There are good and bad immigrants.
Appleton Morgan explained this in Popular Science (vol 38). Morgan concluded that some immigrants just do not belong in America, no matter how hard we try and make them fit.
These immigrants are prone to violence. They do not share our culture. They do not share our language. They are looking for a handout. They just can’t learn our values.
The title of his article?
“Dago” is mental shorthand for an ugly caricature of the Italian immigrant. That swarthy laborer, chattering in a strange tongue, with strange traditions. He can never be civilized enough to fit in as an “American.”
Was Mr. Morgan wrong?
My great grandparents were illiterate and unskilled. Morgan was talking about them when he wrote his article.
When they arrived in America, they had nothing more than a hope for a better life. Antonina became a citizen as soon as she could, and she burned with pride over it. Giovanni never wanted that. When he wasn’t mending nets, he looked out at the ocean, and lamented that he just wanted to go “home.”
These ancestors stare out from black and white photos, with that gaze of all immigrants from that era — stern seriousness mixed with bewilderment. They rode in donkey carts to the port, sailed on coal-fired ships to America, and by the time they saw their great grandson born under a foreign flag, they also saw that flag planted on the moon.
Donkey-cart-roots grew into the soil of America, and the stalk of the family tree grew into the air of opportunity. Each generation marched forward. My great grandfather Gaetano was denied citizenship because he was illiterate. Now, his great grandchildren are a lawyer, a doctor, military officers, authors, scholars, and political activists who could wallpaper a triple decker with their diplomas. And, this is hardly a unique family story for Italian Americans. As a people, our roots and branches are so intertwined with what it is to be American, that you could hardly imagine America without us. We have had two Supreme Court justices, governors, scientists, inventors, war heroes, you name it. America even bears an Italian name.
We are America now.
We have much to be proud of.
But, we Italian Americans have more than our fair share of anti-immigrant sentiments. In fact, I seem to argue more with Italian Americans than any other group about "our immigrant problem."
Recently, I was having drinks with some Italian immigrants. The bartender heard us speaking Italian and said he too was Italian, and lamented that he never learned the language. His excuse: “My parents never taught me… they wanted us to be Americans.”
“Not like these immigrants today,” he said.
The irony was not lost on my Italian-born friends. He didn’t mean “us.”
He meant those unassimilated immigrants prone to violence. Those who do not share our culture. Those who do not share our language. Those who are looking for a handout. They just can’t learn our values.
I am embarrassed to say that our bartender’s view is common among Italian Americans.
My paesani will never forget the names Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. They won't ever let you forget that the largest mass-lynching in American history was in New Orleans — where a crowd lynched 11 Italian immigrants. But, for some reason, many of us point to the years of discrimination and seem to say "if we got over it, why can't these new immigrants."
For that, Appleton Morgan would be proud of what “the Dago” has become. We have become like him.
And not just Italians. I only pick on them in this piece as an act of "cleaning my own house." But, way too many whose families arrived relatively recently seem to have such little compassion for our new arrivals. Many seem to think "we had it bad" should mean that new arrivals should toughen up and have it bad for a while too — prove their mettle.
"We had it bad" is true. Rather than resting on that as some kind of achievement, it should provoke us to look at new immigrants as we wish Appleton Morgan and his kind had looked at our poor ancestors. Rather than producing indifference, it should be a source of compassion.
"Today’s immigrants” are no different than our ancestors. Too often we remember, and in our next breath, criticize immigrants from Mexico, or Africa, or elsewhere as “different” from us.
But they aren’t.
We should treat new immigrants as we wished we had been treated, not as we were treated.
Otherwise, we may as well all be called “Appleton Morgan.”
Fuck Appleton Morgan.
Marc Randazza is the national president of the First Amendment Lawyers Association
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