Anthony Tamburri recently wrote “When We Were Were Muslims,” for “La Voce di New York,” hearkening back to a time when Italians in America were declared enemy aliens.
President Trump's Muslim travel ban edict reminded Tamburri, dean, John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, of his grandmother who came to the United States from Puglia in 1906.
On Feb. 14, 1942, at the age of 61, this mother to 11 children, “along with approximately 695,000 other Italian citizens residing in the United States,” he wrote, “was designated an 'enemy alien,' identity card and all; and as a consequence, she was restricted from sensitive areas in this country, wherever they might have been classified.
“The absurdity of all this,” he continued, “was that she, like the preponderance of the other 695,000 enemy aliens from Italy residing in this country, was one of many harmless individuals who had escaped an impoverished and, in some areas, naturally diseased (malaria) land (southern Italy).”
The proposed ban on Muslims, he said, is an echo from that terrible time.
“As all Italians were seen as swarthy, violent, womanizers, Mafiosi (some would insist such stereotyping still exists) now, so it seems,” he continued, “all Muslims are potential jihadists and hence need to be kept out of the United States for at least 120 days, until they can be vigorously vetted.
“The painting of one brush is simply something we have witnessed too many times in our modern era.”
In “Vito Marcantonio: The People's Politician,” Salvatore LaGumina identified the radical congressman as one who fought often and early for the rights, not only of immigrants, but for those branded as “illegal.”
In 1935, LaGumina noted, a bill was proposed authorizing the Secretary of Labor to deport aliens found guilty of disseminating propaganda from foreign sources (H.R. 7221). Marc called it a “vicious bill which presaged an avalanche of punitive alien and sedition bills aimed at further persecution of immigrants.”
The World War was passed, he asserted, “Let us legislate not by hysteria but with common sense.”
Wrote LaGumina, “In his objection to the proposed legislation, he left an excellent statement of his position on civil rights, a policy he adhered to consistently throughout his career. He maintained that he did not believe in the deportation of anyone because of his different political views, since this government was based on the principles of freedom of speech, press, religion, and thought.”
Marcantonio, LaGumina said, was teaching the moral that minorities should be protected, citizenship status notwithstanding. He fought for the rights of those faced with deportation based on illegal entry, but who were, otherwise, of good character.
Immigrants, Marc noted, had fought in the European war. “They were good and decent people then. Why are they not good decent people now? Against this disgusting bigotry, I cry shame.”
And thusly did he convince his House colleagues to approve a stay of deportation resolution.
When Tamburri's grandmother was issued an alien ID card, Marcantonio was leading the fight to protect Italian-American immigrants from legislation targeting them for special handling as “enemies.”
Below is a chapter from “The Goodfather,” a novel about Marc's life by Stephen Siciliano, dramatizing the issue of Italian persecution during the war.
(Then) Domenica Behind Bars (July 30, 1940)
|Grandma Rose Siciliano|
"You should leave her there," Rosina huffed.
"Rosie," The Marc scolded. "She's your mother. You can't leave her in jail."
"She acts like she sits at the right hand of the Madonna when it comes to judgin' me. Then she goes and gets picked up for playing the numbers."
Marc knew how the ladies of East Harlem Puerto Rican Negro and Italian were all serious players of the numbers games operating out of barber shops shoeshine stops and candy stores all over the place.
"Where does she get the money?"
"Pat," Rosina answered. "Who do you think runs the show? He gives her money for food and some of it goes to the numbers."
"She ever win?"
"Who knows? She don't make confessions Vito. She only demands them."
"Well, alright. I'm not getting in between you and Domenica, but she is a constituent and she is in trouble and I don't see how I could possibly not help her." He threw on a jacket. He was wearing a sharp summer suit no vest for once. "You comin'?"
Marc found out that a Puerto Rican bodega where Domenica did her business got raided while she was in there. He got her released for a promise she would not gamble again. They left the precinct together.
"That's my business."
"I thought you didn't trust the Puerto Ricans."
"You can't fix the games any more. The Numbers King made it so the numbers are based on the stock market numbers they put in the daily paper. The three-number winner comes from a combination of the last two numbers of what they call the 'exchange total'. Then they take the third number from the last number of the 'balance total.' Capito?"
"No. I don't follow you and I should point out that The Numbers King, as you call Mr. Caspar Holstein, is not someone you should trust just like that."
"Nonsense. He's like you used to be. Good to his people. Besides, I go over there so nobody from the neighborhood sees me. You know why they raided that place, Vito? Because they said it was full of aliens. These Spanish people are bringing the law down on the neighborhood and good Italians like me are getting caught up in it. They were all talking in the jail and they are afraid of a law that will make aliens register with the government and that you are trying to stop it. Don't stop that bill Marc.”
“What? You were born in the United States?”
“You got citizenship?”
“Then you are an alien, Domenica, just like them.”
“Well then you gotta stop that bill Marc. Do everything you can.”
“You have to do more. In Congress maybe. And while I have you I want to say that I see you going in with the Spanish people. Abandoning us Italians in Harlem.”
"I'm here," Marc barked. "It's the Italians who abandon the Italians. For heaven's sake Domenica, I come to bail you out and you ball me out? You're gambling in a Puerto Rican bodega. Your daughter lived with a Puerto Rican for years-"
"Don't remind me!" her hand chopped his chest. Vito grimaced but was used to it. "That's your fault. You were for bringing those Spanish people here. Everyone says it."
"You blaming me for helping Puerto Ricans or for the way your daughter lives?"
"I think you know," she jumped into Marc's Packard and turned away to the window and made no more noise all the way home. When she got out of the car Domenica said, "Can you keep quiet about this? I don't want Pasquale to know."
"What about Rosina? She knows."
"Don't you worry about Rosina, Vito. I will handle her."
"That would be a first," the Marc shot back and closed the door before she could fire in return.
They passed the bill but not before Marc had his say about H.R. 5138 or what they were calling the Smith Act.
He told those who said the bill was needed to protect American democracy that its true result would be to "destroy American liberty. In a period as trying as is this period, the test of democracy lies in the ability of that democracy to maintain its liberties, to preserve those liberties, and to have more freedom rather than less freedom."
The Hon. Rep. Joe Gavagan, an Empire State Democrat, asked The Marc, "Would not my colleague from New York concede the right of a democracy to defend itself?"
Said the Marc: "A democracy has a perfect right to protect itself, but remember this: you are not protecting democracy by this legislation. Spies and saboteurs will not register nor submit to fingerprinting. I believe that spies and saboteurs and anybody who engages in illegal activity should be immediately apprehended and severely punished. You do not accomplish that end by this bill. You only undermine American freedom."
Word of the speech ran through the streets of East Harlem. Nobody didn't agree.
And Vito was not finished. On July 30, 1940 the neighborhood sat down in their bars and social clubs and kitchens next to the radio to hear Marc's latest version of events.
They would want to hear his side of the story about the rackets about the Russians about Scottoriggio.
But The Marc had other things on his mind:
"On June 28, 1940, the President of the United States approved an act which provides that within 60 days thereafter, every noncitizen who is 14 years of age or older, and who has not been registered and fingerprinted prior to his entry into the United States shall report to the nearest post office or at such places as may be designated by the commissioner of immigration, to be fingerprinted and registered."
The neighborhood was listening.
"I told him to give this radio talk," Domenica explained to Art and Pasquale as the macaronis were dished into shiny chipped plates.
"When did you talk to The Marc?" Pat wanted to know.
“I don't know. On the street.”
“You don't know, or on the street? Which one?”
Marc interrupted them: "I submit that the best way to preserve the American way of life is to preserve our liberties. American democracy can live only by letting it live. Limiting it will not permit it to live. It will choke it and kill it. Only by strict adherence to the Declaration of Independence, only by strict adherence to the Bill of Rights, only by the militant and vigilant realization that there are no 'ifs' and that there are no 'buts' to these great principles of our country, can we successfully defend our American way of life."