BYU students learn about immigration at NYC’s Tenement Museum

By Gillian Marcucci

The BYU students stepped into the apartment, and immediately felt like they had stepped back in time. Transported to the 1950s, they had entered into the home of the Epstein family. 

Located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City, the Tenement Museum embodies the experience of immigrants and migrants living there between the 1860s and 1980s. The first half of the third story apartment was transformed to replicate the Epstein’s apartment, including items donated by family members. Their half of the apartment included the bathroom, kitchen, a small dining area and a bedroom for the two daughters, Bella and Belima. 

Gillian Marcucci was one of 14 BYU students who visited the museum as part of their study abroad experience this last week of June. She described, “Not only was it interesting to see the structure as well as the culture of their living space, but learning about the Epstein and Saez Valez families helped me realize the hardships many immigrants experienced in the U.S. during the 1800s and 1900s.”

Unfortunately, many immigrants in the United States still face these challenges today, which is why experiences such as visiting the Tenement Museum are important for U.S. citizens to attend as it helps them become more aware of and empathetic towards others different from them.

In the Epstein home, the two parents, Rivka and Kalman immigrated from Poland in the early 1950s. They were Jewish and had both lost their spouses during the Holocaust. In New York City, they had two daughters and raised them in a foreign country speaking a new language. Bella spoke of her experience feeling caught between two cultures — American and Polish. 

Her parents didn’t attempt to learn much English and played Polish music in their home. The BYU group listened to a  recording of Bella recounting a story from her childhood. During a recorded interview she put on a record of the U.S. artist Paul Anka. Talking about listening to American music such as this, she said, “That’s what makes me an American.” 

Bella said that her family was a little more well-off than others in the tenements and explained that her mother Rivka was always giving away a lot of food in their refrigerator (sometimes most of it), at dinner parties she hosted. Bella said that her mother’s attitude of giving even frustrated her sometimes. She described that occasionally when people were over at their apartment her mother would go into Bella’s bedroom and grab a toy or stuffed animal and give it to another child. “But that’s mine!!!” She often thought. 

When the group stepped into the other half of the apartment they traveled back in time to the 1960’s to the home of the Saez Velez family. Decorated with many plants, colors, and religious symbols, you could easily tell that the home was a fun, bright place to be. Ramonita immigrated from Puerto Rico to America with her two sons Jose and Andy. 

During her hard transition to a new place and culture, Ramonita found solace and community at the Catholic parish she attended. The members there gave her recommendations for local schools, dentists, etc. Her sons described that after church on Sundays she often had friends from church and the apartment building to dance. Jose met the girl he married at one of these parties. He said that everyone would dance a lot but that once a couple danced too closely, Ramonita would end the party immediately. This memory of Jose’s shows the exuberant yet strict personality of his mother.

Another student in the group, Colby Beckstead, shared his thoughts about the museum. “I thought that the tour was really great overall. The recreation of the living spaces really helped me understand the lives of the immigrant families. The guide was really informative and helped explain a lot of the historical and social context of New York City during that time.The focus of our tour was “finding home” and I liked the emphasis on both of the mothers of the two families we examined and how they fought to create a sense of belonging in New York.”

Rivka and Ramonita are just two of the many amazing women and mother immigrants that have come to America. They are an inspiration of faith, independence, determination and strength. The Tenement Museum in New York City is a great place to visit and bring friends and family as it is an interactive and eye-opening experience. It inspires empathy and further understanding towards immigrants in the U.S. today.

Categories: New York, Study Abroad Themes

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