By Peter V. Tonsoline
A few years ago, I became curious after watching a History Channel documentary on immigration. It had nothing to do with the present-day turmoil, but it centered on the vast throngs of European immigrants coming to America in the early 20th century. Somewhere in the program, there was made mention of a government website that still held the records for any person entering through the gateway to the promised land, Ellis Island.
With only the benefit of a last name and plenty of doubt, I proceeded to search for my grandmother who had emigrated from Sicily around 1923.
Never confident of finding any traces of governmental records that existed before the age of computerized systems, I was debating about wasting a few frustrating hours. Before I could even doubt my efforts, her name appeared neatly scribed in handwritten letters on a ship’s manifest along with my 12-, 8- and 6-year-old aunts. Their names spelled out in an Italian vernacular that later would become Americanized. My mother was still a year away from being born in this country.
The many years I had grown up with a grandmother who never learned English, but told me endless stories of her journey to America with three young daughters and hopes to meet up with my grandfather, already working in Buffalo for four years.
Obviously, since she only spoke Italian, I quickly learned the language. Her accounts of the hassle and integration through the checkpoints of Elis Island only affirmed her determination to gain entry into America, find her husband, and seek a better life for her family. There were no support groups or agencies waiting for her when she walked out of the portals of Ellis Island. She was all alone hoping that some family member living in New Jersey might be there to help.
For the next two decades, it was a struggle for my mother, grandmother and the rest of the family. Coming to Buffalo offered some opportunities, but later, the Depression made life for immigrants especially difficult. Over the years, my aunts became citizens, but my grandmother never became one, primarily because she never could learn English to take the test.
For the remainder of her life, my grandmother remained a green card carrying legal immigrant living in the United States. There was one problem her many grandchildren would argue about. No one wanted to be in the same car with her when we made trips into Canada.
Those were the days with a customary phrase spoken by the border police – “Citizens of …” – and you were on your way. She couldn’t say U.S. in Italian, so she would present her green card. Religiously renewed very few years, there always seemed to be one guard who would question its authenticity, so you would be pulled over in the unlucky car for closer examination.
Funny now, but not so good back then when air-conditioning existed only in Cadillacs!
Considering the ethnic richness of our area, I would imagine many Buffalonians could spin similar tales of their immigrant heritage. My grandmother was very proud up to the day she passed away of being able to live in America. She never complained about registering with the government or being asked to present her green card.
She told me stories of people she had known deported back to Sicily because they broke the law. Sanctuary cities didn’t exist. The laws for immigrants were always there; people obeyed them, and did things the right way back then.