“Most Italian immigrants left Italy to escape poverty. In the late 19th century, peasants and unskilled laborers experienced difficulty because the Italian land system did not offer much hope for personal improvement and the Italian government policy pursued national industrialization at the expense of the people. Landlords had control of land and they charged high rent, paid low wages, and did not provide stable employment. Also, between 1870 and 1900 production of foodstuffs, except for fresh fruit, fish, tomatoes, and vegetables, slowed. Thus, malnutrition spread throughout Italy.
“Mass migration to the United States began as early as 1872, but substantial Italian immigration to the United States is noted between 1884 and 1920 when approximately 7 million Italians arrived. Most Italian immigrants departed from Southern Italy and landed in New York City. Italian arrivals increased by chain migration, which is a process whereby immigrants arriving in America acted as personal labor agents and told their family and friends when and where jobs were available. This flow continued as long as favorable economic conditions existed in America.”
-- from “Italians in the Hudson Valley,” by Christine Scivolette http://www.marist.edu/summerscholars/97/italian.htm
My grandparents were Italian immigrants and my mother was seven years old when she arrived at Ellis Island in New York. Before leaving Italy my grandparents heard stories about the opportunities and quality of life that was available to “anyone” who came to America.
First my grandparents on my dad’s side came to the U.S., and then my mom’s parents followed along, taking their first-born child (my mom) of seven years of age. Both of my grandparents came from different parts of Italy, but both settled in Connecticut. My grandparents went to work and roughly 15 years later my mom and dad met and married.
Neither of my grandparents spoke English when they arrived in the States and both grandfathers started working in the construction industry. My grandfather Pete (my namesake) was a ditch digger: As he put it, “I’m the best digger in the company.” My Grandpa Pete ruled the roost and his first rule was that everyone – including Italian-speaking guests – always “speak-a-the English,” when in his home. When I was very young, I would ask Grandpa Pete to teach me Italian and he would always say, “Petey, it’s better you only speak English!”
My Grandpa Pete went from construction worker to owning his own grocery store. He then bought a bowling alley and later opened a dance hall. In the end he had what we would call a nightclub with a bowling alley attached to it. He then bought a vacation home on the ocean and years later he and my grandmother retired comfortably in Florida.
My other grandfather, Leonard, moved to California, bought a small home, worked construction to get by and then passed away, leaving his Italian-speaking wife alone. Both grandfathers were fearless enough to leave their homelands and make the journey with no guarantees of work in the United States. However, my Grandpa Pete far exceeded my Grandpa Leonard’s success in every aspect.
I recently asked my mom why one of my grandfathers accomplished so much more than the other. My mom said, “People loved your Grandpa Pete’s attitude. He worked hard to learn English and was excited about becoming a citizen. People wanted to help him and see him succeed.”
Both grandfathers came from Italy and both had similar and minimal educations, but, one of the two had an attitude people loved. One grandfather wanted to master English and the other didn’t really care. One grandfather really wanted to be an American citizen and the other just wanted to have a better life than he had in Italy.
From what I gathered from my mom and from my own knowledge of Grandpa Pete, I realized that he did three things to achieve the level of success he had hoped and dreamed about.
LanguageAs I mentioned earlier, no one was allowed to speak Italian in his home. He told everyone that we are in America and Americans speak English. He also believed it was necessary for him and his children to speak English if they wanted the best opportunities.
When I was in school I took five years of Spanish, and at that time I could carry on a good conversation. I worked at a grocery store where I could use my second language to help Hispanics. I always looked forward to my Spanish class because my teacher was Hispanic and she made class time very exciting.
Personally, I think my Grandpa Pete went to an extreme by not allowing the family to speak Italian, but my mom said it was actually fun. She said, “we would all be talking English and all of sudden we couldn’t come up with the right English word so we would whisper the word in Italian to each other until one of us came up with the right English word. As long as Grandpa Pete didn’t hear Italian, everything was fine!”
AttitudeGrandpa Pete’s attitude was so positive that people wanted to be around him and they wanted him to succeed. I remember the words, “the ditches gotta be dug and I’m the best digger in the company.”
Grandpa Pete came to work singing and whistling and he left work singing and whistling. He wanted to learn as much as he could about construction and business, and he was willing to put forth the effort. He was always willing to do extra work on the weekends and evenings. He trusted people completely until there was a reason not to trust them. He looked for the best in people and he usually got what he was looking for.
BehaviorHis family, co-workers, employers, customers, friends and neighbors admired Grandpa Pete’s behavior. He was a devoted husband and father and was depended upon by many people. When he had very little, he shared food, blankets and his time with people in need. He was very patient, kind, gentle, honest, trustworthy, trusting and an enthusiastic man.
Grandpa Pete was also a life-long learner. He went to school to learn English and math skills until he was proficient. I guess you would say he was disciplined and saw the value in upgrading his skills in many areas.
As I compare my Grandfather Leonard’s attitude and behavior to my Grandfather Pete’s, I see why Grandpa Pete excelled and Leonard more or less just got by. Grandpa Leonard wasn’t interested in being a part of the community or upgrading his skills. He wasn’t interested in really learning English or understanding math. In fact, I was told he had trouble counting change.
Desire or PrideWhat sort of attitude kept my Grandpa Leonard from learning English or from taking an interest in his community? Was it pride that kept him from learning, or was he willing to settle for a life of poverty? If I decided that I wanted to move to a Spanish-speaking country I would have to learn the language if I wanted to achieve a high level of success. I would have to learn the culture of the country in order to better understand the people of that culture. If my Grandpa Leonard didn’t want to learn the English language or the American culture he may have been happier staying in Italy.
My Grandpa Pete had a desire for everything American, including the language. He wanted to be a citizen and he wanted his children and his grandchildren to benefit from his decision to come to America. If it were not for my Grandpa Pete’s attitude, which led to his desire to learn and grow, our family may not be where it is today.
One of our project managers is from Vietnam. I asked him why he worked so hard to learn English. He said: “To achieve the American dream you have to speak English and learn the American culture. If you don’t, you have to settle for much less than what you can achieve.”
America is a culture-conscious country. However, we are to the point where I believe we are doing more damage than good in being so accommodating. The Hispanics are a good example of people who are being hurt by our willingness to accommodate. Schools, hospitals, and government didn’t make special accommodations for my grandparents and their children. Personally, I’m glad they were not accommodated. By not accommodating the Italians or other immigrants, it forced these wonderful people to learn the English language and they grew from there.
It bothers me to know that non-English-speaking people could achieve so much more if they could speak English. Communication in any industry is vital, and since construction is the industry I’m most involved in, I would like to see non-English speaking construction workers and their families achieve a high level of success, like my Grandpa Pete did.
I would like to see non-English-speaking people in America learn English and the American culture while maintaining their heritage, as did my Grandpa Pete. What a shame not to achieve the level of success you have dreamed about due to a language barrier.
People with positive attitudes are committed to improving every part of their personal and professional life. It’s a positive attitude that causes you to go to school and learn something new or upgrade your skills. It’s a positive attitude that keeps you focused on your career, family and future. A person’s attitude controls behavior and there are many thieves like fear, pride, arrogance, hate, racism, and addictions that are robbing people of their dreams.
My Grandpa Pete was an immigrant who came to the States with nothing and because of his positive attitude, his personal and professional life was very successful. I believe a person’s attitude gets a person to where he or she wants to go. If your attitude doesn’t allow you to trust, learn and grow, you won’t.
¡Gracias por lectura!
(Thanks for reading!)
¡Recuerde, el trabajo en equipo comienza con un contrato justo!
(Remember. Teamwork begins with a fair contract!)