by Mary Motley Kalergis

The photographic portraits of about 75 U.S. immigrants that are the core of this book at first glance seem almost bland. But further reflection—and reading the immigrants' one-page descriptions of their own lives—suggest another interpretation: The subjects of these pictures are exuding contentment. Sweet, justifiably self-satisfied, hard-earned contentment. Most of these people have taken a gamble, in some cases a big gamble, and most of them have won.

Kalergis, a Charlottesville, Va.-based photographer whose books include Mother: A Collective Portrait, found her subjects through friends, acquaintances and her teaching job at the International Center of Photography in New York. Many are recent immigrants and well-educated; many were professionals or artists in their native countries, which range from Japan and Britain to Cambodia, Cuba and Nigeria. One, Colombia-born Francisco Davila, an executive with Chiquita Banana, was wealthy enough to bring with him not only his family but his household and farm workers and even his horses.

Their generally high level of education and prosperity make most of these people different from the historical notion of teeming masses who had nowhere to go but up, whose courage was stiffened by desperation. Those factors also make these reflections articulate, provocatively critical of American society and often fascinating.

Not all of the immigrants are totally admirable. Moreno Maltagliati, who came here from Italy, says of his wife, "I'm Italian. I'm spoiled rotten. Anytime she cooks bad, I cheat on her. I tried to explain how every successful Italian man has a wife and a girlfriend, but she doesn't want to hear it."

But these are personal tales of admirable optimism, ambition and energy. While the immigrants note shock at finding racism, poverty, political apathy and obsessive materialism here, many also offer the kind of testimony we love to hear about ourselves.

Ethiopian-born Eskiender Mehari says, "You can be yourself here in a way that's impossible in many other countries. There is enough work here for you to do if you're willing to work. If you have plans and goals in your life, you have the best chance of playing them out here. You can even create your own job and your own religion if you want. You don't get bogged down in tradition.... The pioneer spirit still exists very strongly in this country. I'm an American now. I feel like a modern day pioneer."

And Hector Sanchez, a truck mechanic from Guatemala, tells Kalergis, "When I came to America, I knew it was my last chance to make a good life for my family. I had a deep hunger to get more for myself and my family because we had so little. I've made my dreams become a reality."

Given its general perspective—enthusiasm tempered but almost never squelched by disappointment—this is an ideal kind of book to get hold of at this time of year. Look it over for a couple of weeks, then go out and shoot off a few firecrackers or wave a few flags. (Dutton, $24.95)

  • Contributors:
  • Mark Donovan,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Leah Rozen.