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.)