My Immigration Story
My mother’s father was an immigrant from Sicily, as were her maternal grandparents. I never met them. They existed for me in imagination only, stimulated by the sepia photographs, postcards and letters, some written in a language I could not decipher, that my mother kept in a big cardboard box in her closet. They lived in the stories Mom told about growing up in Bridgeport, Connecticut with her two sisters, her parents and her large extended Italian American family. I loved those stories. They brought the dead to life for me. I suspect they did the same for her. Sometimes I flip through the postcards still, dozens of them, dating back to 1904, and realize that people living in the same city often posted cards to one another to communicate. I guess a lot of people didn’t have phones back then. So many worlds away from how we live today.
Mom’s stories painted a picture of another life for me–a life that was a true American story. A story that included the struggles of big-hearted people trying to survive in a world where the language and culture were foreign, but the ideals were inspiring. Mom was born in 1921, the same year Mussolini became prime minister of Italy. Her father hated Mussolini and what he represented. He loved his new country, and believed in it’s democracy, even though living here was a struggle for him. It was a struggle to learn the language and to become a US citizen. He worked at menial jobs for years, but eventually saved enough money to open a small neighborhood store, which he lost during the depression. According to Mom, he couldn’t bring himself to deny people credit to feed their families, even when he knew they could not ever pay him. He struggled with physical disability, when as a passenger in a car driven by his brother Louie, he was hit by a train in a railroad crossing. He suffered with the pain of his shattered bones for years before losing his arm to amputation. Then he lost his wife to an aneurysm when she was just forty years old. Grandpa died five years later, Mom said of a broken heart.
My grandpa’s life in America was short and sad in so many ways. It was an immigrants life, a hard life, not very different from an immigrants life today. The struggles of immigrants are still formidable–barriers of language, of culture, and of alienation of newcomers by the entrenched populations. During World War II un-naturalized Italian immigrants were treated as enemy aliens, subjected to curfews and searches of their homes, confiscation of properties, and even interments¹, something we are leaning towards again in our country with certain populations of people, people who came here with the same hopes and dreams my grandfather had, and perhaps yours also.
My mother’s stories of family and community remained with me on an October Sunday afternoon I spent in the small Umbrian hill town of Orvieto, watching the people come out–well dressed elderly women and pretty mothers pushing children in strollers, old men in wool suits and fedoras, young men in leather coats walking dogs–everyone out, strolling, shopping, chatting on narrow street corners and lunching in outdoor cafes. The sense of community felt familiar and safe. Walking by the tiny butcher shops and patisseries I caught snippets of friendly banter between customers and shop keepers that, despite the unfamiliar language, spoke of the relationships that still thrive here. I was reminded of my mother’s family and the strong ties she had to it throughout her life. I thought about the numerous photos she left us of her family life growing up just an hour’s drive from NYC, and Ellis Island, and the port that received my grandfather’s ship full of Sicilian immigrants in 1904. These are the photos of people who lived for family–photos of relatives picnicking together at Beardsley Park and posing on the steps of the First Baptist Church on Easter, celebrating birthdays, weddings and graduations, and cooking Thanksgiving dinner together in Aunt Libby’s kitchen.
I once had an Argentinian friend, an organizational psychologist, who told me she didn’t relate to the large Italian population in her home country because the women were only interested in family. They lived for their families, and weren’t prone to pursue careers outside of the home. I knew exactly what she was saying. My Mom was that way. And in my own way, so am I.
What held immigrant families together were the traditions of their home country that they carried across the oceans with them in their hearts. The traditions of family and community, nurtured by their close relationships with each other and with fellow immigrants–their neighbors and friends. These were the ties that kept the country together through the difficult years of the depression and the second world war. These were immigrant ties, woven together to create the multi-dimensional fabric that is America. A strong and enduring fabric. But not indestructible. It is fraying beneath the weight of our collective fear and I worry that in time it might fail. But I’m only one American, so this is what I will do in the face of fear: Resist.
In honor of my immigrant family ties, today I will choose not to fear the immigrant or the refugee. I will choose not to be the citizen who rejects the unknown face, the cultural or religious difference, the unfamiliar tradition. I will choose instead to be the friend and neighbor of those who come to my country seeking refuge from destructive forces and unfortunate circumstances beyond their control.
I do it for my grandfather. I do it for my conscience. And I do it for my country. America. My country of immigrants.