Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mixed Blood American

Growing up in a predominantly white community with many ethnicities and without much family around, I never knew what it was like to be an immigrant. My dad grew up in New York City as the grandson of Italian immigrants and my mom grew up in Indianapolis in a family that was already established in the States for many generations. My maternal grandfather was a salesman and his wife was a stay at home mom. My paternal grandfather owned and ran a gas/service station and his wife worked in a few jobs. A few years before beginning their families, both of my grandfathers fought in World War II. The similarities end there.

The biggest differences between my two sides of the family begin with my great-grandparents. Unfortunately, both of my grandfathers passed away when I was young, before I was old enough to understand and appreciate their stories of growing up. I would love to hear my maternal grandmother’s story of growing up on a Native American Reservation in Montana, but since she lives in Indianapolis and I live here in Pennsylvania, it has been hard for us to have any kind of conversation.

Over the years though, I have heard bits and pieces from my paternal grandmother about growing up as the daughter of immigrants. I have had the opportunity to talk with her about growing up.

My grandmother’s name is Rose and she began the conversation by explaining to me that it took 30 days for her mom to come over to America on a boat. She traveled in the section of the boat for poor people, in steerage, and she was sick the entire trip. My great-grandmother’s name was Maria Anna Victoria Francescone and she was 25 when her brother sponsored her to come to America. She did not speak or write English so Rose must have learned English at school. Her father, Luca Francese, worked on the trolley lines as a laborer and doesn’t remember much about him—only that he was quiet and worked hard to support the family. He unfortunately passed away when she was only 11 years old—he had come home early from work one day so her mom went to Bloomingdales on the trolley that was on the next block. He was eating lunch and a piece of food went down his windpipe. She and her sister and brother were home, but couldn’t save him because they didn’t know how.

Parents worked hard to support their families in those days. They did not take them to sports games or activities or anything like that or “fun stuff.” They did not have toys because they were on the poor side. Fun to them was playing outside with neighborhood kids. Rose and her older sister Louise had a tea set that was made of china, but they had to take care of it because if it broke they would not have anything to play with.

My great-grandmother worked hard extremely hard to keep the family together and put food on the table. They did not have any “nice” food like steaks or things like that. They had very basic food like homemade pasta. She was a very loving mother. It did not matter that she could not read, write or speak English—she had a lot of love for her family and was a remarkable woman. She raised five children essentially on her own. She raised my Uncle Al, Uncle Joey, Aunt Louise, Grandma Rose and Uncle Genie. My grandmother remembers her mother in a positive way, “When I think of how hard she worked and how much she accomplished, she never complained. She was extremely, poor but she never complained. She worked so hard and she never ever complained that anything was too hard for her. I remember she had a lot of headaches, but she would just say she had a headache and then take an aspirin and continue working. It never stopped her from what she had to do. She just kept going on,” she said. My great-grandmother Maria Anna Victoria was a wonderful woman.

To help her, when Rose and her siblings started working, they would turn over their salaries to their mother because she did not have anything. My grandmother was barely 16 when she graduated high school and not many people were hiring people that young, but she finally got a job at a dry cleaning place making about $12 a week and most of her earnings went to her mother. Her sister Louise worked at a coal company and she eventually went to there too. When WWII broke out she got a job working as a civil employee for the US Air Force.

Grandma Rose’s brothers Joey and Al left high school to work to help the family. They were living with a man they called Uncle Joe Joe who rented the apartment to them. Uncle Joe Joe was like a father to them and took such care of them, but that did not stop my great-grandmother from working hard—she scrubbed floors and did what she had to do to earn honest money. She never complained and never said she was tired or could not do it—it just was not in her vocabulary to complain. The family never went on vacation because they did not have money. Everything that is available now just was not available then. Once my grandmother grew up, got married and started family of her own, she was able to take her own mother on vacations and to picnics, especially because she was such a good sport—she was so wonderful with her grandchildren (my dad and his siblings).

My great-grandmother Maria Anna Victoria Francescone was from a small town called Campochiaro in the province of Molise in Italy. It is located on the eastern side by the Adriatic Sea. My great-grandfather Luca Francese was from Salerno. My grandfather’s parents were also from Salerno. His mother’s name was Palermia Gaglione and his father was Clemente Napolitano. They were married and had their first two sons before they came to America. My grandfather’s brothers Andrea and Imberio were born in Italy. Imberio was named after his grandmother, my great-great grandmother, Imperia. My grandfather Mario was the youngest and his brother right before him, Crispino, were both born in the States. His mother was able to read and write in English and she was an accomplished dressmaker. She was so talented she didn't need to follow patterns. She was able to make wedding dresses from scratch. She came from a family that was not necessarily poor but not necessarily wealthy either.

Mario’s family ended up in a community that was predominantly Italian so they were able to keep all of their traditions within the community, but Rose’s family grew up in Historia, NY. It was a melting pot, a wonderful neighborhood with Italians, Greeks, Irish, Polish, Jews, Germans, everyone. Rose explained that it was very nice to grow up that way because there was no prejudice and one group did not hate the other because they were all mixed. They just learned to live with everyone and everyone was equal. Rose said to me, “We had to go to these places to continue these traditions. We had to go out of our community but because we lived in such a mixed community we were able recognize all of the other communities. We didn’t think one was better than the other.”

Even though my grandmother grew up poor and her mother was a poor immigrant, she still turned out well. My whole family turned out well because of the wonderful work ethic that my great-grandmother had when she came over from a country that was so poor. She worked hard mostly because she wanted to put food on the table. It was extremely important for her and many of the other immigrants to work hard to make a better life for themselves and their families, especially because they started with nothing.

They were determined to prove themselves to the greater society that they could make it, that they were capable of making something of themselves and of their families. I consider myself 3rd generation American born, but 4th generation American citizen and I’m proud of my heritage, of my roots. I’m proud to say that my family is so hard working and determined to make something of themselves and their family.

Growing up in a community so far away from both sides of my family, I always felt like I stood out, like I was an outsider, especially because no one else in the area had the same last name as me or even the same last name of my mom’s maiden name of Dullaghan. People almost always know that I am Italian when they hear my last name and know my family because we are the only ones with the name within the community. I am often asked if I speak Italian, where in Italy my family is from, and if I have ever been to Italy. Only if I mention that I am only half Italian do people know that I also identify with other heritages and ethnicities.

Because I am half Italian, I often identify myself more strongly as Italian than anything else. When I think of my dad’s side of the family, I think Italian American. But when I think of my mom’s side of the family, I think American. Thinking of myself, I think American because being of mixed heritages and ethnicities is what makes someone American. Our country was founded on immigrants and my family began with immigrants (and even partly of native Americans).
The only time I know that I am celebrating something that is distinctly Italian, Irish, Native American or another ethnicity is if I am celebrating St. Joseph’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day or even when I look up and see the dream catcher hanging from the ceiling in my room. Both of my parents were raised Roman Catholic, and then so was I. They were most likely raised Catholic because of their ethnicities, but in a way, my religion does not have anything to do with my ethnicity because I am also part English, Scottish, French Canadian and Native American. Somewhere along the way, I had to have had someone in my family who was not Catholic. The ethnicities who had more power, dominated the choices that were made of what religion to practice or what foods to eat or other activities that are participated in.

I see myself as a true all around American girl. My family is completely and fully assimilated into American culture. It took many years of suffering and hardship for many of my ancestors, but my family has made something of our name. We have proven not only to ourselves, but to society that we can make it in this world. We have taken what our ancestors have worked so hard for and made something out of it. With each generation, we continue to work even harder to improve upon what parents could not give us. We will not forget where we came from for if we do, we lose the direction of where we are going.

I will forever remember that I have mixed heritages and that is what makes me truly an American child.