Last summer, while the rest of the country was celebrating Independence Day, waving flags and shooting off fireworks, I decided to do something terribly unpatriotic: I dug out a picture of my Great Grandparents, Sicilian immigrants, who came to this country around a century ago, not because it was an emerging military superpower, but rather because they had a dream of finding a place that wasn’t so entrenched in class privilege and family connections that he’d be able to make something of his life.
Grandpa Giani landed at Ellis Island in New York on November 29, 1908. He left Sicily because he didn’t have much to look forward to. He lived in Alimena, a sulfur mining village between Palermo and Catania. He was born out of wedlock and because of this he was marked as an outsider, an illegitimate child in a country where family connections meant everything. So, leaving was easy because nothing grounded him.
In the summer of 1912, Angelina Colombo, her brother and sister-in-law arrived on a ship from Palermo. She was illiterate and had twenty-five dollars in her pocket. She came from the same part of Sicily and her marriage to Giani was arranged. This, however, became the source of problems for the rest of their lives. Right before the civil wedding, Angelina’s brother opposed the wedding until Giani paid for her ticket to the United States. Giani never spoke to his brother-in-law again.
They were headed for a mining camp in Arma, Kansas. A large company had contracted cheap Italian labor to finance the industrial expansion. It is nothing short of ironic when political scientists like Samuel P. Huntington speak of the Protestant Work Ethic and the Founding Fathers as part of US essentialism. For some reason, he leaves out the Micks, Dagos, and Heebs that provided the work force. By today’s standards, their desires weren’t excessive. They never imagined shopping on the internet and filling their houses with junk. They were content with running water, steady work, roof over their heads and a big table for Sunday meals. Years later, it struck us a funny when they spoke about the streets of the United States being paved with gold, but for them, it was true. In large part, there vision of this country was based on what they were leaving behind: a poor country full of dirt-poor people who survived on bread, cheese and olives and who eked out digging sulfur out of the ground.
Life was hard for them, especially because they didn’t speak English. When Grandma Angelina had to buy her husband a pair of “britches” from the company store, someone told her to ask for “sons-of-bitches.” She got over the shame and embarrassment. They weren’t leaving behind their language, culture, or religion. Like most immigrants they lived in an Italian ghetto for a number of years on 18th street in a small town in Iowa. They really didn’t fit in at first. Their last name had too many vowels in it for them to pass for native born, and they never lost their accents. The one thing that Grandpa Giani did was he changed his name to a more American-sounding James. This however set off a trend that confused the hell out of the entire family, because all of his children followed the Sicilian tradition of naming their children after their own father. For this reason, our family is full of people named Jimmy and Johnny. It is still a pain in the ass for figure out who is who.
Both of them arrived at Ellis Island and saw Lady Liberty welcoming the boat-loads of wretched refuse and huddled masses that were arriving each day. They were herded like cattle through the turn styles to an immigration official who struggled to pronounce their last names and probably lamented the new wave of WOPS (without papers), Dagos, illiterate Catholics, and Eastern European Jews that were flooding the country. It wasn’t easy but they managed. Over the years, Grandpa Giani ran a coal mine, owned a small store that sold Italian food, and ran his own pool hall, charging ten cents a game. In effect, that was the American Dream. It was all legal. These days, however, the wretched refuse no longer pass by Lady Liberty and walk through the turn styles at Ellis Island, but rather they have to sneak over the barbed wire fence, avoid the dogs, cross the desert and avoid the immigration patrols. Some will make it across the border with borrowed papers. Immigrants still come by the thousands to work and make their lives.
Has the American Dream become illegal?
Cross-posted at My Onoing Struggle with Misanthropy: http://jimmygabacho.com/?p=677