Thursday, August 27, 2015

100 Years After Immigration

There has been much talk in the news these days about immigration and the illegal immigrants coming into our country.  This has prompted me to examine my roots and my family's journey to and assimilation into America after 100 years.

After all, I am only a second generation American.  Although all four of my grandparents were admitted into this country legally, both of my parents were what today would be called "Anchor babies".  Coming to America at the beginning of the 20th Century was entirely different proposition than coming to America today.

Back then it was easy for the our government to manage the tens of thousands of people who came to this country from Europe by steamship in the early 20th Century. They were cataloged, registered and processed at Ellis Island where immigration officials could decide who came in and who didn't.  Back then Italian immigrants were called WOPs, a term which meant With Out Papers. This was the early 20th Century equivalent of the derogatory term Wetback.  BUT they were accepted into the country and a process to gain full citizenship was started.

The Atlantic ocean is a formidable barrier to illegal entry.  The distance from Naples, Italy to Ellis Island is 4400 miles and required a two week ocean voyage in 1914.  By contrast a person can literally wade across the Rio Grande river to get into America making our southern border much more difficult to manage.  The 90 miles of ocean which separates Cuba from Key West, FL is littered with the remains of the thousands who attempted to get to America but never made it.

But immigration legal and illegal is not solely a United States problem. Everywhere in the world people are risking live and limb to immigrate to Western countries to escape everything from poverty to war and sectarian violence.  I just heard an interview on the radio with a man who is one of the nearly 80 thousand people who illegally migrated to Greece this year alone. This man traveled by row boat to reach Greece so he could......get this, walk to Germany. The problem of illegal immigration in the EU is much worse than here in America because the European Union has lifted many of the cross border restrictions between member countries.  So that guy might actually be able to walk from Greece to Germany. It is only about 930 miles from Athens to Munich. 

We take so much for grated in this country.  Try to imagine what it would take for you leave your home, get on a boat and travel for weeks to a place where you don't speak the language, where the people aren't particularly welcoming, where you will be discriminated against, thousands of miles from the rest of your family to start a new life in a new country.  Think about how much courage this takes.  Sure they are breaking all the rules, but just think about the motivation.

My grandparents all came to America separately as teenagers between 1912 and 1915 on steamships in what was referred to as steerage class.  I did some research with the help of my cousin into what it was like on these steamships.  It was hardly the Amistad but it certainly wasn't the Carnival Cruise line either.  They slept in compartments with hundreds of people divided into women without male escorts, men traveling alone, and families. The sleeping berths were 6 feet long and 2 feet wide and with just 2 1/2 feet of space above.  The voyage was two weeks across the Atlantic.   

100 years later, I bitch when I have to take a five hour plane trip to the West Coast.  I need a window seat, my ipad, my laptop, the right snacks, a neck pillow and I still need a day to recuperate.  I cannot imagine what could make me embark on such a treacherous journey.

My father's mother Elizabetta Sulpizio was 19 years old and traveling with her brother, Ponfilio (Paul) when they came to America.  They departed from Naples on Oct 19, 1913 aboard the steamship "Taormina".  They arrived at Ellis Island on Nov 3, 1913.

On the manifest Paul listed his occupation is as "farmer" while no occupation is recorded for my grandmother. They declared that they are each had $25.  That is the equivalent of about $540 today.  They listed their last residence as the town of Bucchianico in Italy.  On the manifest they had to list their destination in the U.S..  They listed that they were going to stay with their brother, Domenico, whose address was 1022 Catherine St. in Philadelphia.

My father's father Alec, came to America under the similar circumstances on a different steamship in 1915 one hundred years ago.  He met my grandmother Elizabetta in South Philadelphia and they married.  He could not speak any English, only  Italian.  The Italians were considered good with shovels.  So they handed him a shovel and he went to work on a crew digging ditches for what would someday become the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  He was paid about 25 cents an hour.  

Today, one hundred years later, his great granddaughter, our daughter Ayla, has 26 years of education.  She can speak both English and Spanish, but not Italian. She is a PHD candidate in Archeology who has to pay thousands of dollars a year to dig ditches with a trowel.  

This is what an immigrant's assimilation into American society is all about.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Today's Father is Not Your Father's Father

Today's father is not your father’s father.

The changing role of fathers is really tied to the changing role of men in our culture.

As I look back over my life I can see how the role of "father" has transformed in just the last 30 years.  The signs are everywhere I look. 

Today when I go into the men’s room of a department store or airport or even along the turnpike and Parkway I see baby changing stations.  Obviously, I can't remember if my father change my diapers when I was a baby; but all evidence points to the fact that he had very little, if anything to do with that type of childcare 60 plus years ago.  Back then, not many men did.  That sort of thing was considered a mother's job, woman’s work.

Today there is a discussion in some circles to extend the family leave of absence to include men as well as women at the birth of a child.  A few years back,British prime minister David Cameron took time off to spend with his new baby girl, Olivia when she was born.  He became the first sitting prime minister in history of the United Kingdom to take parental leave.  Can you imagine Winston Churchill taking a paternity leave and changing diapers?

Television which either mimics or drives our culture at large (depending on your point of view) is a great way to understand our views on the role of father.

Take the television program Father Knows Best which stared Robert Young and aired from 1954 to 1960. It depicted what was then considered an idealized American family, where the father was the head of the household and he dispensed wise and unerring advice to his wife and children in his cardigan sweater.

Compare this to the image portrayed in the TV series Full House which aired from 1987 to 1995.  This series depicted a widowed sports-caster who is forced to raise his three daughters after the death of his wife with the help of his brother-in-law and good friend.

For the last 5 years the ABC Family network has aired a program (which I must admit I cannot watch) called Baby Daddy. It is about a man in his mid in his 20s, who becomes a surprise dad to a baby girl when she's left on his doorstep by an ex-girlfriend.  I bet he has had to change a few diapers.  The expression “baby daddy” brings an entirely new perspective on the idea of "father". 

Our ideas about father are inextricably connected to our ever changing ideas about family.  And as our culture redefines family, so is the role of father redefined.  

As more and more women enter the workforce, once common expressions like “Wait until your father gets home.’ become obsolete. And frankly “Wait until your mother gets home” just doesn’t have the same impact.

Some things never change.  Every person on earth has a father and a mother, and a  few days ago we had a special day set aside for fathers.  Like millions of people, I took time to fondly remember my father.

I especially remembered that by the time I realized my father was right about so many things, I had my own child who thought I was wrong about everything.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Mother's Day Remembrance

My mother was born Eva Costa in 1920, the youngest of five children of Martin and Jenny Costa in Philadelphia.

My mother had aspirations to become a school teacher, but by the time she was old enough to attend college the Great Depression had snuffed out her family’s ability to do anything more than survive.  She always blamed the government for the depression and had lifelong distrust of government and politicians.

She always loved music.  She came of age as a Frank Sinatra fan and loved the big band music of her day. When she was young, she and her best friend Rita D’tore would go dancing to big bands in Philadelphia before World War 2.  They both met their respective husbands at one of these dances.  My mother met my father Tony Amadio and Rita met her husband at the same dance.

I have photographs of her and Rita from then.  They looked so perfect for the time.  Almost like the Andrews Sisters, a popular singing group from that time.  

Instead of attending college, Eva went to work as a sewing machine operator and was a member of the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union.  The ILGWU.  The ILGWU no longer exists since everything we buy today is imported.  Both my mother and father were strong union people.  

She stopped working once she married my father.  She was a “stay at home mom”.  A term which had not yet been coined in the 1950’s.  All moms stayed at home to raise their children then.

When I was in sixth grade, my father had a serious back operation which laid him up for months, forcing my mother to go back to work.  She took a job as pocket maker at the Isseminger Brothers coat factory on 19th and Callowhill in Philadelphia, a contract manufacturer for Evan Piccone.  The factory, which has been shut down for decades is now luxury loft condominiums.  I have copies of my mother’s pay checks from that time and I am struck by how little she made as a sewing machine operator.

My mother and I never really had any long conversations.  They weren’t necessary.  I knew what I was supposed to do and I was expected to do it.  The imperative was to do well in school.  Study, get good grades and go to college.  No on ever asked me what I wanted, since it was simply expected that I would do well in school and there was no discussion.  Being the oldest of three children I was expected to set a good example and watch out for my younger siblings.  No discussion, no instruction, simply expectation.

My wife, my sister and my sister-in-law often remark about how strong of a woman she was.  I would bet they had all whole lot more conversations with my mother than I ever had.

Both my mother and father were stoics and were not very demonstrative of their feelings except for occasional overly dramatic operatic outbursts. The thing I remember most about my mother were her sayings.  She would make short philosophical statements to let you know what she thought.

She would say things like, “Go around with people better than you, don’t go with people worse than you.”  How do you expect to ever improve yourself?  This was and is sound advice.

When we were kids she would stand at the kitchen sink and look out the window to watch us at play.  We were never out of her sight.  She raised me to believe there is always someone watching. To this day, I feel my every action is being observed by some higher authority.

Whenever there was a kid in the neighborhood who misbehaved or got into trouble, my mother would say, “I blame the parents.”  Whenever her children, mostly my brother Neil and I misbehaved, she would look up into the heavens and say, “Saint Rita, Saint Theresa and all the saints in heaven give me strength.”

In the mid 1980s I owned a small manufacturing business in Philadelphia where I opened a sewing department which had some of the same equipment my mother had used when she worked as sewing machine operator.  The day she came to visit me at the factory may have been one of her proudest moments. Her son was now the factory owner she had worked for her most of life.

My mother loved to take care of people.  She would go as far as to put the milk and sugar in my coffee and stir it for me, even years after I started drinking my coffee black.  So when she fell and broke her hip in 2002 and needed to have a full-time nurse live with her she resisted. She hated loosing her independence and especially didn't like anyone taking care of her because she had always been the caretaker.

After the dementia of Alzheimer's finally forced her into a nursing home,  I visited her every Saturday.  I would bring my iPod loaded with the music she loved hooked up to a small speaker and we would sit saying nothing much; just singing along to the songs of her life.  Frank Sinatra singing the Sunny Side of the Street.  Tony Bennett singing I Wanna be Around.

My mother died in December 2008.   One of the last things she said to me was something she said to me on many occasions.   Not a day goes by when I don’t remember her saying, “Mart, do what you are supposed to do and pay attention to what you are doing.”