Between the border and now

This family is not from Pakistan, El Salvador, or Yemen. The family in this story is my own: illiterate Roman Catholic peasants from Sicily who settled in Philadelphia a century ago.

My family barely eludes the 1921 Emergency Quota Act and the 1924 Immigration Act, laws aimed at curbing the influx of darker-skinned people to "preserve the ideal of American homogeneity." The Second World War approaches. While Italian is carved deep into my grandfather’s tongue, he proudly enlists in the U.S. Army, dodging Japanese bullets in Guam.

My mother is born. Like others of her generation, she is taught to speak only English, stay out of the sun and to scorch the traces of Italy--and Africa--out of her wavy black hair. Mom gives birth to me in 1975 under the sinister TV glow of Frank Rizzo brutalizing Philadelphia’s Black population.

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As a precocious toddler, I marinate in the Mexican lullabies of my father’s mother and become fluent once I am sent to live with my tías in Costa Rica where I connect with my other Latin roots. I return to the US in 1988 to Public Enemy and Yo! MTV Raps. At my high school’s Black-Latino after school advocacy group I clumsily begin to comprehend the hostility faced by my classmates who can’t pass into whiteness as easily as I can.

I fall in love with the books of James Baldwin and George Orwell. I come of age in Brooklyn in the 1990s as a novice musician and a volunteer English As A Second Language teacher. I find kindred spirits among a group of musicians with immigrant legacies. We perform together in forty-two countries, inspired by Fela Kuti and Eddie Palmieri, two geniuses of the African Diaspora who teach us that music is the weapon of the future.

I move to Texas, meet a Ph.D student, army brat, daughter of a Jamaican immigrant and a Louisiana Creole. We fall deeply in love and get married. Her family becomes mine and mine, hers. Every day we learn from each other as we navigate our incongruous and proud identities in America, separately and together.

It saddens me that of the myriad paths they could have chosen, many of my paesani have learned and absorbed the racist logic that preceded our arrival in America. The pressure to assimilate has created a dangerous cultural amnesia and has prevented us from connecting our own families' stories with the immigrants of today.

The worst of us have mutated into virulent perpetrators of anti-Black, anti-immigrant sentiment. Rather than emulate cultural bridge-builders like Vito Marcantonio, we see Supreme Court Justices Alito and Scalia shred civil liberties, auction off democracy, and trash immigrants. We see Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo adopt the words and acts of the racist judges and mobs who endorsed the harassment, imprisonment, deportation, lynchings, and executions of early Italian immigrants.

While Italians and other formerly non-white immigrants like Greeks, Jews, and Irish have successfully assimilated as Americans, the price we have paid for our citizenship has left us morally bankrupt, traitorous to our own immigrant legacy and to the ideals of the country that welcomed us. Stigmatized and hindered by racism and poverty, we struggled for generations to become “fully” American, only to deny that right to others.

We may have arrived at different historical moments, but our grandparents’ motives to migrate to America are virtually identical to those of today’s immigrants. They too come here seeking inclusion and opportunity.

Where can we go from here to make things right? We must support the Dream Act, inclusive immigration reform and the movement to end the immigration-prison-industrial complex.

But most of all, we must always remember who we are and where we come from, honor our own roots and values, and be true to the immigrants who cut similar paths through adversity to become American.

Perna is a Houston-based musician and educator, founder of the band Antibalas and Ocote Soul Sounds.