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THE LONG JOURNEY
In the stories of this series, I want to tell you about some moments from our lives in America, from when we first arrived here to the most recent years: the journey has been a long one. It is true that the Italians have always faced hostility and every form of discrimination. It is also true that many years ago they were treated as slaves and at night, after work, the workers were locked up in a large shed so that they could not escape. My great-uncle used to tell me these stories; he immigrated to America in the 1920's, when they were starting to build railways. The workers had to follow the job from one state to another; every time they moved, they had to dismantle the shed and re-assemble it by the new work site. My uncle’s job was to pound a steel spike with a sledgehammer, while another worker held it in place. And because sparks would fly off the steel, which could possibly cause a fire (which often did happen), a bucket of water was tied to my uncle’s ankle, and every once in a while he had to move his foot to tip the bucket to pour water on the steel to avoid any risk of fire. In the distance, the overseers supervised the work and if a worker stopped and just stretched his back for even a few seconds, they would throw rocks at him. They would work with their hands and feet in horrible conditions to make some money to send to the family that was still back at home. They were even able to save some money that they would bring back home with them to buy a little piece of land, so that they could work without depending on the rich landlords, who would take advantage of them the same way they did in America, but with a big difference: in America they would be paid, even if it was a small amount, while in Italy they would be paid only with a bowl of soup or with a piece of cheese that they had made themselves for their “lords”. Even in America, the Italians that had reached a position of authority on the job treated the ones that had just arrived with the same ruthlessness of the Irish, who were in charge at the time. After the last war, we arrived here: the great immigration of the 1950's. We found a much more welcoming environment thanks to the sacrifices of our ancestors. Unlike them, we came here to settle down with our families in the new land. They didn't call us “birds of passage”. However, if we think about it for one second, we can imagine, even if we cannot always understand, why they treated us with such hostility. We came here, to a world that was completely different from ours; we spoke a strange language, we dressed strangely, we looked strange, we ate strange food and we didn't know anything about the new land where we came as guests. If they felt superior, if they looked at us suspiciously, considering that we were the ones coming to their “home”, it wasn't such a strange thing after all. In my 50 years of life in America, I have suffered, as did many other Italians, many forms of hostility and discrimination, but I have never seen or heard about a representative of the Italian government, “one of ours”, that has taken an interest in our situation: if we had work, if they took us to jail without evidence, if they violated our personal rights. The Italian government abandoned us and completely forgot about us. If we “made our fortunes”, as we used to say back then to describe the situation of those who actually improved their life by coming to America, we only owe it to our hard work, to our persistence and to our will to make it in a land that, after all, offered much more than our beloved Italy. And not only that: our main purpose, our most important purpose, was to build a solid future for our children, so that they didn't have to suffer the same injustices we had to. Today, I can say that for the most part we were successful.
In the following stories, I want to tell you about some moments from our lives in America, from when we first arrived here to the most recent years: the journey has been a long one.
Delia Socci Skidmore