Inside NCR
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  April 7, 2006

From the Editor's Desk

A yearning that is timeless

There is a story my grandfather was fond of telling, in his halting English, to whoever would listen. It was about the day he went to his mother as a young man, presumably somewhere near the tiny house on a hillside overlooking the Adriatic on Italy’s East Coast, to tell her he was leaving.

“I tol’a my mom I go to ’merica,” he’d say, chopping off the first “A” and rolling the “r.”

“And in-a two days,” he said, brushing his hands together to show he’d made quick work of it, “I’m-a gone.”

He stowed away in a ship, probably in one that sailed from Naples, on the opposite coast from the small home that, as of a few years ago when I saw it, was still hanging precariously and in dilapidated shape from that hillside.

I think of that story often in this time of debate over a new wave of immigrants. I don’t know if my grandfather consulted the laws at that time. I don’t think so, nor do I think he had any idea what he would face in America. He knew over here was better, he knew how to work hard. He went for it.

He was one of dozens of Rabottinis (turned Roberts), Palladinos, Morellos, Mammarellas, DelMutos, Gambinos, and others who found their way to Southeastern Pennsylvania at the turn of the last century and settled. They talked funny -- and some never became proficient at speaking English. They managed. Others took their Italian into grammar school and eventually managed to catch up with and surpass others in their classes. They farmed. They grew into entrepreneurs from the bottom of the heap, they built businesses, they eventually taught in high schools and universities, they became all manner of workers, white collar, blue collar and every shade in between. They helped build lodges and service clubs and churches and town halls. They sent money home and they sent passage for others in their families. They acted as agents for new arrivals, setting them up in jobs with their own employers.

They were the Mexicans of the turn of the century, and they did whatever they needed to do to get here. From 1890 until about 1920 some 4 million Italians -- nearly a quarter of all immigrants to the United States -- sought a new start here, most fleeing poverty and seeking economic advantage.

Of course the comparison fails on a number of counts. At the turn of the century, there were only 10 million foreign-born in the United States and there were fewer laws regarding immigration. Today, the influx of immigrants is far more regulated, except, of course, along the southern border, where neither fences, border guards nor the threat of death in the desert has stopped the flow of immigrants.

The problem is complex. Some of those complexities have been dealt with at length in past stories and, in today’s issue, on the back page.

The comparison, however, holds up in the yearning that is timeless -- to escape poverty, to have a better life, to assure that life will be better for one’s children. It is at the heart of the entrepreneurial spirit that we so admire in other circumstances. Globalization makes borders porous for all sorts of goods and ideas and services. It will take more than jingoistic language about security to fashion a reasonable plan to make that border less porous to people and to do justice to those who have been a part of this culture for a long time.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: