GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

April 4, 2013

Letter: Life lessons from immigrants of the past


Gloucester Daily Times

---- — 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.

Yes, Mr. Cook, immigrants were given the dirtiest of jobs, but they worked hard for their families. And if a child got sick they went to the doctor, not the ER — I doubt they even knew what an ER was — and every doctor’s visit was paid for out of their pocket.

I was the first one in my family to have health insurance, and that was because it was a union benefit. When illness or pregnancy struck a family, doctors and hospitals were paid in cash. My family, by today’s standards would have been considered the poorest of the poor.

There was no car, no TV, and no telephone. At age 10, I was expected to pay room and board to my parents, so, I worked a job for 50 cents an hour.

So, you see Mr. Cook the real historical story of the immigrant was one of hard dirty work, abuse and book study to become a citizen of their new homeland, of opportunity. Some things never change, Mike. Today’s immigrant still works hard in the dirt of the fields, or maybe your kitchen or yard.

Their aim is the same, become a citizen of this land of opportunity, so their children will have a better life than they did. No matter how they get here, only those with that desire of citizenship will work hard and dirty to achieve that dream. Others will just whine and suck the life out of those that do work hard and dirty.

Michael, not only have I come through the ranks of the historical immigrant, I own property on the Mexican border, and even though there are cameras running 24/7, I still need to call the county sheriff’s office to ask that they assure me there are no permanent squatters on my property.

At the time, I told the sheriff to tell them they could camp there as long as they wanted, as long as they knew it was not a permanent home. I could have had them run off and deported; but, my Grandpa was allowed to stay here in someone’s home that had told him the same thing, it’s not permanent.

Well, eventually Grandpa purchased the house and made it permanent, but I never forgot the kindness of that lesson.

GERALD MAHIEU

Langsford Street, Gloucester