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Stories of Immigration in Pop Culture

The stories of immigration are stories of hope, strength and perseverance. Plays like Alex Alpharaoh’s WET: A DACAmented Journey are instances of necessary humanity amongst the noise of the news or political debate. However, as Alex Alpharaoh reminds us, his story is one of many across centuries and the world. Immigration stories exist across mediums, in award winning films, critically acclaimed novels, and even popular music. Here is a list of some of the most powerful stories of immigration in popular culture:

  1. Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

This 2009 Costa Novel Award winner tells the story of protagonis Eilis Lacey and her immigration from Ireland to Brooklyn, New York in the early 1950s. Once in the United States, Eilis enrolls in school, finds a job and even falls in love with a young Italian plumber named Tony. Although Eilis quickly adjusts to her new life in Brooklyn, she cannot help but long for her family and life in Ireland and she must eventually choose between two countries. In 2015, this novel was adapted into a movie of the same name, starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson. Brooklyn explores many nuanced themes of immigration and greatly humanizes the often politicized topic–just one of the reasons it has been considered one of the “ten best historical novels.” 

  1. Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” from The Hamilton Mixtape

In 2015, Lin Manuel-Miranda created the immensely successful rap-musical Hamilton, exploring the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, who immigrated to the United States from the Caribbean. In the year following the musicals debut, Miranda released The Hamilton Mixtapes, featuring remixed songs from the show, bringing together voices from across musical genres. Included on this album is the song “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done),” performed by artists K’naan, Snow Tha Product, Riz MC (Riz Ahmed) and Residente. With lyrics like “Look how far I come / We get the job done,” this song depicts immigrants’ determination and perseverance.

  1. The Joy Luck Club directed by Wayne Wang

This film, which was released in 1993, examines the relationship between young Chinese-American women and their Chinese immigrant mothers. Based on a novel by prolific author Amy Tan, this movie explores themes of culture clashes, family bonds, and navigating difficult pasts. The characters in the film have emigrated from their native country, China, remarried and given birth to children in America. The mothers have high hopes for their daughters’ success, but the daughters struggle through anxieties, feelings of inadequacy and failures. Throughout the film, the mothers and daughters learn to understand each other by overcoming their conflicts. 

  1. Ragtime by Terrence McNally

This musical, based on the 1975 novel by E. L. Doctorow, tells the story of three different groups–an upper class white family from New Rochelle, an African American community in Harlem and Eastern European Jewish immigrants living in the Lower East Side. Through stunning music and dance, the musical shows how their lives intertwine, the prejudice they face and their constant perseverance despite their inherently different backgrounds and circumstances. This musical expands audiences perspectives of the American experience and leaves people inspired to create a self and welcoming space for all. 

  1. Which Way Home directed by Rebecca Camissa

Camissa’s 2009 documentary looks at young immigrant children as they attempt to make the harrowing journey from Central America to the United States on top of a freight train known as “La Bestia” (The Beast). Told from the perspective of children, this Academy Award-nominated film explores the dangers of crossing the U.S/Mexico border and how many of those who embark on this path often do so alone. Which Way Home looks at how the difficulties of immigration particularly impacting adolescents. 

  1. Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale by Duncan Tonatiuh

While there are many films, musicals and novels about immigration, there are also a number of children’s books written to help young audiences understand immigration. One of these books is Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale, which is an allegorical picture book about a young rabbit who goes on a journey to find his father, who left some years ago to great carrot and lettuce fields to earn money for his family. This story brings to light the hardship and struggles faced by thousands of families who seek to make better lives for themselves and their children. 

In addition to these stories listed, there are many more pieces of literature, film, and art that explore immigration in contemporary United States and in world history, including WET: A DACAmented Journey. Don’t miss this groundbreaking performance at the Emerson Paramount Center, playing until November 25th.

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