Thursday, March 9, 2017
Recognizing Immigration Stories: An Italian Family’s Story
By Sheana Tobey, MA, LPC
At The Awakening Center, the Awaken to Action theme for March is Recognizing Immigration Stories, so I thought I would use this time to tell you a really good one!
Once upon a time, a long time ago, (the late 1930s to be more specific), two men, independent of one another, left their families in Italy to travel to the United States for a chance at a better life. Corrado and Alfonso would eventually become roommates and then so much more. Corrado came to the US many years before Alfonso, and he began working at a butcher shop. Corrado would stay in New York for a time, sending money back to his family. He would also travel back to Italy for periods of time when he had enough money to do so.
Eventually, he came to co-own the butcher shop and stayed in New York. He lived with three other Italian men at the time. When Alfonso arrived in New York, he took over one of the rooms where Corrado lived. He worked as a barber by day and washed dishes at a diner by night. Each man left behind a wife and two kids. Corrado’s wife would die of an illness during the war. His daughter, Irma, would marry an Italian man and stay there. However, in 1946—when the war was over—Corrado’s 19-year-old son, Vito, came to New York to join his dad. Around that same time, Alfonso’s wife, Pasqualena; their 14-year-old daughter, Flora; and their 9-year old son, Mario left everything they knew behind to join him in New York. As they arrived to the US—with the Statue of Liberty welcoming them warmly—none of them knew any English.
Upon arrival, Vito went to work with his dad at the butcher shop and eventually enrolled in night school, where he met some of his lifelong friends. He took notice of Flora early on, but recognized that she was too young for him. However, he told himself that when she “developed” he would ask her out. Flora wanted to attend school when she came to the US; however, without knowing the language, it was a futile effort. Instead, she got a job at a factory sewing.
Time passed, and sure enough, Flora developed into a beautiful woman, who had many eligible suitors. None, however, were a match for Vito’s charm. He won her hand in marriage when she was 18. Their first child arrived not long after. Her second child, Lorraine, was born when Flora was 20. Two years later, she gave birth to Victor.
By this time, Corrado and his partner were ready to sell the butcher shop, so they passed it down to Vito and Flora. Early on in this endeavor, they didn’t have a car, so Vito would get up every morning and take the bus to the meat market, where he would buy a whole side of beef, among other items. He would hop back on the bus and take it to the shop. (Can you imagine sitting next to someone on the bus carrying a whole side of beef?!) Flora would go ahead of him to the shop to open up. They did this year round—in the heat of summer and in the brutally cold winter months.
Many years later, Flora wanted another baby, so they had one—Michael. By this time, they had a truck, making the commute to the shop much easier. They all lived in Far Rockaway, New York, two houses down from Pasqualena and Alfonso, who helped take care of the kids. Vito and Flora discouraged the kids from learning Italian because they wanted everyone to fit into American society. Every Sunday, they would have family and friends over for elaborate dinners set by Flora. They all lived a happy life that they worked very hard to have. The End.
This is the immigration story of my family. I was lucky enough to grow up knowing Pasqualena, Alfonso, Vito, Irma, Flora and Mario. This past year, my mom, Lorraine finally bought a tape recorder to record all of Flora’s stories. Like, how when she was a brand new baby, Pasqualena’s breasts were infected. But they had Flora drink the breast milk anyways to extract the disease. Flora lived with an upset stomach for the first 10 years of her life, perhaps a small price to pay to save her mother.
Another story recounts how time Flora was working on her family’s farm in Italy and one of the chicken’s wattles tore open and all the corn it had been storing there fell onto the ground. The chicken was none the wiser, so it just kept eating the corn, and it continued to fall to the ground. Flora had to stitch the chicken up! I digress. Not many of us are lucky enough to grow up, into adulthood, with our parents or grandparents who can share these stories. Mine carried with them true immigration stories of courage, resilience, and determination.
The chefs and dishwashers at the restaurant I work at tell me similar stories all the time, except it is happening to them right now, in 2017. I encourage each of you to find out if your family holds an immigration story. Take the time to ask about it. Ask your friends about their family stories. Knowing about America’s rich history of diversity opens us up to empathy and acceptance of those who come from different backgrounds than our own.
Sheana is a Licensed Professional Counselor at The Awakening Center working with individuals and groups. She creates an empathic, accepting environment in which she walks with her clients on a path toward peace and happiness. For inquiries or to set up an appointment, please contact her at (773)929-6262 Ext. 16 or TobeySheana@gmail.com.