There is continued national attention of the plight of immigrants, challenged . legalities and our nation's new found struggle in defining immigration. The debate is political, contentious and in many ways driven by conflict.
In this environment I've reflected on my own immigrant experience in my never-ending search to validate my status even though decades have passed since I landed here in Boston.
As early as junior high school I learned about the Marshall Plan . This was the vision of Secretary of State and former 5 Star General George C. Marshall that directed economic and financial resources and public policy for the people of western Europe to help them emerge from the devastation of World War II.
The reality for my parents though is that the Marshall Plan was a well touted publicity event because its force never reached the rural parts of Italy and especially southern Italy. When they were teenagers there were still many impassable roads and ruined villages, towns and structures. Whereas only the population centers of the north especially benefited from the Marshall Plan. In the south people, by and large were poor and without inspiring prospects.
My parents grew up in an environment where young people fell in love ; whether arranged , introduced or fell together by supervised chance, and then were faced with two prospects; relegate themselves to a life of marginal poverty or escape to the population centers and major cities of the north . For many more still the ticket was leaving the continent altogether. The United States, Australia, England, Germany, Switzerland, France and places like Venezuela and Canada were destinations that promised a better life.
My father was a musician fending for himself at the age of 17 in a traveling "processional " band. He parlayed his talent for the trumpet into a reasonably happy existence, traveling to hundreds of towns and villages throughout southern Italy to provide the requisite honorary entertainment to the municipalities that celebrated their Patron Saints during their annual feasts.
My mother dedicated her work ethic to provide support to a large family of siblings and a father who was disabled during the war. Subsistence was the goal. No social programs or welfare support of any kind existed. There was no Marshall Plan in Montefalcione a prefect of Avellino and with loose connections to a sprawling , somewhat distant population center: Naples.
Having found each other in a make-shift courtship their decision was made without much discussion. They elected to join the legions of young people and they planned their "escape" .
Married in 1958 the faded photos bring poignant feelings of young love, dreams and a level of personal courage that is uncommon for common people. The most difficult moment in my mother's life was the story she relates to us still when her mother held a stoic glare with tears streaming down her face as the cruise ship left the dock. Her mother had warned her of the outcome of this adventure. As the ship took her daughter away a portion of her heart was permanently ripped away too.
This scenario was not unique to my parents though as the incident played itself over and over for hundreds of thousands of parents who were faced with either witnessing their children living in agrarian squalor or watching them leave their clutches in an an almost funeral-like experience. My grandmother understood that the distance would be insurmountable and the separation of lives permanent.
My father, with the equivalent of a 2nd grade education had secured work as a dishwasher in Geneva Switzerland. He summoned his bride 6 months after marriage and their honeymoon finally occurred in the beauty of a city and society that was, for the most part, untouched by the ravages of world war 13 years before. My parents will still reminisce of the cleanliness of the city , the strict social order and the utter beauty of Lake Geneva with its world re-known fountain at its center. They lived in love and among friends and this was extraordinarily well depicted in a famous comedy of those times and city called Bread and Chocolate.
Bread & Chocolate with Nino Manfredi
It was on April 20th of 1960 that I came into their world but with immediate difficulties. Both my parents worked in an upscale oriental restaurant. The owners, who became my god parents loved my parents and had promised them escalation and succession into their family-owned business in due time as they were approaching retirement . They knew however, my parents were restless. Young, energetic and devoted to the notion of building and keeping a family together without tolerance for the separation they had endured , they were faced with a peculiar problem. Their apartment did not allow children. And so for 18 months my parents visited me twice a week in a nursery. The tears and anguish were palatable even decades after my mother recounts this dilemma.
Faced with no other prospect despite a certain future, relative economic and financial success they planned their second escape with the purpose of maintaining our family intact ; which literally meant for them - under one roof.
At 18 months of age I emigrated with them to Montreal Canada. We moved into a small apartment after a brief stint at my mother's sister's and her husband's house. Life was simple. Italians shared their culture over wine, food, family events and life was good. My mother worked as a seamstress and my father a factory worker. But as events unfolded financial difficulties continued and the prospect of owning a home was distant due to extremely low wages for laborers without education.
In 1967; we landed in Boston. The third escape for my parents and my third country. At age 7 I spoke Italian and Quebec French. English is my third language. What I remember most of these early years here was the anguish of complications regarding their immigrant status. Without good legal guidance and an education, our status was troubled and it took many years to resolve.
I became a naturalized citizen in 1978 the same year that I graduated from high school
Over the years, despite being laborers in factories, and my father failing in business at once juncture, my parents raised me and my sister who was born in Montreal in 1966. My father held many occupations; laborer, mason, shoe-maker and factory worker. My mother worked as a seamstress and the 3rd shift in a factory to make ends meet. But despite adversity their work ethic lead them to eventually own two homes and provided us with everything we could need. We were certainly not rich but we didn't know we were border-line poor either. We were happy and together. My mother was blessed with two sisters and nephews and nieces here in the Greater Boston area. Long are the exquisite, heart-felt memories of family gatherings and childhood excess committed with my cousins. My father has no close relatives here. For years, he maintained contact by hand-written postal letters. Those almost-tissue like white envelopes with blue and white stacatto borders and the scrawls of names of unknown relatives across the ocean left an indelible mark on me. Occasionally, a special treat was enjoyed with labored conversations on telephones on Christmas days and Easter Sundays.
I can tell you though that the most defining social event in my young life was being the subject of persecution. I can still count today that the most vicious treatment I endured as a child were the barbs, abuse and physical threats from Italian-Americans. This is still shocking for me to fathom. Those people who had in their own past ( 1, 2 or more generations) an immigrant story were the ones who mistreated me and my family because we were different. I am sure that I have experienced the same level of retribution and social scorn as people of color, or religious or cultural backgrounds that did not mesh well in their communities. I have known in all its nakedness how it feels to be the subject of hatred. The mistreatment was also leveled by bigots who held positions of authority .
Despite this treatment we remained a strong family as we are today . We are still tightly-woven still and the joy for my parents is that their two children are both highly educated and have achieved economic success, stability and full integration into their communities. The icing on the cake for my parents is enjoying their 6 amazing grand children. When you have love, health and family you have achieved the greatest riches of all. This is the eternal lesson that me and my sister learned from our parents. In a way, my parents delivered their own "Marshall Plan" for themselves and the rest of us.
Our family operated a catering business for 22 years. Even though we closed the business 15 years ago our reputation is still well known among Italian-Americans in the greater Boston community . My father is a citizen and my mother acquired her citizenship at age 60. They have garnered an additional special reputation as accomplished ballroom dances with their many friends at Italian-American events. Life continues to be good.
For all of us America did fulfill its promise still valid for all people of the world. With hard work , thrift , family and faith in God opportunity is within reach to anyone who will avail themselves of its limitless resources.
I believe this was true in 1967 and it still is true today .
On this fourth of July , 238 years after its founding, our family celebrates the birthday of this great nation where all of our dreams , economic aspirations and our clearly defined identity , bracketed by a rich cultural heritage is still vibrant and tangible!