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My Italian Immigration Story Hails from a Shithole Too

The same old story is still a good story.

Angelo Cafueri

Over a century ago when my family started to immigrate from Southern Italy, I don’t doubt that established Americans thought the area was a shithole too. I’m sure they extended the sentiment to the people also. Now long acceptable as an immigration source, you’d think people like Donald Trump would know God himself didn’t welcome all those Italians—and that’s whether they came with papers or not. Of course, the President isn’t the only idiot we have, and my family story cuts across many of the same immigration issues America has wrestled with in the past.

It should be noted that the larger details are mostly on the mark. Conversely, the smaller elements are probably suspect to the childhood memories degradation that occurs in us all. Such is history, and it makes for a better story anyway.

Self-deportation Before Its Time

My great grandfather Alfonso Monetti came through Ellis Island just before 1900. He married here and had five children—including my grandfather, Charlie.

Still, all that procreation didn’t stop Alfonso from making himself available to the ladies. In fact, if I can trust my recollections, the husband of one of his lovers actually shot him.

He did recover. But when his wife died several years later, he returned to Italy with his mistress and left five children to fend for themselves.

Theirs became a struggle to remain out of foster care, which created an unbreakable bond between them. Nonetheless, Alfonso’s action was probably welcomed by America’s betters and probably qualify him as a visionary. No, Mitt Romney you’re not the first to come up with the idea of “self-deporting.”

Streets Not Paved in Gold

I don’t know my paternal grandmother’s story, but my mother’s ancestral account certainly makes up for it. Vito Ancora, my grandmother’s father, was a successful musician in the early 20th century.

But that didn’t stop him from dreaming bigger. Leaving behind the cobblestones of Southern Italy, he gambled that America’s gold paved streets would make an apt entrance for his family. Once achieving the financial advantage he considered a certainty, Vito would send the tickets.

It didn’t quite work out, and by the time his wife and three children arrived, Vito was subsisting like most new immigrants. This is reminiscent of parents who left Central America in hopes of establishing a better life here before sending for their kids.

Of course, a major difference is that his was not a choice of necessity. Not a judgment on my part, he simply risked and failed.

Unfortunately, some here are less kind to families in much more dire circumstances today. “Any American parent who hands his kid off to a coyote to be taken 1,700 miles would be thrown in jail in this country for child abuse,” Jeanine Pirro of Fox News recently spouted.

I wonder what the charge is if you passively subject your kids to Central American gangs.

Interestingly, that’s not the entire story, and it holds another contemporary parallel. Quotas did not allow Vito’s entire family to enter America. Thus, a choice was presented before the family disembarked. The older brother and sister should emigrate to Argentina and return when the numbers were more favorable.

Yes, they were forced to make this unimaginable decision. I wonder if that qualifies as child abuse. I guess even the sharp legal skills of Jeanine Pirro would say no since both were young adults.

As it turned out, my future great aunt and uncle made a life for themselves in the Southern Hemisphere, and now I have a boatload of relatives in Buenos Aires.

Right off the Boat

That leaves my maternal grandfather, Angelo Cafueri. He was a member of the King’s Guard at the time Mussolini seized power, and his brother's political troublemaking landed the younger Cafueri in jail for a brief time. Once my grandfather was able to secure his brother’s release, the new normal didn’t sit so well Angelo. He resolved to come to America by any means.

Nonno got a job on an Italian supply ship with every intention of using it as his vehicle. When the boat docked in New York, any means arrived. The catch was that asking for any substantial amount of back pay to see New York suggested your intentions and quartered the seaman to the ship.

My recollection is this. “I got off the boat with a few dollars in my pocket and waived goodbye to the captain,” my grandfather used to tell me.

A classic without papers Italian, he successfully stayed a step ahead of immigration. He eventually achieved legal standing when he married Anna Ancora.

It took me until adulthood to ask him why he married “Nonni.” He coyly said, “because I loved her,” as if an element of convenience was attached.

But for me, weighing the true balance between both considerations revealed itself in where the tears were situated when family disagreements arose. They all belonged to him.

Right of Return

Even so, he was an illegal for several years, and the debt has never been paid. You know what, I’ve never been to Italy. If I’m not mistaken, ICE pays for your ticket. I could really use a respite from this break neck American pace.

But once completing the sentence, I probably wouldn’t be so eagerly welcomed back. The average Italian works only 37 hours a week. That’s nothing compared to America. The same goes for the work week my grandfather put in when he quit grade school to support his ten brothers and sisters.

Wow, the place has become a real shithole. Sorry Donald Trump—I guess you can’t win. Or you could just stop being such a shithead.

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