True Immigrant Tales: “There Was Prejudice Everywhere”

[This is another firsthand immigrant story from my oral history collection.]

“My story about America begins even before I was born in Calabria in 1920.   When my uncle was eight years old and the oldest among seven brothers and sisters, his parents told him they could no longer take care of him and he would have to leave and be on his own.  He became a shepherd until around 11 or 12, and then joined a work gang that was coming here.  He arrived all alone, no friends or relatives at that age, and he managed to make a living. When he was grown up and married, he helped my father come here and find work.

“I was only nine months old when, with my two older brothers an my mother who was pregnant with my sister, we set sail for America to join my father.  We were extremely poor, could barely afford food, and this was the reason we left.  Although I was too young to have any memory of it, my mother would later tell me that on the trip over, the conditions were crowded and uncomfortable.  Everybody was seasick.  You had to worry about disease and everything else.  When someone died aboard ship, there was an informal burial at sea, as they didn’t have any facilities to keep bodies.

“Coming to Ellis Island was the first inclination to my mother of what she was going to be exposed to.  The people who processed you were far from the sensitive individuals that we’d like to think we have processing immigrants today. They let you know pretty quickly that they were doing you a favor by letting you into the country, and the best thing you could do was learn to be American as quickly as possible.  For some reason they made you feel ashamed of what you were.  They changed your name.  I was ‘Vincenzo’ when I arrived there, but they called me ‘James’ and that became my new name.   I later learned that my neighbor whose last name was ‘Filippone’ ended up ‘Phil Jones’ before leaving Ellis Island.

Image “As fate would have it, my father died shortly after we arrived, and my family went to live with my uncle.  We lived in the poor section of town, bounded by railroad lines and the river.  The streets were not paved, but dirt.   Everybody had a garden because you needed a garden to survive.  Everybody made food preserves and everybody shared.  As little as we all had, we shared.

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“But, there was prejudice everywhere, even among the Italians.  The Piedmontese looked down on the Romans who looked down on the Neapolitanos, who looked down on the Calabrese, who looked down on the Sicilians, who didn’t have anybody to look down on. These feelings determined where they settled when they came here; each lived with their own.

“Everybody from the same province banded together and helped each other.  But the prejudices continued.  For example, if an Italian had a rooming house, he would not rent to someone from a ‘lower’ part of Italy.  A Neapolitan would rent to a Roman, a Roman would rent to a Milanese or Piedmontese, but he would not rent to a Calabrian or to a Sicilian.  But that type of prejudice you could live with, because it really didn’t hurt you or deprive you.  The prejudice that deprives you of the right to make a living, the discrimination that humiliates you, that ridicules you, that was something else.

“Many came in work gangs, then went back and told others what they found here.  There was plenty of work, money to be made here, and they painted a very pretty picture.  But everything is relevant.  In most cases, anything was better than the conditions we had back where there was poverty, no opportunity.   People who came here wanted opportunities, not so much for themselves but for their children.  They felt this was the place to come to.  Like my own parents, most were illiterate; they couldn’t even read or write in Italian. They anticipated a problem here, but they only wanted the opportunity to work.  They were only concerned about survival and they thought that here, their children could be a step above them.”

[Read more about immigrants and the staff at Ellis Island in my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.}


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