When my father wakes up in the morning, he creaks like an old house. He has literally worn out his shoulders from carrying the weight of his world, a leaf blower or fully grown tree, on his back year after year. His legs are shot from walking from one lawn to another and mowing or bending down to plant flowers. His head is weary with the reflection, nostalgia, and angst of old age. Perhaps, it is his hands that tell the entire story. His hands are like leather replete with cracks and creases. The nail beds are forever gray no matter how much soap and scrubbing. Yet, he works still. At 70, in fact, he says he needs to work, not for the money but for the glory.
Americans are expecting thousands of immigrants – documented and undocumented – to go on strike today to show leaders, not to mention the rest of the world, what the country would be like without them. The hashtag popping up on social media is #ADayWithoutImmigrants. Our dirty little secret, according to the protesters, is that we need them to survive economically and culturally. Some of them think we couldn’t go on without them, in fact. Some even say our country would be a wasteland without them. Well, guess what? They’re right.
My own day without immigrants would be a bleak one indeed for I would cease to exist. My family would vanish. I am the daughter of immigrants, the granddaughter of immigrants, the wife of an immigrant, and the mother of a dual citizen. I am literally nothing and no one without immigrants. My Nonno Giovanni (in the photo above) sacrificed the only life he ever knew and moved his entire family to the United States beginning in 1960. He never did learn English, nor did he ever have the kinds of friends he had back in Italy, who played cards with him and delivered his children, and got tipsy with him. In America, he worked and so did his children.
Those dirty hands of my father paid for me to go to college without debt. They continue to help countless customers maintain their property, enjoy the luxuries of ponds and fancy walls in their yards, and do their part for the environment (with tree plantings, vegetable gardens, and manicured lawns that keep rodents and insects at bay naturally). Along with my mother, a native born American who is the child of immigrants herself, he raised three children to contribute to society. Those dirty hands held mine and those of my brother and sister. They lifted us up when times were hard and put us down when we tried to climb on our pedestals.
Without those hands, we’d be worse off. Without those hands, you’d be worse off. Today, I salute immigrants and the immigrant experience. It’s not just my father, who has brought this light to my life. I am a better person because of my Indian friends who showed me the joy of Diwali, my Jewish friends who still pray with me, my Greek and Mexican friends who have become family, my Korean friends who grew up with me, my Muslim friends who taught me about the real beliefs of their people and not the caricature on TV, my Japanese friends who taught me the wonders of Girl’s Day, my African friends whose devotion to raising the village is like my own, and the list goes on and on.
Today, as immigrants take to the streets to prove their worth to us, a worth that should be obvious to all, I can’t help but think of the words of the mighty Mario Cuomo:
Some Americans believed that we should think of these newcomers to our land as being dropped into a ‘melting pot’ that could boil away their distinguishing cultures, homogenizing them into a new multiethnic America. I have always believed that the better analogy for America would be the mosaic, like those in many church windows, each a different size, shape, and color, harmoniously arranged to form beautiful patterns. It would be tragic if our country were to sacrifice the immigrants’ gifts in favor of some kind of bland uniformity.
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!”
It’s not what you think. This is not a political story, nor is this the story of a child of the DREAM Act frightened about today’s United States. Actually, this story should inspire anyone of any group – both Democrats and Republicans – who reads it. It is a reminder for me of whence I came. This is my favorite story of the American dream, the one about my peasant people and how they got here and how I came to be an American, born and raised. It’s how I’m choosing to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Once upon a time in a land shaped like a boot, far, far away from my beloved New Jersey, there lived my ancestors on both sides of the family. We come from the island of Ischia, a province of Naples in Italy. While the two families were friends back in the old neighborhood, they couldn’t have imagined that two of their children would meet and marry years later and make them all family. But before any of that could happen, there would be great suffering, the kind that changes the course of history and the lives of individuals. Fascism rose in Europe and around the world. World War II happened. And my people were hungry, literally hungry, for a better life that included steady work and food on the table. They scattered. Some people went to Argentina, others to Canada. Some went to France, others to Algeria. Some went as far as Australia, others went to the United States of America.
My maternal grandfather Rocco Di Costanzo went to France first. But America e’ sempre America, America is always America. And he wanted a slice of that good life he had been hearing so much about. His mother wrote a note to Giovanni Luciano, my maternal grandmother’s father, asking if would be willing to marry off one of his daughters to her youngest son, so he could get a green card and work in the U.S. Luciano had moved to the United States from Ischia years earlier and indeed his wife was a U.S. citizen and his children were all American born. One of his daughters was already pretty much taken, and the other – my grandmother Concetta – was deep into a crush but still very much single. So, my great-grandfather packed up my grandmother, who was 19 at the time, and headed home to Ischia. My grandmother will tell you with tears in her eyes – tears for all she lost and all she gained on that trip – how she sat at a table with my grandfather’s entire family. My grandfather’s mother turned to her and said, “Well, are you going to marry my son or not?” At 19, she looked around and saw no allies, not even her own father. She didn’t want this. But she says she was too embarrassed to say no, so she said yes.
Within a week, she was walking through the streets of Ischia with all her long-lost relatives and their neighbors throwing confetti at her feet and a string of children – some as young as 3 – sitting on the altar. We’re pretty sure my father – who would eventually marry their daughter – was among the kids as his in-laws, who barely knew each other, wed. While marrying an American is still a legal gateway into the nation, there are conditions. To begin, as it was then and now, couples must prove their union is for real, to create a life together and not just to get a visa. The system tries to root out sham marriages.
This was a sham if ever there was one. My grandmother felt forced into the union, and my grandfather, just barely 20, continued to write to his beloved in Italy and even promised he’d eventually go back to her. My grandparents didn’t even honeymoon together. My grandmother, her father, and another woman who married someone from Ischia went to Venice together. And my grandfather had to go spend some significant time in Canada before he could enter the United States with papers. Proving your marriage is real is something with which I’m familiar because I went through it with my husband. It took two years, and we needed to show shared bills, joint tax returns, family photos of our extended families together, our son’s birth certificate, and get grilled in interviews with immigration agents. Twice my husband was put in immigration jail at the airport (it’s a real thing), and ours was a union built on love. We had two friggin’ weddings for goodness sake. Who would pay that kind of money for a fake marriage? Things weren’t as strict back in my grandparent’s day, pre 9-11, but you still weren’t supposed to marry for citizenship. But I digress.
Of course, my grandparents never did part ways. They were married for nearly 60 years and had six kids before my grandfather passed away in 2015. Love certainly grew. My grandfather lost touch with his beloved in Italy long, long ago. In the technical sense, they might have been considered illegals. If that’s not illegal enough to satisfy you based on what I promised in the headline, then look at my father’s side of the family. They fit the bill. We were WOPs, without papers. My Zio Michele, my father’s oldest brother and classmate to my maternal grandfather, was 18 years older than my father and grew disgusted with work in Ischia.
The family had been selling wine to distributors when, in the night, someone stole the barrel and dumped half of it on the ground. It takes a year to make a barrel of wine. That meant that a year’s worth of work was now worthless. My grandfather cursed those who did it, and indeed they ended up dying ugly deaths. (I’m not supporting this, but man that evil eye seems to work, so be warned.) And Zio Michele had had enough. My grandfather gave him his blessing and found him a spot as a stowaway on a ship headed to the United States. Ironically, he was with a cousin of my mother’s and they hid in a closet. An ally keeping their secret would bring them food.
Toward the end of the trip, someone found silverware that fell through a vent near where they had been hiding. They were swiftly put into a jail. Shady police officers (sorry, but it’s true) ushered them out of the jail, hid them under blankets on the floor of a car as they left the parking lot, and delivered them to relatives already in the United States. My maternal great grandfather wouldn’t help his cousin. He feared for his own American citizenship, so he sent him back to Ischia. Zio Michele, however, had uncles in New York, who hid him on a farm. For a year, he tended to the farm and mostly stayed in a loft bedroom. He kept a ladder that could be thrown out the window near his bed, so he could run from the authorities if anyone came looking to deport him.
After a year, friends from Ischia, who were living in New Jersey, dressed him like an American soldier, brought him to church, and told him to pick a wife among the parishioners. He chose my aunt, an Italian American, whose family came from Calabria but who was born in the United States. At first, she turned him down. She assumed he had another family in Italy and this was all a ploy. But my uncle was persistent, and she changed her mind. Indeed, marriage would also make him legal. They were married more than 50 years and had four children together. Again, whether it started as a sham or not, it was real in the end. In 1960, 10 years after becoming legal, Zio Michele brought my paternal grandparents, two of my aunts, and my father, who was 13 at the time, to the United States.
The rest of us – we owe our lives, our Americanness – to my grandparents and uncle. Without their willingness to sacrifice everything and take on the fear of the unknown, we would not even exist, let alone have the chance to thrive. It’s humbles me every time I think about it.
My father, his sisters, and grandparents had tickets to American and even made friends on board the ship that brought them over. They watched movies and speculated about what their new life would be like. They had more hope than those who came before them. In many ways, my father would become the most American of the bunch. He was the only one to go to school in the United States, and he graduated from a New Jersey high school. He is the only one who married an American – my mom, whose family comes from Ischia but who had been born, raised, and educated in the United States. Yet, in many ways, he was also the one who stayed the most Italian. He travels back to Italy often, maintains all the traditions (winemaking, building a large presepio or nativity scene every Christmas, speaking the dialect of his hometown), and still keeps in touch with friends and family in the Old Country. And I, his daughter, married a native of Ischia, which keeps us all the more connected. Perhaps, it was because as the baby of the family, he was protected from the hard times, the suffering, the famine. He was born after World War II. Perhaps, it was because in Italy he had a sacred childhood filled with playing soccer in the piazza and getting comforted by his mother. He often says he has only love for Italy.
Still, America is always America. My father credits the country with educating him and allowing him to build a business and have a family with some financial security, something he realizes was not quite possible – or at least not in the same way – in Ischia. Now, the United States, of course, is home. That’s something for which to be more than thankful. God bless America!
I long for an Ischia that I never knew. My father, a native of the Neapolitan island in Italy, regaled me with story after story of a paradise filled with loving family and neighbors who tended to one another in the difficult times, made sure no one had to go without during war, and celebrated all of life’s small joys – from saint feast days to Natale (Christmas). He spoke of his youth playing soccer when he should have been at school, working as an altar boy in the local church, and the pretty girls who caught his eye at 13 just before he headed off to America with his parents and two sisters. Reminiscing, he would tell us how he – the youngest child – would play chaperone to his sisters on Sunday afternoons in the piazza. It was his job to kick the shins of the young men who wanted to speak to his sisters for more than five minutes at a time. After all, their reputations were at stake.
The people of Ischia didn’t have much back then, in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, some relatives recall being short on food during World War II. My father has no recollection of this. As the baby of the family and having been born just as the war ended, he missed that. Certainly, however, he can admit that he and his siblings never would have achieved the depths of success in Ischia that they have in America. They can boast having run their own businesses, owning multiple homes, and sending children to college and off to tackle their own accomplishments. These are things many an islander can only dream of, even, and perhaps especially, today.
Still, what Ischia lacked in wealth it made up for in nature and the character of its people. Known as L’Isola Verde (the Green Island), this place has one lush landscape and with the mountains as a backdrop for the sea, one can hardly turn around without bumping into beauty. There’s no question that there are still elements of this sparkle in Ischia’s modern landscape. True, gas guzzling cars, construction, and gruff tourists detract from it once in a while, but the mountains and the sea, the flowers and the plants, the woods and the vegetation are still here. One walk down the street and you can catch glimpses of it.
What I think I’m missing from Ischia of yesteryear are the people. My own Nonna (Grandma) delivered her nine children on her own in her humble home and as a mid-wife, she helped others – even someone who gave birth to triplets – bring life into the world. Nonno (Grandpa) would harvest grapes, make wine, and sell vegetables to keep the family afloat. He was a great saver to boot and instilled a sense of planning for the future in all of us. And no matter how grueling the work under the scorching hot sun in the summer and even fall, Nonno would take it on like a superhero. His wife and kids did, too. They’d also have their fun. No matter how tough times were, La Befana would fill the kids’ stockings with tangerines, walnuts, and No. 2 pencils for school. My Nonno would head to the local bar, play cards with his friends, and participate in the folk troupe as the clarinet player. Nonna would make bread from scratch and chat up the neighbors.
When they had the chance to move to America, even though they were in their 50s, and had created a full life in Ischia, they seized the opportunity without hesitation and without looking back. They did it for me (and my father and aunts and uncles and cousins). But I was part of the equation. They didn’t know me yet for my father was only 13 at the time, but they were thinking about his future and the future of his unborn kids. They knew we could do better if we got off the island.
Unexpectedly, I have returned to their island home. I look all around me and wonder if there are people here today with the same kind of character as my grandparents. I wonder if anyone has the same gumption, the same drive, the same commitment to their family. Who would be willing to give up their three-hour afternoon siesta and nights playing scopa with Gianpiero in the piazza to break their ass working seven days a week in America, so their children and future grandchildren could do better than they did? While I know there are hard workers tucked into every corner of the Earth, I don’t know that anyone is willing to make the same sacrifices that immigrants such as my grandparents did, at least not from this neck of the woods. Truly, I’m not sure such people exist anywhere anymore.
So, I cry and cry at the injustice of it all. I want to know people like my grandparents. I want to support them and break bread with them. I want them to inspire me. I’m nostalgic for the times I could share with these people I don’t know, who may or may not exist. I want a simpler Ischia, an Ischia where everyone knows your name but rather than judge you, they embrace you. Rather than seeking the latest Ralph Lauren shirts, they are seeking a greater good. Rather than defiling the paradise in which they were born, they aim to keep it pristine. Rather than being obsessed with putting on a good show (hello bella figura), they are obsessed with being good people. Those were the days that maybe never were, but to which I’d like to cling if but for a moment.