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Growing up in the Butcher Shop: Italian Heritage Month Continues

 Ciao Amici,

Growing up in the butcher shop I often thought of how Grandpop immigrated to the United States when he was just 15 years old. These days it can be difficult to get a 15 year old to cross the street no less get on a ship and travel to a new world. Why did so many leave their country and come to America? The late nineteenth century America was seen as the land of opportunity and New York City as the gateway. My great grandfather Martin died at a young age. My grandfather’s brother Michael was the first to come over and then as he worked as a tailor at Brooks Brothers he sent for each of the other 7 siblings except for Pasquale who stayed in Italy. After the unification of the United States at the end of the civil war in 1865, through foreign eyes America began to emerge as a country where discrimination was intolerable and freedom was promised to all who entered. As the United States economy grew, other countries economies weakened. Many European countries suffered from economic hardship. Crop failure, resulted in loss of jobs and famine. Although poverty became a problem in Europe which helped fuel the mass migration, it was not the only obstacle Europeans faced. For the newcomers arriving without family, some solace could be found in the ethnic neighborhoods populated by their fellow countrymen. Uncle Mike had two apartments on Arthur Ave. in the Bronx. Here they could converse in their native tongue, practice their religion, and take part in cultural celebrations that helped ease the loneliness. Often, though, life for all was not easy. Most industries like the Slate Industry offered hazardous conditions and very low wages--lowered further after the padrone took out his share.  Many found it very difficult to accept. In spite of the difficulties, few gave up and returned home. In today’s world, being Italian the world looks to Italy and Italians for their opinions on food, fashion, cars and whatever else is cool. Sadly however, there was a time, at least here in the United States, when newly-arrived Italians were treated worse than animals. Many in our town where ashamed to be Italian and Americanized there name hoping outsiders would not notice. Today Italians, like all European peoples, are considered racially Caucasian or ‘white’, but that was not always the case. When Italian immigrants began arriving in the United States in the late 19th Century, they were met with racial prejudice. These people, mainly from Southern Italy, were physically darker than most of the arriving immigrants from Europe at the time and were treated harshly.  Their Catholic faith also put them at odds with Protestant America, and grouped them with the other marginalized groups like the Mexicans of the south and the Irish of the north. It was also easy for local law enforcement to pin crimes on men who did not know English, or their legal rights. Grandpop had a saying summing up the disillusionment felt by many: and used this Italian saying "I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, found out three things: First, the streets weren't paved with gold; second, they weren't paved at all: and third, I was expected to pave them." In spite of the difficulties, few gave up and returned home. They were determined to make a better life for themselves and their families.

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