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.