Immigration is in the news, and from the outcry, you’d think God himself welcomed each of our grandparents at Ellis Island. Lacking such arrogance, my story cuts right across many of the same issues, and I doubt I am alone.
It should be noted that the larger details are mostly on the mark. Conversely, the smaller elements are probably suspect to the childhood memories degradation that occurs in us all. Such is history, and it makes for a better story anyway.
My great grandfather Alfonso Monetti came through Ellis Island just before 1900. He married here and had five children – including my grandfather, Charlie.
Still, all that procreation didn’t stop Alfonso from making himself available to the ladies. In fact, if I can trust my recollections, the husband of one of his lovers actually shot him.
He recovered but when his wife died several years later, he returned to Italy with his mistress and left five children to fend for themselves.
Theirs became a struggle to remain out of foster care, which created an unbreakable bond between them. Nonetheless, Alfonso’s action was probably welcomed by America’s betters and probably qualify him as a visionary in doing Mitt Romney proud by “self-deporting.”
I don’t know my paternal grandmother’s story, but my mother’s ancestral account certainly makes up for it. Vito Ancora, my grandmother’s father, was a successful musician in the early 20th century.
But that didn’t stop him from dreaming bigger. Leaving behind the cobblestones of Southern Italy, he gambled that America’s gold paved streets would make an apt entrance for his family, once achieving enough prosperity to send for them.
It didn’t quite work out, and by the time his wife and three children arrived, Vito was subsisting like most new immigrants. This is reminiscent of parents who left Central America in hopes of establishing a better life here before sending for their kids.
Of course, a major difference is that his was not a choice of necessity. Not a judgment on my part, he simply risked and failed.
Unfortunately, some here are less kind to families in much more dire circumstances today. “Any American parent who hands his kid off to a coyote to be taken 1,700 miles would be thrown in jail in this country for child abuse,” Jeanine Pirro of Fox News recently spouted.
I wonder what the charge is if you passively subject your kids to Central American gangs.
Interestingly, that’s not the entire story, and it holds another contemporary parallel. Quotas did not allow Vito’s entire family to enter America. Thus, it was suggested at Ellis Island that the older brother and sister emigrate to Argentina and return when the numbers were more favorable.
Faced with returning to Italy, they were forced to make this unimaginable choice. I wonder if that qualifies as child abuse. I guess even the sharp legal skills of Jeanine Pirro would say no since both were young adults.
As it turned out, my future great aunt and uncle made a life for themselves there, and now I have a boatload of relatives in Buenos Aires.
That leaves my maternal grandfather, Angelo Cafueri. He was a member of the King’s Guard at the time Mussolini seized power and actually landed in jail for a short period. That didn’t sit well, and he resolved to come to America by any means.
He got a job on an Italian supply ship with every intention of using it as his vehicle. When the boat docked in New York, any means arrived. The catch was that asking for any substantial amount of back pay to see New York suggested your intentions and quartered you to the ship.
My recollection is this. “I got off the boat with a few dollars in my pocket and waived goodbye to the captain,” my grandfather used to tell me.
A classic without papers Italian, he successfully stayed a step ahead of immigration. He eventually achieved legal standing when he married Anna Ancora.
It took me until adulthood ask him why he married “Nonni.” He coyly said, “because I loved her,” as if an element of convenience was attached.
But for me, weighing the true balance between both considerations revealed itself in where the tears were situated when family disagreements arose. They all belonged to him.
Even so, he was an illegal for several years, and the debt has never been paid. You know what, I’ve never been to Italy. If I’m not mistaken, ICE pays for your ticket. I could really use a break from this break neck American pace.
But once completing the sentence, I probably wouldn’t be so eagerly welcomed back. The average Italian works only 16.5 hours a week, and my new work ethic would only add to the unfounded perceptions held against today’s immigrants.