A few weeks ago, I was going to an office building in Manhattan to visit a friend. At the reception and security desk, a friendly, smiling, young Hispanic man greeted me. When I gave him my identification he asked if I was Italian. I answered in the affirmative and immediately he said "you must be proud." I told him that I was proud of my mother's homeland but I also was curious as to why he felt a need to inquire as to my European origins. He told me when he was in Italy, while serving in the military, he grew to love the country, the culture, food, and lifestyle.
Increasingly, interest and appreciation of all things Italian is commonplace. I find this amazing. When I was a child, ridicule of Italy, its people, and Italian-Americans in genereal was the norm. It would have seemed incredible if someone had said that in 2007 there would be an Italian-American presidential candidate from a major political party, two sitting Supreme Court justices of Italian origin, and until October, the head of the joint chiefs of staff was an Italian-American.
Many Italian-Americans reacted to the widespread prejudice with exaggerated displays of American patriotism. American and Italian flags are still prominently displayed in Italian neighborhoods.
My mother came to these shores immediately after the Second World War. Until around 1975, large numbers of Italians immigrated to the United States. They were fleeing the misery of an unending, brutal, grinding poverty that gripped the south of that nation. To this day, many southern Italians live a life that many in Europe would consider to be inferior. At the same time, the need to immigrate to our shores has lessened.
Often I am reminded of the crass prejudice and hostility many Italian- American families faced when arriving here. I hear the hostility reflected in the comments made about Mexicans, Indians, Chinese, or Moslem immigrants who now flee to America. The comments are that these new immigrants cannot ever assimilate, they are more loyal to their place of origin, have religious beliefs and customs incompatible to our culture, are taking jobs from real Americans, are using our meager resources, are politically radical and are criminals. Sometimes I hear the new immigrants are lazy and take jobs from the native born. I hear they are dirty but are willing to do domestic service. Prejudice is often irrational. Those comments were frequently made about Italians when I was a child and still hurt me, though I am close to Social Security eligibility. It was not an infrequent occasion to hear people complain about my mother's Italian accent. Today, a presidential candidate said a Moslem should never be a candidate for the highest office in the land. This is not the America I believe in!
Immigrants and their children are, for the most part, happy to be in America. At the same time, they suffer displacement, pain, and generally, a hostile reception. When I was young, the older immigrants spoke of lynching, false arrests, hostility in the workplace, and economic exploitation. They remember living and working conditions that were unacceptable in a civilized nation. Anti-immigrant fervor was so strong that after the First World War during the Palmer raids, many people born in the United States were deported because their family names appeared foreign! Despite their hardships, Italian immigrants flourished, for the most part, and learned to love their adopted land.
It distresses me that many children and grandchildren do not see the faces of their fore parents in the aspirations and hard work of the new arrivals. Yes, our immigrant policy is broken, but this is the fault of corporate America with their well-paid American puppet politicians - not the refugees from economic degradation. We have a biblical command to welcome the stranger.
Every year, October is Italian Culture Month. It appears that every ethnic group needs a week or month to celebrate their contribution to our nation. Italian culture needs years of study to do it justice. Some dedicate their entire academic career studying only one chapter of Italian art and history-the Renaissance. This year, I attended the Columbus Day Parade with my niece and nephew. It appears that young people of Italian origin no longer feel embarrassed or threatened to display pride in a foreign attachment. Why do many complain when Mexicans demonstrate pride or display a Mexican flag when grieving what they feel is an unjust immigration policy?
As an Italian-American, I am proud of my heritage. Italy, in recent years has made great strives to repatriate works of art in museums all across the globe that were stolen or have dubious ownership when sold to the institution beyond its borders. I feel this is unfortunate. Italy has an overwhelming amount of patrimony to restore, make secure, and to protect. It does not need the additional burden of doing the same for art masterpieces that are now in foreign museums. In fact, many artworks were stolen, damaged, or are in need of repair because the nation does not have the resources to protect their contributions to humanity. Maybe, it would be better served to come to an agreement that the works of art in question can remain in America's and other nations' museums, provided the expense of security and restoration are paid by the host nation, and that Italy is given space in the institution to promote Italian culture.
Italy is a sovereign nation that truly belongs to all of humanity. UNESCO recognizes that and estimates that 25 percent of the world's most important works of art reside in the nation. Let us not forget the country's contributions to music, cuisine, law, and science. I am an American but my Italian origin gives me my belief in universal humanity.
Our uniqueness is that all Italians believe a life worth living should be done with style, courtesy, and flair. This is why people from all over the world identify with Italy.
Italy belongs to all of humanity.