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Carving out a new life

Published October 09. 2010 09:00AM

To an alien landing in the United States, 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 springing up throughout Panther Valley communities. Most prominent among these was the one in the New Columbus section of Nesquehoning, but there were other vibrant Italian immigrant communities in Summit Hill and Lansford.

Italian immigrants were confronted with unspeakable stereotypes and harsh treatment. Many native-born Americans shunned them and 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 sensation 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 of our society.

This is the context into which I reflect most fondly and proudly of my parents, both of whom left Italy at young ages to come to the United States. 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's father had come to the U.S. first to get established before sending for the family. To their misfortune, war broke out in Europe in 1914, so it was five long years before the family was reunited. My mother told my brothers and me about the horrors of war, how German soldiers marched through their village foraging for food and keeping a grip of terror and intimidation on the community.

When the war ended, my mother and her family began their migration to a new land. Imagine the mixed feelings; on one hand, there was the promise of a better way of life, but then there was the gut-wrenching disruption of pulling up stakes.

After setting sail in 1919 in the steerage section of a large passenger ship, the America, Italian sailors went on strike, so the ship was anchored about three miles off the Italian coast for more than a week.

The strike finally ended, and the immigrants resumed their journey. My mother spoke so beautifully of the first time she saw the Statue of Liberty. She heard of questa femina (this lady) - as she referred to it - and she recalled crying as it loomed before her in New York Harbor.

She wept tears of joy and sadness - joy because she would be seeing her father for the first time in more than five years, joy because she was in a land of new beginnings, but sadness, too, because she had left behind her homeland, her friends and many other relatives.

The debarkation at Ellis Island was a madhouse. Men in uniforms were talking to her in English, scowling and motioning her to go here or there. Of course, she did not understand nor could she speak a word of English, and few of the immigration officers could understand or speak Italian.

My mother's father had established a household in Bethlehem for them. He had gone to New York to meet the ship, but authorities would not let him see his family until they had completed their 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 who had come on their ship.

After three days, my mother and her family had their long-awaited and tearful reunion with her father. Then, it was on to Bethlehem and a new life. My mother desperately wanted to resume her schooling. She had completed the equivalent of the eighth grade in Italy and was considered a bright and promising student, but her father would not hear of it. Out of the question, he said. She would have to go to work to help support the family. Anyway, he said, she was a girl. Why did she need more schooling? She would only get married and raise a family.

So, one month after arriving in the New World, Frieda Zolli became the newest employee of the Bayuk Cigar Co. in Bethlehem. The boss, who knew just a few words of Italian, and my mother, who now knew just a few words of English, communicated largely through hand gestures and facial expressions.

The first day on the job, the boss took her by the hand, led her to the front of the room and introduced her, by group announcement, to the hundred or so of her co-workers. "This is Frieda Zolli," she recalled the boss saying. "She just came over from the Old Country on the boat."

My mother said the other female employees eyed her from the top of her head to the tips of her shoes, paying close attention to what she was wearing and whispering to each other all the while. She said she wished the floor would have opened and swallowed her.

Soon, this 15-year-old immigrant girl became adept at rolling cigar leaves. She worked six days, between 60 and 65 hours a week. When she went home at night, she also was expected to help with supper and take 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, this dashing older man, 28-year-old Phillip Frassinelli, met her and courted her in strict chaperoned fashion for two years. In 1922 they were married. Shortly before the wedding, my father had rented a grocery store in Summit Hill. He put what little savings he had into buying goods for the store. When he was finished, he was broke and in debt. On top of this, he knew virtually nothing about running a grocery store, but he had determination and conviction that being in such a land of opportunity he could succeed if he worked hard, provided good products and gave special attention to his customers.

So with no money, my parents left the security of their loving families and new-made friends in Bethlehem and headed for Summit Hill, another new and strange community to make a life together. Against incredible odds, they not only succeeded, but prospered. They remained in the same location - 19 N. Market St. for 35 years, building a superb regional reputation for quality meats, cleanliness, and, above all, a commitment to customer service. No matter what time of day, customers would never be turned away. Our home was attached to the grocery store. It was commonplace on a Sunday afternoon, just as we were sitting down to my mother's delicious dinner, on the only half-day that the store was closed, for someone to knock at the back door wanting a loaf of bread or quart of milk. My brothers and I were much less patient with these intrusions, but this would always bring a sharp rebuke from my parents. "The customer is always right," my dad would remind us.

When I recall my parents' achievements, I am filled with admiration and pride. 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 help them start up in business, no tax incentives, no help from the local development-assistance agency. 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. My parents were cut from that same cloth that makes the Italian immigrant experience so special. If there is a tie that binds, perhaps it is the idea that their children came first.

We children, on the other hand, were not as aware of this concept as we should have been as we were growing up. We often hurt our parents, often without meaning to. As I became older, I more fully appreciated the sacrifices my parents made for my brothers and me.

What amazing people they were! As we take time on this Columbus Day weekend to reflect on the link between those Italian-Americans and their heirs and the heritage they left, let us pause to recall the historic role these immigrants played in the development of our great country.

My parents always emphasized: Be proud of your heritage. I am, and I am so proud of them and thankful for the foundation and opportunities they have given me.

(Bruce Frassinelli, a 1957 graduate of Summit Hill High School, lives in Schnecksville and is an adjunct instructor at Lehigh Carbon Community College.)

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