I Am a Product of Immigrants


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.

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.


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

Great Grandfather Garafola

(The following was recorded and written by Jeanne Garafola/Maron, my mother’s 2nd cousin in 1965. Transcribed to digital by me on Sept. 9th, 2015)

Farm in Calabria, Italy

                   Farm in Calabria, Italy

Great Grandfather Garafola

Great Grandfather the youngest of 3 boys in his family was born and lived on the same farm all his life. It was located in the State of Calabria, and the province of Cosenza. The mail was sent to the province seat Scigliano, and delivered to the farm known as Monte-di-Corvo, meaning Mountain of the crow.

The farm itself was small and quite rocky. The hillsides had been terraced and many olive trees were grown. At harvest time olive oil merchants would come to Monte-di-Corvo, stay overnight and leave with the olives in bags loaded on donkeys. The donkey caravan carried the product to Naples to be pressed into olive oil.

The rich soil at the foot of the hills was used for cultivation of grapes. Wheat, grains, and vegetables were planted between the rows of vines thus making double use of the small acreage. The vineyards here were known throughout Italy for Great Grandfather Garafola was always experimenting with various graftings. Many varieties of grapes were produced. People came long distance to purchase the vines.

A small brook ran through the farm. Along one side were many fig trees all of one variety. Farther away from the house were two groves of trees. In one grove were chestnuts and great giant oaks. The other grove contained mulberry trees. At one time the leaves of these trees were used for feeding the silkworms. The entire family had participated in this occupation. Finally it was discontinued when Great Grandfather Garafola was young because the other brothers had left and help was unavailable.

When Great Grandfather Garafola married he was in his late thirties which was considered quite old. His wife was from a neighboring farm. She was about 10 years younger than he was. Her name was Peppina (Josephine) Sicilia. It was here on this farm that Grandfather Guiseppe Garafola was born April 19, 1888. When he was seventeen years old, as was the custom among the men of that area, Great Grandfather went to America to seek his fortune. He went on a tramp steamer and landed in Brazil. He was able to find employment on a cattle ranch near Rio De Janeiro. He did not enjoy this type of work so after saving a little money he worked his way back home on a cargo ship bound for Italy.

He devoted his time to improving the soil and experimented extensively with his grape vines. Another son, named Mark was born in 1895. This was all of Great Grandfather Garafola’s family.

Grandfather Guiseppe Garafola was sent to school. He had to cross the brook and go around to the other side of the hill. His father accompanied him part of the way. However there were no truant officers in those days and Grandfather attended very few days of the very short school term. Other boys his age joined him and they spent their time in hunting and perfecting various gymnastic skills. He often said he went to school two terms (about six months) when he refused to go any longer. Great Grandfather Garafola warned him that he would regret it some day.

In 1905 Grandfather Guiseppe Garafola married Maria Talerico. They lived with the family at Monte-di-Corvo. After a year Grandfather Garafola decided it was time to follow his father’s footsteps and seek his fortune in the New World. He had information that employment was available in the iron mines of Minnesota. So in June of 1910 he left Grandmother Garafola and a 4 month old daughter and went to Elba, a mining location near Gilbert, Minnesota on the Mesabi Iron Range.

His first job was in an underground mine as a driver of mule drawn ore cars that brought the ore to the mouth of the shaft. He received $1.10 for a 12 hour day, working six days a week. After working a year he received a raise to $1.25 a day. Many considered him fortunate because he had no previous experiences and was very young. After mastering the English language so he could be understood he often suggested some improvements that would benefit both company and the workers. Many suggestions were accepted and put to practice. For this The Pickands Mather Mining Company gave him a number of awards. He often aided the young mining engineers with some of their work. At times he did most of the work for them. He could no advance in this field due to his lack of education. This is when he mentioned that he had not appreciated the opportunity offered him to continue his schooling

Grandfather Garafola saved his poor earnings and after 4 years, in early July sent transportation tickets to Grandmother and Aunt Rose. He had rented a house and furnished it completely; a surprise which he planned was a fully equipped kitchen and a pantry full of food. After much delay for reason which were never very clear to her, Grandmother Garafola set sail on August 1, 1910 for the land which would be her home for the next 42 years. The train took them from Scigliano to Naples, then aboard a French liner to Marseilles. Passengers were taken aboard there and the ship continued through the Strait of Gibralter across the Atlantic Ocean. Because many relatives had settled in sections of Ontario, Canada, the ticket sent to her by Grandfather Garafola for her entry to the United States by way of Montreal, Canada, Sault Ste. Marie Canada and then to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. From the Soo [sic] Grandmother Garafola went on to Duluth, Minnesota and finally to her destination. Her arrival was awaited for with great enthusiasm by the little location of Elba. Each expecting some first hand news of their relatives. The train arrived in the early evening, on August 15, but Grandfather was working the night shift, because it had taken longer for her to come then expected another man who had worked all day went back underground and relieved him so Grandfather could enjoy the great event. It was an event to be remembered, the celebration lasted several days. All friends and countrymen paid the new arrivals a visit during this time, bringing gifts and foods.

The family lived here at Elba until the ore vein in the Elba and Corsica mines were exhausted then they moved to Hibbing continuing living in a mining location and working for the same company. Several other moves were made. In 1926 the family made its last move to Ironton, Minnesota, a home with land was purchased.

There were 5 children in Grandfather Garafola’s family. One was born in Italy and the rest in Minnesota. Grandfather Garafola became ill due to damp conditions in the mine and passed away on January 7, 1928. At the time of his death, Great Grandfather Garafola was 80 years old and still tending to his grapevines.