We don’t talk about politics together — thank you for respecting our strict tacit moratorium since that Thanksgiving 2016 accord. We are Italian, after all, and as almost any Italian would tell you, family over everything. So I apologize for rupturing this truce, especially now, in our mutual moment of pain — the passing of your aunt, my great aunt, the woman who raised us all, first your generation, then mine.
You are successful businessmen, and wish to pay fewer taxes on the money you make. I respect your opinions there, even if I do not feel the same. I am not here to discuss taxes, or criminal justice, or what makes a strong executive. I don’t want to talk about anything today except family. Family over everything.
As we sat together in the Catholic church a few weeks ago listening to the priest pronounce his homily over the corpse of our beloved departed aunt, someone in the row behind me commented sarcastically on the priest’s ethnicity (Indian); on his accent (apparently this particular mourner couldn’t understand a word); on the skin tone of the Jesus painted over the nave (slightly darker than lily white). I tried to shut out those words from my head as I watched the priest sprinkle holy water on the coffin of our aunt — a little old lady much browner than that Jesus, who spoke English with a heavy accent, who never learned to read and write more than a few words in her own personal pidgin dialect. But one of your children spoiled that service for me; one of your children felt comfortable enough espousing racist anti-immigrant rhetoric that they were happy to do it during a funeral.
Now, in my aunt’s memory, I beseech you to re-humanize this conversation.
You loved our aunt, right? You thought she was wonderful? What about her late sister, your mother, the matriarch of your huge family? They were good people, right? Hard workers? Good Americans?
Your mother’s family came from Calabria, the state in the deep south of Italy that is best known for its ruthless and ubiquitous criminal syndicate, the ’Ndrangheta, though that name was not yet in use when they fled. It is worth noting that in 1901, the Boston Globe ran a panel response to the question, “Is the Italian More Prone to Violent Crime than Any Other Race?” and that in 1911 Congress’s United States Immigration Commission declared that “Certain kinds of criminality are inherent in the Italian race.” Nativists would succeed in limiting Italian immigration on these grounds starting with the 1921 Emergency Quota Act.
But obviously your mother, aunt, grandmother, and uncles weren’t criminals. Right? I just want to make sure that if they are getting a pass in terms of supposed tainted origins, then so does everyone else.
Your mother and her family arrived in New York in December 1939, six short months before Italy entered World War II as an Axis Power, which meant they were about to become “enemy aliens” in their new homeland. But you’d be angry if anyone ever implied they might have harbored anything but pure, good American thoughts, right? You know they never would have, for example, engaged in terrorism or anti-American extremism, because you know them, you know they were simple, hard-working, family-focused people. You know they were fleeing that violence. So what, on paper or in practice, makes them different from the many wives and mothers fleeing violence and arriving at our borders today?
They arrived without any English language skills at all. What if your mother’s little brother, your sweet uncle, who was nine years old on the day they arrived in 1939, had been separated from his mother and forced to “represent himself” in immigrant court? Can you imagine your sweet, fragile grandmother, that master cook and child-rearer, not having a total nervous breakdown if her little boy was taken away from her? Can you imagine her, not speaking a lick of English, with no idea where her children had been taken and whether they were safe, locked up in an immigrant detention center or for-profit immigrant prison, like 200 facilities around the country currently incarcerating would-be Americans?
Yes, the situation was different; she had a visa to come into the country, if only by the skin of her teeth. But visas for women like your grandmother, like your mother and our aunt, don’t exist anymore. They had no education or special skill sets, these women who dropped out of elementary school when they were six and eight years old, who broke their backs working in olive groves as children. They were not “persons of extraordinary ability in the arts, the sciences, education, business, or athletics.” Without a US citizen parent, spouse, or child over the age of 21, they would not be eligible for green cards at all if they were attempting to emigrate today. There would have been no path to citizenship for them. Their choices would have been to live here undocumented, work here illegally and without any protections, or to return to the poor, crime-ridden, war-torn land they came from.
What, on paper or in practice, makes them any different from the Mexicans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, Haitians, and Ghanaians being detained by the thousands at the US’s borders today?
Let’s not forget who made America great in the first place: Immigrants. Often immigrants bearing the soot and scars of poverty, unrest, and other unappealing hardships. Immigrants like our aunt. Her sister, your mother. Your father. Your grandparents, and people like your grandparents, who left what they knew and loved behind to come live where they were second-class aspiring citizens, who worked their culos off to give us what we were born into.
Family over everything. Keep families together. Give other families a chance to survive and thrive the way your family got a chance.
Your loving niece,
Juliet Grames is the author of “The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna.” Find her online at julietgrames.com.