I came to America in 1969 from Calabria. The boat trip to New York took eight long days! I was with my mother, brother and sister, and we reunited with my father in Philadelphia. He was here with his brother working as a laborer.
Like many immigrants we had grand expectations about the American Dream. As you read my story, think of the first person in your family who came from another country. What follows is my story as an immigrant child in America. It could be theirs, too!
Weekdays my dad went to work early and we would wait for him so we could eat together every night. To him, a person’s work ethic directly reflected their character and worth. This may be why I always remember having a job. I peddled “fresh federal pretzels” when I was 10, delivered the Philadelphia Bulletin at 12 and worked at Priori’s restaurant during high school.
On Saturdays, he’d wake us early, as sleeping in was for “vagabondo” and there were seasonal wild greens to pick, wine to press and meats to cure in the basement. Our “yard” was a 10-by-6-foot area with tomatoes, peppers, basil, and a fig tree, where he would spend time before heading to the bocce courts in the evening.
My dad chose not to acclimate to the American culture or learn English, associating mostly with a handful of Italians. (Fun fact: I thought every house came with a fig tree!) Although he never became a U.S. citizen, he held onto his green card in his little town of “South Philly.” Once my sister who handled household paperwork explained to him a water bill error and he announced LOUDLY, (we always spoke about important matters LOUDLY), “Tomorrow go tell them who I am and if they don’t fix it ask them what day they can stay late and I’ll take care of it.”
My mom who left behind 12 siblings did EVERYTHING else needed to raise our family.
During school hours she worked as a seamstress then tended to the children and house afterwards. A stellar cook, she’d make homemade pasta, cookies and cakes! We never went out to eat and NEVER, EVER ate anyone else’s meatballs! If my mom didn’t make it, we didn’t eat it!Fun fact: When my dad brought home wild mushrooms she would have him eat them first to determine if they were poisonous. All this went on in our basement while the “real” kitchen upstairs was kept spotless. Mom did learn how to speak English and drive, became a citizen and even opened an alteration business while making friends with everyone in the neighborhood.
On Sundays we all went to church and then mom made gravy and meatballs for the week! One Sunday a month we went to New Jersey to see our “American cousins” who were born in Italy but had blonde hair, a real yard and listened to rock ’n’ roll. Occasionally we would get a phone call in the middle of the night, since Italy is six time zones away. My parents would look at each other and say, “Oh my, I wonder who died?”
We weren’t allowed pets because in Italy, animals lived outside on the farm. One exception was when my father brought this cute rabbit home from the Italian Market where we walked to shop.
I fed that rabbit for weeks until one day we had company to celebrate a special birthday with some really tasty meat. I cried for days, but to our parents it was their way of life.
Although my parents had little formal schooling, they stressed education as a path for a better life. To them, teachers were always right. Once when I was in trouble my teacher smacked me in front of the class. After school I ran home to tell my mom only to discover the teacher in my kitchen – our “real” kitchen no less! And while the other kids had PB&J for lunch, I had giant meatballs in a long Italian roll with broccoli rabe or roasted peppers falling out the sides and a note in Italian asking the teacher to heat it up for us. When I told mom the teachers couldn’t read the notes, she had us write the notes ourselves.
In school I was ashamed to be Italian, especially when kids made fun of my name so I became Louis until 30 years later when publishing my children’ s book “Luigi Discovers Philadelphia,” inspired me to embrace my name and my culture!
Mitch Albom’s “Have a Little Faith” poses the question “Why are people afraid of death?” The main character’s reply is “I think people are more afraid of the ‘second death’ ’’ – being forgotten. Please share the story of the family member you were thinking about earlier and they will be remembered!
Luigi Borda was a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia for 30 years. He was also active in city politics, serving as a Committee Member in Ward 26, and Judge of Elections. He is the author of “Andiamo! Let’s Go! – Luigi Discovers Philadelphia,” which introduces young readers to the immigrant experience.
OUR IMMIGRANT STORIES ARE PROUDLY SPONSORED BY STAMPONE O’BRIEN DILSHEIMER LAW