Life in America
By: Kalani, Jaewoo, Kien
It was a warm sweet day in New York, and the smell of the local pizzeria filled the air. I was heading back home when a group of people came to me and asked “Sir we are the ‘Immigrant Project Team’ looking for 4th generation Italian Immigrant descendants to interview, and one of your colleagues had told us that your great-grandfather had a pretty interesting story to tell about his journey from Italy. Would you mind sharing it with us?”
“Sure.” I replied. “I’ll be willing to tell you his journeys from the motherland.” Even though I said this, I was a little skeptical about it. It was, however, it was already 8:00 at night and I was really tired of the days work so I asked them if I could come meet them tomorrow. They agreed and gave me me a business card. I got home and went to bed, but as I tried to fall asleep I couldn’t help but wonder about the interview. I started to think about it in more depth I eventually fell asleep.
I woke up, got dressed and headed to the address on the business card. When I finally got to the address, I found a huge recording studio. It wasn’t as sketchy as I imagined it to be. I walked inside the studio and the reception lady guided me to a recording room. This is where I saw the group that I encountered yesterday. I sat down in a surprisingly comfy chair and the person that gave me the business card greeted me. “ Hi, welcome to the interview. So the idea is we’ll be filming the interview and it will later be put into a documentary called ‘The Origins of the Italian-Americans.’ We will have to film your answers so I would like to ask if you are you okay with us filming and taking your answers about yourself and your great-grandfather.” They were all very kind but also very conventional. I told him I was fine with meyself getting video taped. Right before the crew hit the record button, the man introduced himself. “My name is Frank Walsberg, and I will be the interviewer today.”
“My name is Tomas Bianco, thank you for inviting me here.” They hit the record button and started the interview. “First I would like to ask, what was the name of your grandfather?”
“His name was Peppe Bianco.”
“ Right, when was he born and when did he move to America?” said Frank.
“ He was born in 1888, and moved to the United States in 1895 from Sicily. He lived near Palermo.”
“ Why did your great grandfather come to America?” Asked Frank.
“ Life was very bad. The rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. People like him from the Southern Italy lacked the education resulting in jobs that made barely enough money to pay the taxes. He was 7 years old when he and his father decided to move to America for a better life. To earn the money they couldn’t in Italy and bring it back to their family to live a more fulfilling life.”
I remember getting on the boat in 1890. It was a cold day at the harbour. My dad told me that we had to go through the gates to get onto the ship, and we embarked on our new journey. “I can’t wait to see America!” I exclaimed.
“I am too, son!” The cold sea breeze brushed by my skin and made my hairs stick up. The ship slowly started to leave the dock and the next thing I knew, we were off on our journey to America.
It wasn’t the longest journey, but it was probably the most clustered two weeks of my life. The ship wasn’t the nicest, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the way we were treated when we got there. As we got off, the immigration officers stopped us at Ellis Island and were going through all of us. Checking us for diseases and sicknesses. My best friend Filippo was diagnosed with smallpox during immigration and I haven’t seen him since. I passed through that examiner fine, I still don’t see why Filippo was dragged into a big, solid, plain concrete building. There were a lot of people being dragged off to what I learned later was called “Quarantining.” Although we did not have problems with the examination, I felt bad for the people who got dragged away. It was a frightening experience, but once the whole ordeal was over, we took a small boat that brought us to New York City.
It was a breath of fresh air when we finally arrived. It felt like the air was cleaner, and the land was full of opportunity. We immediately began looking for work. My dad found a job in a factory packing meat and other goods. 50 cents an hour wasn’t the best, but it got us a home and food. Our money was one portion of the rent for the house that we shared with a few other people. First, I was very skeptical living with people I didn’t know, however I got to learn that all of them were just like us. Several years past and the main thing we were trying to do was to earn some money to bring back to Italy and live a better life. All of them were surprisingly very kind. But my father came back with solemn news, we couldn’t go back, our path back to Italy was lost, and we would have stay here. I felt that I had lost the opportunity to finish school, and that I would have to start fending for myself soon.
And that feeling came true, to my chagrin. So we sent letters between our broken family. We told them that they should come over to America and meet us here, but it was 1910, the literacy test was put into action and as they arrived at Ellis they were tested to see if they could pass. It was huge shock when my father received a letter from our mom that they had been sent back to Italy for failing the test. I was heartbroken. To know that I wasn’t going to be able to see my mom and sister again. However, with full of grief and sadness, I couldn’t let that keep me and my father from gaining enough money to continue with our lives. I picked up a job selling newspapers. I remember it well, the man at the stand had a stench of cigars and liquor. His scruffy beard was wet with whatever he had been drinking for the past hour, and his plump stomach that sat out from his button down shirt.
“So you want to sell the New York Times?” he asked me. I was smaller back then, and I was scared.
“Well. Um. Yes sir,” I said timidly and with a small stutter, “I do my best. Always. Sorry for my English. It’s not best.”
“Well take this stack of papers and sell them at the station. People are on their way to work, they need the news!” He said and then he threw me out the door with a stack of papers.
“New York Times for sale, buy it now. Only 10 cents,” I yelled out at the top of my lungs for an hour.
“How much?” A man in a business suit said to me.
“Um. It’s 10 cents,” I said nervously, “it’s my first day. Please buy sir.” He handed me two dimes.
“Have a good one, and welcome to this fine country.” He walked away holding his briefcase.
“Thank you for this sir,” I said as I yelled out more for the newspapers that needed selling. By noon the huge stack that I started with had become a good 4 newspapers, and I walked back towards the stand with the coins jingling in my pocket.
“Wow, you sold those quickly. You made $20,” the man said trying to be friendly, “people must like you here. You know what? Keep the $3 buy something nice. At this rate you’ll be making a lot of money!”
I walked down the street of New York feeling a certain glow of accomplishment as I walked up to a corner store and bought myself a sandwich. It was warm, below the red umbrella stand in my little hideaway.
A breeze picked up across as I walked back to the brick building he called home. Day after day I came back with the change in my pocket and bought myself lunch. The change I had been saving has earned me a lot of money. My dad came back each day with news of how life would be getting better by the hour, and it did. But my dad appeared to be getting weaker, and duller, and I could feel regret rising from him as he was slowly losing his mind to the regret of coming to America. We were supposed to have a farm, cheap land, and make a fortune in a short amount of time. I felt that it was poorly thought out the more I thought about it. It is amazing how something so brilliant would end up failing so bad. I felt so lost, hidden and gone, as if there was a curse upon me for having success, as if the humble farming was what had kept us alive. But now it felt like success and survival was tearing me apart.
I lost my job solely because I missed a day. That filthy drunk took away the only job I knew. I should’ve known better. I wanted to go to school. Get a job. And come back to Italy with money. money and wealth. I could be a scientist or a doctor. I could find a cure for whatever disease Filippo had that didn’t let him into Italy. A doctor. I wanted to live a life I wanted. To make my mother proud.
My dreams were slowly crushed by others. The Americans here are not who I thought they were. They were cold hearted, judgemental, and they hated me for no reason. They called me a dago, they said they didn’t want smallpox. It crushed me. I had lost. There were too many. I couldn’t go into church without being made fun of. I could read, but they kept saying “You probably can’t even read Italian. Stupid Italian. Go back to Rome or something.” I felt like the walls were closing in on me. As if as I climbed higher up the mountain, the more sharp rocks persisted. I felt like I needed to take it and shut up, but I just couldn’t.
“Dago, get over here,” some guy had grabbed me in the street, “I know what your kind did in New Orleans. Hey guys let’s take this fly.”
“Yeah, take him,” his friends egged on, “Do it, come one.” I was pressed against those stone masonry and bricks, as if fear was pinning me down as death was about to skin me alive. I kicked that monster in the stomach and ran. The pack tried to chase me down as I ran for my life.
“Help! He’s trying to kill me!” I screamed with fear steaming from the words, “Police! Stop them!” I ran with adrenaline pumping into my muscles. I kept running hard until I tripped over. I looked back to find them gone. They were long gone. Catching my breath, I realized, no place was safe. My dreams of America were slowly falling apart, like the chips of paint on my wall, or the edges of the rocks by the river where I used to sit with my mother and sister in the hot days of summer. Perhaps there was no place safe, but I would never be sure.
I returned home to find my dad at home earlier than expected. He was exhausted and had a very stressed look on his face. “I have bad news. The Irish American workers are forming a union. But they are forgetting that now that they have what they want. Now they want more, because they forget what’s keeping food on their tables. What is supporting their families.”
“So what does this mean for your job?” I asked with uncertainty, “Do you need new work?”
“The factory was shut down, but there are other factories near here,” he said to me, “and with these strikes I can find an easy job breaking the strikes in other factories. So a day without work won’t hurt.”
“Well that’s not too bad,” I said back, “But I’m not sure that the factories are safe. Did you hear about what happened in New Orleans?”
“What happened there?” He asked me.
“A policeman was murdered. They suspect that the person who killed him was Italian. The guy was corrupt though, and now everyone is stereotypically mad at Italians.”
“Well, I’ll keep that in mind,” he said completely disregarding what I said.
The following day, he found a job when the employers were willing to give him the job after the protests by the Irish Americans. He told me that the Irish were pretty mad at us Italians taking over their jobs, but what could they do.
It was several weeks later when I found out that the policeman who got murdered was a police chief named David Hennessy. 11 Italians were accused of the murder and in the end they were all lynched. I was terrified of the news, but somewhat relieved as I realised that now the department found the person who murdered the New Orleans Policeman. I finally was able to find another job, as a shoe shiner at grand central station. I spent the rest of my teen years shining, cleaning, and selling shoes for 25 cents an hour to support me and my father.
I was 21 when I met Alessandra Venganza. The women who made my heart skip. I met her at market when I was trying to buy some food for me and my father. I never really thought about women in my life so it was something new when I saw her. As a teenager I spent a lot of my time working and earning money, and when my father was diagnosed with typhoid, the stress level got worse. He slowly was incapable of working anymore and was forced to quit his job at an early age. She was majestic with her long brown hair, and her skin was pale as the sands of the beaches were as I remember when I was a young boy. Her eyes were blue like the tired skies of Palermo in the summertime, she reminded me of a better place, a place I wish I could come back to.
We would spend the days wandering through the city. A lunch in the park on a beautiful summer day, a breeze blowing through the golden rays of the daytime. The sounds of commerce were beautiful and it felt truly as a new life, one where our future is golden. The land felt so friendly and welcoming to us. But we were still the outlanders, a feeling that no matter how many years either of us had spent here could erase. It was a certain feeling of being not being natural. Of you are different, you are not us, you cannot be us, and you never will be us.
The days dripped by us like the summer rain, so fluidly and so quickly. As the time rolled by us, winters passed and it was the spring soon enough. Our love grew with the flowers and my feelings became stronger and stronger. It was a dark storm after work when I felt my love had grown to a new level. I went to the market to look for the perfect ring for Allesandra. It was a beautiful ring made of white gold. The sapphire was dark blue like the ocean that had brought me to her and this land. The white gold shined like a pearl from the ocean, and I walked to the clerk.
“You have found love I see,” he said to me congratulating me. He grabbed his keyring and reached into his strongbox. “And a fine choice you have made. This sapphire is from the jungles of Burma, and this gold was hand refined by the finest metalworkers in all of the americas.”
“You don’t even know how happy I am,” I said to him, “I have been working up the courage for this for a long time. And now. I am ready.” I handed him the money and put that silk box into my coat pocket and walked down the street. Sunset was so vividly orange, and it felt like god had put this day upon me for my love.
Her house felt scary as I approached it, but I knew I loved her, and that there was nothing else to do. I walked up those stairs, as if I was about to step through a fire, and I did.
It was soon after that, and I was walking down that aisle of the Catholic church with her. We stood facing each other, in front of the priest. Her elegant white dress was stunning, as I could do nothing, but smile and the priest proceeded with the service.
“Peppe Bianco, do you take Alessandra Venganza to be your wife? Do you promise to be true to her in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love her and honor her all the days of your life?”
“I do,” I answered only looking at Alessandra. The perfect woman I was going to be spending the rest of my life with.
“Alessandra Venganza, do you take Peppe Bianco to be your husband? Do you promise to be true to him in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love him and honor him all the days of your life?”
“You have declared your consent before the Church. May the Lord in his goodness strengthen your consent and fill you both with his blessings. What God has joined, men must not divide.”
The following years were the most cherished and happiest of my life. I spent much of my time with her. It was only later when my father’s condition, who had gotten better right after the marriage, started to worsen and had past away at home. I was distraught and full of misery. All the memories of what my father and I went through to get to this point. The stress, the pain, the grunt work we did to sustain us. I remembered standing at the funeral as they lowered his body into the pit at which I was never going to see him again. Tears were shed. Alessandra held me by the arm as I cried full of grief.
As the years progressed, we started a family. We had two beautiful children by the name Riccardo Bianco and Sofia Bianco. I had been through alot since I moved to America, and I have been through all the sorrow, grief and misery that one man can ever encounter, but I have also found happiness and love in my life. Thank you for the great lessons and the great experiences America, and so I lived on a happy life.
“That’s really the story of my great-grandfather’s life, at least thats what his journal says. Nothing else to it,” I ended.
“ Thank you for your insight on your great-grandfather’s journey from Italy to New York. How about yourself though? Do you celebrate any traditions?”
“ Well mainly we celebrate our Italian ancestral tradition called ‘festa,’ with lots of traditional foods, but other than that, a lot of the Italian traditions aren’t celebrated in my family. I have three kids now and we don’t spend lots of time on old traditions, but we do practice Catholicism and we do go to the local church for the Sunday Sermons.”
“You yourself, do you understand the Italian language?” Asked Frank with a curious look on his face.
“Unfortunately, I don’t speak the motherland’s language, but I do understand some phrases and sentences. Even though I come from Italian descendants I consider myself as an American.
“With all the stereotypes on the Italian-Americans, how do you feel?” Frank asked.
“Honestly I don’t really mind. I have always been that kind of person, not really thinking a lot about the stereotypes that go around, however I do remember when my dad would always rant about how annoying it was when they depicted us Italian-Americans as mobsters, or careless, insane people. Not everyone can be satisfied with it.”
“Well thank you very much for letting us interview you, once again.”
“Your welcome. Actually, you can have my great-grandfather’s journal,” thinking that the journal had more benefits towards them, then it did towards me.
“Thank you so much. This will really help us with our story on the movie we’re making,” Frank replied with a grin on his face.
“Well it was a pleasure being in your future movie and I look forward to seeing it when it comes out,” and as I walked away from the group and left the big studio, I started to walk home, full of accomplishment and joy, that I contributed to a project on my own ancestral nationality.
“After I watched as Tomas Bianco left the studio, I looked at the rest of the guys telling them that we had heard one of the most inspirational stories ever. Everyone was cheering. “Hey Frank, this movie is going to be amazing.” I couldn’t help, but smile. Then I looked at the dusty, leatherback journal that I was so honoured to hold in my possession. So I opened it and read the first line:
“I remember getting on the boat in 1890. It was a cold day at the harbour...”
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