Sunday, December 18, 2016

The American Dreamer - From Palermo in 1911 to the United States in 2016

On a Barbarossa class ocean liner, a young man, barely a teenager in 1911, makes it all the way to Ellis Island, by himself. On a ship full of hope and promise, everyone looking, searching for their place in life.

The young man would settle in the west and form a satellite operation similar to his father’s, back in Sicily. He would expand upon the business, and live for nearly 100 years. This is the story of so many of the Italian immigrants who came to America looking for that promise and hope, and opportunity. It was dubbed “The American Dream.”

In my imagined conversations with this man, my grandfather, we talk a lot about what it was like in Italy at the beginning of the 20th century. For him and his family, it wasn’t bad. They had a good business, lived in a nice home in Palermo, ate well, and he was loved by his mother and father and extended family of aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins. Palermo, along with the Italian peninsula, was undergoing unification. Business was steady; the city was growing and would continue to grow well on into the 21st century. But Palermo also had a dark side, La Cosa Nostra. And to a young man with big dreams, and an intuitive sense accompanying those dreams, Palermo the city, Sicily the island, and even Italy, weren’t big enough for those dreams.

So he bid his family farewell and set off, alone, for America.

Which among us, at 15, could even dream of taking such a step into the unknown?

His first view as the ship steamed into the New York Harbor, was of the Statue of Liberty. And his first step onto American soil was on Ellis Island, 105 years ago. He could read and write and he had a trade and a destination. And he was young. I cannot say this enough – to many of us this is only a dream, something we read about in books, see on the big screen. But this young man stepped into his dream. And a wave of descendants followed him over the next 100 years.

Would he have been able to dream that his most of his grandchildren would become millionaires? Could he have imagined that some of his great grandchildren would not see the American Dream, 100 years later, as he did? That the unlimited panorama of success and achievement had slipped out of their grasp? That the wealth of the nation was increasingly being concentrated at the top, with the "richest 1 percent in the United States owning more wealth than the bottom 90 percent?" That La Cosa Nostra wasn’t limited to Palermo and the early 1900’s?

This young man was industrious, even cunning. But angry? Never. He saw iniquities on the Via Roma in Palermo. He heard stories from his father and his uncles about the Mafia, which started out to protect women and children but was quickly subverted to bend to the greed and avarice of men. He saw his family house in the country taken from them by the so-called liberator of the Italian people. So he knew not everything was rosy. But he chose the dream over anger.

His great-grandchildren do not know him, for he is long gone now. His grandchildren have faded memories of him. Even the memories they have, who can ever remember another person’s dreams?

But it is because of those dreams that many of us now walk here in this place. America may look like the greatest place in the world. Or it may, to others, look like the beginning of a terrible dystopian stretch of darkness. But both those visions are not unique to 2016. In 1911 the United States fought back a skirmish in Arizona, as the Mexican revolution poured over the border. William Taft was president. He was a Republican and during his tenure the party was split between the conservative wing, which he identified with, and the progressive side, which Teddy Roosevelt stood behind. Roosevelt eventually split off from the party. The country was in political turmoil then. 1911 was also the year IBM was incorporated. It was the year the first transcontinental flight occurred. 1911 was the year Standard Oil was declared an “unreasonable monopoly by the United States Supreme Court and ordered dissolved under the powers of the Sherman Antitrust Act.” There were 94 million people living in America in 1911. In 2016, there are 324 million. That’s a lot of dreamers.

I for one, am going forward. I am not going to succumb to anger. I am not going to let the dreams of those who came before us, and those who are among us, dissolve into anger and disgust, fear and hopelessness. We are living in dangerous times, but looking back over history, when was that not the case?

For my Italian friends and for those of us on La Isola Americana, now is not the time to give up on our dreams. It is also not a time to sleep. We must be awake and pursuing those dreams. And if there is something I do not agree with, it is incumbent upon me to fight for what I believe is the right way. And, believe me, that is what I intend to do in 2017. No one is going to kill the dreams of my grandfather. Or my father. Nobody.

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