Defending Immigrants from Perceived “Racism”

By: Teresa Giuffre – April, 2017

peasant image menI’ve read with interest, the onslaught of negative comments on the pages of the Valley Patriot, and on your Facebook feed, regarding the treatment of immigrants in the Merrimack Valley, particularly Lawrence. These racist comments have become more and more aggressive of late, and I must respond. In fact, I’m a little amazed at these negative comments, considering the bulk of your readership, come from immigrant roots here in the valley.
I, myself, am a 4th generation Sicilian immigrant.

My great-great-grandparents on both sides came in steerage on little ships from Sicily in the late 1800’s, directly from New York to the great City of Lawrence the ‘Immigrant City’, to work in her mills. My father, whose own father died when he was a child, started off at probably 12 years of age, working in those same mills, as a hand, and rose to the esteemed profession of mechanic, before his death from lung cancer, probably brought on by inhaling wool fiber. Immigrants working in the mills, I’m told, got along, mostly. Everyone was here to work, and work they did. Generations of decent tax paying Americans came from those early, mostly peasant, mill workers.

I, myself, grew up in South Lawrence, a Sicilian kid among mostly Irish families. By 1960-1970, the Irish and the Italian kids got along with each other. I went to their parties, parades, weddings, baptized their kids, and dated their men. Even today, I insist on eating corned beef and cabbage on St. Patty’s Day in honor of my Irish friendships. Our parents didn’t get along so well. My mother wasn’t so keen on my Irish buddies; didn’t trust them. I know for a fact some of my Irish friend’s parents still held a grudge, too. Heck, my own family story included a tale of my Sicilian uncle being stabbed in a knife fight on the duck bridge by the Irish gangs in the 1930’s, and I won’t say he didn’t ask for it! But these grudges were nothing serious, not like today, not like the hatred among the races that we see today…

Of course, we had something back in the 60’s, which is lacking today. We still had jobs and a decent economy around here back then. Our families weren’t fighting over the few remaining jobs at Raytheon and the IRS, and there wasn’t resentment over the lack thereof. We still had Western Electric, Honeywell, some of our mills were still operating, many other big employers in this area provided good paying, plentiful jobs. Our families weren’t squabbling with each other over a few employers, and we weren’t getting resentments over perceived affirmative action hiring. Yes, things were different back then economically, and that difference is critical, and often overlooked. The Merrimack Valley looked a lot different back then, and it wasn’t all about the color of the resident’s skin.

Your readership tends to blame the immigrant. They blame the very same type of individuals as their grandparents were, seeking the very same American Dream. Has your readership forgotten, or never heard stories of their own ancestry living in crowded tenement houses in Lawrence, along with the bedbugs and rats? Have they forgotten or never heard, stories of, or, worse, tried to forget, the stories of their own family struggles to be accepted, as immigrants, by America? Are the stories of Nanoo the “bookie” quaint now, versus criminal? Drunken husbands, wife beaters, men that abandoned their children, corruption in City Hall, are these stories funny now, with the passage of time? All these things happened in Lawrence’s history, all perpetrated by white immigrants, all happened more than once.

It is the due course of the City of Immigrants. It did not start today, it will not cease if you dispel your target immigrants tomorrow. It is the ongoing process of new immigrants becoming Americanized in the melting pot that is Lawrence.

Your readership would do better to turn their considerable energy to the lackluster government who continually lets them down. This government has failed to provide this area with the economic improvement that it had been calling for and desperately needs for a generation. Ask your Federal and State governments to quit outsourcing your manufacturing jobs overseas. Refuse to purchase Walmart goods. Bite the bullet and crease buying Chinese-made items. That would be a constructive use of your readership’s time, rather than turning on the fellowship of Valley residents that live among us and will be part of our future.

Sincerely yours, Teresa Giuffre

Resident—Tower Hill, Lawrence

4 Responses to "Defending Immigrants from Perceived “Racism”"

  1. Dorothy Duggan Incropera   May 1, 2017 at 8:24 PM

    Theresa You state your grandfathers immigrated in the 1800,s There is a big difference between them and todays immigrants they were here as legal citizens. They came with a medical report of good health, had to be sponsored, had to have a job, and the only person responsible for them was their sponsor, not the government They wanted the best for their children, they learned English, and earned their citizenship. There were also no hyphenated Americans, back then. Unlike the new immigrants, they were proud to be Americans, and had no intention of changing our Country. Every new culture took it’s turn with prejudice. I have signs that English shopkeepers put up that state no dirty Irish need apply. They didn’t dwell on these things. just picked themselves up and earned respect. You are correct in stating our Gov. has failed us. Our elected officials are career Politicians, who cares not what happens to the average American as long as they can line their bank accounts with figures in the millions, and billions. I believe our President, Donald Trump has been trying to accomplish some of the things you mention such as providing economic improvement, quit out sourcing manufacturing jobs overseas. and lowering the import of Chinese goods. and so many other things that will help our Country, but the Political leadership on both sides of the aisle, along with our know nothing liberals, have been fighting him all the way.

  2. movink2001   May 2, 2017 at 10:54 AM

    wow how blind some people can be I grew up in the 70s and 80s the city wasn’t the greatest but people still cleaned the street in front of their houses
    now even if they own there homes they don’t clean their yards and they don’t keep their homes looking nice just look around the immigrants that you spoke of had pride in them selves and in their surroundings and yes they worked hard for everything that they got not today call it what you will but I myself cant respect anyone who doesn’t respect them selves or their neighbors might I say that if your want respect earn it start by getting a job and off the dole
    start by teaching your children not to litter and have respect please and thank you went along way as I was taught and as I have taught my children always say please and thank you

  3. Eileen Springer   May 2, 2017 at 4:43 PM

    Dorothy Duggan Incropera: With respect, your assessment is wrong. You state that there is a “big difference” between the immigrants of today and those of the 1800’s, first because the immigrants of the 1800s were “legal”, second you argue that it is because they learned English and third had to be “sponsored” and employed.

    This is simply untrue on an easily verified factual level.

    First, there were few real immigration laws stopping anyone from immigrating until 1923, although there were plenty of vehement and vicious proponents of laws that would curtail immigrants. Nearly anyone could arrive in the US and be allowed in if they had no disease. That is the low bar that needed to be met by your forefathers to enter the country, so “legal” was a very very low standard at that time.

    Secondly, before 1923, immigrants did not need to be “sponsored” according to any law of the United States. Often, ships would require that they know someone in the US in order to purchase a ticket, sometimes a “sponsor” would pay for a portion of the ticket, but it had nothing to do with the US government. New York City itself would sometimes check that they were not letting in prostitutes to the city, or people who might not be going further, but it was very rare for a passenger to be denied entry and they were more often denied by NEW YORK CITY and not the federal government. Sponsorship was not necessarily a legal requirement for worker immigration to the US in the late 1800’s.

    In fact, I come from Johnstown, PA where the Steel and Coal Companies would send barkers to meet the boats in NYC, Boston and Philly and try to entice immigrants right off the boats who had no job to make the trip west to work in the mines and the mills. It is a part of our documented history and the letters and photographs and documentation of this practice is widely curated in many local heritage centers around the country. Sponsorship was not a federal legal requirement.

    Third, you say that immigrants of the 1800s “wanted” to learn English. “Want” or “desire” is a highly subjective term that is not measurable and you cannot possibly claim to know what or any immigrant, either today’s immigrants or those of the 1800s “wanted”. However, if you mean to argue that immigrants in the 1800s learned English better or faster than immigrants today, you are again mistaken and it is measurable and verifiable that they learned English in a slower fashion than immigrants today, but for lack of want or desire, but lack of schooling.

    In fact, all over the city Pittsburgh, a tremendous immigrant city in the 1800s, you can see the “Polish Schools”, the “Slavic Schools”, the “Italian Schools”, where immigrant students were taught exclusively up until the 5th grade and English was not spoken until the later grades. It is interesting to note as well that in the mills and the mines in places like Lawrence and Pittsburgh, factory floor supervisers often preferred that the workers spoke different languages because it made it much more difficult for them to unionize. Plant managers in the steel industry even encouraged immigrants to reject learning English by establishing immigrant schools that spoke only native languages, helping to start up “Singing Societies” which kept cultural music and foods etc as opposed to assimilation, and keeping signage on the factory floor in many different languages–all to discourage worker solidarity.

    So, this myth that our forefathers learned more quickly simply isn’t true. The two waves of immigrants are of course equally intelligent, motivated, and committed to the American way of life, but the immigrants of today have more assistance than your forefathers who took decades to assimilate. One only has to visit our own vibrant and dynamic wonderful North End in Boston to see that cultural mores die hard–and thank goodness! Where else can I find just the right ricotta and saffron sold in bulk but in the corner grocery on Smallman Street where all the signs and all the conversation is in Italian. God help the customer in that store who demands the clerk “speak English in Ameruca!”

    So while you rely on admirable family stories that tell you how hard your forefathers worked to assimilate–and don’t get me wrong, I believe you that they did–you then conflate the stories you have heard about immigrant triumph with the admonitions that modern immigrants do not work as hard for the same. You are simply incorrect. They have. They do and they will continue to work toward a new country that they love–just like your forefathers did.

    Give them a break. Your grandfather would want you to.

  4. Dorothy Duggan Incropera   May 5, 2017 at 4:46 PM

    Don’t know where your info came from. I suggest you check the Government website.
    Form I-864, or the “Affidavit of Support Under Section 213A of the Act,” is essentially a contract between a family member petitioning for and sponsoring an immigrant and the U.S. government. The petitioner/sponsor promises to financially support the immigrant if the immigrant cannot support himself or his family, or to pay the government back if the immigrant receives need-based public assistance (often called welfare).

    In the 1800’s Immigrants arrived with prepaid tickets sent to them by a relative or friend living in the US. For many, simply getting to the port was the first major journey of their lives. They would travel by train, wagon, donkey or even by foot. Sometimes travelers would have to wait days, weeks and even months at the port, either for their paperwork to be completed or for their ship to arrive. Steamship companies were required by the governments to watch over prospective passengers and, at most ports, the travelers were housed in private boardinghouses. After the 1893 U.S. immigration law went into effect, each passenger had to answer up to 31 questions (recorded on manifest lists) before boarding the ship. These questions included, among others: name, age, sex, marital status, occupation, nationality, ability to read or write, race, physical and mental health, last residence, and the name and address of the nearest relative or friend in the immigrant’s Steamship lines were also held accountable for medical examinations of the immigrants before departing the port. Most seaport medical examinations were made by doctors employed by the steamship lines, but often the examination was too rapid to disclose anything but the most obvious diseases and defects. Disinfection (of both immigrants and baggage) and vaccination were routinely performed at the ports.Finally, with questions answered, medical exams completed, vaccinations still stinging and disinfectant still stinking, the immigrants were led to their accommodations in steerage. with the shores of a new world looming before their eyes, and even with tears of relief streaming down their faces, their journey was not at an end. Inspection Passengers were inspected for possible contagious diseases such as cholera, plague, smallpox, typhoid fever, yellow fever, scarlet fever, measles and diphtheria. If diseases were present they would return to their home Country