ALTHOUGH THE PROUD OFFSPRING of Italian-Americans, I was oblivious to the discrimination my family faced, despite the fact it’s known to have existed well into the ’50s and early ’60s when I was growing up in the industrial Northeast. Whatever else might have been going on, I was a pretty happy kid (obviously high on something), at least going by the photographic record above.
Of course, by the time I came of age–after our self-imposed exile to Texas–most of that discrimination was history (even if not yet on the history books). Sure, I’d heard people might suspect Italian-Americans of being “connected” just because they were Italian-Americans. But it all seemed as distant to me as the smoke stacks that towered a hundred feet above the mills.
Still, it’s odd that until very recently, I never even knew such discrimination had existed at all. How does one explain my complete ignorance? Why didn’t somebody tell me we were second-class citizens?
The Crucible We Were Forged In
When first looking back on it, I’d considered my early allegiance with the Italian side of my family to be similar to what all kids do in one way or another. The alienation of youth compels one to identify with some group, to find belonging somewhere. But what I came to realize was that I hadn’t picked them. They’d picked me.
If you know anything about Europeans immigrating to the U.S. in the early twentieth century, you understand that after America’s first 100 years, few who came of their own accord were welcomed with open arms–except as a source of labor needed to help build a growing country.
Some of them might even have said it was no skin off their nose–the ones who only planned to stay long enough to make their fortune and then go home.
That was a financial scheme common to those who, at the turn of the century, came in droves to the newly constructed Pittsburgh Crucible Steel Company in Midland, Pennsylvania, where Nicola Schioppa’s son, Anthony Scelp, my grandfather, settled to raise a family.
The burgeoning mill town, nestled as it was in a bend in the Ohio River, must have seemed a safe place to put down roots and cultivate the American dream. Midland history indicates immigrants mixed well there, and other than prejudice inside the hierarchy of the mill itself and the status quo of blacks (ostracized here as everywhere else), men like Tony Scelp thrived.
Perhaps, in thriving there, Tony found not only room to breath but the space to pass on to his children and grandchildren an in-their-bones sense of personal identity. This, I believe, is where I, and all I am made of, comes from.
What Was Lost and What Was Gained
Now when I look at my great-grandfather’s Italian birth certificate, I see something that more closely resembles a celebratory proclamation than a mundane, public record. In words that seem auspicious to me, it states, “L’Uffiziale dello Stato Civile del suddetto Comune certifica che Schioppa Nicola nacque in Maddaloni.”
Translated, “The officer of the Civil state of the above Municipality certifies that Schioppa, Nicola was born in Maddaloni.”
I hear fireworks and imagine il Sindaco (the Mayor) proudly laying the Key to the City beside Nicola in his wicker crib as a nurse places around his neck a little sash reading, “L’ITALIANO.” The town fathers book him honorary future passage on some descendant of the Niña, the Pinta, or the Santa Maria, and years later he sails off to a destiny that will outlive him.
It may be fantasy, but it’s the kind of vision my mother, if she ever had one to begin with, must have somehow lost. Not that she’d have been fine if she’d only remembered there was Italian blood in her veins, because being Italian is not the point. She simply forgot where she came from.
But who knows. Had she not fallen, would I be writing about it now?
You’ve just read part 5 of this personal account. To read the sixth installment, click here.