by Tommi Avicolli Mecca
I’m tired of Italians in this country who either support the anti-immigrant/anti-refugee policies of the new ultra right wing administration in Washington, or who remain silent and don’t raise their voices in support of the immigrants being targeted.
Don’t these Italians remember or even know about their own family’s history in this country?
If you’re Italian and think that certain people, like Muslims or Syrian refugees, should be registered or kept out, you probably don’t know this simple fact: we weren’t welcomed here, either. Most of our families were from the impoverished south of Italy. We were considered an inferior race that was only fit for shining shoes (like my grandfather did) and not much else.
We were hated. There were “No Italian” signs and ads. Cartoons that depicted our ancestors as subhuman organ grinders or the vanguard of an invasion by Rome (i.e., the Catholic Church). Those of us who worked in the South as day laborers were targeted by the KKK, who didn’t see us as white or of the right religion. In New Orleans, 11 Italians were lynched in the largest lynching ever in the history of this country, after three hundred Italians were rounded up for the suspected murder of a police chief. In another instance, five Italians were lynched.
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two anarchists and labor organizers, were falsely accused of murder and executed in 1924 after a trial in which the judge referred to them as “dagos,” a derogatory term for Italians.
If you’re Italian and support building a wall along the Mexican border or deporting people already in the country, do you know that our immigration was severely restricted in the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act? The restrictions resulted in many people (including Italians) entering the country illegally.
Even though many Italians served in the military during World War II, thousands of Italian Americans were relocated from their homes or jailed or even deported as “enemy aliens.” Signs were placed in Italian neighborhoods warning people not to “speak the enemy’s language.”
Yes, we have assimilated. Some of us more than others. Yes, we are accepted now, despite the prevailing characterization of us in movies as gangsters. Yes, we have the privilege that comes with being considered white.
The price of assimilation has been high. Too high, as far as I’m concerned. The loss of our language. The loss of our culture and of our identity as Latin-blooded people. The loss of our solidarity with other groups. In the past, we organized workers, we fought against sweat shops, we spoke out against injustice.
Vito Marcantonio, the Democratic Socialist representative of East Harlem from the 1930s to 1950, who spoke Italian and Spanish, formed an alliance with Blacks and Puerto Ricans in his district. He opposed poll taxes in the south that were used to keep Blacks from voting, supported Black civil rights, and worked to make lynching a crime. Rudy Giuliani he wasn’t. Thankfully.
Many of us are still active in struggles for social and economic justice. We oppose the ICE raids. We oppose a Muslim registry. We oppose a wall. We see our own families in the faces of those that Washington wants to keep out.
We know that none of us are safe until all of us are.