Are you one of the 175, 000 Italian-Americans living on Staten Island?
Whether you consider yourself "Italian-American" or "American-Italian" or simply American with some traces of Italian ancestors, I wonder what significance being "Italian" has to you and to your family.
For me, as a first-generation Italian-American, my parents immigrated to the United States in 1960, newly married, with a dollar and a dream. I witnessed them working night to day so they could provide for their children more then what they could have provided had they remained in impoverished Southern Italy, post-World War II.
I also witnessed their alienation, humiliation awnd suffering in mainstream America as they tried to fit in to a foreign culture and learn a foreign language.
Their strong work ethic, dedication to family, friends, faith and community, dream of a better life and a future full of possibilities for their children kept them going. They persevered until their dreams came true vicariously through their children and grandchildren.
And despite being teased and taunted about their broken English and peasant ways, Mom and Pop insisted on speaking Italian in their home, even if there was a huge price to pay for not conforming to the norm.
Pop would often profess: "Don't ever forget I am Italian, and in my house we speak Italian!"
Pop had two full time jobs for 30 years, one in maintenance with the Transit Authority and the other as a line cook in a big catering hall in the Bronx.
Five shifts in a weekend
On a typical Friday night, Pop would go from the T.A. to the restaurant, work the Friday night shift, the Saturday morning shift, the Saturday night shift, the Sunday morning shift and the Sunday night shift. Five shifts in one weekend. AND on a Sunday morning he would also get up at 6 a.m., after getting home at 2 a.m., to clean the restaurant before the morning shift began.
Just take a moment to imagine that kind of work ethic for 30 years.
The T.A. job, as opposed to his Italian restaurant kitchen job, was full of "medigans" (Americans) who were essentially aliens to Pop and vice versa.
After one particularly tough day he had at the T.A., I vividly recall something was amiss. Pop just wasn't his usual, animated self, telling us a colorful story about the "medigans" in his usual dramatic way, with arms waving up in the air and many hand motions.
On that particular day, Pop was very quiet, sad and reflective and told his story with his head down the entire time.
The story went that the "medigan" coworkers had made up a comedy skit about Pop. They asked Pop: "Vito, how do you say 'that guy' in English?" to which Pop answered what sounded like "hemma" instead of "him."
Then they asked him, "Vito, how do you say the tool that pounds a nail into a wall?" to which Pop answered what again sounded like "hemma" instead of "hammer."
And then they asked him, "Vito how do you say what us 'medigans' put in a sandwich with our cheese, you know, instead of prosciutto?"
Pop answered again, "hemma." And they continued to mock him, making a melody out of "Hemma, hemma, hemma."
Cried in humiliation
Then, while Pop was imitating his coworkers singing the melody, he did what I never saw him do before. He broke down crying in humiliation. Here was a strong, proud, broad-shouldered Italian man, completely emasculated by his peers at work.
I will never forget that day for as long as I live, as we all cried along with Pop.
Mom also struggled through assimilation with the same blood, sweat and tears.
To help bring some extra dollars into the home, Mom worked in a sweatshop, head down under a hot sewing machine's scorching light, making dresses all day while listening to the continuous "drrrrr" sound of her sewing machine and the hundreds of other sewing machines in the room.
Mom made pennies doing this piece-work job, getting paid 50 cents to 75 cents a dress. We could tell her frustration as she opened her weekly check envelope and read the measly amount to us of somewhere between $50 or $60 a week. She'd throw the envelope on the table and swear she was never going back to that miserable place again, only to find herself back at work on Monday morning.
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