Archive for the ‘heritage’ Category

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Black History Matters

February 19, 2017

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Yes, I know. All history matters.

However, it is necessary to make this proclamation because of the very nature of history itself. It is, after all, not just the telling of what happened in the past. It is the telling of what happened in the past from the perspective of those who are writing the history. In the words of Dan Brown, “History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books — books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?’ ”

The Arawak, Taino, and Caribe peoples of the Caribbean islands did not get to tell the story of Columbus and his “discovery” and subsequent conquest. Theirs would have been quite a different version than the one we have read for years in our grade school history books. So too did the Cherokee, Chippewa, Sioux, Blackfoot, Apache, and Navajo not get to describe the “taming of the West” as they knew it.

Nor did the slaves during that shameful two hundred forty-six year period in our history or their descendants who bore the oppressive burden of segregation have the opportunity to give voice to their experience for the greater populace to understand and appreciate.

This is the reason black history matters. And women’s history. And that of Native American Indians, Hispanics, and all others that have been traditionally disregarded. To ignore both the struggles and contributions of these groups is to taint the history of this country as incomplete and misleading.

Mention this year of Black History Month has been all too scarce (other than the hollow Trump statement with its ridiculous reference to Frederick Douglas). I would have hoped this is because we have reached a time of greater enlightenment. However, the present climate in which both emboldened intolerance and the phenomenon of “alternative facts” have gotten a foothold would indicate otherwise.

It is unacceptable for the American people as a whole to not have proper knowledge of a significant part of our population, especially since it has had an integral role in shaping the very nation we have become. It is important to recognize the impact — both on the perpetrators and the victims — of the  slave trade: the abject misery of the Middle Passage, the brutality of the treatment the captured Africans endured, and their ensuing life in America as mere property. For a country which purports to live by the ideals of liberty and justice for all, it is necessary to recognize that we imposed such arbitrary and restrictive practices on that portion of the population living in servitude and then after the Civil War, though supposedly free, the incredible injustice and indignity of the Jim Crow Laws. We as a nation should also be inspired by the words and deeds of those who stood up to the injustice and by the amount that was accomplished by them in the face of great odds, lessons unfortunately still applicable to this day.

It is clear that there is work in this area remaining to be done if we are indeed going to continue to make strides and actually see the day when, as succinctly put in the lyrics of the Wailers’ song, “there are no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation….(and) the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes.” We will need all members of our society to gain a more complete and balanced understanding of the past and its continued effect on the present. It is not enough to merely pay lip service to the paramount American ideal of equality. We have enough insincere politicians doing that. An America that truly lives up to its principles must recognize and affirm its past, shortcomings as well as successes. Black History Month was and still is one necessary step in that process.

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The Price They Paid

October 23, 2016
the great irony of America

the great irony of America

America has historically been a land of immigrants from the advent of the Pilgrims right through the present. This country is still seen by many people all over the world as the best hope for a better future, but it has always come with a price.

In spite of the altruistic welcome by Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty which says “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me…,” each new immigrant group is often met with disdain, misunderstanding, distrust, and often outright hatred. This has been true for virtually every nationality and ethnicity, and it was no different for the Italian immigrants who flocked to these shores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The indignities began with many instances of violence. Between the years of 1870 and 1940, only African-Americans suffered more lynchings than the Italian immigrants. The dubious distinction of the largest mass lynching in American history falls to the Italians in 1891.

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This occurred in New Orleans after the police chief was shot and killed right before he was to testify against a group of Italian dock workers. The chief reportedly whispered “the dagos did it” before he died. The city reacted by rounding up Italian men indiscriminately. As related by the New Orleans Times-Democrat, “The little jail was crowded with Sicilians whose low, receding foreheads, repulsive countenances and slovenly attire proclaimed their brutal nature.”

Nine Italian men went on trial for murder, and all were acquitted. However, a mob stormed the prison, shot nine of them in their cells, and then dragged two more out and hanged them. A subsequent investigation excused the actions of the mob, something that caused the government of Italy to sever diplomatic relations with the United States.

There are far too many examples of the brutal manifestation of the ill feelings directed toward these newcomers. In 1920, the Italian neighborhood in West Frankfort, Illinois, was attacked by mobs. People of all ages were dragged from their homes and beaten, and entire blocks were burned. The railroading and ultimate executions of Sacco and Vanzetti in Massachusetts became emblematic of the treatment of Italians by the biased American establishment.

Other more subtle forms of ill will had to be tolerated during the slow process of assimilation. There was rampant discrimination in housing and hiring, and students had to survive the negative attitudes and limited expectations prevalent in the schools. Being of Italian descent also meant suffering the disrespectful slurs that unfortunately befall all immigrant groups, from blatant name-calling — wop, dago, guinea — to crude ethnic jokes and innuendo.

When I was young, I remember my very Teutonic aunt making what I interpreted even in the innocence of my youth as disparaging comments about my Italian American mother. I don’t really know exactly what she said or even if I understood it fully, but it was clear by her facial expression and the tone of her voice what was going on. My mother just laughed it off as a joke, but I could tell that this was not the case. She never spoke much about such treatment until I was an adult. It became clear from her brief anecdotes that being Italian had its social drawbacks and that one would be commonly subjected to being called derisive names.

Popular culture often reinforces the worst of the negative stereotypes of any group, and so it is for the Italian American. From the spate of mobster movies that gained popularity from the older shoot-em-up Capone type films to the more recent Godfather and Goodfellas and the widely acclaimed TV series The Sopranos, such criminal activity has long been associated with this population, the majority of whom had nothing to do with it. Later “reality” shows such as Jersey Shore focused on those sensationalized attributes also widely accepted as part of the Italian American identity. Do these exist? Yes, they do, but they are certainly not universally applicable to all people of Italian heritage, nor are they limited to this one group.

So during this Italian American Heritage Month — as in every other commemorative month — some reflection is called for. Those of us who have descended from any group of immigrants regardless of origin should remember the price our predecessors had to pay for their entry into this new society. It would behoove us, it seems, to apply these lessons to our treatment of those who are now going through the same trials as our own ancestors.

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Remember your own beginnings…

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The Italian in Me

October 2, 2016

Though many are likely not aware of it, October is National Italian American Heritage Month. No doubt quite a few jokes have been made at the expense of this commemorative designation, but in spite of many widespread negative images and stereotypes of Italian Americans, there is much to be proud of.

Almost 6% of the population of our country, some 15.7 million people, are of Italian heritage. Though most of the original immigrants started their journey in the United States low on the totem pole, the successive generations have made their mark in virtually every area of endeavor. Best known, of course, are those who achieved prominence in music, film, and sports (and yes, unfortunately, crime), names familiar to all: Frank Sinatra, Robert De Niro, Joe DiMaggio, Al Capone. However, others, though perhaps not household names, have excelled in politics, jurisprudence, the sciences, and the arts.

But most have not achieved fame. They are policemen, firemen, mechanics, nurses, teachers, and office workers, the ordinary people in all walks of life, each bringing some degree of their Italian background to their American lives. I believe the American culture has been enriched by their contributions as well.

My Italian-American mom Ida.

My Italian American mom Ida.

I happen to be half Italian, that half coming from my mother. She was named Aida after the opera, though everyone knew her as Ida. Her family was 100% Italian. During my entire childhood, we would make weekly Sunday visits to the Brooklyn home of Sal and Mary Laporte, my grandparents, where I learned about my Italian heritage. Most of what I know about the food, language, and customs came from that small second-floor railroad apartment on Bay Ridge Avenue.

My mother had not only married a non-Italian, but someone from New Jersey, for heaven’s sake. I suppose these Sunday family visits were a necessary part of the deal for my father, not that he minded once he sat down at my grandma’s dinner table. That alone was worth the drive.

My grandpa would “reserve” a parking space right out in front of the building by placing his beat-up garbage cans in the street and then standing guard on his stoop so no interloper could sneak in. When we’d pull up, he’d greet us, cigar jutting out from his big smile showing his single front tooth. Grandma would be upstairs cooking, and as we were ushered up the steps, she’d come down the hall to deliver her smothering hugs with her apron on and a wooden spoon in her hand.

My cousin Bobby (taken in by my grandma as a boy after his mother died) would pop in from his daily duty of hanging around the neighborhood and sometimes pull me aside into his tiny room to show me some teenage treasure of his (a switch blade, a Cadillac hubcap he’d “found”) or tell some story of his latest adventures. A few years older than me and a whole lot more street smart, I learned most of the curse words I knew from these sessions. Soon my Uncle Mike and Aunt Josie who lived downstairs would come up with cousins Mike and Gerry.

the backyard at Bay Ridge Ave.-- Bobby and grandpa (with ever-present stogie)

the backyard at Bay Ridge Ave. with a young Bobby and grandpa (with ever-present stogie)

Of course the reason for the trip was to see family, but the main event was the food. As my grandmother, mother, and Aunt Josie finished up in the kitchen, we would all congregate in the dining room in eager anticipation.

The eating would begin around noon and continue on and off until coffee and desert time around seven. In between, plentiful courses were served in the warmth of the old-fashioned dining room, foods that resonated with the sound of Italy: braciole, prosciutto, provolone, pasta e fagioli, rigatoni. These courses would be separated by adult conversation and kids going off to play or nap to return again for the next round.

First came the antipasto, a table full of all kinds of delectable finger foods, cheeses and olives and crusty bread. Then the part I loved best, the pasta with steam rising off the huge platter along with extra gravy bowls full of red, rich, aromatic tomato sauce. My taste expectations for pasta were set here, seldom to be met elsewhere until I got married; my mother-in-law’s gravy turned out to be almost an exact match! Then there would be meat dishes accompanied by vegetables and followed by salad. Grandpa presided over the whole operation, wine bottle by his side. These meals were legendary, and we would all stuff ourselves to the point of near exploding amidst the loud and animated conversations liberally peppered with Italian curses swirling about the table and the unmistakable feel of family bonds.

As the day drew to a close, coats were retrieved and goodbyes were said, and we headed back through the dusk to my other world on the Jersey side. I would often nod off in the back seat, dreams fueled by the tastes of my forefathers. Those Sundays in Brooklyn captured that irreplaceable time in my life when the connections to family roots were so strong. I cherish the memories, and I am thankful that I can look back and see where I came from and recognize those parts of me that are indebted to Sal and Mary and pasta that was nothing short of paradise.

My adult life received a second infusion when I married an Italian American girl. My address book took on many additions to the LaPortes and Rizzos with Vendittis, Bertuccis, and Butricos joining the list. Her parents, Mary and Tony, provided continuity in the fueling of the Italian in me.

The Christmases of most of my adult life that I enjoyed so much involved sitting around the table in the dining room at my in-laws. On Christmas Eve we held the traditional dinner of seven fishes. Then on Christmas day once again, the food — oh, the food! First the plates of capocol, pepperoni, salami, prosciutto, and tangy chunks of provolone, the bowls of olives and peperoncini, home-roasted red peppers in garlic and olive oil, crunchy celery and fennel, tuna fish and crusty Italian bread, and highlighted by Mary’s specialty, stuffed mushrooms, all enough for a meal by itself. A time for more wine and lively conversation, and then the arrival of Mary’s piece d’ resistance, lasagna, a massive platter of pasta layers filled with ricotta and tiny meatballs and topped with melted mozzarella and her incomparable red gravy. My mouth waters merely thinking about it.

After Mary could no longer manage all the preparation, the tradition carried forth at our house for Christmas Eve and then at my brother-in-law Anthony’s for Christmas. Though the gathering may have grown smaller in number over the years, it has remained great in spirit.

Christmas Eve seven fishes, now at our house

Christmas Eve with the seven fishes, now at our house.

Since the influx of Italians into America, our society has been influenced by and in turn has influenced those who stem from that southern boot of Europe. This unique blend of Italian-American-ness has manifest itself in both positive and sometimes not so positive ways. I choose to celebrate the positive and revel in the warmth, passion, friendliness, and generosity so typical of this heritage which has become an integral part of the American fabric. So to all my connazionali out there, full-blooded or otherwise, I wish you buona salute, lunga vita, and felicita, and may we keep the best of ourselves flourishing.

 

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Deep Roots

September 15, 2015

 

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“So, your name is Ortiz. That’s funny, you don’t look Spanish.”

“I’m not. People who are Spanish are from Spain.”

“Where are you from?”

“I’m from here, but my parents were from Ecuador.”

“So you’re Spanish then…”

Being Hispanic in the United States means many things. It means being part of a vibrant culture with a rich heritage of history, art, literature, and music. It means enjoying cuisines that are as varied as they are flavorful. It means family and the recognition of a collective inheritance preserved in names and stories and blood. Oh, yes, and it means a linguistic background of Spanish.

But being Hispanic also means other things. It means frequent confusion over national identity. And it often means to be plunged, rightly or wrongly, into the controversy over immigration.

Today is the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month, something which many people are barely aware exists. I believe it is quite necessary in order to increase awareness of the place this heritage occupies in our nation’s lifeblood.

When one examines the multi-cultural entity that is America, its Hispanic roots run deep. Most of the earliest arrivals to this country were Spanish. Over one third of the land — all of the southwest, most of the west, and Florida — were under Spanish control in the early period of colonization, and that influence still remains in the culture of those regions to this day.

But beyond that, the modern history of this nation is being impacted by its citizens of Hispanic heritage, currently accounting for seventeen percent of the population, making it the largest minority in the country. It is projected that by 2060 that number will rise to thirty-one percent. They are the product of the original Spanish exploration and colonization, people from Mexico and the countries of Central and South America and the Caribbean as well as a new wave from Spain itself. Each has its own individual cultural characteristics with language as its common denominator. A better understanding of who these people really are is needed to offset the all-too-often negative images pervasive in the broader society.

It is certainly not a new phenomenon that a cultural group be branded by the stereotype of the lowest strata of its kind. Italian-Americans have been broadly painted as underworld mobsters in spite of the vast majority who are honest and hard-working. Irish-Americans bore the stigma of being drunken brawlers and Polish-Americans the dim lightbulbs, neither of which applies to most of those populations.

And so it is with Hispanic-Americans. The majority of Mexican-Americans are not cholos in lowriders. Not all Central Americans are gun-toting gang members nor are most South Americans drug-smuggling cartel members. And, contrary to common belief, most are not illegal immigrants. Unfortunately, the presence of these stereotypes in popular media belies this truth. I suppose a TV series about a Mexican-American gardener or a movie about an industrious Peruvian roofer or a news story examining the success of a store clerk of Dominican descent would not be as enticing to the viewing public, and that only serves to underscore the need for some accurate portrayals of this population.

We still labor over this question of exactly who is an American, and many continue to harbor the Archie Bunkerish idea that there are somehow “real” Americans that are different from these other folks who also populate our land. Somehow the concept that every person here other than the Native American Indians is in essence of immigrant stock seems to escape these “real” Americans.

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And just what is it that makes us American? Our skin color? The country from which our predecessors came? The food we eat or the religion we follow or the music we listen to? The amount of time that has passed since our familial forebears first arrived? Far too often such faulty criteria are used, and the result can only serve to perpetuate the gulf between us.

I would like those who are detractors to come visit my adult ESL classes some time to meet the people I teach. They are hard-working and right living, ordinary folks who happen to be Hispanic. They are good neighbors, attentive parents, and contributing members of society. Some of them toil all night doing the kind of jobs “real Americans” won’t take. After arriving home in the morning with just enough time to wash up and change clothes, they come to class to improve their English, trying to better themselves and in turn ensure their children a better future in their new country, a situation that has been a common thread throughout the long history of this nation.

I have come to know many of their children over the years, and they are as American as any of the other kids in their neighborhoods and classes. They speak English and love Disney World and join gymnastics or basketball or Student Council just like your kids did. And, as ought to be the case with every American, they should be able to be proud of their heritage just as you are of yours, for that is the true American way.

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Jim Crow, Football Hero

February 26, 2012

As another Black History Month comes to a close, I couldn’t help notice how little attention seems to be paid to it. At first thought this is a good thing, a sign that attitudes have changed enough so that the oversights of the past no longer exist. Then I think back to what occurred in my own classroom just a few short years ago, and I have serious doubts about that conclusion.

Martin Luther King freed the slaves. Jim Crow was a famous football player. There is still slavery in the South. These are amongst the many astounding pieces of “information” the adolescents in my classes possessed. How could this possibly be? How can one grow up in America, be educated for nine years in good schools, be constantly exposed to information in media of all kinds, and still be so in the dark about such a major element of our nation’s — and indeed the world’s — history, one which still has a profound effect on our country today?

As a Language Arts teacher, my curriculum included nonfiction literature, writing of many types (especially persuasive and expository), as well as research. We were also charged with the responsibility of something called “character education.” What better opportunity could present itself than the topics opened up through Black History Month? Killing two birds with one educational stone became part of my mission.

Sometimes the story of the African-American in this country from slavery through segregation became the subject of a research project. The goal was to learn the nuts and bolts of good research from note card production to documentation to final MLA format copy, a tool that would serve the students well the rest of their school years. Other times it became the fodder for a persuasive essay, another academic necessity and a primary focus of the state Language Arts test.

Along the way, these students were exposed, many for the first time it seems, to the horrors of the slave trade and the incredible injustice and indignity of the Jim Crow Laws. They expressed shock at the brutality of the treatment the captured Africans endured and the abject misery of the Middle Passage followed by a life as mere property. They were stunned and incredulous that a country which purported to live by the ideals of liberty and justice for all could impose such arbitrary and restrictive practices on that portion of the population living in servitude and then, after the Civil War, supposedly free. I was glad for these reactions, for they are proper and fitting, but there was a positive side as well. The students were also inspired by the words and deeds of those who stood up to the injustice. They were encouraged by the amount that was accomplished by them in the face of great odds. They also wisely recognized that there is some work in this area still to be done, and that it was their generation who would be responsible for doing it.

It is always a mystery to teachers exactly what and how much their students take from their classes. It was my hope that both the language arts and the character lessons during Black History Month would be internalized and not be just another exercise in “school stuff” that needed to be completed and then forgotten. I saved copies of many of my students’ compositions, and as I reread them, I see sincerity in the reactions they had to what they learned. I trust it was real, for if we are indeed going to continue to make strides and actually see the day when, as succinctly put in the lyrics of the Wailers’ song, “there are no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation….(and) the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes,” we will need members of our society who take this to heart. Black History Month was and still is one necessary step in that process.

It is not enough to merely pay lip service to the paramount American ideal of equality. We have enough hollow politicians doing that. An America that truly lives up to its principles must recognize its shortcomings and address them through meaningful action.  It is my wish that at least some of my students take their place on the front line of that ongoing battle.

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A Dream Examined

January 16, 2012

It is Martin Luther King Day, the time of year when sound bytes of “I have a dream” fill the airwaves and everyone pays lip service to some vague generalities surrounding a highly disputed American icon. School plays are presented, essay contests are held, and grandiose speeches are delivered.

Unfortunately, very little real thought is given to the heart of the matter. Regardless of how you want to regard Dr. King himself, what this is really about is the country itself. This should be a yearly opportunity to reexamine America’s essence, the dream of a nation founded on the principles of freedom, justice, and equality for all. Has America always lived up to these principles? Clearly not.

There have been many egregious breaches of this great social promise from the genocide of the Native American Indians to the legislated discrimination against Asians to slavery and its evil aftermath of segregation. Along the way some people of character and strength such as Dr. King devoted their efforts in often-futile and, for most,  little-publicized attempts to rectify the injustices. They should all be honored and recognized. It is a shame that any of them were needed in the first place.

It is far too easy for those who have ample freedom and prosperity to ignore the plight of those who don’t, and the desire of the haves to “protect what is theirs” is understandable, but to reconcile the existence of both groups within the framework of what America is supposed to be is problematic to me. Until this is resolved, we will not be all that we claim to be.

I have been many places in the world, and I do believe that this indeed is the greatest country. It is not great because of its material wealth, military might, or technological advantages. What makes it great is the opportunity afforded to all. But whenever this opportunity is denied, for whatever reason, it lessens the stature of America. Dr. King put it well when he said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

So today — and every day — we need to examine this dream of a just and equal America and think about our obligation to do what is necessary to help this great country of ours fulfill its promise. To all. All of the time. If and when that happens, Dr. King’s dream and the dream of all fair-minded Americans will have finally been achieved.