Spanish Immigration

Spanish Immigration
Ethan CT Burwell
May 28, 2010

Since its birth, America has been a melting pot. It is a land that people from nearly every country, background, and ethnicity have come to. Some
came to escape war, oppression, and persecution; some came to find jobs, make money, and raise a family. Others simply came for a new beginning. Since the mid 1800’s millions of immigrants have crossed the oceans to find a place of their own in this land we call “home.” Among the many nationalities that have come were the Italians.
In a small apartment in Poughkeepsie, New York a seventy seven year old woman sits knitting a small checkered blanket for one of her great grandchildren. It is almost summer, but the stitching technique that she uses will allow the garment to breathe when the infant child uses it. Her name is Elvira Celio Tocco; she is my grandmother. Having been born in the hilly village of Palena, Elvira is an immigrant to the United States. On the surface she could pass for any senior citizen in the multicultural city in which she lives, but behind the heavy set shoulders and the medium length hair, now grey with age, she has lived a life which few of us have ever known.
Having been born in 1933 on the 10th of April, the village in which she grew up was fairly isolated and largely agriculturally based. Her early years were that of a small child, and while attending local school, she helped her mother and grandparents at home completing tasks around the house and enjoying the freedoms of a small youth. When asked what sticks out in her early memory, she responds in English “the day they made us leave.” Though too young to recall, at the time, the political atmosphere in which my grandmother grew up was turbulent as Mussolini lead the country closer and closer to the edge of the second world war. In Palena, the “peasants and the workers” nearly all had a son or a relative involved in the war.
When Italy signed the armistice with allied troops in 1943, this sided them against the German forces. In 1943, at the age of ten, Elvira remembers “the Germans ordered the evacuation of the town. The residents of Palena had to abandon their houses and had three days in which to do it.” This was a time of great confusion and hardship for not only my grandmother, but for nearly all Italians in the province of Abruzzi. Here she recollects an occasion in which German troops occupied her grandparents house and ate their cat; it is a story she has told many times before. She recalls that, when she and her family left they walked along with other refugees though the rough terrain of the Apennines. It was November and there was snow on the ground. Few of them were adequately prepared for such conditions. They walked, until they reached a train that eventually took them and many other people to southern Italy which had been secured by Allied forces.
Elvira eventually ended up in a refugee camp in Chieti where she, along with nearly 2000 other refugees remained until returning home to Palena in 1948. It was in the early 1950’s that she married my grandfather. What was left from the war had left little reliable work in Palena and as a result many people applied to immigrate to other countries, namely Australia and the US. After first being declined to work in Australia my grandfather applied for permission to travel to the United States on the basis of “family reunion,” intending to reunite with an uncle who had immigrated before the war. When his application for immigration was accepted, my grandfather left Italy by himself leaving Elvira with one young daughter and another on the way; the three of them waited in Italy until my Grandfather, Artemio, could establish himself there and then send for them.
Elvira and her two young daughters eventually joined her husband in America in 1958 at the age of 25. After a two hour drive, they boarded a small, noisy plane which flew them from Rome to JFK Airport in New York. Here, she hoped to raise her family and escape the poverty and sharecropping that the war had left behind back home.
She remembers, upon first arriving in New York that it was much different from the world back home. “Even from Rome it was different. It was larger and with a completely different tone. The family settled in Astoria, Queens where Artemio contracted as an architect completing several projects as he became more fluent in English.
For Elvira, the English gradually came, however, after being abandoned by her husband several years after they arrived she found herself having to raise her two girls alone, plus a third who had been born in New York. On her own and in a land that still was not her own, she stayed in touch with her parents back home, but despite her difficult situation she opted to stay in America. Going back, she felt would be throwing her burdens back on her family, and was not a option that she could side with. Eventually she got a job as a secretary in a business office in New York, from which she supported her children. However, sometime later she fell very ill and was dependant on medical care for several years. Her children wound up going to a girl’s home upstate before going through several foster homes. After she had recovered from her illness, Elvira again took up work as a secretary in the city where she stayed for over a decade before moving upstate with her oldest daughter. Here too she worked as an office secretary, walking to catch a bus to work everyday.
Elvira is retired and spends most of her time in her apartment watching the news and sowing fabrics into colorful works of art. Today she has eight grandchildren, and eight great grandchildren, the youngest of which reminds her of her brother Simone, who stayed in Italy. In the course of our somewhat casual interview something about immigration laws flashes across CNN, on the silenced television in the background; my mother is watching it. I use this as an opportunity to ask her about her view on current immigration. She has mixed feelings on today’s immigration system in this country. She understands the discontent that many Americans have with illegal immigration and the need to find a solution, however, answers such as recent laws passed in Arizona are ones that she can not accept. “I know what it’s like to not have anything at home, I also know what it’s like to be forced into a position where you have to leave everything behind, and it isn’t easy, but it is something that people have to do to survive.” By trying to preserve an American image, by rejecting people seeking help we are in effect suffocating them, and sentencing them to a life we do not want. Elvira, however, clearly does understand that the roots of the problem reach way below the surface.
Today she doesn’t have many plans for the future. Now, her main concern is making sure that the families Italian culture is not melted into the soup of the melting pot. “I feel that too many people today forget how they got to where they are and where they came from.” In a world blazed by mainstream conformity, her fears for her future generations are ones that appear justified, and it is her hope that her children and grandchildren will keep alive the stories and culture that she carried across the ocean.

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