My grandfather Vasilios, who would much later call himself Bill, landed on Ellis Island with ten dollars in his pocket. That’s not some kind of romanticized family legend, by the way, but a documented fact; I’ve seen the ship manifest with my own eyes. At that time, all immigrants had to declare the cash they’d brought with them and it was clear that Vasilios was operating on a crazy-thin shoestring. And he wasn’t alone.
They came west across the Atlantic by the hundreds of thousands each year and took up jobs and lives in the American experiment – over eight hundred thousand in 1921, the year Vasilios made his way – and powered one of the greatest economic and social engines in the history of the world.
For my grandfather, it was clear, to him at least, that his life was going to be made in California; there was going to be no other place for him. It was, he felt, meant to be his final destination from the moment he saw a crudely printed flyer in his village coffee house announcing the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill. So, west became the direction of his attention, his immigration and his dreams.
And west he came, until there was no more land to cross and he stopped, where all like-minded crazies and dreamers stopped, at the far ocean of the American continent. The societies they built here reflected that combination of insanity that convinces a person it’s a good idea to leave home forever with ten bucks in your pocket, and the nervous tension created by running out of land to cross.
Wave after wave of immigrants have come to California and the west since, and they continue to come – even though now they more frequently travel north from Latin and Central America or east from Asia and the Pacific Islands to get here. And with them have come the unending hard work and blazing innovation and constant reimagining of the country that this region represents.
The pioneers of Silicon Valley, like David Packard and Gordon Moore, destroyed previously held ideas about the reality of technological boundaries. Alice Waters, Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan re-imagined how we should feed our kids and ourselves to achieve healthy lives and a healthier society. A long line of activists stretching from Harvey Milk to his legion of successors has completely redefined, not only who can hold elected office, but human rights and the very idea of family.
It’s no great wonder to me that our country so frequently looks to the west for innovations and new ideas; I walk out my front door, turn left and can see the same mighty Pacific my grandfather saw and find myself feeling the same crazy combination of feelings. Our country and the world still look west for yet unrealized, but worthy, dreams to pursue.
May we always.