So, where you from?
So, where you from? Immigration seen through two families who came here and joined into one family and brought me into the world so I could write this brief story of one American man’s heritage, because we’re either Native Americans or we came here from somewhere else and we’re still coming, with the same hope and promise.
So, where you from?
My father was born on a cattle ranch in Argentina. His father had come from Italy and found work there and soon fell in love with one of the servant girls who worked in the great house. She had also emigrated from Italy. They lived in barracks on the large rancho, then married and had their first child, my father.
When my father was ten, he and his parents moved back to Italy, to Camigliano in Tuscany, and took over a grocery store that was owned by the extended family: ‘DiPego Alimentary’. After nine years in Italy my father finished high school and, being the oldest, he was the one to travel to America to find work and help some of his siblings join him there.
He was 19 and spoke almost no English when he boarded the ship in Genoa. He travelled alone with only the name and address of a cousin he’d never met who lived in Cicero, Illinois. He made his way there on the train. The cousin took him in and found him a job in a factory.
My mother’s parents also came to America from Italy. Aboard that ship my grandmother was pregnant with her first child, and the child was born during the passage. There was no doctor in steerage. A Spanish woman helped her give birth, and my aunt was born and named Inez, because that was the name of the woman from Spain.
Once settled in Chicago these grandparents had three more children, one of them my mother, named Alfonsina. They lived in an Italian neighborhood on the South side, and my mother spoke no English until she went to school. She never forgot the shame she felt as the kids made fun of her as the girl who couldn’t speak the language, and then as the girl who spoke ‘broken English’, and then, by the fourth grade, she was fluent, but still carried the pain, and later she rejected that beautiful name Alfonsina and called herself Margaret, which became Peggy, an American name.
My father met my mother’s uncle, and they opened a candy store. Because they sold pineapple candy, the two men were given the nicknames, Little Pineapple (my father) and Big Pineapple (my great uncle who was overweight). My father worked hard and sometimes relaxed by shooting pool, sometimes with Al Capone’s brother, but our family bloodlines go back to northern Italy, not southern, and my relatives, like most Italian-Americans, stood apart from all mob business.
Through his partner (my mother’s uncle) my father met my mother, joining the two families by their marriage. My father and mother lived in an apartment with my mother’s parents. My dad was the wage earner, then half owner of a bar. My mother’s mother did not speak English, but I remember her as a warm, loving presence. My mother asked of my dad that he speak English in the home, and so he did. They spoke Italian to my grandparents and to each other when saying what they didn’t want their children to hear. I regret not growing up bilingual, but I understand my mother’s wishes. Though she seemed to turn away from the past and her “old country,” she certainly honored that heritage with her cooking.
My brother Paul was born, then me, and in 1942 my father was drafted into WWII, even though he was 35 then. So many men were needed. He opted for the Navy and was shipped to California, driving officers around the base at Port Hueneme. On leave in Hollywood he was hit by a car and nearly killed. My mother, who had seldom left the neighborhood, had to get on a train and travel across the country to the Long Beach Naval Hospital to be at his side. It was weeks before he knew where he was, and weeks more mending. In time he was discharged and back to running his bar again, but our neighborhood had grown dangerous. So, when I was nine my father sold his interest in the bar and moved us northeast to the country, to small and peaceful Round Lake, Illinois. My mother’s parents stayed in the city, moving in with my aunt, Inez.
Like his father in Italy, my dad now owned a grocery store where my brother and I worked after school and on weekends: Tip Top Food Mart. It was as if a circle had been completed. By the time I traveled to Italy, my grandparents there had died, but I was welcomed with great affection by all my aunts and cousins. I traveled there several times, once coinciding with a trip my parents had taken to see the family, just outside of the town of Lucca. I watched my parents during that visit, saw my father’s joy, and saw my mother embracing her heritage again, another circle completed.
We’re all from somewhere, and we all have a story, whether we are Native Americans or those who came to live here only last week or 400 years ago, Americans every one, entitled to the promise of this country.