They came from all over the world — from lands across the Atlantic Ocean — seeking a better life in America.
At least that’s what they thought.
And they came willingly. On big steamships, through high seas, to the shores of a country where opportunity beckoned them.
Many came alone to find work to earn money to send for their families left behind waiting for their ticket to the new world.
There were struggles, difficult times, language barriers, misinterpretations, company homes and hard work with little pay for people — human beings — who wanted nothing more than respect and fairness in exchange for their sweat and blood.
These are our ancestors — our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. All of them came here to make a better life and over generations, that has happened for many, while others have squandered away all that was good, all that was earned through those years and years of struggle.
They came through Ellis Island, sometimes immediately disparaged by having WOP — Without Papers — stamped on their paperwork. Sometimes they were called “dagos,” a derivative from the Spanish name Diego that was used as an ethnic slur.
But they endured.
Teenagers and younger were sent down into the coal mines to toil in dangerous conditions to help put food on the family table. Nothing was for free, everything had a price.
But they endured.
They smiled at one another. They invited each other to their homes. They cooked recipes brought over from the homeland.
They learned the language necessary to communicate. They dressed up on Sundays. They found pleasure in the small things in life. They made the most of difficult situations.
But most of all, they endured.
They built families. The families built reputations. They built businesses. They laid foundation after foundation that built neighborhoods, towns, counties, states and a proud country.
They planted gardens and wore babushkas. They spread love with hugs and kisses to their fellow human beings. They never locked their doors. Everybody was welcome. They shared stories. They listened and they learned.
They helped each other. They sacrificed for each other. They cared about each other. They attended weddings and funerals. They survived it all. They planted seeds.
Julia Testaguzza Golanoski of Nanticoke provided the story of her family’s arrival in America, complete with photos of her ancestors. As in most photos from that era, you are drawn to the eyes of each person. All are dressed in their Sunday best, but it’s the pride seen in the eyes of everyone.
Just look at the picture (circa 1920s) of the wedding of Veronica and Edward Drost and their 28 bridesmaids and groomsmen. The family was of Polish descent and settled in Dupont.
Look at their faces, their eyes, their pride. Hair styles were perfect, shoes were shined, posture was good. They were so proud to be in the picture — to have this image preserved for all time. They wanted to be a reflection of all that was good.
The Testaguzza and Morigi families Mrs. Golanoski writes of had their struggles and worries and uncertainty that so many others had. But she included an anecdote about the “drug problems” of the good old days.
They were “drug” to church on Sunday mornings.
Drug to church for weddings and funerals.
Drug to family reunions and church events, no matter the weather.
Drug by the ears when disrespectful to adults.
Drug to the kitchen sink to have mouths washed out with soap if a foul word was uttered.
Drug to the woodshed if they disobeyed parents, told a lie, brought home a bad report card, or spoke ill of anyone.
Drug to the homes of family, friends, neighbors to help mow the lawn, repair the clothesline or chop firewood.
“Those drugs are still in my veins,” the tale goes. “They affect my behavior in everything I do, say and think. They are stronger drugs than cocaine, crack or heroin. If today’s children had these kind of drug problems, America might be a better place.”
Here we are
So how many of us really do appreciate what was done for us to be here today enjoying life in a free America? How many thank our ancestors for what they did to establish lives here and build upon those foundations generation after generation? How many of us thank our veterans who went to war to preserve our freedom?
America was built on the blood, sweat and tears of those first immigrants. From those first steps onto Ellis Island to today, America has become the strongest nation on earth.
Old customs molded character and instilled pride in each of those who came before us. They were tough on their children and grandchildren because they had to be. They knew they had to instill those values in each of us for us to survive.
We need those values today more than ever. We need to remember what it took to get us from then to now.
And we need to somehow perpetuate that message to our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren before it’s too late.