My grandfather the outlaw
My father’s father embodied the American dream. His is the kind of story trumpeted from the stages of our political conventions, the kind of life held up as an affirmation of the rewards this country holds for people willing to take chances, work like crazy and insist on something better for their children than they themselves ever knew.
He left Southern Italy in his early 20s, alone, with only enough cash to make it to the United States and last a short time here. It was 1929. He arrived just months before Black Tuesday and the dawn of the Great Depression and found himself scrounging for day labor as a stonemason.
And somehow, just barely, he stayed afloat and pressed on until the Depression began to lift. Until his luck turned. Until he could make a down payment on a small grocery store — a bodega, really — where he, his wife and my father, the eldest of their three sons, toiled so late into the night that the family dinner was often eaten in a stark, sad room in the back. Until his sons went off to Ivy League colleges and became great successes in their respective fields. And until he saw his grandchildren growing up in spacious homes in leafy suburbs, our charmed youths utterly unrecognizable from his own.
Did I mention that he was an illegal alien?
He took a ship to Canada from France, then entered the United States across a border that immigration historians tell me was famously porous then. A train deposited him in Manhattan, and soon after he settled in the nearby city of White Plains, which had a populous Italian community. He was undocumented, living off the books and outside the law, and remained so for about a decade before finally becoming a citizen.
The details of all of this are fuzzy: he died in 1980, and his wife — my grandmother, also an Italian immigrant — is long gone as well. What remains are their sons’ imperfect memories. But my dad and his brothers know that for a long time, like the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants at the center of our current political debate, Mauro Bruni wasn’t supposed to be here. He was trespassing in the country he came to love more fiercely than the one he’d left, the country in which his children and their children would lead highly productive lives, pay many millions of dollars in taxes over time, and get to be a small part of the decision, as voters, about how we were going to treat his spiritual descendants, who traveled here as he did: without explicit invitations or official authorization but with such ferocious energy, such enormous hope.
More Americans than admit or even know it have roots like mine and are the flowers of illegal immigration. And while that doesn’t diminish our need to make clear-eyed and sometimes difficult assessments about how many newcomers we can accommodate and what degree of present forgiveness equals future enticement, it must inform our understanding of the people whose tomorrows are in the balance. Their countries of origin tend to be different from those of the illicit arrivals in my grandfather’s day. Their skin might be darker. But they’re really his kin. My kin. And to see them as some new breed of takers or moochers is to deny history and indulge in a cynical generalization, tinged with an insidious racism, whose targets simply change over time.
The uncertain journeys that wave after wave of immigrants have undertaken and the daily sacrifices that such transplants have made reflect a degree of grit that many of the American-born people I know have never been forced to muster, a magnitude of drive that we don’t possess. It wasn’t necessary for us. Wasn’t make or break. And these qualities have contributed in a mighty and essential way to this country’s dynamism, to its competitiveness.
Coming from southern Europe, Mauro Bruni was considered different from, and less desirable than, an immigrant from northern Europe. Donna Gabaccia, the former director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, noted that in some circles back then, “Italians and others were `not quite white’ or `in between’ people.” From 1899 to 1924, she said, immigration officials even made distinctions among Italians. Those from the country’s north were more welcomed than those, like Mauro, from its south.
He spoke no English. The one person he knew in the U.S. couldn’t give him financial support or, for that matter, even put him up for the night. He had no safety net — and wasn’t looking to the government for one, because he couldn’t have the government looking his way. His health, his trade, his determination: these were his only assets.
On his first nights here, he paid by the night for a bed in a communal room. He took what masonry jobs he could get, whether they lasted just days or weeks. One of the best was at West Point, where he constructed a long stone wall. His sweat and that of other illegal immigrants went into the gilding of the U.S. Military Academy, if the accounts that he gave his sons are correct.
In White Plains he met my grandmother, who had managed to come here legally and was a citizen. They married in 1933, and in part because of that, he was later able to declare himself and, through a kind of amnesty, be anointed an American. This had happened by 1941, which was around the time he bought his market.
Were there taxes evaded before he was documented? No doubt, but they couldn’t have amounted to much, given his income. The long view is this: he was a taxpayer for more years than he wasn’t, and he was the sire of many taxpayers to come. Among his children and grandchildren, there is no one on the dole, no one behind bars, a range of contributions to the vibrancy of this country, a panoply of professions: partner in an international accounting firm, college dean, owner of a plumbing company, investment banker, journalist, management consultant, headhunter, theater director, teacher, professional figure skater.
My grandfather and my grandmother Adelina indeed wanted to wring the country for all it was worth. That was selfish, but also very fruitful. And their patriotism was all the stronger because the United States wasn’t their birthright but their choice. Their wager. They were invested in seeing it as the best possible decision, the only right call.
When I recently asked my Uncle Jim, their middle son, how intent they were on weaving their children into the fabric of this land, he told me about my grandmother’s early relationship with my own mother, whose Irish-English-Scottish family had been here for generations. Adelina Bruni would keep Leslie Jane Frier up late at night, just to prolong the conversation and listen awhile longer to my mother, who didn’t sound like any of Grandma’s friends. Grandma loved the music of Mom’s precise, unaccented English. It was the music of assimilation.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for the New York Times.