By: Jerry Finzi, Grand Voyage Italy
More often than not, I’m shocked at the racism I see on Italian Facebook pages and felt compelled to leave a response to someone who claimed that most immigrants today offer nothing to American society and exist well below the poverty line…in other words, “we don’t want to support them” or “we don’t want them” or “they have no skills anyway.”
Many would argue that when our grandparents and great-grandparents came here, they were also living below the poverty line–in fact, poverty was one of the main reasons for them coming to America. They also didn’t speak English at all. Most Italians listed their profession as “Laborer” or “Farmer”… in other words, unskilled peasants. Often the father came first, working to earn enough to bring over his wife and children, as my grandfather, Sergio Finzi, did. He sailed across the Atlantic, in steerage, in the middle of winter (when fares were cheaper) three times over the course of five years…the third time bringing his wife Caterina and three children (including my 4-year-old father, Saverio).
My father’s family came from Molfetta and had a very tough life at first in Hoboken…a large family living in a tenement. (They would have another five children born here, making them a family of 10). Pretty much the same with my mother’s family. Luckily, my grandfather was skilled as a tailor and found employment in a coat factory.
As young children, my father and his brothers were tasked with walking the railroad tracks to pick up chunks of coal that fell from the trains for the kitchen stove, which was the only source of heat in the winter. They all had to leave elementary school early to help support their family.
My father and one of his brothers bought a lame three-legged horse and wagon, and sold fruit and veggies to the people coming off the ships in the harbor. Another brother started his own grocery store in Hoboken. A couple of my uncles served in WWII and even my 65-year-old grandfather carried a U.S. Draft Card, while my father worked in a military plant making springs for jeeps and tanks.
My father became a fruit and deli man his entire life, always working for other people. Even as a child, I remember my father working long hours, night shifts and often even on holidays. And there was no overtime pay!
My mother and her mother both worked in factories for “piece work”… paid by the piece. My mother bore the sweltering heat and airplane hum of industrial fans all day long as she worked at hot press machines making jewelry boxes…and crushed two fingers, bearing her crooked finger the rest of her life to show for it. She worked her way up to be a supervisor over 30 other workers.
Somehow my parents housed, clothed and fed their five children and saved enough to buy a small six-family apartment house where I grew up, the rents from the other five tenants helping to support us. After work I remember helping my father as he maintained the building: putting on a new roof, repairing the chimney, fixing the furnace, doing plumbing and electrical, painting–whatever was needed to keep the tenants happy. He taught me that working hard was a good thing.
My grandparents and parents definitely contributed to our society and created opportunities for their children…My parents were proud to have five children, lived to see 19 grandchildren and many great-grandchildren, all living as Americans today. Several of us owned our own businesses, hired employees, bought nice homes…and lived the American Dream. I remember the pride on my parent’s face the first time they came into Manhattan to see my 5,000-square-foot photo studio. It took our family three generations to succeed in America–three generations to fully assimilate. America gave us that chance.
As Americans, we all have to remember that even people who are desperate enough to enter our country through unusual means for asylum (like the Cuban boat people or Central Americans trudging through the desert) in fact should have a chance at a new life. There are no laws against crawling or swimming out of desperation onto our shores. Not everyone wanting a better life comes to our country on a jumbo jet through airport Customs.
For those who have never read the entire text of the poem that is emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty:
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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
My purpose in penning these words is not to let people forget that we are all immigrants, and owe thanks to the struggles of those who went before us–and who come after us. In my opinion, our country is stronger for their efforts and contributions. I’ve lived in another country and know for certain that we have something special here.
Never forget that we were immigrants, too.