Saturday, December 10

Un Lucchese in America

By Renzo Marcheschi
Translated from the Italian by Elena Marcheschi

Renzo Marcheschi working at the Italian Village restaurant.

Chicago, Dicembre 1969
Son qui a pensar solo soletto
alla mi’ cara Lucca e al paesetto.
La vita lontan dal tu’ paese è sempre dura
ed ogni giorno di più mi manca la mi’ città e le su’ mura.
Ci sono, è vero, qui tanti paesani,
vivon ad uscio, ma è come se fossero trecento Kilometri lontani.
Una volta di tanto li trovi, in generale,
ad uno sposalizio o ad un funerale.
Tutti pensano al Dollaro ed a lavorare più ore,
ma nessuno sa quanta tristezza hanno nel core.
Vai in automobile e mangi come un pascià,
ma a tutti torna in mente quella fetta di polenta col baccalà.
Con tutta quella grazia di Dio che è negli stori
tutti cercan qualcosa che qui non trovi.
Sembra una cosa strana ed incredibile
ma, cari amici, è più che comprensibile.
Quell’aria fresca e pura del paesello
non è da paragonarsi a tutto quello.
E’ molto facile trovar la soluzione:
basta che uno refletta e adoperi la ragione.
E’ come quando metti una cincina in gabbia:
non mangia più, diventa triste e muore dalla rabbia.
C’è qui un cimitero bello, tutto tappeti, perfin con gli ascensori
ma ognun vorrebbe finir al su’ paese, magari sotto un ulivo
o in mezzo ai pomodori.

***

Chicago, December 1969
Here by myself alone solo soletto
I think of my beloved Lucca e il paesetto.
Away from home life’s hard, I always say
I miss my city’s ancient walls more every day.
I know there are here many paesani,
they live next door, but won’t be near domani.
Once in a while you’ll see them, give or take,
at someone’s wedding or at someone’s wake.
Everyone dreams of dollars, how to work more hours,
but no one knows the hearts this dream devours.
You drive a car here, eat like a pashà,
but we all miss that sliced polenta e baccalà
With all the bounty in the fancy stores to find
we seek instead for what we left behind.
It’s hard to comprehend and maybe strange,
but, my dear friends, some things will never change.
That fresh and wholesome air, that countryside
can’t be compared to what your hard-earned coins can buy.
It’s easy to discern why this is true:
just use the common sense given to you.
It’s wrong to keep a songbird in a cage:
it will not eat, it pines, it dies of rage.
The dead here lie in vaults in mausoleums
with carpeting to greet who comes to see ‘em.
But each of us in truth would not be sorry
to find our resting place back home, under an olive tree
or under pomodori.

Coda to “Un Lucchese in America”

As other immigrants before him, my father had a difficult time during the first few years in America, as did my mother. After a stint as a professional player (goalie) on a C league Italian soccer team, he’d studied to become a geometra, a cross between a surveyor, draftsman and planner.  Soon after getting married, he began working at a steel mill in my mother’s home town of Piombino, drafting plans and specifications for small industrial renovation works. I was born first and until my brother came along four years later, my mother had plans to continue her education and was studying part-time with a tutor, in preparation for taking preliminary exams. Altered circumstances changed these trajectories and they left for America. 

Neither spoke English, so immediately after finding an apartment in Chicago’s West-side neighborhood of 24th and Oakley, each took a manufacturing job, my father in a cartage factory and my mother in food production, cleaning and peeling vegetables. Doubts about having left Italy, fear for the future of their children and a deep loneliness took their toll, as my father became ill with chronic gastritis. During this period, he began writing poetry and putting his thoughts and feelings on paper. He continued to do so for years, even once self-publishing a small collection of his poems. 

My mother and father’s anxieties began to lessen as they learned English and became grounded in their new community, but it was a great struggle. Two or more evenings a week they would board two buses each way from our apartment above Zanardo’s grocery store, to Wells High School, where they took English classes. I’m not sure how they did it, but they ultimately managed to get their balance back, with the help of family who’d emigrated to the area earlier in the 1920s, friends and their new community. 

My Dad became a waiter, joined the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union and was ultimately promoted to Maitre d’ of Chicago’s famous Italian Village Restaurant. Amiable and charming, he loved bantering with the Italian opera singers who came to eat at the restaurant after their performances at Chicago’s Lyric Opera, the Alitalia pilots who dropped in on their off time and people from all walks of life and from around the world who crowded the Village, making countless friends along the way. A few years later, my Mom was hired as a bookkeeper at our neighborhood Metropolitan Bank, joined the employee union UNITE and worked there, beloved by her co-workers for her many kindnesses, until she retired. Despite their huge initial losses and early sacrifices, they each found strength in their community and lived in the “old” neighborhood for the rest of their lives together. 

My parents immigrated at a time when such hopes and dreams were possible for some who shared their circumstances, given opportunity, hard work, increasing wages, and plenty of good luck. In the decades that followed, innumerable other immigrants continued to risk the journey to America, to this day likewise seeking a better life for their families, just as my parents did. But the landscape they found was no longer that of the 1960s, in so many ways for the worse. 

Beginning with the 1970s, these newest arrivals saw an impoverishment of the working class: corporate efforts to weaken and destroy labor unions and labor union power on behalf of workers, carried out with the help of complicit governments;  the exporting of manufacturing jobs overseas; stagnant wages and burgeoning income inequality; anti-immigrant hysteria, grounded in new forms of the racism which has always been used to hold back people of color; the destruction of retirement pensions, disinvestments in communities and a resultant loss of social and cultural anchors; the further degradation of the environment around them, all contributing to inescapable economic hardships, alienation and even despair. 

The need for greater solidarity with today’s immigrants is of critical importance, as it always was, be they coming through custom checkpoints, fleeing war or hunger across borders, or knocking at our door as refugees. It would be wise to guard against romanticizing the struggles of our immigrant forebears, which were indisputable, yet historically different. We ought not to allow their arguable successes to cloud our understanding of the altered circumstances and struggles of today. One way that we can honor our ancestors’ lives is by extending a hand of solidarity in their name. It would be poetic justice.

Elena Marcheschi

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