I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
My father has now been gone for almost 32 years.
Goodness. Half my life.
There are many aspects of his early life that would have led all but the fanciful and optimistic Madame Marie to predict a very different “rest of the story” from the one that actually materialized. MANY..
My father was a quiet man, a man who would seemingly go to any lengths to avoid conflict. The phrase, “We just won’t go there anymore” was used so often and in so many contexts in our family that it became something of a legend. If we had been older, it would have been good fodder for a drinking game.
My father was also a man who loved a joke and who didn’t mind being the butt of a joke. We once convinced him to wear my Ramapo High School band uniform and my buddy Ron and me gathered all of the kids in the neighborhood, all to enact an Oscar worthy performance of a street sweeper (a Strassenputzer — why do I remember that?) with too many mouths to feed. This was for some crazy German class video — oops, contemporary bias, make that an 8mm movie.
I realize now that these two core traits — conflict avoidance and using laughter to cover pain — were likely the means he used to deal with a rather unbelievably sad childhood. But that full story is a story for another day.
The part of my father’s childhood that keeps coming to mind this Father’s Day is his legacy as the son of Italian immigrants. This is likely because of the intersection of some recent genealogical research I’ve been doing and all of the incessant noise about immigration.
The first official glimpse of my father in the world is in the 1925 census. (New York State used to do a mid-cycle census for a number of years in the late 1800s and early 1900s.)
That’s my Dad on the last line.
In 1925, my father’s mother and father had been in the United States for less than five years. Elsewhere on the form, it notes that neither spoke English.
I wonder a bit about what kind of reception they received in an America that has always had — and continues to sadly have — more of a fear of “the other” than we would care to admit. So in celebration of finding this census record, I type “Discrimination against Italian immigrants” into my handy search bar and up pops the first ten of 13.7 million results.
And article number one in the search results — The Grisly Story of America’s Worst Lynching from the History channel.
Well, this doesn’t sound exactly like lifting the lamp beside the golden door. Reading on…
Between 1884 and 1924, nearly 300,000 Italian immigrants, most of them Sicilian, moved to New Orleans. The lynching was triggered by the murder of the New Orleans police chief, David Hennessey. As he lay dying, a witness asked him who did it. “Dagoes,” he reportedly whispered. Hundreds of Italians were arrested in response, and nine put on trial for the murder.
After the trial resulted in six non-guilty verdicts and three mistrials, all hell broke loose. “A mob of tens of thousands of angry men surrounded a New Orleans jail, shouting angry slurs and calling for blood. By the time they were done, 11 men would be dead — shot and mutilated in an act of brutal mob violence that took place in front of a cheering crowd. It was 1891, and the crowd was about to participate in the largest lynching in U.S. history.
Lest some of my friends in blue states nod their heads smugly about all of this, here’s what the New York Times had to say about all of this:
These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigations…These men of the Mafia killed chief Hennessy in circumstances of peculiar atrocity…Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans to stay the issue of a new license to the Mafia to continue its bloody practices.
Teddy Roosevelt described the lynchings as “a rather good thing.” According to CNN’s Ed Falco, a local leader named John Parker helped organize the lynch mob. What became of him? Did he go to jail? Did he face disgrace? Not exactly. He later went on to be governor of Louisiana. In 1911, he said Italians were “just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless, and treacherous.” Sigh.
Of course, the sins of “otherness” are not limited to these, even in the life of my grandparents. Ironically, in my grandparents’ little home town of Itri, there was an immigration related massacre in 1912 just a few years prior to their departure for America.
The targets? Sardinians eager for work on a railroad construction project. But the real issue — which no one dared say — was that the foolish Sardinians refused to pay the “lace” — protection money — to the Camorra, which controlled the entire railway project. The Camorra blew hatred on what was a difficult situation.
All hell broke lose on the morning of July 12, 1912 — payday — in the Piazza Incoronazione. A group of Sardinians took offense at a comment by a man on horseback in the Piazza. The carabiniere arrested a Sardinian; the other Sardinians considered this a grave injustice and protested. The carabiniere threatened to kill him if the protests did not cease.
And then assisted by the mayor, councilors, rural guards and carabinieri, Itranis hurled themselves against the workers shouting “Fuori i sardignoli,” (not a nice thing) injuring and killing some of them. They attacked with pitchforks, daggers, sticks and guns. The Sardinians fled to the countryside and went into hiding, and residents of Itri formed gangs to track them down.
By the time everything was over, ten Sardinians were dead. Sixty were injured. Many Sardinians who escaped the massacre were arrested on charges of being “quarrelsome.” Others were sent back to Sardinia.
Lest I feel too personally complacent and above all this, I am painfully aware of my own sins of “otherness.” Jokes laughed at. Awful comments left unchallenged. Some of this is perhaps traceable to inheriting my father’s penchant for conflict avoidance. But that’s not a very good excuse for my own past sins.
I decide to move on from this depressing line of research and look a bit more closely at this census record to perhaps breathe a bit of life into it and to understand what it might say about life for this new little nuclear family of three, living at 191 East Third Street in Manhattan in the East Village.
Looking at Google Maps and exploring a bit, it seems as if the current building on the site is the same one that was there in 1925, between Avenue A and Avenue B. The building has 6 floors and 12 units.
So what’s going on there now? Well, on the ground floor there’s Joanne’s Exchange, which according to Google is “a buzzy secondhand shop with a play area & large selection of maternity & kids’ clothes, gear and toys.” I go to their web site and Joanne’s does sound like a nice business, masking some of the incredible — and painful — stories likely residing deep in the bricks of the building.
Diving a bit further into census record, I discover that the census was indeed taken literally weeks after my father was born. The census enumerator — it looks like his name was Henry Autou — even directly wrote on the census record under age, “15 days old.” That’s seems nice and surprisingly personal for a census record. I wonder if my father was born at home, or in a hospital? As I think about this, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a copy of his birth certificate. Memo to file: get this record.
Grandfather Frank seems to have an unusual occupation — “corset cutter.” I imagine this is not nearly as glamorous as it sounds and likely had very little to do with Frederick’s of Hollywood or Victoria’s Secret.
I try to get a sense of this place, this unusual combination of nationalities, all landing in this one building in the East Village in the 1920s. At a time when it undoubtedly was not as fashionable an area as it is now.
Being something of a “counter” (yes, I was on the Math Team in High School; admitting this is the first step in my rehabilitation), I do some counting up of the folks living at good old 191 East Third Street in 1925.
117 people were living in the building in 1925. I am guessing there must have been more flats in 1925 than the current 12. And likely nobody had fingerproof-resistent stainless steel appliances.
Here’s the country of origin of the residents — US (50), Russia (36), Austria (15), Italy (7), Poland (5), Romania (4). Surprisingly, only 51 of the residents are listed as “aliens” (the non-citizen kind, not the UFO kind). 66 were U.S. citizens.
Now this balance somewhat surprises me at first. It seems a lot less “melting pot” than I had always assumed.
Since this question of “anchor babies” and “chain migration” (yes, I know these are often used as pejorative terms) currently generates a lot of mindless political chatter, I decide to take a look at this from the perspective of the residents of 191 East 3rd Street in 1925.
Frank and Elizabeth were part of a massive chain migration of Mancini and deFabritus brothers and sisters who came to the U.S. over a period of two decades, starting with a couple of people early in the 1900s and then adding family members in ones and twos and threes, all settling in the same area of lower Manhattan.
For those who haven’t ever looked at the actual definition of “anchor baby,” here’s what wikipedia has to say.
“Anchor baby” is a term (regarded by some as a pejorative) used to refer to a child born to a non-citizen mother in a country that has birthright citizenship which will therefore help the mother and other family members gain legal residency. In the U.S., the term is generally used as a derogatory reference to the supposed role of the child, who automatically qualifies as an American citizen and has the rights guaranteed in the 14th Amendment. The term is also often used in the context of the debate over illegal immigration to the United States.
Admittedly, the current environment is a bit different than when my grandparents came; they came to America in an era of open immigration. It wasn’t until passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the National Origins Act or Johnson-Reed Act, that the U.S. used restrictive immigration policies in the 1920s based on the 1890 proportions of foreign-born European nationalities.
But I still find myself wondering. Looking back at the 66 U.S. citizens living at 191 3rd Street in 1925, how many would fit the above definition of “anchor babies?” 5? 10? 20?
And as Richard Dawson would say…. And the census said….
All of the 66 except 6 were what we would now call “anchor babies.”
Six; 60 “anchor babies” in that one building.
The general current conversation seems to assume that this kind of birthright citizen is now a “problem” and a new one at that. And that “anchor babies” will never become part of the mainstream. That they are “the other” and a “problem.”
As I reflect on the current headlines in the context of our own family story, my focus in not so much on the endless policy debates, driven by politicians on both sides eager for victory in what they have unnecessarily positioned as a zero sum game to gain advantage for their particular party. They all just piss me off.
All I can see are the faces that are now wondering how on earth they got turned into pawns in a political game. The yearning faces at the border who have most likely come here to get away from something and are indeed, like my grandparents, children of God.
My father’s parents did not speak English and I imagine suffered a fair amount of humiliation as an easy “other” target by those already here. My father was an “anchor baby. He was a product of “chain migration” before the current iterations and abuses of the terms. My father had a traumatic childhood beyond anything I can imagine that almost certainly guaranteed a long downstream legacy of pain and failure.
But. The rest of the unlikely story for that 15 day-old infant in a New York tenement is this: 6 children, 16 grandchildren, and at last count, 10 great grandchildren. All of whom have had the undeserved blessing to be born on third base in the home run derby of American life.
Who would have thunk it?
Other chapters in the series:
- The Search for my Grandparents — Chapter 1 — The Starting Line
- The Search for My Grandparents — Chapter 2 — Meet the Brady Bunch!
- The Search for My Grandparents — Chapter 3 — Happy St. Patrick’s Day, Sarah McEvoy!
- The Search for My Grandparents — Chapter 4 — Why Sarah “Had to Leave” Ireland
- The Search for My Grandparents — Chapter 5 — Where We Reconnect with Frank and Elizabeth
- The Search for My Grandparents — Chapter 6 — The Story of Ne’er-do-well Grandfather Number One
- The Search for My Grandparents — Chapter 7 — The post where the 1940 Census is released and we unexpectedly run into Frank and Elizabeth again
- The Search for My Grandparents — Chapter 8 — The post where we find out really creepy things about the Rockland Psychiatric Hospital and expect to meet Nurse Ratched
- The Search for My Grandparents — Chapter 9 — Ancestry and our WTF Moment
- The Search for My Grandparents — Chapter 10 — And the Death Certificates Arrive
- And not technically in this series, but related — The Pushmi-Pullyu Impact of Technology Innovation on Information Preservation