“America e’ sempre America. America is always America.” -my father Pasquale Di Meglio and everyone else in my family
Whenever I’m in the United States, I’m Italian. Whenever I’m in Italy, I’m l’Americana. The truth is that I’m somewhere in between. Any child of an immigrant will tell you the same. You live this life with one foot in one country and one foot in the other. Italy will never leave us. It’s in our blood. It’s like the Sunday sauce runs thickly through our veins. Our food, our fighting, our faces can be traced to Ischia, that little island off the coast of Naples in Italy. It’s inescapable. And for that reason, we’ll always be somewhat foreign to our American neighbors. The rabbit on our Sunday dinner table and the fact that nonna and zia are the only acceptable babysitters and we know women who iron sheets and underwear (and don’t put them in an institution) on a regular basis separate us from everyone else in the States. There’s nothing that we can do to change that.
But the more time I spend in Italy, the more I understand what my father (and really all my immigrant relatives) mean when they say “America is always America.” We chose to pack up our things and move to America. We saw this country as a chance to live out dreams, rather than just get by. We saw it as the place to go to get rewarded, rather than pigeonholed, for our hard work. My paternal grandparents were already in their 50s and had raised grown children with families of their own when they decided to move from Ischia to the United States. Just imagine leaving behind everything you know, all your friends and family, your culture and your language when you’re already more than halfway through your life. They gave all that up and moved here for me. I think about that almost everyday. Would I be willing to make such a sacrifice for the future of my family, for those who haven’t even been born yet?
Of course, I wasn’t even a twinkling in my parent’s eyes in 1960 when my grandparents gathered up three of their nine children – the only ones who were still minors – and made the move. My father was only 13, the baby of the family, when he joined them on their journey from the Old World to the New. But my grandfather knew that my father would not have to live as hard a life working the limited land and fighting for every last piece of property available. He knew America would give my father untold riches and freedom like none he would have experienced back in Ischia.
Indeed, my father graduated from Fort Lee High School in New Jersey. He is the only one in the family with a high school diploma. He married an American (whose family also comes from Ischia, but who herself was born in the States and graduated from a junior college to boot). Although he works the land as a landscaper, he does so on his terms and as the boss of his own company. He would never have experienced such glory in Ischia. I, his daughter, married an Ischitano. I’ve seen what his future would have been on that small island. The life there is mostly about making ends meet. Sure, there are hotel and restaurant owners whose families can travel and do more than your average islander. But there’s not much in the way of dreaming. There’s not much in the way of ambition. So, I thank God everyday that my grandparents had the guts to come here to give me my American passport.
Sure, times have changed. The United States has weakened in many ways. Our government is more divided than ever. Immigrants have an even tougher time (if that’s possible) than they did before. Terrorism and hatred plague us. There is almost no more middle class – just the 1 percent and everyone else. Some people have stopped believing in the American dream. In my darker moments, I sometimes have my own doubts. But then I travel back to Ischia. It has its charms, but it also reminds me of why I’m American at my core.
That siesta in the middle of the day has a way of getting under my skin. We’re built for work, and we should do it while we can. Naps are for babies, the ill, and the elderly. They have a place in the world but not in the middle of the day when you’re a healthy, young or middle-aged adult. All those vacation days and soccer games and water cooler banter is fine and well. But it all gets in the way of making more of yourself, letting your creative juices flow, and realizing your true potential. Now, I’m not against talking to your co-workers or taking a break from work or leisurely enjoying a delicious meal. I think it’s good for the soul. But I am against the idea that work gets in the way of the good stuff. Work can be the good stuff. In America, you still have the possibility to dream your dreams and live them out. You still have the possibility of making money as your own boss. You still have the chance to move up in the world if you set your mind to it and that’s what you want to do. Determination can get you somewhere. Believe me, other places don’t allow that.
On that small little island that birthed our family, the people are resigned to inheriting property when loved ones die and taking on jobs in tourism. Even the college graduates are waiting tables and opening hotel doors – and these jobs are only available for six months out of the year when tourists are flocking to the place. I, an American, could major in journalism and attempt to work in that very industry. I’ve done just that. Sure, I’m making less money than I would had I went to business school or medical school or just about anything else except teaching school. But it was my choice. It was my dream. And I am able to live it here in my America. Amen.