I Am a Product of Immigrants

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My great grandfather Vincenzo and great grandmother Michelina.

Like the Irish before them, Italians became scapegoats for economic difficulties as jobs became fiercely contested. Pseudoscientific theories derided them as inferior to Northern and Western Europeans because of their “Mediterranean” blood, and Nativist elements blamed them for everything from domestic radicalism to organized crime. Italians living and working in towns and cities across the United States were subject to physical attacks by anti-immigrant mobs or organized groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
– Library of Congress, Immigration: Challenges for New Americans p. 2 [1]
Both of my great grandfathers arrived from Italy in the early 1900’s to start a new life in America. They were, nonetheless, worlds apart . Like most of the 4 million migrants of Italy during the Italian diaspora which began amidst the Italian Unification [2], my great grandfathers fled the economic decay of southern farmlands and the corruption of rampant organized crime. But, most importantly, they were seeking a new and better life chasing the “American Dream.” They both took different paths to achieve this.
The American dream, that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.
– James Truslow Adams, Epics of America, 1931. [3]
Historically, Italian immigrants had not always been welcome. They too, were distrustful and wary of government institutions, having themselves seen their land invaded by conquerors both foreign and criminal. Isolating themselves made assimilation into American culture difficult as Italians banded together to protect themselves, trusting no one but family. [4] Some of them didn’t speak a lick of English and many never became citizens.
The downside was that Italians often chose to wait to become naturalized citizens, delaying their full inclusion in America’s political and civic life. One finds many Italians becoming naturalized in the years 1939 to 1941 as war erupted in Europe. The Second World War would find the United States in conflict with Italy, as non-naturalized Italian immigrants would find themselves briefly branded “enemy aliens.”
– Vincent J. Cannato, 2015, Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, What Set Italian Americans Off From Other Immigrants? Vol. 36. [5]
Like my great grandfathers, some Italians arrived without formal education or having dropped out of school as pre-teens. They competed for low-wage earning jobs and housing, which threatened Americans who saw them as economic thieves. And they were Catholic, a religion at the time which was lambasted and hated by a largely Protestant citizenship. [6] Italians were targeted by the Ku Klux Klan [7], prejudiced police investigations and mistrials [8], and one of the largest mass lynchings in New Orleans’ history [9]. During World War II, Italians were also subject to internment camps and labeled as “enemy aliens” [10] while some, like my grandfather James, joined the army and fought for America.
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A derogatory cartoon depicting Italian workers, like my great grandfather Vincenzo.

Vincenzo arrived at Elise Island alone in 1910 when he was only 19 years old. He didn’t speak English, he didn’t have any money, and all he had with him was two potatoes in his shoes and a grape stem in his sock. He ended up obtaining a job in the iron mines in northern Minnesota where he worked hard enough to send for his wife back in Italy. They had many children and owned a family farm and butchery, many of them still residing up north in Minnesota today. Christano was 23 when he arrived in 1913, but unlike Vincenzo, lived a life of crime and became embroiled with Chicago mobsters during the height of bootlegging during the Prohibition Era. He settled down just long enough to have my grandmother but was frequently missing in all other family aspects. Last he was heard of, he had been wanted for murder in Las Vegas, Nevada in the 1950’s. Both men embodied two different realities and stereotypes of Italian-American immigrants. Vincenzo was the hardworker who pulled himself up by his bootstraps to earn a respectable living and was absolutely proud to be a citizen of this country. Christano lived a life of lawlessness, worked professionally with hitmen, abandoned his family, and defended criminal institutions in power.

Without them both, I would not be here today.


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Propaganda targeting Italian, German, and Japanese speakers.

In 1924, barely a decade after Vincenzo and Christano migrated, Congress passed The Immigration Act which meant to curb the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States by enacting a quota that ensured that only 2% of a total number of people of each nationality were allowed entry. This act also excluded Asian immigrants, regardless of quota, with an ‘Asiatic Barred Zone’. Chinese immigrants were already excluded at this time with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which barred entry. President Calvin Coolidge had said of its passing, “Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend.” [4]

Had my great grandfathers not been lucky enough to immigrate a decade prior, one or both may not have been able to gain entry to the United States at all.


The Immigration Act was not overturned until 1965 with the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act. This new act changed the way quotas were counted, giving preferential treatment to those with U.S. citizens or resident family members by eliminating restrictions. It also abolished the counting of national origin as a basis for limiting specific immigrants.

It’s important to remember where you came from. I am a descendant of immigrants, some honorable and some less so. Because of anti-immigration legislation, fear, and racism towards Italians and others, I may not have even been born at all. Perhaps if fear of the foreign others or those evading war-torn and politically deviant ideology had been successful in barring entry to the United States, I would also be without my great love and boyfriend. If a certain family of refugees had been rejected entry, I would have never met my lifelong childhood friend of 20 years. If another family had not been granted access to the United States, and who now must face legislation prohibiting them from seeing their family and loved ones, I wouldn’t have met another close friend and loved one.

I may no longer be facing the discrimination of my ancestors, but I am still effected by it today. I see my loved ones fearing the same dangers my family faced back when they were not considered “decent” enough to be Americans and I will not stand by and be complacent of it. I will never turn my back on their struggles or ignore those of my family because I myself may be considered safe.

 

We are all of America and they are all part of my famiglia.


Fact check it, yo!
[1] Library of Congress, Immigration: Challenges for New Americans. PDF retrieved here: http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/primarysourcesets/immigration/pdf/teacher_guide.pdf
[2] US Citizenship, Italian American History and Culture. Retrieved here: https://www.uscitizenship.info/italian-american-history-and-culture/
[5] Cannato, V., Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, What Set Italian Americans Off From Other Immigrants? Vol. 36. (2015) Retrieved from: https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2015/januaryfebruary/feature/what-sets-italian-americans-other-immigrants
[6] Mark S., Massa S., American History Oxford Research Encyclopedia, Anti-Catholicism in the United States. (2016) Retrieved from: http://americanhistory.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-316
[7] Library of Congress, Italian Immigration: Under Attack. Retrieved from: https://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/immigration/italian8.html
[8] Frankfurter, F. The Atlantic, The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti. Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1927/03/the-case-of-sacco-and-vanzetti/306625/
[9] Falco, E. CNN, When Immigrants Were the ‘Other’. (2012) Retrieved from: http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/10/opinion/falco-italian-immigrants/
[10] Branca-Santos, P. Pace International Law Review, Injustice Ignored, The Internment of Italian-Americans during World War II. (2001) Retrieved from: http://digitalcommons.pace.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1207&context=pilr
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Be An American Citizen

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Free speech, exercised both individually and through a free press, is a necessity in any country where the people are themselves free. Our Govern-ment is the servan[t] of the people…The President is merely the most im-portant among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in render-ing loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Na-tion as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else. [1]
– Teddy Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States of America, Sedition, A Free Press, and a Personal Rule, May 7, 1918.
Fact Check it, yo!
[1] Roosevelt, T. Roosevelt in the Kansas City Star: War-Time Editorials. Scholar’s Choice, Feb 17th, 2015. Page 149 in print. Retrieved from: http://www.theodore-roosevelt.com/images/research/rooseveltkansascitystar.pdf

The Brief History of Hollywood’s Affair with Politics

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Ronald Reagan; Actor, chimp whisperer, and 40th President of the USA.

I’m not here to get political, but I am here to use history as a jumping off point to, well, make a point. Last night, in front of more than 20 million viewers [1], Meryl Streep accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globes and, I guess, had something to say about it.

I love you all. You have to forgive me, I have lost my voice in screaming and lamentation this weekend and I have lost my mind sometime earlier this year so I have to read.
Thank you, Hollywood Foreign Press. Just to pick up on what Hugh Laurie said, you and all of us in this room really belong to the most vilified segments of American society right now. Think about it: Hollywood, foreigners and the press.
But who are we and, you know, what is Hollywood, anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places. I was born and raised and educated in the public schools of New Jersey, Viola was born in a sharecropper’s cabin in South Carolina, came up in Central Falls,  R.I. Sarah Paulson was born in Florida, raised by a single mom in Brooklyn. Sarah Jessica Parker was one of seven or eight kids from Ohio, Amy Adams was born in Vicenza, Veneto, Italy and Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem. Where are their birth certificates?
And the beautiful Ruth Negga was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, raised in Lon — no, in Ireland, I do believe, and she’s here nominated for playing a small-town girl from Virginia. Ryan Gosling, like all the nicest people, is Canadian. And Dev Patel was born in Kenya, raised in London and is here playing an Indian raised in Tasmania. So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners and if we kick them all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.
They gave me three seconds to say this, so. An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like. And there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that, breathtaking, compassionate work.
But there was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart, not because it was good, it was — there’s nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth.
It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege and power and the capacity to fight back. It, it kind of broke my heart when I saw it and I still can’t get it out my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing.
Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose. OK, go on with that thing. OK, this brings me to the press. We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call them on the carpet for every outrage.
That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in our constitution. So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood foreign press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists, ’cause we’re going to need them going forward and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.
One more thing. Once when I was standing around the set one day, whining about something, we were going to work through supper or the long hours or whatever, Tommy Lee Jones said to me: “Isn’t it such a privilege, Meryl, just to be an actor?” Yeah, it is. And we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy. We should be very proud of the work Hollywood honors here tonight,
As my, as my friend, the dear departed Princess Leia, said to me once: “Take your broken heart, make it into art.”
Thank you, Foreign Press.

– Meryl Streep, 74th Golden Globes Awards, Jan 8th, 2017.  [2]

But while a significant portion of the population may wish that Hollywood would use its platform for something other than political pandering, I’m here to remind everyone that this isn’t the first provocative speech nor shall it be the last in an industry which has not only campaigned with or spoken in support of, but has also held public office.

When Ronald Reagan, soon to be 40th President of the USA, was nominated to run for governorship of the state of California in 1966, a seat later to be held by another celebrated actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the world was hardly surprised to see a man whose exposure on the big screen led him to become a prominent political figure. In fact, Hollywood had recently seen itself embroiled in politics and targeted during the height of McCarthyism’s “Red Scare” tactics. During this period, members of the Screen Actor’s Guild were barred and blacklisted from performing in or writing for any Hollywood picture after being accused of participating in Communist ideological leanings. Legends such as Dalton Trumbo, famous for penning films Roman Holiday and Spartacus, were among those of the nearly 500 blacklisted from working in Hollywood. Other screen giants like John Wayne, Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan himself, and ironically even Cecil B. DeMille the namesake for the award Meryl Streep used to orate her views on national television, championed the movement to target the film industry for Communist purging as members of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.

One thing is sure—none of the arts flourishes on censorship and repression. And by this time it should be evident that the American public is capable of doing its own censoring. Certainly, the Thomas Committee is growing more ludicrous daily. The picture of six officers ejecting a writer from the witness stand because he refused to say whether he was a Communist or not is pretty funny, and I think before long we are all going to see how hysterical and foolish we have become.
The film industry is a great industry, with infinite possibilities for good and bad. Its primary purpose is to entertain people. On the side, it can do many other things. It can popularize certain ideals, it can make education palatable. But in the long run, the judge who decides whether what it does is good or bad is the man or woman who attends the movies. In a democratic country I do not think the public will tolerate a removal of its right to decide what it thinks of the ideas and performances of those who make the movie industry work.

-Eleanor Roosevelt, former first lady, from her “My Day” column. Oct. 29th 1947. [3]

Faced with the removal of their friends and peers at the height of the blacklistings, many stars like Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, and Katherine Hepburn, among others, worked to fight against what they saw as infringing upon constitutional American rights. They formed the Committee for the First Amendment and, now that everybody had a committee for something or other, went to work. You could say, that in the instance of politics in Hollywood, that politics started it first.

When it wasn’t defending itself from the supposed insurrection of Russia or defending its right to do so, stars have lent their image and influence to other political movements. Frank Sinatra spent most of his life fighting for civil, equal rights which can be summed up by punching out a bartender for refusing to serve his black friend, a fellow musician. [4] I suppose he also participated in the desegregation of hotels and casinos in Mafia run Nevada and played a benefit show for Martin Luther King Jr as well, but who’s counting?

We’ve got a hell of a way to go in this racial situation. As long as most white men think of a Negro as a Negro first and a man second, we’re in trouble. I don’t know why we can’t grow up. It took us long enough to get past the stage where we were calling all Italians “wops” and “dagos”, but if we don’t stop this “n*****” thing, we just won’t be around much longer.

-Frank Sinatra [5]

frank_sinatra_and_ronald_reagan

Frank Sinatra receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan in 1985.

When Marlon Brando won his much deserved Best Actor Oscar award at the 45th Annual Academy Awards in 1973 for his role in “The Godfather”, he famously turned his acceptance speech into a less subtle political statement than Meryl Streep did. Instead of blubbering on stage and thanking a bunch of technical folks in film that the audience has never heard of as one is want to do in these situations, Brando sent instead Native American actress Sacheen Littlefinger to un-accept the award on his behalf in protest of the industry’s portrayal of Native Americans on-screen. [6] This was only the tip of Brando’s involvement in politics, however, which also included support for the state of Israel, advocacy for African American civil rights, and trying to save the world from hunger by funding scientific research into aqua farming tilapia, of all things. [7]

marlon-brando-best-actor

Sacheen Littlefinger comes prepared on the stage of the 45th Annual Academy Awards to shake things up a bit. [8]

And though films have typically been created to entertain (and make many large bags of money) it’d be negligible to ignore their impact on war efforts during World War II when “going to the movies” was both a motivating patriotic experience and a reminder to the audience of who the reel (sorry, not sorry) enemy was. Assisting the U.S. Government by way of both educational and animated films portraying Axis forces in demeaning ways, Walt Disney of…er, Disney fame, produced over 124 hours worth of animated films which included instructional videos for soldiers all the way to Donald Duck destroying an entire Japanese airbase all by himself. [9]

rare_disney_production_art_world_war_ii_duck

Hollywood and “not” politics…

 

So despite what your political beliefs may be, it’s hard to call for a separation between Hollywood and politics when both institutions have a symbiotic, influential relationship with one another. Hollywood stars become political advocates and voices for unpopular movements or, sometimes, find themselves targeted by them. Stars join political campaigns or are welcomed by and requested by politicians looking for national support. The government calls on favors during times of war, and, sometimes, seats in governorship, and again, even the presidency with the recent election of a reality TV star into the highest office of the country. Whether or not you agree with Meryl Streep’s speech, she’s following a long tradition in Hollywood to utilize its platform and influence to insight or defend its audience from “the bad guys”.

Besides, I’d suspect Dame Meryl Streep, frankly, doesn’t give a damn.

 

Fact Check it, yo!

[1] Variety Staff (2017 Jan. 9th). TV Ratings: Golden Globe Viewership Grows From Previous Two Years. Retrieved from: http://variety.com/2017/tv/news/tv-ratings-golden-globe-ratings-rise-1201955828/

[2] Streep, M. (2017, Jan. 8th). 74th Golden Globes Awards Cecil B. DeMille award acceptance speech. Retrieved from: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-et-golden-globes-2017-live-watch-all-of-meryl-streep-s-1483932724-htmlstory.html

[3] Roosevelt, R. (1947, Oct. 29th). My Day. Retrieved from: https://www2.gwu.edu/~erpapers/myday/displaydoc.cfm?_y=1947&_f=md000796

[4] Summers, A. & Swan, R. (2010). Sinatra: The Life. Retrieved from: https://books.google.com/books?id=R5SddF7R6x4C

[5] Kelley, K. (1986). His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra. Retrieved from: https://books.google.com/books?id=EnbzfyWuuL0C&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q=racial%20situation&f=false

[6] Brando, M. (1973, Mar. 30th) That Unfinished Oscar Speech. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/movies/bestpictures/godfather-ar3.html

[7] Mizruchi, S. (2014) Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought, and Work. Retrieved from: https://books.google.com/books?id=fLBbAwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=brando%27s+smile&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiV39LPn7bRAhUG_4MKHT7cDmoQ6AEIHDAA#v=onepage&q=brando%27s%20smile&f=false

[8] Marlon Brando’s Best Actor Academy Award acceptance. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QUacU0I4yU

[9] “Disney’s Troupe Goes to War”. Times. 15 November 1942. p. 20-21. Retrieved from: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9B0CE5D7163DE03ABC4D52DFB7678389659EDE&legacy=true

Out of the Mouth of Playboys…

I am writing “My Life” to laugh at myself, and I am succeeding. I write thirteen hours a day, and they pass like thirteen minutes. What pleasure in remembering one’s pleasures! But what effort to recall them to mind! It amuses me because I am inventing nothing. What chagrins me most is that I am forced, at this point, to mask the names, since I cannot expose the affairs of others.

– Giacomo Casanova, The Story of My Life on why he’s cool enough to ruin even the chastity of nuns.