to encounter a cast of characters with similar motives: a convergence of aggressive, working-class immigrants who were interested in monetary gain.
Page by page, Allende broadened my understanding of immigration by discussing a diverse set of migrational motives and offering insight on their emotional impact on immigrants. The novel’s protagonist, Eliza, is a stowaway on a California-bound vessel, intent on finding her lover, who had left Chile as a prospective gold-miner. As Eliza’s ship departs, she is “assaulted by such sadness that she came close to bursting into tears and confessing everything” (Allende 150). Eliza’s lover, Joaquin’s, social status renders their relationship inappropriate. Thus, Eliza risks her life to reaffirm her feelings for him, while simultaneously protecting her family’s reputation. Allende’s description of Eliza’s emotions reveals a dimension of immigration that the media often ignores: immigrants are often stricken with grief for leaving their family behind.
Another reason for immigration emerges in the story Tao Chi’en, Eliza’s travel companion and a Chinese doctor. Tao is kidnapped by an English captain to replace his former cook, because the captain considers, “all the ‘yellow’ race alike, one… just as good as the next” (Allende 191). Challenging the standard assumption that immigration is voluntary, Tao’s journey is a result of coercion. The young man has no intention to encroach on any of California’s resources but is forced to abandon his home, security, and individual identity to serve the captain.
A third perspective manifests in the story of James Morton, a Quaker friend of Eliza’s. As a pious Quaker who helped American slaves escape to Canada, James is forced to seek refuge in California after slaveholders torched his home. James ventures to a new environment, leaving behind his home, community, and noble cause with no expectations other than safety. These three characters carry unique stories with them to California: one of passion, one of servitude, and another of fear. By including these stories in her novel, Allende challenges a one-dimensional assumption that capital is the driving force behind movement.
As I now recollect on my own immigration story, I remember the customs agent asking my five-year-old self, “Why are you coming to America?” I answered with a firm “I don’t know”. Perhaps that is the phrase we should all utter before we proceed to judge, because not knowing is always an opportunity to learn. Allende reminds us that every immigrant is also an emigrant. For an emigrant, each small gain comes with immense loss, and it is up to us to mend these losses by welcoming them to their new homes.