They Are Us by Cheryl Shainmark

I remember in the ’60s, being six or seven years old, and visiting my great-grandmother Teresa in a nursing home, shortly before she died at age 94. She only spoke Italian, and my Dad taught us a few words to say to her: Come sta? Bene; prego. Her son Henry, my grandfather, was bi-lingual; her grandson – my Dad – had a smattering of the old tongue, and now I had the four words he taught me.

My great-grandparents, Teresa and Antonio, came here from Italy at the turn of the 20th century because a representative from a Rhode Island textile mill went over to Italy to sign up workers and bring them here. The soap works, the silver factory, the coastal fisheries and the other mill towns in New England all did the same, though some went to Portugal, Hungary or Poland to get their workers. The immigrants all lived in the same towns, but had their own neighborhoods, churches, bakeries, and newspapers. My great-grandmother spoke Italian with the shopkeepers, the nuns, and most of her co-workers. Of course, once she had kids, they could translate for her as needed, because they spoke English.  Life was simpler then – everything was walking distance and Teresa didn’t have to get a driver’s license, sit on a jury, make a payment over the phone, or deal with Cablevision.  If she did, I think she would have had to “Press 2 for Italian.”

My mother’s side of the family got here in the 1700s and 1800s, before there was an Ellis Island or formal registration process. Much like the Pilgrims, they didn’t have documentation or anybody’s permission to land here. It was known around the world that America needed workers, and they were looking for a better life, or fleeing religious persecution, war, or famine. If they were alive today, they would have to press 3 for Swedish, 4 for Norwegian, 5 for French, 6 for Rumanian, 7 for whatever it is the Welsh speak, and, I suspect, but cannot prove, 8 for Yiddish. Good thing life was simpler back then, and that the children they bore in Virginia, the Oregon Willamette Valley, in Oklahoma, Nebraska and Idaho, all learned English and translated for them, too. It’s because of this history that I’ve always thought the whole “Press 2 for Spanish” debacle was as American as can be, and one of those “problems” that solves itself in one generation.

And guess what? America still need workers! My ancestors settled here and cleared forests, farmed, opened shops, built and founded towns. They worked the looms and machinery to produce cloth. Today’s immigrants work in the chicken houses in Delmarva, on the farms in Arizona and California, the meat packing plants in Kansas and Illinois, and in the kitchens of restaurants and for lawn care companies up and down the East Coast. Food is rotting in the fields right now and hurricane reconstruction is delayed in Houston because of a lack of workers.  If we were honest brokers when it came to immigration, we would meet the caravans at the border with a hot meal, visas and and a bus ticket to a guaranteed job.

Some enter legally, some illegally. To focus on that issue alone is mean spirited and short sighted. We need these new Americans. They are us – the us of 75, 100, or 200 years ago. They are our next wave of workers and innovators. Their children are the translators who will not need to press 2,3,4 or any other number. In the future their grandchildren will celebrate family occasions with one or two ethnic dishes from recipes that have been handed down through the family, and then send a saliva sample to to find out more about “the old country.” They are us.


Photo credit: PBS