Welcome to your new country

My grandparents on their wedding day in 1916

One hundred years ago today, my grandfather Domenico Mostardi arrived in America. When he stepped off the steamer S.S. Königin Luise at Ellis Island in New York, he was 29 years old, single, and spoke no English.

Domenico was from the sleepy hill town of Amandola in the region of Le Marche. I know nothing about what motivated him to leave; all but one of his eight siblings stayed in Italy. In contrast, my grandmother, whose immigration centennial was last year, left to escape the bleak poverty in Sicily; over a 20-year span almost all of her eight siblings immigrated to America.

My grandfather died before I was born, so I must ask my father for stories about him. Several years ago my brother and I have formally interview my father and asked him all the questions we could think of: it’s all recorded on tape and transcribed. Too many times I have waited until too late to interview an aged relative, and have lived to regret it. Do not take your elders for granted! Use your time.

I have since visited Amandola several times. In fact, I know the very house he was born in, and have visited the woman who now owns the house. Amandola is a beautiful hill town with a stunning view of the Sibillini mountains.

To the memory of my grandfather, Domenico Mostardi, 1882-1954.

The only time I don’t have to spell my name

Whenever I give someone my name—say, when I’m making a restaurant reservation—the other person invariably asks me to spell it. This has happened my whole life, and my father’s whole life before me. And my name is not difficult to spell! I have known people named Szczepanski, Schweikhardt and Schuldheisz: you think maybe they have had problems making reservations?

Thankfully, there is one exception to this rule, one place where I have never had to spell my name—my ancestral homeland of Italy. Making a reservation there is like a breath of fresh air:

“E il nome?” (And the name?)
“Mostardi, perfetto. Arrivederci!”

You have no idea how liberating this is. Better yet, this extends also to Italian restaurants in America run by native speakers. Just today I reserved a table at Ideale, our favorite dinner spot in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. We spoke in Italian, and he didn’t ask how to spell my name. Ahhhh. It’s a beautiful thing.

Pappardelle in sugo di maiale

100 years ago today, my grandmother Lena arrived at Ellis Island, two weeks after sailing from Palermo, Sicily. In her honor, I dined this evening at Trattoria La Siciliana, in the Elmwood neighborhood of Berkeley.

sugo di maiale
Pappardelle in sugo di maiale, from Trattoria La Siciliana

Here was my entree, homemade pappardelle in sugo di maiale (pork sauce). Not only was it really yummy, it tasted quite like what Grandma would have made herself. The owner, Angelo d’Alo, is very friendly and speaks Italian like a native. The restaurant is decorated with all sorts of Sicilian ceramics, posters and photographs. Two thumbs up!

The Immigrant Experience

One hundred years ago today, 10 June 1910, my grandmother and her older sister stepped off the S. S. Neckar onto Ellis Island in New York City. They had left Palermo, Sicily on 28 May.

Last night I was listening to a podcast of an interview with novelist Isabel Allende, who was went into exile from her native Chile in 1973 after a military coup. Her words speak for the experiences of millions of others:

It’s very hard to leave behind everything that is familiar and go to another place to make a life. You do that only because you’re desperate, because going back is worse. But the dream of what you leave behind stays with people, and it haunts the first generation.

Being an exile is very different from being an immigrant. An immigrant, ultimately, chooses to go. The person in exile has no choice. In that case, the only way out is going back. So they never unpack, and in their minds they’re always waiting to go back. An immigrant looks to the future. An exile looks to the past.

What I try to tell the immigrants my foundation works with is “You can live in the United States, you can adapt here, you can get to love this country the way I love it, without losing any of what you bring with you. You don’t have to lose the language, you don’t have to lose the traditions, the food, the family. No! The idea is to add, add as much as possible, and be totally bi-cultural.” But immigrants don’t understand that, because they feel so alien, so left out, that they think if they don’t become American, completely Americanized, they will never belong. But I say “You will never belong anyhow. Your children will. So forget about it. Your children will, and you will always have a foot there and foot here. And that’s ok. That’s the way it is.”

Novelist Isabel Allende, speaking at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center on 14 September 2009

To the memory of my grandmother, Onofria Napoli, 1894-1977.

Leaving the Old Country forever

On the mezzanine of the Berkeley restaurant Trattoria La Siciliana, there is a reproduction of a vintage Italian poster. It advertises the 1910 Palermo Festival, held from the 1st to the 7th of May, culminating with an airplane show above the city harbor. Just three weeks after that airshow, from the same harbor, my 16-year-old grandmother took perhaps the most emotional steps of her life.

Palermo Festival 1910
Poster for the Palermo Festival, 1-7 May 1910

Exactly 100 years ago today, 28 May 1910, my grandmother Onofria Napoli, along with her older sister Antonia, boarded a ship in Palermo and sailed for America, never to return. The Napoli family emigrated in the classic fashion: the oldest brother left in 1903 and, over time, sent money back to Sicily so the next brother could leave in 1905. They were followed by another brother and the two sisters in 1910, and finally, the two youngest brothers in 1923. Of the nine children, only two stayed in Sicily.

How hard life must have been in Italy to make an immigrant’s lot in America seem better! My grandmother, along with most of her siblings, went into the tailoring industry in Chicago. I have a photograph, dating from about 1915, of a large room inside a clothing manufacturing company. There are about thirty people in the room, most hunched over sewing machines. My grandmother is there, and two seats away is her future husband, my grandfather. Almost everyone is dressed well: the men in matching shirts, vests and neckties. I wonder why this photograph was taken: publicity? It definitely doesn’t resemble any of the unsettling, oft-published photographs of sweatshops full of unhappy immigrants.

June 10th will be the centennial of my grandmother’s arrival at Ellis Island—two weeks in a ship across the Atlantic Ocean, with goodness knows how many other immigrants—and in a perfect world, I would visit Ellis Island on June 10th to celebrate the occasion. Unfortunately, that trip won’t be possible; I’ll have to go another time. Perhaps on the centennial of my grandfather’s arrival at Ellis Island in 2011.

I can’t help but think of a story told by the late biologist and author Stephen Jay Gould in his book I Have Landed. His grandfather, a Hungarian Jew, sailed from Antwerp on 31 August 1901, and later annotated his English grammar book with “I have landed, Sep 11th 1901” One hundred years later, on 11 Sep 2001, Gould was flying from Europe to New York City to be at Ellis Island for the centennial of his grandfather’s arrival—and we all know what happened that day. Gould’s plane from Milan landed in Halifax instead. Here is an excerpt from his essay “September 11, ’01”

Especially in a technological age, when airplanes can become powerful bombs, rare acts of depravity seem to overwhelm our landscape, both geographical and psychological. But the ordinary human decency of a billion tiny acts of kindness, done by millions of good people, sets a far more powerful counterwieght, too often invisible for lack of comparable “news value.” The trickle of one family that began on September 11, 1901, multipled by so many million similar and “ordinary” stories, will overwhelm the evil of a few on September 11, 2001.

My family’s trickle began one hundred years ago today. Here’s to you, Grandma.