“If they can get here, they have God’s right to come.”—Herman Melville
Perhaps belonging, that sense of knowing, with your heart and soul that you are in the right place, both literally and figuratively, has been a preoccupation of mine for as long as I can remember. And I have come to realize that I am nothing, if not my preoccupation.
I come from, thankfully, an accepting, loving and gracious family— people who would rather die than think they’d made anyone, for any reason, feel unwelcome or unwanted. My parents were, and still are, civic-minded and kind to a fault and my siblings and I were raised in the very same tradition. And so immigration sets alarm bells off in my head and gives me an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Not because I oppose it—far from it— I believe that human beings should be allowed to cross borders, but rather because I understand, all too well, the inherent pain, fear, displacement and lack of dignity inherent in trying to build a life of safety and dignity in a place far from your home.
No, I am not an immigrant. But I have had close associations from earliest childhood with Italian immigrants. Indeed, my grandparents were immigrants and every Italian –American stokes the family lore of who came over, the reasons why and under what conditions. My family is no different. It is not exceptional, but rather it is the background music to my life. The stories are so woven into the very fabric of who I am, that I scarcely, really, take notice: this is who I am; this is whom I come from. Period. Or is it?
I grew up in a predominantly Italian-American town, a suburb of Philadelphia. My parish was predominantly Italian and Italian-American as was the patron saint we revered: San Francesco de Paola. Nearly all of the immigrants in my town came from the same place in Calabria. In fact, my father’s mother came from that town and my grandfather came from Palermo. Our traditions were Italian. Anything not Italian was ‘merican! We stood out, even in a town where we were the majority. My sense of belonging was thick and deep. I would not have wanted to be raised any other way. My traditions sustain me. I remain grateful. But there was another side to it all. To be Italian-American is to have one foot in and one foot out of the culture. Which culture? Both. The unspoken sentiment was to be of the American culture, but separate from it, too. A difficult thing to do, indeed.
In the early ‘70’s Italian immigration to the United States was fast and furious. Many students in my parochial grade school were Italian immigrants. In my class alone, perhaps two –thirds were from Italy. Dropped into class the day after their arrival in the US. They all bore the same look: scared and clueless— their clothes a bit different. Their lunches were strange—they brought egg and pepper sandwiches, wrapped in tinfoil and over ripe bananas—this in contrast to our luncheon meat sandwiches on white bread and Fritos. Few spoke any English at all. They were largely left in the schoolyard alone, and in class stared straight ahead with their hands folded. They were taunted by our teachers in class—often in sly and subtle ways, but often , too, with blatant cruelty. Nobody wanted to play with them. They were Italian. But we were Italian-American. I do not ever remember a year from first to eighth grade when I did not have Italian immigrants in my class. By the eighth grade, they spoke English and were pretty well integrated. Immigration seemed to have slowed down. But there would be others.
And while the immigrants that I grew up with experienced their fair share of discrimination and exclusions, those of us who were children and grandchildren of immigrants felt it too. To some extent, I still do. To be Italian-American, means to be, somehow, anti-intellectual; to be overly excitable, hands waving when telling a story; to be loud, greasy, ignorant, spaghetti twirling, Mafia lovers. And just as my teachers in grade school would slip in their sly insults to the Italian kids, I, too, have experienced the same derisive comments, the insults veiled as “just joking around,” my entire life, as have my parents, and their parents before them. This, too, has been woven into the fabric of Italian-American lives’. I often wonder if there is a single one amongst us who hasn’t had the experience. I could devote my whole life to the writing of this subject alone and never exhaust myself of material.
My grandfather, Leonardo, was from a small hamlet in the province of Palermo. He never, ever wanted to come to this country, and so remained bitter until the end of his life. He spoke perfect Italian, Sicilian and good, but heavily accented English. He was a shoemaker. He came to the United States with his mother fleeing an extortion attempt by the dreaded “Black Hand,” (in Sicily “A Manu Niura”). As well, at the time, Mussolini was taxing unmarried men. It was the perfect storm. My great-grandfather was already in the United States, working to eventually return to Sicily with money. Of course, it never happened. Soon all three were living in what would be my beloved hometown—-the few Sicilians amongst a majority of Calabrese immigrants, most of whom were relegated by to homes in neighborhoods on the edges of town where they lived with African-Americans, most of whom had arrived in the east from the south. These neighborhoods remain to this day, a testament to two “fringe” groups who lived , for the most part, harmoniously, side by side.
What does all of this have to do with immigration, migration and social justice in the Sicilian context? Well, for me, a lot. Our interests take hold early and that interest will grow and grow until it cannot be ignored.
My interest in immigration and migration in general, and Sicily, specifically, grows out of a deep and abiding belief in the human dignity and basic human rights for everyone. Consider this: if I should mail a box of laptop computers to Sicily, that box of electronic equipment would be treated with more respect and care , in fact, possess more rights and protection than an actual human being trying to cross a border with just the clothes on his back. And if you can stop and allow yourself to really think about that, it is a sobering thought, for sure.
I thought it might be somewhat illuminating for me to self disclose a bit as to my interest on my subject here. We are, after all, our preoccupations. While my investigation of immigration in the Sicilian context may seem a bit irregular, and, indeed, a bit haphazard, I can assure you it is an assiduous and serious interest of mine, one that I only become more and more entrenched in. I continuously form questions in my mind about immigration and social justice. I travel to Sicily. I work and observe. This is my own method, my heuristics, my way of investigation and knowing. I do not aim to arrive at conclusions, per se, but a validation of meaning and experience. And the process is continuously ongoing.
It is important for me to see and understand all aspects of immigration in reverse and in context. Sempre Sicilia is a place for me to share, with you, what I find. As always, thanks for reading.
For a scholarly though highly readable investigation into the lives’ of Italian-Americans, I would like to recommend Blood of My Blood: the Dilemma of the Italian Americans by Richard Gambino. I have not read anything before or since, that illuminates the realities of Italian-Americans as portrayed in this book, while shining a light on the inherent and often brutal realities of making it in a new land