Having read so many Chicago Stories, which are, in essence, immigration narratives, I’ve been thinking a lot about my Chicago Story. In a lot of ways, the story of my family is a microcosmic view of the social trends in the Chicago of the 1950s.
My grandmother fled the South as a 19 year-old (in the mid-50s), seeking work in Chicago as a secretary. She was quite the rebel, working in the much-feared Northern world of increasingly integrated public spaces. A young woman alone in a big city, she had turned her back on the small-town South.
My grandfather, by the time my grandma had reached Chicago, had successfully escaped the tiny, war-ravaged Adriatic island where he was raised (off the coast of what was once Italy, now a Croatian territory) and was working as a bartender for William Wrigley. My grandfather’s life would fit quite well in a Carl Sandburg poem: an impoverished Italian without papers immersed in the world of the city’s wealthiest men. Speaking broken English, working himself threadbare.
My grandparents fell in love, conceived my aunt. My grandfather was deported; several years later he received papers and returned. No hiding in the hold of a ship, no secret journey. He came as an American.
Later, my father was born. Because it was an assimilationist era, or perhaps because my grandmother cannot speak Italian, my dad and my aunt were raised “American.” Not a word of Italian, not a hint of Italian cuisine or culture (beyond argumentativeness and occasional self-righteousness—very Old World European).
I live now in Little Italy, an olive-eyed Italian-American transplant in the city’s Italian-American capital. I am surrounded by what I never had, what my father never had: the culture to match our dark eyes and our dark hair. As I wander home from class, pass Our Lady of Pompeii, the benches painted with Italian pride, I wonder if my grandfather came here. Did he have friends in this neighborhood? Did he frequent its churches? I chase the ghost of my family, our collective past, our origin. I wish I had been raised with a language to match my name.