MAMMA’S DIARY – DIARIO DI MAMMA
In the last week, we have been celebrating my father’s immigration from his native Ischia, Italy to these United States. Fifty-seven years ago he journeyed with his parents and his two sisters, who were not yet 21 to join his eldest brother, who had married an American to become a legal resident and later citizen and had called over his family.
At 13, my father was unfazed by the transformation his life was about to take. He always said he just went along with what his parents wished and assumed they knew what they were doing. It’s incredible when you think about it. Sure, for a 13 year old with his whole life ahead of him, change is natural. But my grandparents were in their 50s already and had never lived outside of that small island in Italy. They never heard English, never mind spoke it. And they left behind virtually all their family and friends.
My father would consider the true significance of this shift in but a moment on the ship as they turned into the New York harbor, and he and his father saw their new world for the first time. It was then that he saw her in the harbor. With torch held firmly in the air beckoning all to U.S. shores, Lady Liberty in that bold green of fading copper, stood tall with strength. When my Nonno Giovanni noticed her, he told my father that her presence proved that women “poteva commandare” in America, too. The year was 1960, and the tides were beginning to turn. Women and minorities were beginning to demand their place at the table. The movements were not lost on this immigrant coming in.
In Italy, my father chaperoned his sisters whenever they walked in the piazza and kicked the shins of young men who tried to talk to them for more than five minutes. None of my father’s siblings went beyond the fifth grade, and often the women were educated even less. My aunts were not allowed to get jobs as housekeepers or cooks in the hotels that were popping up in Ischia as it became a tourist mecca because my grandfather feared they would be labeled prostitutes. Here in America, things would be different for them, and so they would be different for the entire family.
That moment of reflection upon meeting the Statue and my grandfather’s interpretation remains one of my father’s first and brightest memories of his entrance into America. I’ve heard the story a million times, and I never tire of it. That moment in the harbor changed everything about the way my father, not to mention his father, saw the world. After graduating from an American high school and working for American companies before starting his own, my father and his family understood the importance of education and diversity.
Irony was not lost on my father in the last week as we savored his Americanness, his luck at being able to choose this country as his home, our home. He remembered his ability to get an education and earn a dollar here in a way he never could have in his native Italy. We recalled former President Barack Obama’s farewell speech in which he mentioned our people. “…the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, Italians, and Poles. America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; they embraced this nation’s creed, and it was strengthened.”
Yet, as we were celebrating all our fortune and that turning point with Lady Liberty, we gathered around the television and witnessed families separated by shores, and protesters asking for the same fulfillment of hopes, which we had been granted, at airports across our blessed nation. My father was shocked and forlorn but silent. His face told the entire story. When he saw the cover of that German news magazine depicting the aftermath of President Donald Trump beheading Lady Liberty flash across the screen all he said was, “That is so ugly. Turn it off.”
Alas, we can’t turn it off. This is happening. But the President is one man, and we are the people. I couldn’t help but find comfort in the words of Emma Lazarus, a Portuguese Sephardic Jewish refugee who wrote “The New Colossus,” the poem that now lies in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. We’ve brought just about every foreign friend or relative who visits to see the Lady and those words that captured the values of our America, of us. Every time I read it – no matter how many times I read it – I get those same chills. Those goosebumps are my gratitude, so I leave you with Lazarus’ summation for her words are more powerful than mine will ever be on this topic:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
-Emma Lazarus (November 2, 1883)
Di Meglio has written the Our Paesani column for ItaliansRus.com since 2003. You can follow the Italian Mamma on Facebook or Twitter @ItalianMamma10. For more handmade crafts and party gear, visit the Italian Mamma store on Etsy.