Immigrant Roots, American Dreams
“You’re in America now; you have to speak English.”
When my great-grandparents immigrated to the United States from Italy in 1910, they mandated that they and everyone else in the family assimilate.
True to this philosophy, when my grandfather was born two years later in Connecticut, his parents rarely spoke their native language around him or their other children.
As a result, my father learned only a few Italian words here and there. My great-grandparents believed that to effectively assimilate in America you had to speak only English. That was unfortunate, because it meant I never learned a second language, though I wish I had.
My grandfather worked as a landscaper in Greenwich, Connecticut, where many of his clients lived in large, beautiful old estates. He never made more than $20 a day in his life. He knew the challenges of living hand-to-mouth and desperately wanted a better life for his son. He looked around at the homes where he labored and realized that the only way to get ahead in this new world was through education. For as long as I can remember, my father made it a point to instill in me both his strong work ethic and his belief in the value of education.
Because my grandfather was both hardworking and frugal, he managed to save money so my dad could someday go to college and make something of himself. And that’s exactly what my dad did. My father was the first college graduate in our family. He met my mother in high school and married his sweetheart right after he graduated college and ten months later, along came me. His first job after college was in management with AT&T, working in New York City. He spent five years there before becoming a communications consultant specializing in advising corporations on cost-effective telecommunication systems.
A year after AT&T was directed by the federal government to allow competitors to interconnect into public telephone lines, my father started his own company called United Telephone Consulting, which offered the public long-distance service for less than half the price AT&T was charging.
Unfortunately, this service was so new consumers were reluctant to leave AT&T as their long distance provider out of fear that their telephone service would somehow be impacted—or worse, turned off—so the company failed. Ultimately, AT&T was sued on anti-trust grounds in 1974.
His idea was ahead of its time, but it paved the way for companies such as Sprint to launch their ventures a few years later and become multibillion dollar entities in the process. My dad’s vision was spot-on, but his timing wasn’t quite right. After his company went under, he spent the rest of his career as a consultant in the industry.
I was around 15 years old when my dad’s company closed. To this day, it makes me sad to think about it. He tried so hard to make the business a success, but he brought his idea to market too early. I know it hurt him deeply, and I can never forget that. It just didn’t seem fair. In addition to sadness, I had a sort of anger, which I think subconsciously fueled a drive or ambition in me to seek vindication for my dad.
I am the oldest of my parent’s three children, and despite my father’s valiant attempts, I didn’t instinctively embrace his beliefs for whatever reason—at least, not when I was younger. Report card day was always terrifying for me.
Although I brought home only two Ds in my life, I’ve never forgotten the fallout. The first time it happened, I was in the second grade, and the D was for “conduct.” Conduct isn’t even a class; it’s a behavior. That should tell you a little bit about me. You see, I was a renegade, more interested in having a good time than learning.
I got my second D many years later. I was a freshman in high school and was studying Spanish. At the time, I wasn’t interested in learning a second language. I guess I felt fully “assimilated.” Today’s immigrants, however, have a better philosophy: many of them choose not to abandon their roots. They tend to retain their native tongue and cultural habits, which I think is a better way to live. It never made sense to me when people chose to give up their familial history instead of embracing it. I wished my immigrant ancestors had passed along their language and lifestyle to me in addition to the American ways they adopted.
I continue to share some of my upbringing and background in my next post – talking about the kinds of learning I later found useful.
You can find a lot more about my background, and the story of this case, in my book, Blindsided, from which this blog post is adapted.