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Letters/My View

April 4, 2013

Letter: Life lessons from immigrants of the past

To the editor:

In his latest letter, Michael Cook writes (letters, the Times, Monday, April 1) of “revisionist history and immigration,” and the omission of facts he has heard somewhere.

Let me enlighten Mr. Cook, of how life really was.

My maternal grandparents were stowaways from Sicily. They were caught in New York Harbor and housed on Ellis Island, with the letters WOP painted on their backs. Those letters weren’t derogatory, they simply stood for “without papers.”

After about three months, my grandparents were permitted to enter the mainland. My grandfather got a job laying cobblestones to create the streets of New York City. He worked hard, and was able to find a place to live in Queens.

My grandparents began a family, 13 children in all. And in their spare time they studied English, and took civics classes, with a goal of becoming U.S. citizens. About 15 years from the day they set foot on Ellis Island, they both achieved their goal of citizenship.

Yes, they took abuse from the natives, being called by those letters and called “Guinea” by their own kind and by the natives because my grandfather laid those cobblestones for a guinea a day. But once they had achieved citizenship and learned the politics of the time; my grandfather utilized the political system to get a job with the New York Sanitation Department in his own neighborhood.

The pay was better, but there were no such things as benefits. Still he earned enough to buy the house where they lived. His assignment for 10 to 12 hours a day as a sanitation worker was to push a trash can and sweep up the horse manure from the area’s streets. There were no cars, just horses and wagons, so the streets were always full of manure, and during the winter it would be mixed with the snow, and grandpa would have to separate the manure from the snow he shoveled to keep the streets clear.

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