Columns 2016

Nuns were once “other” too

My maternal grandparents were married on the same date that would, years later, become my birthday. Given that I am the grandchild of immigrants with no connection to the families left behind in Italy, any little piece of information like this is another thread tying me to people I never really knew.

My grandparents emigrated a little over 100 years ago. They came to America with no money, no English and limited skills. The only things they had was their traditions and the hope that this new life would be better for their children than what they’d left behind. Three generations later their grandchildren include doctors, bankers, lawyers, engineers, teachers, West Point graduates and one philosopher who still has his father confused. Their dream came true.

Like so many immigrants before and since, they faced prejudice, hate, threats of violence and claims that they would change the character of American life. They were “other”.  My mother told me the reason Italians in her small neighborhood built their own church was because the existing church was populated with Irish who made it clear Italians weren’t welcomed. This was but a generation or two away from when the Irish would have faced the same issues with the Germans who first populated that area of Philadelphia.

My grandparents lived in a small, all Italian enclave where they could feel safe, surrounded as they were by friends and neighbors who spoke the same language, had the same customs and cooked the same food. It was being cradled in that security that allowed them to fulfill their ambitions for their family. When everything around you is strange, you need something familiar to cling to in order to anchor the chaos of your world.

Immigrants continue to flock to America to make a better life for their families. The vast majority of them, whether they are documented or undocumented, are hardworking, law-abiding people. Their children, given a chance, will be great assets to our country. I know as the grandchild of immigrants that I grew up hearing what an amazing country America was and how I was never to forget how lucky I was to be born and raised here. While the Mafia might leave a bad feeling in some people about Italians, the truth is that the Mafia got a lot of press but represented a very small percentage of Italian immigrants – you know, like terrorists and Muslims.

Today we face people immigrating to America who wear unfamiliar clothes and pray to an unfamiliar god. Although the majority are good citizens, because they are so different we are afraid, so afraid that some condemn them all for the sins of a few. If that had been the case when my grandparents moved to America, we’d all have been thrown out when Al Capone became the face of Public Enemy Number One.

I was educated in Catholic schools. The women who taught me wore long black gowns with stiff white cardboard like things around their necks and faces. Short of actually throwing a bag over their head, they were as covered up as any conservative Muslim woman wearing a hijab, and only slightly less covered up than someone wearing a burka. There was a time when these nuns were the “others” to be feared. They came from the old world and brought old, conservative ideas with them. For our Italian community, they were perfect. Outside of our little world, they drew looks.

Nuns are no longer considered so “other”. This may be caused by their more modern dress or just because years of proximity have removed their unknown factor. If we’re lucky, someday women in burkas or hijabs will get no more than a passing glance because they too will have become just another piece of the fabric of America.

My father’s little Italian grocery store had provolone cheese hanging from a bar over the counter. At the time, we all wanted nothing more than to assimilate and become mainstream – we wanted the provolone gone. Now a store like my dad’s is considered a specialty store and Italian food, culture and dress has become Italian-American and part of the mainstream.

We should not fear immigrants and the changes they bring. It’s what keeps us a young, vigorous country. Seriously, would you really want to live in an America without Olive Garden?