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On Immigration & Assimilation, especially Learning English

(photo by unknown Brooklyn photographer, circa 1928; thanks to John Edwards for digitization)

This little cutie is my Dad, Mario Maniscalchi, age two or three. That is not his horse. In the 1920s, photographers roamed cities like Brooklyn extracting pennies from people like my immigrant grandparents in exchange for a photo of their darling atop a nag--or holding a monkey or other photogenic creature. I doubt Mario Maniscalchi ever mounted another horse in his life. He is still alive and well, turning 96 this year, forgetful about a great deal but still able to tell stories of things that happened a long time ago, like how and when he learned to speak English.

How and when new Americans learn English is very much on my mind these days. Most of the Afghanis who recently moved here don't know English yet. The children among them will soon (as of this writing) enroll in our local public schools--three of them in NK, ranging in age from kindergarten to middle school. They will pick up our language faster than their parents will, but their clothes might be visibly foreign-looking and/or second-hand, and their lunches from home might emit strange smells that invite ridicule. How will our children treat these children? How will their teachers and other NKSD personnel help them adjust? At times like these, "Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion" initiatives in our public schools take on new meaning--and new urgency.

When little Mario Maniscalchi posed atop this horse, he spoke no English. He was born in Brooklyn, but both his parents and all their siblings had immigrated only a few years before, from the town of Alcamo on the west coast of Sicily--shortly before strict new U.S. immigration quotas specifically limited undesirable "black" immigrants from Southern Europe. My father's mother tongue was Sicilian dialect. He entered the Brooklyn public school system not knowing a word of English. The written note his teacher gave him to take home to his parents could not be read by them; they didn't know English either. They took it to a bilingual teenage neighbor named Johnny to translate for them. When Johnny explained that the note said little Mario had to learn English, they hired Johnny to work on English with Mario every day after school.

My father recalls that playing with American children his own age also helped him learn more quickly. But with his family he still spoke Sicilian, and in English he still made many mistakes. One day after recess, his teacher stood at the front of the classroom, holding up a hat she'd found on the playground and asking whose it was. My father raised his hand and said, "It's mines."

"It's mines?" the teacher repeated. All the children laughed.

That was a pretty smart mistake for a six-year-old, IMHO. We say his, hers, yours, ours--why not mines?

My father finished grade school, went on to high school and, with the help of the G.I. bill, college, where he met my mother. Despite bearing the name "Mario Maniscalchi," he had a steady if not stellar white-collar job, lived frugally, and paid all his taxes on time (still does, with help). Until my mother became terminally ill, he volunteered as an election monitor every November--as a Republican.

Many of us who live in the Northeastern U.S. actually knew and loved our immigrant ancestors. Some of them, like my father's parents, never became accent-free, let alone fluent. Even if they died before we were born, like most of the immigrants on my mother's side, we know their stories of loss and longing, poverty and privation, discrimination and desperation. We also know stories about the help they got along the way--from neighbors who'd arrived before them, friends they made later, even the U.S. and local government agencies. Keeping these stories at the forefront of our minds ought to help us understand the constant, ongoing need for DEI--diversity, equity, and inclusion--in all aspects of our lives, formally and informally, whether in capital letters or lowercase.

Two Afghan families have arrived in South County at the beginning of winter, in the middle of a pandemic. They feel isolated. Lots of you want to help, but you don't speak their language, they don't speak yours, and for privacy reasons if nothing else, we can't publish their names and addresses.

BUT, you will know them if you see them, and so will your children if they end up at their schools.

You all stepped up to help provide these new arrivals with furniture, clothing, and household goods. Now comes the harder part. Will you invite them out for play dates? Will you help them practice their English and not make fun of their errors? Will you try to put yourself in their shoes and recall what it was like for members of your own family to start out in a strange new place?



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