At the age of 14, my lovely mother went to work in a Chicago factory sewing ladies’ coats. It was 1918. She was a brilliant girl but couldn’t go to school because her family needed the income. Whenever I hear people rile about “white privilege,” I often wonder if they have my mother in mind.
Twelve million European immigrants passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. Today, it’s estimated that 40% of the U.S. population is descended from these pioneers. My mother arrived with her parents,
in 1911. Like many immigrants of the era, they were so thrilled to be in beautiful America that they did whatever they thought proper to be good citizens.
DiCarlo didn’t mind at all when an immigration official suggested
would sound more American. They happily learned English too.
My family came from Ricigliano, where practically everyone was named Serritella or related to someone who was. The town was inland from the beautiful seaside resort of Sorrento. It took monumental determination for people from Ricigliano to take the train to
for the Atlantic crossing, not knowing what they would find on the other side.
Many experienced discrimination, especially if their complexions were dark. During World War II thousands of American citizens with Italian names were rounded up and whisked away to detention areas. We don’t hear much about this anymore. Italians are not good complainers. Metropolitan Opera star
was arrested and held for three months.
As a child I lived on Chicago’s South Monitor Avenue, across the street from
We children didn’t really know who he was until years later. In 2013 New York’s Metropolitan Opera staged a production of
“Rigoletto” with a
character as the libertine duke. During an intermission interview, one of the duke’s courtiers was introduced as Sam Giancana. I was the only one in the theater who laughed.
Not all Italians were opera stars. Some took to the dark side. The interesting thing about the Italian-American gangsters of old was they actually had a sense of loyalty and honor. They loved America. When my maternal grandmother,
saw a kid with a gun on Cabrini Street, she didn’t hesitate to take it away from him. And nothing happened to her or her 10 children. Last year there were more than 500 murders in Chicago, but the city officials seem to have no interest in stopping the slaughter. Instead they spend their energy dreaming up ways to protect illegal aliens from being deported.
The legal immigrants who came through Ellis Island had to have medical exams and a clean criminal background, not to mention a job and a sponsor. This guaranteed the new arrival wouldn’t be a burden on the country or its citizens. And they weren’t. Ellis Island’s immigrants received nothing from taxpayers. Not a cent. That’s why my teenage mother worked in a factory instead of going to school.
For decades, Italian-Americans were stigmatized as gangsters. In “Key Largo,”
Edward G. Robinson
played the cigar-chomping mob boss
to perfection. All my relatives went to see it, including my uncle. His name was Johnny Rocco too.
formerly covered culture, travel and entertainment for the Chicago Tribune, Las Vegas Review-Journal and Disney Magazine.