We celebrate Italian-American heritage in October to coincide with Columbus Day. The date of his landfall in the Americas has been observed since at least the 150th anniversary, and has been a fixed date in the federal calendar since 1971. While recent proclamations tend to focus not on Christopher Columbus* but on more contemporary Italians and Italian-Americans who have shaped our nation, I would like to look at our immigrant heritage
* A exception can be found on this site, on the festivities put on by their committee in Boston on 1 October; they recognize the ambivalence around certain unnamed figures and ask for “people of goodwill” to participate in “vigorous debate” on their legacies. The Italian Heritage and Culture Committee of New York supports the same mission in that city, this year focusing the month’s observance on women, and other celebrations are planned in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
As organization president Basil M. Russo suggested two years ago in addressing the Italian Sons and Daughters of America, we as Italian-Americans should consider the stories of how we arrived and helped build the country we call our home. Even more urgently, as President Barack Obama asked us to do in his 2010 address, we ought to compare our ancestor’s trials with those of today’s immigrants.
When you learn about the hurdles that today’s immigrants face in coming here, ask yourself: How would I feel if the story of my family was like the stories on the news right now?
My Italian ancestors came during the Great Migration, around 1900, joining the United States in time to reap the benefits of the Roaring Twenties. Not that they were unaffected by immigration restrictions, as few as there were in those years. My twice great grandfather, who was blind, was not permitted to enter the country. His widow, had she not had a male relative willing to support her, would also been barred from entering the United States.
But neither was my twice great grandmother subject to being deported for a misdemeanor, or her children taken from her and locked in cages like animals. She’d made it to the United States and the worst was behind her. That wouldn’t be true, if she came today, from a country that many Americans regard with the same contempt as we once viewed Sicily.
Since we, immigrants and their descendants, are part of what makes America great, let us ask ourselves: how can we ensure the promise of America’s greatness in the future? Do we want to preserve the prejudice that greeted our ancestors, or the opportunities they found here, for future generations?
And what stories do we want to tell about our family’s struggles and achievements? Stereotypes about Italian-American gangsters and roughnecks abound. So do the tired hagiographies in which our ancestors “worked hard, and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.” The real history of our families—and this country—is more complicated. Future generations deserve to know as much of the truth as we can tell.
Featured image: The author’s twice-great grandmother, Angela Grizzaffi, and two of her daughters