Sempre La Famiglia


This was taken around the time I was born.

This was taken around the time I was born.

In about 1905, two young Italian immigrants moved with their new baby son into a house in East Boston.  They had come to America, like millions of others, in search of opportunity. They left a hard life behind them on the farm in Italy.  They came to find work, to raise their family in a better place.

The young man worked very hard, with his hands and his strong back. He was quiet and thoughtful, by most accounts a simple man.  His wife was a sturdy, strong willed, strong voiced woman with a huge laugh.  They tell me that although he was the head of the family, she was one who would sometimes slam her fist on the table in anger, making the dishes jump.

The new young family grew quickly and exponentially; eventually there were 12 children and one Grandfather sharing the apartment with them.  The kids were educated, fed, raised as Americans. One became an educator, one went to the seminary. One played Major League Baseball.

The baby of the family was my father.  I grew up visiting that house on Byron Street in East Boston. I grew up on stories about my Mammanonni, who died when I was only an infant.  I grew up knowing my Pappanonni, who remained a quiet, serene, rock steady presence in the lives of his children and grandchildren.

It was on Byron Street that I first learned how to pinch off the lower branches of tomato plants to help them blossom and bear fruit. I remember the neat rows of plants in the carefully tilled soil of the tiny yard behind the house.  I remember the pungent smell of the leaves, a smell that I still love to this day.

It was in East Boston that I first watched the Red Sox on a little black and white TV, sitting beside Pappanonni as he smoked his pipe. It was there that I had my first struffoli at Easter.  I played in the street with my cousins, danced to Petula Clark with my Auntie Jennie in the tiny living room, listened to the booming laughs of my father and his brothers as they told the stories of their youth.

I miss those visits, those streets, those wonderful memories.

I went back to East Boston today, as part of a history class.  I went to learn about the changing ethnicity of the neighborhood, to see how the area has been renovated and improved.  I went to learn about patterns of immigration in the city.

I am a teacher.   I know that good teachers present information in a way that is factual, informative and unbiased.  Sometimes I have to work hard not to impart my personal opinions when I am teaching.

But I also know that “history” is made up perspective and point of view. The natives who lived in Plimoth in 1620 would recount the history of the Mayflower through a very different narrative than the one we learned in school.   I get that.

So I guess it is understandable that a “historic tour” lead by a member of the neighborhood’s newest immigrant group would tell a different story than the one I know.  I guess it’s not a surprise that the Professor who lead the tour sees the history of the area through the lens of her own experience.

Still, it hurts to hear your people, your clan, your very own beloved family described in derogatory terms. It hurts to hear derisive references to their food, their church attendance, their cultural sensitivity.  I won’t repeat all of the negative references about Italians that I heard today; what would be the point?

What I will do is to remind myself that my memories are valid; my experiences are true and they are real.  I won’t let someone else’s low opinion color what I know of those generous, kind, funny people who I loved so much.

I will also remind myself that being inclusive and open minded doesn’t only mean welcoming newcomers and accepting their differences. It also means valuing those who came before, and accepting their outdated ways.

Dad, I could practically see you strolling through the neighborhood with your brothers.    

27 thoughts on “Sempre La Famiglia

  1. I can’t imagine the bravery of those early immigrants, bringing their family to a new place and trying to keep their old customs alive while they became a part of their new communities. There was a large contingent of Italian immigrants in our area and I remember visiting my friend’s grandparents and being amazed by all of the customs (and wonderful food) that they offered. You are very fortunate to have had the chance to experience it all first-hand! Thanks for sharing.

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    • Thank you!
      Yesterday was a strange and difficult experience for me. I think I’ve colored those memories from my childhood and my father’s by looking with my rose colored glasses. I was reminded today that the ethnic pride of that neighborhood also lead to a great deal of racism and prejudice. I am willing to accept that, but it was imparted to us by someone who was equally ethnocentric and equally prejudiced. Its been a long, long times since I have felt myself to be on the receiving end of that kind of negative stereotyping. I’m still mad about it!

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  2. I was very, very moved by this wee post of yours when I read it this morning. I hope you don’t mind but I re-blogged it on my blog today. Actually you made me cry when I read it. Thank you for posting this. Am I right in thinking that the title means ‘always family?’. Simply beautiful. Hope it was ok to re-post this.

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    • Thank you, dear friend! You honor me by sharing it!
      I was so sad last night, missing my Dad and all of his big brood. And hurting from the negative stereotyping done by our tour guide.
      Yes, “always the family”. My daughter and two nieces have it tattooed on their ankles.

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      • Thanks, Aunt Anne!
        You bring up another complain about that tour; she barely ever even acknowledged the many Irish, Poles, Jews who lived in East Boston. To hear her, the entire history was limited to those nasty old Italians and the wonderful hardworking Latinos who came after them. Sheesh.

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  3. Interesting moving article. Thanks. For many people the only possibility to have a decent life is to move from their own country and look for a better place. The are many reason to be forced to do that: poverty, no work, wars, politics…my father’s family had to leave Germany in 1932 because of politics.They arrived at the end in Italy. For this reason I feel very near to people coming from different countries looking for a better life. Trying to help them I m in a group who volunteer teching italian to the immigrants. It is a great experience.
    Robert

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    • Thanks for reading, and for taking the time to comment. It must be so hard to relocate and to start over from nothing. I have worked to help immigrants from Russia coming into the US, so I have a bit of knowledge. And of course I grew up with my grandparents’ stories. Its just so important for both sides, the old and the new, to be open to each other.

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  4. I imagine your experience, feeling the prejudice against Italians, isn’t so very different from what your ancestors felt. And i don’t think it is too far removed.
    Still, it must sting. Imagine what it must be like for Muslims in this country today.

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    • Yes, exactly!
      Our two week class is focused on modern immigration patterns in the US (if 1870-1940 is modern). Today we have been talking about how each wave of immigrants is looked down upon by the ones who came the most recently before them. We had a wonderful Latina immigrant (one undocumented, now a college professor with a PhD) say, “It doesn’t have to continue this way.”
      And I wrote an email to the professor from yesterday, letting her know how hurtful I found her presentation to be. And I was not alone; several of my colleagues had the same reaction to her use of negative stereotypes.

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    • Thanks. I felt much better today when some of my colleagues brought up the fact that they noticed the same prejudice in the presentation, although none of them are of Italian descent.
      Several mentioned feeling uncomfortable with the Latino stereotyping that she included in her talk, and we all agreed that she is just monumentally insensitive. Curious to see how she responds to my email…..

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  5. It makes me so sad and angry to read that there were negative things said about the Italians of East Boston. As you know, I grew up Jewish in the Dorchester and Hyde Park neighborhoods of Boston (although I’m now Catholic), and I have such great memories of time in the North End (lots of Sunday dinners at Stella’s and the Santa Maria parades) and my Italian-American friends at Girls’ Latin School. Everyone at GLS got along fine — Italians, Irish, Jews, Poles, Asians, African-Americans, no Latinas yet that I recall, they came later. We were a very happy melting pot, all working hard in school, most trying to become the first in our families to graduate from college. Everyone can take pride in their heritage without putting down any other group, that woman should be ashamed.

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    • My Dad’s memories of Eastie are of just such a melting pot. He and his siblings were friends with Poles, Irish, German, Jews….Oddly enough, the only ones that I remember my Mom’s father disliking were the English! And they were very uncomfortable with Blacks, for sure. But I don’t think that that bigotry was limited to East Boston or to the Italians, as you may recall from your own growing up. Racial tensions were just very high in Boston….

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      • I graduated from high school in 1967, when I was 16. There were some African-Americans in my elementary school in Dorchester, Robert Treat Paine, and everyone got along fine, as we did at Girls’ Latin. I remember more religious tensions — I got beaten up a couple of times for being Jewish. This was before busing. Mostly everyone was just struggling economically, and we kids were happy to have a dollar on Saturday to buy pizza and a Coke at Papa Gino’s, followed by a movie ticket and a box of candy at the Oriental, which you could do for a dollar then.

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