The System was Rigged Against Them – But it Didn’t Matter

The system was rigged against them – but it didn’t matter.

The system only accepted immigrants physically – as they drifted into Ellis Island, New Orleans, San Francisco – but, the acceptance ended there.

Your skin tone, your faith, your language was not accepted.

Even the President of the United States scoffed as immigrants made their way to these shores.

Once here, the system was surely rigged against those that didn’t speak, or struggled with, English.

For those with a rudimentary education, the system was, without a doubt, rigged. They hadn’t a chance in the world.

Immigrants that possessed basic skills that would have them take the most dangerous work for menial pay were sitting ducks for this rigged system. Many would fall ill, suffer serious and debilitating injuries, and death.

The system was rigged if you had no one in America that came here previously, to gain early knowledge about the system. Your edge, your advantage, equaled less than zero.

The system was rigged with prejudice, bigotry, and savagery that few remember, but many experienced. In their declining years, many immigrants still felt the sting of undeserved hatred.

As author Ed Falco states:

“The decades go by, they turn into centuries, and we forget. We’ve forgotten the depth of prejudice and outright hatred faced by Italian immigrants in America.”

Yes, the system was surely rigged. But it didn’t matter.

As we go about our work-a-day worlds in this modern age, everyone faces obstacles, many of them self created. The mundane tasks we share threaten us, challenge us, and for the entitled among us, hurt our feelings.

We, for the most part, do not have to scrape by. To face the challenge of not understanding a language. To face unyielding bigotry on a daily basis. To not be accepted by a system that you willingly left your home for to be part of.

When challenges come up in your life or mine, we should remember what we don’t have to face in our day to day. We should remember that no matter the obstacle or challenge, we basically wake up into the lap of luxury every morning.

Are there exceptions to this rule? Absolutely. Many suffer in this country, in this world. We should always remember that.

IMG_4916But I can’t think of myself in any other way but privileged, as my immigrant family set it up that way for me – looking “the system” square in the eye, and after decades of unwavering persistence, the system backed down.

Like a dog, running down a grimy city street, tail tucked between its legs.

The system was no match for the gritty, determined immigrants that inhabited our past, and now color our dreams.

The system was rigged against them. It didn’t matter.

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Fantastic Voyage

As I walked through the sand, hand in hand with my wife, I noticed my feet turning black – like I had stepped through piles of ash after remnants of a roaring wild fire.

The sand itself was unlike those of other Caribbean beaches that I had walked, the color and texture being somewhat strange.

img_0067Looking to my left while walking, rock formations jutted out, in front of the hill side where our hotel resort was perched. The rocks looked blacker than the sand: as I learned later, the result of thousands of years of volcanic ash and lava covering the rocks and forever changing their appearance.

Some of the names are Poas, Irazu, Turrialba, Rincon de la Vieja, and lastly, Arenal – widely known as one of the most beautiful volcano sites on earth.

Costa Rica is much more than volcanoes, though. Its topography includes lakes, mountain ranges, jungle terrain, tranquil bays, and the Pacific Ocean. Luckily for us, five star resorts are plentiful as well.

My wife and I were lucky enough to walk this stunning beach, in its bay encased setting with an appropriately hot sun, through a Diamond Club incentive sponsored by the company that I work for.

I say lucky – but more than a couple of people that would say that luck is secondary to the hard work and dedication that it takes to become a Diamond Club winner.

We’re lucky because the two of us absolutely love to travel, and the company gives us ample opportunity to do it on their dime. We would travel anyway, even without the multiple wins that I have – for example, taking the kids on a family vacation last year to the Dominican Republic that was just as sun drenched and breathtaking.

It wouldn’t be hard to refer to all our trips – whether a pedestrian ride up the Northway to Lake George, summer drive to our favorite ocean setting in Cape Cod, or once in a lifetime flight to the west coast of Mexico – as our “fantastic voyages.”

The label not only gives a nod to my sci-fi movie loving past, but reminds me how lucky (there’s that word again) we are to live the life that we do, mostly when we want to do it. I called it luck as I don’t believe any of what we experience is possible without the fantastic voyage that came before us.

Previous readers of articles here know where I’m coming from. Our trips, no matter how exceptionally amazing and satisfying, can’t compare to the importance of that one trip that my family made to come to America – my grandfather’s side coming from Calabria in Southern Italy, my grandmother’s traveling from a small town in Sicily.

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My grandmother, right, on her wedding day in 1936 with my godmother

While our accommodations were five star with great food, wine, and swimming pools complete with spa appointments, my immigrant family enjoyed no such luxuries. Traveling on cramped ships in steerage class with brutal and abhorrent conditions, they came to this country believing what their fellow countrymen believed: America’s streets were paved with gold.

The truth revealed itself to be less than a fairy tale. Most immigrants, Italian or otherwise, spent their time in cramped housing, fighting poverty, and working only the dangerous or repetitive manual labor jobs they were qualified for – if they weren’t the targets of racism or discrimination that shut them out of honest work.

The luck factor for my family was different than mine – they worked and toiled in factory jobs long and hard enough to realize they had buried within them an entrepreneurial spirit, and developed it into successful restaurants: a legacy that allowed us “kids” to work, setting up our own idea of making it happen here.

Looking back, the rewards and accolades of my working life aren’t remotely possible without the complete, complex concept of la famiglia – the luck I experienced having a family that cared so much, to take the time to mold and set the path for their next generation, and subsequent generations to follow.

For that, and our ability to travel so easily as a result, I couldn’t be more grateful.

Leaving for the airport to look forward to nearly a full day of travel home is a bittersweet experience. We’re eager to walk through our back door once again, to see family and friends – but we’re hopeful to bring back some of the sunshine and warmth with us, that we don’t leave it completely behind.

One of our stops on the flight home was to be in Charlotte, once back in the states. The turnaround, only a half hour to begin with, was threatened with a weather forecast filled with thunderstorms. Our good fortune on this trip included a family connection that works for American Airlines, who offered to help re-book our destination to fly home from Miami to LaGuardia in New York.

Once we boarded, a first class flight attendant glided to our economy seats to deliver two glasses of champagne – in celebration of my mid-50s birthday which would be spent in the air, in terminals, in New York City traffic.

Toasting my birthday with the free bubbly would have been more than appropriate – as would have toasting another international trip, or a family member who dedicated himself to getting us home safe, and on time.

The perfect toast, in my mind, now sounds totally different. A glass raised to the end of another voyage, feeling an ultimate gratitude for that very first fantastic voyage.

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8 Happiness Rules (That You Can Use) From My Italian Grandmother

“Don’t worry. Be happy.”

In case you lived under a rock during the late 80’s, the song by that name became the first a cappella tune to reach number one status on the old school Hot 100 chart in this country. Performed by artist Bobby McFerrin, it flooded American airwaves, and by chance, the old transistor radio in my grandmother’s kitchen.

To say that she liked the song would be an understatement, singing along with every opportunity when it played, and often repeating the mantra when it didn’t. Don’t worry. Be happy.

IMG_4303Even before the song became a common listen, she seemed to have it as a life rule that she followed without question. “Nonna” didn’t discover the concept of being happy first (before looking for stuff to make you happy), but no one exemplified this rule more than my grandmother.

In a life lived as an immigrant where “Don’t worry, be happy” was a creed, she taught us many examples of how to get it done ourselves:

“Everything you need to be happy is within you today, right now” – Mark Manson

Create the life you want with hard work – It’s pretty official: from conversations, both online and off, that I’ve had or overheard with other Italian Americans, the consensus is in – we can all learn from the unreal work ethic of the generation(s) before us.

Truth be told, I’m a touch embarrassed by the way I work these days in my little office cubicle – it’s nothing like the schedules from the past, where I would put in a punishing number of hours just to keep up with my parents, or my grandparents.

I’m still astonished by the hours they kept, to provide for themselves and their family. They worked. They didn’t need to be entertained. And they would make many sacrifices of their own time to help those who needed it.

IMG_4771The present moment? It’s all that you’ve got – One of her favorite quotes was, “It’s later than you think.” I’d like to think it was her way of saying the future is coming, but it’s length and quality is an unknown. The past is nice to visit, but don’t dwell on it. This is a talent that seems to be lost in our modern days, as we all make our big plans in the coming months, or years – rather than focus on being happy right now, in the present moment. Is there really any guarantee of the future?

As I’ve heard many times in my past, “It’s later than you think.”

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”  – St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Be relentless – The default option for most people is to sit back, waiting for life to happen to them. Instead of  learning and improving themselves, they keep plodding along, wondering why things never change.

I’ve written here before about my grandfather’s relentless nature, comparing him to the champion boxer who always moved forward with constant action, throwing punches, never relenting – always on the offense.

He, and his wife of 66 years, were an inspiration on this front. They consistently pursued, over decades, what they wanted – success and inclusion for their family in this new country, their new home.

They captured a true secret of happiness, or purpose: know what you want, and never cease in your journey to achieve it.

Create meaningful, memorable moments –  A particular trait in the Italian American household is creating traditions from what other folks may consider mundane – taking every day moments and making them unforgettable.

My grandmother was a master of taking a pedestrian (for her) chore of making meatballs and turning it into an event to be remembered years later. The eating of the food she cooked made the moments even more transcendent: and it’s not just me – other family members, old and younger, can recall vivid details of visits in the kitchen, and the setting of a Sunday dinner table.

The little family picnics, cups of coffee at the table, the unexpected “drop in” (everybody loved the drop in back then) of a family member or close friend – they were all memorable moments made so by the enthusiasm for life that I was brought up with.

Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses –  Jealousy and envy are incompatible with happiness, so if you’re constantly comparing yourself with others, it’s time to stop.

Everyone’s experience is different. What looks to be all shiny and bright to the outside world could have been riddled with bumps, bruises, and obstacles along the way. No matter what type of success you see or perceive, you can be sure of that.

The immigrants from my past rarely spoke in envious tones. If they were jealous of someone else’s possessions, it was probably the fact that the other party had more food (or god forbid, better food) in a celebratory spread. Or perhaps, nicer linens on a dinner table.

My grandmother would make 90 to 100 meatballs at a clip, just to make sure she wasn’t outdone by a friend or neighbor.IMG_2307

They were hard working people who had little time to concern themselves with what others had – even if they were at all interested. My grandmother thrived on living a simple life, with few extravagances but many relationships to keep cultivating. Her one luxury was a fur coat she would proudly wear to Sunday Mass during the chillier weather.

We’d all be a little happier if we avoided the comparison trap. It’s one of the most important lessons that I’ve been taught.

“Comparison is the death of joy.” – Mark Twain

Stay positive in a negative world – I really don’t know how they did it. Their lives were physically challenging and, at times, emotionally apocalyptic with deaths of family members well before their time.

I rarely saw my grandmother in a sad, melancholy mood. Especially in the kitchen. Smiling, singing, dancing, stirring, tending the oven – she seemed to be uplifted all of time. I have no doubt her faith in God was part of this.

If you had negativity or troubles in your life – well, that steaming cup of coffee and a table side chat when you visited would soon be the focus, and the remedy.

Don’t get distracted  – I recently attended the funeral service of the mother of a dear friend of mine. While giving a eulogy at her graveside, my friend implored those standing in the cemetery to be more connected – but in a more human, dare I say old fashioned, way of ditching constant social media and showing up with a phone call or visit.

Look, we’re all guilty of the zombie-like obsession with our phones and devices – myself included. And I think the social is a fantastic way to communicate and keep up with family and friends (as long as you refrain from diving into the deep end of negativity).

My trick is to supplement that, getting a kick out of sneaking in a phone call or text in addition to Facebook comments. It’s way more fun to talk to Uncle Tony or cousin Frankie than it is to just click the “like” button. We all need more of that – again, myself included.

Get yourself out there, and socialize

My grandmother knew the secret – if she was happy (or at least acted happy), everyone around her couldn’t but help to be happy as well. Her attitude was infectious.

She was the life of the party wherever she went, loving to socialize whenever she had the time. You have to remember, her work schedule, whether for family or her restaurants, didn’t allow for much leisure time – but when she had it, made good use of it.

The impromptu party or picnic was frequently on her radar – and her grandson has picked up on this as well.

I wasn’t what you would call “super sociable” by any stretch back in the day, being just as comfortable with alone time as I was hanging with friends.

This was solved by getting married to the (perfect) woman I’ve nicknamed Suzie Satellite for her uncanny ability to throw the perfect party or turn complete strangers into friends within the hour. Now it’s rubbed off on me, as I’m more likely to approach new faces as easily as lurking around the outskirts of a room, just observing.

You need time with me? You’ll have to talk to Suzie – otherwise known as my cruise director or booking agent.

Don’t Worry – Be Happy

In the end, one little Sicilian immigrant knew the secret to be, and be happy: to believe that everything works itself out. To not take yourself (or others) so seriously. To know how to laugh, situation appropriate or not. To avoid really negative chatter, and to lighten up the world and those around you at every opportunity. And to have faith that you have a special offering, regardless of the inner voices or outside forces.

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Life is Precious, Summer Redux

“Rosina! Rosina! Rosina!”

It’s how one of my most popular posts starts – with a greeting to my Nonna,  from my Aunt Maria, as she barreled her frame through the front door of the house where I spent most of my childhood time.

(Exciting update: The above mentioned post made even more popular recently by being featured on the website for the Italian Sons & Daughters of America )

That’s the way many of my summer mornings began, especially on the weekends. She would always make a point of coming over early, not knowing or intending to disturb the slumber of a growing boy. Not that I should have slept through the sunshine streaming through the windows to begin with.

If the loud greetings or sunlight couldn’t wake me up, there was no doubt that the smell of the pan fried meatballs that were soon to follow would do the job.

Once downstairs from the bedroom, I would stand in the kitchen (in super hero pajamas, no doubt) and dutifully wait until the offering was made to indulge in a before breakfast snack. A great way to start a Saturday.

The decades have passed. But the memories linger. The song remains the same.

There are certain aspects of summer life from my past that I miss more than others. My grandmother and her sisters used to have picnics in the backyard of her house, both well planned and impromptu, under the shade of grape vines and large trees in that expansive yard.

If you’ve been anywhere near an Italian American family, you know that everyone was there – aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, select friends, maybe a familiar straggler from down the street – to eat and celebrate.

The generous inventory of food spilled over plates and serving bowls. Homemade wine flowed. The combination of broken English and regional Italian dialects echoed through the street and the alleyway, as the parties rolled on.picnic

I rarely hear the language anymore. The echoes have fallen silent.

There were reserved moments, as well. My grandfather and I, as a rule during the summer, would sip espresso on the patio, listening to Yankee games on an old transistor radio, propped into the screen of the kitchen window for easy listening.

The evening sunset would fade into night, with us still sitting there.

My grandfather was a quiet guy. Not too many words were exchanged. We just understood the importance of ritual, as it played out. I wish I knew, looking back, how rare and important those moments were.

My wife and I try our best to replicate what we can. If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s the impromptu party or gathering. And the majority of our coffee will be had on our back deck – even at times when the weather might be deemed miserably cold.

Our little way of keeping good things going.IMG_4293

After my grandmother passed away several years ago, we drove down the hill through the old neighborhood, on the way to her church services. We were stopped at a red light just across the street from the old brick two family where my grandparents once lived, where my father was a teenager.

As we sat at the traffic light, the Italian language version of the song Volare pumped through the car speakers. I turned to my wife, just as she was forming an expression on her face that said – “Are you kidding me??”

If you’re unfamiliar with the nuance of commercial radio, la versione italiana is not the popular rendition of that song. Not even close. English speaking Dean Martin had a hit record that was more preferred for the airwaves.

I believed then, and believe today, that it was Nonna’s little way of saying:

“Yes, I’m gone. But don’t you forget about me.”

“Life is precious” was one of her many sayings, and perhaps her most common. As if trying to impart the wisdom that each second that passed was one you were never getting back, and that the clock of your life kept ticking.

She would often group that one saying with nuggets like “It’s later than you think” and “Life is a-worth living.” She had a subtle way of keeping her theme consistent.

I would like to think I take her words to heart on a daily basis. Our time here, this one ticket that we have punched, is indeed limited and precious. So much of it gets wasted on what I’ve heard called “the 99% that doesn’t matter.”

What does matter is included in a small circle. Family, friends, and the labor and activities that make you feel alive.

Although dipping my toe into the ocean of tradition has been kind of my thing, there is always room for more: more impromptu gatherings with family and friends, more additional star lit nights on the deck with a coffee.

As Nonna said, life is precious. If I do my best to remember, maybe I won’t waste another minute.

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On Growing Up Italian American, and Embracing Your Superpower

As a nation, we’ve grown weary of the violence and chaos that often is a front page headline – just recently we can point to Sutherland Springs, massive carnage in Las Vegas, and another terror attack in New York City.

I’ve been immersed, in the last couple of years, in what author/podcaster Tim Ferriss coined the Low Information Diet – erasing the influence of national/ local news and other distractions from my life.

It’s not that I don’t want to stay informed – some believe it’s without question your duty as a citizen – but I would prefer to accelerate the aging process with child like wonder and curiosity rather than see my world with a perpetual black cloud over it. To believe the world may be a wonderful place – as it once was.

For those of us who want to turn back the clock, retreat into a previous time – well, if you’re an aficionado of the news headlines, you could hardly be blamed. I consider myself one of those people – for good reason.

Not so many years ago, my life was filled with the influence of Italian immigrants. Calabrian and Sicilian immigrants, to be precise. Men and women with grit, determination, and a love of their adopted country.

There’s been a lot of attention paid by the aforementioned news machine concerning the plight of the modern immigrant. However, it’s not just the current administration in the White House that has issue with select groups of immigrants. As columnist Rosario Iaconis stated:

February 19 marks the anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066. With the nation at war against the Axis powers — and still reeling from Pearl Harbor — FDR promulgated a directive that branded 600,000 Americans of Italian descent “enemy aliens.” Over 10,000 on the West Coast were forced to relocate, and more than 250 were placed in internment camps in Georgia, Maryland, Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

In an earlier historical misstep, president Calvin Coolidge stated he thought Italians to be “an inferior race,” notably southern Italians.

An unfortunate series of events. If only presidents past and present could embrace the power of the immigrant. There are so many in my own life that should be deemed worthy of a spotlight for what truly makes this country great. I’d like to introduce you to some.

IMG_3970Some of you have already read, on more than one occasion, a series of posts about my grandfather’s brother Dominick. He was a hero to his adopted country of America, being killed in action in World War II, right before the end of the war. His loss left a gaping chasm in my family at the time, and he is still a hero to us today.

My cousin and I recently had crafted a military banner in his name, with his image flying high and proud in the city where I live, where he lived as a proud American citizen. As long as our family is here, we will never forget.

But Dominick was far from the only member of his family that emigrated to our shores. His brothers came here as well, and they were special in their own right.

My grandfather himself (Sebastian, pictured below to the right) has long been a featured topic on this site, with several articles that remain my favorites. He was one of the toughest guys I knew, and this was just not my opinion – the other men he knew, whether family or friend, verified his relentless nature and resolve.

The image I love – one that stays with me like it happened yesterday – is of him during one of our tragically brutal winters, shoveling snow with a steel handled shovel and no gloves to protect his hands. Dressed in an overcoat and fedora.

Over coffee on a recent Sunday morning, my cousin Mary told me a story that I didn’t know about my grandfather – or “Pop,” as I would call him. My cousin said that a fire had started in their first floor flat, in a living room area that was quickly getting out of control. Like, within minutes, all was going to be lost.

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Instead of the fire department coming to the rescue, “your grandfather came flying down the stairs (my grandparents lived on the second floor) and put the fire out – with his bare hands.” She added, almost as an afterthought, “I think he used a couple of small, wet towels. Or a blanket or something.”When I had thought I heard it all about my grandfather, I sat there holding my coffee cup, my mouth agape, mind in disbelief.

“Ho. Lee. Shit.” was all that I could say.

IMG_3975Another brother was Antonio, who I referred to as “Uncle Tony.” As tough as my grandfather was, Antonio’s brute strength stood out. Capable of tilling huge gardens and planting trees and bushes with the most rudimentary tools, he was as powerful a man as they come. He personified his Calabrian roots with his farming ability, and was responsible, along with his brothers, for planting much of the food that we would later eat.

He would make a point, after his work was over, to rough house with whichever one of us kids was within striking distance. If he said, in his broken English, “come over and give me a kiss,” you did. And got your youthful face scraped by a bearded stubble that felt made of steel.

Mariano, who to us kids was “Uncle Mario,” always captivated with his infectious smile and hearty laugh. If my grandfather was the quiet one – which he was – Uncle Mario was the talker, coming to my grandparents’ house for frequent visits, sitting at the kitchen table for an hour or more to dole out life wisdom and stories from the old country.img_3366

He was the man who taught you how to correctly prune the grape vines in the yard. And when the grapes were down, he’d make a homemade wine that after a glass or two would put you on the couch.

Although he was polite, always well dressed, and soft spoken, turns out Mario was a warrior in a previous life. Fighting for the Italian army in World War II (he didn’t make his trip to America until the early ’60s), he wound up becoming a POW during the war – later escaping and trekking hundreds of miles to freedom.

Hearing that was another “holy shit moment.”

And that’s just the men. The ladies in our family from that generation were even more influential. Working outside the home, but creating the ultimate space for us to grow up in – spending much time making sure the atmosphere was filled with love, warmth, security, and a sense of community. It was an amazing time.

“God, it’s such a drag when you’re living in the past” – Tom Petty

Italian American Podcast co-founder Dolores Alfieri said something while interviewing a guest that immediately hit me like a ton of bricks, stating her feeling about being raised Italian American:  “It was almost like I had a superpower.” 

As much as I would have to disagree with the Tom Petty lyric quoted above (I get a kick out of frequently visiting the past), I agree with Dolores without hesitation. It was a super power. You were safe, secure, surrounded by strength, integrity, passion, and values. You were loved.

It was a feeling, at times, of invincibility. You were bulletproof.

You can tell me that’s in the past. Those days are over.

For the most part, you would be right. The past is gone.

But those super powers remain. Ready to be summoned at any time, to serve you and those around you as well. It may not be like mine – being raised as an Italian American by a family whose best interests were your interests – but you have your own. You just have to call on it. Or discover it, if you have not yet.

In this time of violence, vitriol, and what some may call “a graceless age” – it would be great for all to believe – friends, family, children, the people that mean the most to you.

It’s especially for my kids. I want my son and daughter to know they have it as well. Although they’re both at an age where self doubt can creep in like an insidious force, they can call on their superpower. Like Superman type strength, or Flash like speed, they have it.

It’s the Sicilian in them, the Calabrian. It courses through their veins.

You can, in the finest moments, feel invincible. Unstoppable.

I know you can because I still feel it myself. In my heart, mind, and best of all, my memory of the past.

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