Fire in My Mouth: The Bravery of Immigrants Lost in Massive Fire Remembered

On March 25, 1911, New York City was the scene of the one of the most horrific industrial disasters in United States history. The factory building of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, a garment mill employing mostly young, immigrant women, caught fire. The blaze quickly ripped through the top floors of the structure, trapping 146 workers who were unable to escape because the owners had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits – a common method at the time used to monitor employees and prevent theft. The workers perished from burns, smoke inhalation, or from jumping to escape the flames. When the fire finally was extinguished, the nation was left to grapple with the deadly reality of how its barbaric labor laws exploited a vulnerable immigrant workforce, most of whom toiled in filthy, dangerous conditions for pennies a day.

The story of this tragedy is now being recounted in a large-scale musical production, helping to remind us that the victimization of immigrants who come to our shores doesn’t just exist in the past. Fire in my mouth, a new oratorio created by American composer Julia Wolf, had its debut performance last month at the famed New York Philharmonic. As the inaugural composition in “Threads of our City,” a series that explores immigration through a variety of avenues and perspectives, the work is a multi-faceted depiction of a low point in our nation’s history. It features a full orchestra, accompanied by a chorus of 146 women, the same number of victims who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire more than 100 years ago.

At varying points throughout Fire in My Mouth’s hour-long running time, the choir intones the words of a fire survivor who arrived in the U.S. looking forward to “God knows what kind of future,” chants passages from a speech given by Clara Lemlich, a leading labor activist at the time, and sings resolute phrases encouraging immigrants to “talk like, look like, and sing like” Americans. Projected behind the chorus during the performance is early 20th century film footage of female garment workers shuffling into factories and hunched over sewing machines – a visual reminder of how so many immigrant women surrendered their youth, dignity, and sometimes their lives to a labor system that viewed them as cheap, disposable assets. [See With Protest and Fire, an Oratorio Mourns a Tragedy, by Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 25.Jan.2019.]

Wolfe, who has written previous compositions that focus on America’s labor history, is aware that her latest work is intense. But she’s confident that her artistic choices are necessary to draw the audience into the unique issues facing the immigrant community, both yesterday and today. In a recent interview with Playbill, she explained that when creating Fire in My Mouth, “… the first thing I realized is that the garment workers who perished were young women – young immigrant women. When I started working on the piece, immigration wasn’t as much on the table as it is now, but I became very aware of their vulnerability, their lack of voice … this is a country of immigrants, many people today forget that their families were in the same position.” Wolfe also made a conscious choice not to present the young women who perished in the fire as merely victims, but as courageous trailblazers who represent the promise of the American dream. “Some were still teenagers,” she noted. “Their labor leaders were only in their early 20’s, but they often came to America with a history of fighting persecution.” [See New York Philharmonic Premieres Julia Wolfe’s “Fire in My Mouth,” by Ken Smith, Playbill, 18.Jan.2019.

Fire in My Mouth serves to honor the memories of those who were lost, while also reminding us of the human side of the immigration debate. In the best of times, immigrants who come to the U.S., regardless of legal status, still face a myriad of challenges. Nowadays, with the grip xenophobia seems to have on the nation, immigrants are probably more fearful than they have been since the days when it took the death of scores of young immigrant women for society to even notice them. But even these latest turns in the U.S. haven’t stopped them from entering the country to pursue a better life. Perhaps immigrants still see the best in our country, even when we show them our darkest side. [See Family Separations at Border Down, but Dozens Still Affected, by Colleen Long, The Associated Press, 06.Dec.2018.]


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