NEW YORK -- The sun is shining and New York’s glass wall of towers is glistening. The harbor is alive with activity: Coast Guard boats with machine guns mounted, police helicopters, the Staten Island Ferry has just left Manhattan. Here in Battery Park, there is a long line waiting to get to Liberty Island and Ellis Island.
Unlike many native New Yorkers, I’ve been to both before, but I’m making a special trip, a personal pilgrimage. I’m skipping Liberty Island and heading straight to Ellis Island to celebrate -- to the day -- the 100th anniversary of the day my great-grandfather disembarked in America, at Ellis Island.
Joining me, appropriately, is my cousin, whose grandmother almost certainly was waiting in Battery Park for the ferry to bring her 15-year-old brother to the Big Apple.
On the ferry, I try to picture what the harbor and what the city looked like to a kid raised in land-locked Piedmont in a town of about 200 people. I manage to focus in on a cluster of buildings in the center of the island that look like they could have been there in 1907, but I’m a late 20th century kid and it’s hard to block out what I know is there.
After his journey by train to Le Havre (like many Italians in the north, my great-grandfather took the faster French Line ships which left from further west than Genoa or Naples, meaning less time at sea), during which he’d likely been to Turin and certainly to Paris, he spent nearly two weeks at sea in steerage. So, I imagine, little could surprise my great-grandfather by the time he reached New York.
But reading the panels in the exhibits on the island, I’m certain that he was frightened and certainly stepped foot onto the “Isola delle lacrime” (Island of Tears, as the Italians called it) with at least some trepidation. On our ferry, on the other hand, were tourists, school groups and picnickers and everyone looked happy as can be.
Since I’d been there before and nothing much seems to have changed, I didn’t really have any grand plans on Ellis Island. I just wanted to make my pilgrimage with my great-grandfather in my heart and in my mind.
Our family was torn asunder about 15 years after my great-grandfather arrived and he and my great-grandmother didn’t live anything like the American dream. So, we didn’t talk about it, or them, at home. I learned later it was because no one who was living really knew much of anything about my great-grandparents. I, therefore, made it my job to learn and have constructed a pretty detailed history of both my great-grandparents families in America and in Piedmont.
We have many myths about immigration and some of them are just that. Certainly, millions came here and found success on streets paved with gold. But millions came and went back home -- especially among the Italians -- and millions stayed and suffered onerous work contracts, thieving middlemen, horrific housing conditions, unspeakably dangerous jobs and discrimination (of course, not just Italians). In my family, I have examples of all three of those groups. My Luigi and Maria were in that unfortunate third group.
What I did do during my few hours on the island, was think about them both and about what they left and what it meant for teenagers to leave home alone -- for a strange and terrifying place -- with the knowledge they might never return. They’re gone, but I hope that somehow they know that I was there at Ellis Island, paying homage to their sacrifices and remembering their brutal struggles.
They paid with their lives for me to be here. That’s why when I see Hmong, Mexican and other immigrant families in Milwaukee struggling to make a go of it, I see my great-grandparents and I always smile at them.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.