Eat @ Joe's By Ralph Raffio
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I Am a Child of Immigrants
February 2, 2017 -- This early 20th-century photograph of an immigrant family rests in a prominent place in my home because I am a child of those immigrants.
The man and woman are my grandparents, Ursula and Giovanni Giamundo. The boy is their first child Giuseppe, born outside of Naples. The girl, Maria, is my mother. All had recently been granted American citizenship and were living in East New York, Brooklyn, the place where I would later be born.
I love this photograph. Really, I do. After my wife, it might be the one thing I'd grab should flames ever force us to flee our home.
Looking at the picture, lovingly restored by Ursula and Giovanni's youngest son, Cosmo, a printer by trade and now in his 80s, always felt like watching my very own beginning. How could it not fill me with love and joy and, yes, hope?
Last week all this changed.
That's when a two-bit hustler named Trump, a week into his newest and greatest scam as the leader of the free world, imposed a travel ban on seven Muslim nations. The ban conveniently left out the Muslim nations where the President has financial interests, but never mind that now.
America's new boss had made his disgraceful point: I am in charge and I will throw red meat at my agitated (and mostly white) base whenever I damn well please. So long as it doesn't hurt my business, of course. Which, by the way, is none of yours, so shut the fuck up. Loser.
Now all I feel when looking at that ancient Italian-American family portrait is dread and disbelief. I never would have predicted that this country of ours would be at such an awful place, at this moment in its history.
It's been more than a century since my grandparents sailed to New York Harbor from the Port of Naples. Their emigration was anything but romantic.
They and millions of others like them left Italy for one reason: They were hopelessly impoverished and America offered them hope for a better life. They were also needed here, and badly. After all, roads and bridges and tunnels and sewer systems don't just build themselves. This was hard, often dangerous work that simply could not have been done without immigrant labor.
But then, as now, there were risks in leaving the old country.
The largely Catholic Italians and Protestant-leaning America never were an easy fit. Not only were Americans fearful of the mysterious religion from another land, they also were outright hostile toward Catholicism and the new immigrants who practiced it.
As early as the 1840s Protestant mobs brought violence upon Italian-American citizens of the Catholic faith. They even burned their property for no reason but the ignorance in their heads and the hatred in their hearts.
It gets worse.
Italian-Americans who lived in the Jim Crow South were subject to many of the same segregation laws as blacks. And the same violence. Probably the largest mass lynching in United States history was not of blacks but of Sicilians. Eleven of them in all, in 1891 New Orleans.
It stemmed from the murder of Police Superintendent David Hennessy. Nobody witnessed the crime and none of the accused were convicted. The only "evidence" in the case was purely circumstantial, a supposed comment made by the victim before dying.
"The dagos," Hennessy was alleged to have muttered, "did it."
An organizer of the lynch mob, who would later become governor of Louisiana, argued that Italians were "just a little worse than the Negro."
Teddy Roosevelt, who would later become President of the United States, called the lynching "a rather good thing."
The incident prompted Italy to abandon diplomatic relations with the United States. More importantly, it fueled anti-Italian sentiment all across America and, yes, a movement to restrict immigration.
Not so long after my grandparents became Americans, the path to citizenship became more difficult for others like them. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921--and, later, the Immigration Act of 1924--was specifically written to restrict Southern Europeans (not Northern ones) from entering the country. It wasn't only Italians, either. The law also restricted Eastern European Jews and Africans from entering the country--and it outright banned Asians and Arabs. The quotas and restrictions spelled out in the 1924 law remained largely in effect for more than four decades.
It's also interesting to note that a revived Ku Klux Klan was going great guns around this time. Its principal targets were blacks, Jews and Catholics, mostly of Italian descent.
Congress' stated intention with the immigration law? Maintaining American homogeneity.
This column is Copyright © 2017 by Ralph Raffio. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Ralph Raffio. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.