I recently received a message from a distant relative I didn't even suspect existed. He and I discovered our DNA connection on Ancestry.com. He's traced our lineage back to my first namesake in 1750 in Italy. I was baptized with his first name as was every first-born son in my family since then.
This caused me a moment of deep reflection. And I asked myself, now as an American citizen why I'm so inclined toward social justice and equality.
It shouldn't be personal. I'm comfortable and beyond the reaches of the current trend toward the malignant conservatism that grips our country. My children are all well-educated and in high earning careers and contributing to our society. They are in good financial positions to save for the future education of their children.
So, what is it that motivates me to take such hard positions in favor of social safety nets and equal opportunities?
It must have something to do with my history. Actually, not so much just mine but the history of my whole family since they came to America.
Being 77 years old, a first born of Italian ancestry, and growing up in the Southern part of Illinois, I was personally exposed to a great deal of hate from people who thought they had more right to be here than us "foreigners."
I recall my grandfather telling me stories of the KKK raiding the Italian neighbourhood, dragging the men into the streets and destroying their supplies of home-made wine. I remember being called derogatory names because I was a Catholic. I took a good deal of emotional abuse for the shape of my nose. (There's something about noses that get bigots riled up) In so many ways I can recall not feeling like I was a real American, more an unwelcome guest in the very town of my birth.
My father was an immigrant and I was raised with a good deal of European influence. I had what W.E.B. DuBois, the famous African American Sociologist, called the double-consciousness that many black people feel. I think this may be why I feel so in sync with the struggles of black people in the US.
My maternal grandfather spent 47 years in the coal mines and quietly tolerated the dangers that he faced every day. My uncle died in a mining accident. He avoided the black lung that eventually killed my grandfather. My immigrant father worked his way up to a skilled trade and demonstrated a such a strong work ethic that even today, I can't sit idle for more than an hour. And through all of this, these men loved the United States a great deal more than it loved them.
Today, I read about all the horrors of these hordes of lazy immigrants coming to America to live off the dole. And yet, every immigrant I've personally met in the last several years impresses me with the same work ethic I learned in my family as I grew to adulthood.
I've had the direct experience of meeting people from parts of Africa, Eastern Europe, Mexico and other parts of Central and South America, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Nepal, China, Korea, Italy, Australia and Yemen. And to the person, they want their opportunity here to be productive contributors. And I say this with the deepest conviction, none of the people I know from Muslim countries want anything other than to feel safe and have the same opportunities as everyone else.
So I guess I can rest in the knowledge that their struggles, like my family's, will eventually lead to a better society. One that is sensitive to the fact that we are all human beings who love our families and want to do well.
I've tired of reading the arguments for and against our exceptionalism. I've made a few points about that claim myself, like I really don't buy it wholesale. But I will say this. The American promise is exceptional. Realizing it can be a lot tougher. My family did it and continues to thrive.
It is my hope that those who are now coming can tolerate the ignorance of the few who hate them and think of the millions like them who came before and prospered. Forget the slogans. This will make America continue to be great.
Robert De Filippis
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