I can remember when I was 9 years old, patiently waiting at the foot of the steps of the elevated train station in Brooklyn. I was waiting for Poppa to come home from work.
When it rained I would get his big black umbrella out of the closet and walk to the station to meet him. This was a special thing I could do for him. I remember how tired he looked, after 10-12 hours of work. He never complained and was always cheerful.
When he came down the steps of the station and saw me, his eyes would light up. We would walk together, his hand holding mine and the other hand holding the black umbrella. Poppa was home, and now we could eat our evening meal together. This was family time, and the day’s events would be discussed.
My father worked long hours as a barber at the Pennsylvania Railroad Station in New York City. He, like most immigrants, worked long hours sometimes six or seven days a week. He encountered many different types of people during his many years of employment. Some were kind and generous. Others regarded him as a second-class citizen because of his Italian heritage. These Italian men were honest, hard working, had great pride in their heritage and loved their new country. They came because they all wanted a better life and sought opportunities as they started to build their families.
They endured discrimination and humiliation because of their ethnicity. They rarely spoke out against their antagonists. I know they were angry and frustrated. I always wanted to speak out for those who were silent for so long.
Most immigrants who come to our great country, and today are referred to as hyphenated Americans, and all have suffered discrimination. Many have established groups to battle this unfair practice. The Italian-Americans were silent for a long time and resisted to speak out. Eventually, with courage, they found their voice. As Poppa would say, “Basta, enough is enough.”
The characters we saw portrayed in the movies do not personify Italian-Americans. We do not speak as the Sopranos. Our families are not gangsters or members of the Mafia. I do not deny there existed and still exists some of the elements of this undesirable group of Italian-Americans, and they have endured a place in our movies and television shows. They were a blot on our society.
My father showed his displeasure with this element. He always taught us to strive to improve ourselves, associate with others who could teach us and be the best we could be. The media has glorified and romanticized this minute percentage of Italian-Americans who do not represent us. Sometimes we fail to praise the millions of immigrants who came here and contributed to the building of our great country in so many ways.
Like so many other immigrants, it was the poor and the disenchanted who chose to leave their country and families not knowing if ever they would see them again. They came – the dark, swarthy, hard-working men – with as little as their clothes they wore and meager belongings. They were eager and willing to do any type of work.
Others came with treasures with them. The artisan brought skills unequalled in architecture, masonry and design. They were some of the builders of our great country. Their work stands today in almost every city in America.
They settled in all parts of the country. They were not greeted with open arms. English-speaking immigrants who felt superior, shamed them. Many banded together in ghettos as people do out of necessity to experience the comfort of being with people who have a common denominator. A small percentage of these immigrants found their way to achieve notoriety. This in no way was the majority who were law-abiding citizens. They pledged their allegiance to their new country and were notably patriotic with a strong sense of loyalty. The children of immigrants looked to the future to accomplish what their parents could not. And they have.
Today, we can acknowledge the contributions of Italians of centuries ago who gave us treasures in the gift of music, the arts and science. We all know the legacy of the great artists, Michelangelo, Bellini, Giotto and Leonardo da Vinci, the science of Galileo, Fermi and others. The music of the masters, Puccini, Rossini and Verdi, are still in vogue.
Contemporary Italian-Americans have become well known for their contribution to the mosaic we call America with the gifts and treasures from all different parts of the world. The greatest gift the immigrants brought with them was their skills and allegiance to a new land. They struggled and worked to afford higher education for their children, which now allows them more prestigious jobs. They have risen to leadership roles in law, science, the arts and in high government positions.
Let us celebrate the rich heritage that comes from many far away places. Let us not fall into the trap of playing to the lowest common denominator, accentuating the few who do not represent all the hard-working, good citizens, regardless of their ethnic background. All people should bring their best of their culture to our nation that can and should enrich all facets of society.
Linda Alessi is a weekly Lebanon Democrat columnist who writes about life’s later decades.