Remembering Two Beloved Immigrants on Columbus Day

Writer's father worked in blast furnaces at Bethlehem Steel

To an outer-space alien, it might appear that Columbus Day has something to do with big sales at the local malls. In truth, the observance is intended to serve as a reflection of the accomplishments of Italian-Americans.

The wave of Italian immigrants, which came to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, led to enclaves throughout many Eastern Pennsylvania communities.

Italian immigrants were confronted with unspeakable stereotypes and harsh treatment. Many native-born Americans shunned them, associated them with the Mafia or tried to make them out to be dim-witted jesters. The success of baseball’s Joe DiMaggio, screen star Rudolph Valentino, singing sensations Enrico Caruso and Mario Lanza, physicist Enrico Fermi and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo helped temper anti-Italian prejudices.

But this comparison of the infamous and the famous can be an exercise in futility, because, when looking at the contributions of a people, those with claims to infamy and fame constitute a tiny fraction of the whole. The unsung, low-visible, non-newsmaking men and women are the real heroes. It is they, who in quiet, low-key, yet effective ways, set the examples and teach their children to become productive citizens.

This is how I reflect most proudly about my parents, both of whom left Italy to resettle here. My father, born in 1892, found a job in the blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel; my mother, born in 1904, came at age 15 with her mother and three brothers.

My mother recalled the first time she saw the Statue of Liberty and cried as it loomed before her in New York Harbor as a symbol of hope.

The debarkation at Ellis Island was a madhouse. My mother’s father had established a household in Bethlehem. He had gone to New York to meet the ship, but authorities would not let him see his family until they had completed quarantine. Several of the passengers had contracted a communicable disease. Although my mother and her family were not ill, they had to undergo quarantine with everyone else.

After three days, my mother and her family had their tearful reunion with her father. Then, it was on to Bethlehem and a new life. Her father would not allow my mother to attend school. She was a girl, he said. She would only get married and raise a family.

One month later, Frieda Zolli became the newest employee of the Bayuk Cigar Co. My mother said the other female employees eyed her from the top of her head to the tips of her shoes. She said she wished the floor would have opened and swallowed her.

Soon, this 15-year-old immigrant girl was rolling cigar leaves six days a week. When she went home at night, she helped with supper and took care of her younger brothers. A short time later, her mother became gravely ill, and she also helped with her care.

About a year later, she and this dashing older man, 28-year-old Phillip Frassinelli, met, and in 1922 they were married. Shortly before the wedding, my father rented a grocery store in Summit Hill, Carbon County. He put his little savings into buying goods for the store. When he was finished, he was broke.

So with no money, my parents left the security of their loving families and headed for Summit Hill to make a life together. Against incredible odds, they not only succeeded, but prospered.

When I recall my parents’ achievements, I am filled with awe and admiration. What they did was nothing short of spectacular. They came to a strange land with little money; they had no federal assistance, no low-interest loan to start them in business, no tax incentives. They expected no favors and received none. Whatever they earned or accomplished, they did the good, old-fashioned American way: They worked hard for it.

My parents, however, were no more extraordinary than many other Italians or those of other ethnic backgrounds.

As we take time on this Columbus Day weekend, let us pause to recall the historic role these immigrants played in the development of our great country.

(Bruce Frassinell lives in Schnecksville and is an adjunct instructor at Lehigh Carbon Community College.)

Mary Ellen Alu October 10, 2011 at 02:25 PM
I too remember my grandparents today, who all emigrated from Italy. On my mom's side, they came (as teens) from Calabria region of southern Italy. On dad's side, from Sicily. They worked hard, raised families, contributed to the community, built a church. They inspire me every day.
rose patti October 11, 2011 at 02:58 AM
My grandfather came to America in 1898, father in 1900 at the age of 11, and my mother in 1906 at the age of 15. My father attended school in New York City. He became a machinist in the cameron division at Ingersoll-Rand and worked there until he retired. They loved America!
Chauncey Howell October 11, 2011 at 02:04 PM
My family came in 1627. What a horror that must have been. Took three months to cross the ocean, and, as one of them remarked, "the cow died". A disaster. When I was covering the restoration of Ellis Island for NBC, I actually discovered a pencilled inscription in a corner, that the restorationists had never noticed: "Maledetto il giorno che lasciai la patria!" Cursed be the day I left my fatherland. I am confident that the writer felt better about it two weeks later when he was reunited with his "parenti"---relatives---probably in Brooklyn. As old Mrs. Randazzo on Emmons Avenue told me: "We brought Sic'ly to Brooklyn, and it's better here!" Interestingly, my father told me that before World War II, five separate Sicilian dialects were spoken in Easton: Messinese, Gantanese (Catania), Palermitano, Girgentese (Agrigento or Girgenti), and Trapanese! Outside of town, we had Abruzzese and Marchigiano, with a scattering of Nab'latan (Naples) and Galabrese (Calabria, home of the adorable Teste Dure!) My father, who was a lawyer who could speak Italian, said that the Italians were the best people ever to come to America----after us English, of course. Saluti! Auguri!


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