Okay, first of all, this is NOT a photo of any of my family members--but it could be. For as far back as I can remember my grandfather told me how he came to America from Naples, Italy when he was six years old--and how he vividly remembered arriving at Ellis Island and seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time.
A few years after he died, someone told me that the Ellis Island registry was free--that is, you could type in any name and find out information about when they came to New York. (Go to ellisisland.org). What the heck, I thought. It's free. Worth a shot. Not expecting much, I typed in: Mario Balzano, Age 6, Naples Italy.
Within literally seconds, a passenger list appeared. And in my great-grandmother Concetta's handwriting I saw the words: Mario Balzano, Age Six. I learned that they arrived in Ellis Island on May 10, 1915 from Napoli, and the name of their ship was The Duca d'Aosta. Here is a photo of their actual ship (photo courtesy of Ellis Island registry.)
Even though I had heard this story my entire life, it gave me such an odd feeling (a happy one) to see his name listed and actually see the ship and learn a few more details (such as my great-grandmother was only 26; so she had my grandfather when she was 19! Whoa.)
So my family is the first thing I think of when I hear the word "immigrant." I also always find it interesting (and a bit sad) that when my grandfather came here from Italy he felt he had to lose his Italian identity and completely embrace being American. I mean, I get it. And I also "get" when people get annoyed when immigrants don't speak English. But when I finally got to visit to Italy on vacation in 2009, I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the country and the people. And especially the language! I may be a bit biased but I truly feel Italian must be one of the most beautiful languages in the world. And both my grandparents knew Italian, but never spoke it (except for when they wanted to say something they didn't want me to hear--like where they hid the Christmas presents.) My grandparents truly felt it was an honor and a priviledge to be Americans--"America, love it or leave it,"--and so they immediately tried their best to lose their ethnicity as soon as possible. I guess they believed in that way they were "respecting" America.
America has always been referred to as "the melting pot"--the country where hundreds of different nationalities and cultures are mixed together. And I know it sounds really corny to say this, but seriously, "Why can't we all just get along?" It makes me sad that my grandfather felt he had to give up his Italian identity back then, and it still makes me sad now to think that people are losing their cultures, traditions, etc. for fear of being hated by Americans.
And, yet, and yet...like I said, I GET IT. I get why people are angry when their jobs are taken over by immigrants because they are desperate and will work for less. And also, while I do try to embrace all cultures--(I love to travel, love to try different cuisines, love to hear about various holiday traditions), I do still get that feeling of "kinship" when someone I meet is Italian, and we joke, "What part of the boot?" (Because if you look at the shape of Italy on a map, it looks like a big boot.)
Immigration is such a contested issue, even now. President Obama talked a lot about immigration, and the "Dream Act"--while opponent Mitt Romney spoke in favor of"self-deportation"--really? (I don't want to get political here but that just sounded so wrong.)
So, in short, I'd love to hear more about the history of Italian immigrants, because, well, because it's my history. I'd also like to learn more about Native Americans, because it makes me laugh when people get on their high horse about immigrants. Um, hello? You weren't here first. And finally, I'm also curious to hear how my fellow classmates feel about immigration, because how we feel (and what we teach our children) will ultimately shape the look and the future of America.