Immigration is the sincerest form of flattery. If someone wants to pick up and move to your country, feel flattered. Someone thinks that your land is a land where the streets are paved with gold and their dreams can come true. They can thrive there and be the person they want to be. Not simply a dream, but The Dream: prosperity.
It’s such a wonderful image. The little ragged family, huddled against the chill rolling off of the New York harbor as they stand of the deck of the ship. Lady Liberty holds her torch up high, signaling that yes, my tired and poor and hungry masses, you have finally come home.
Unfortunately, this is not the picture that starts my family’s story. No, my family, at least on my father’s side, came to America because someone fucked up.
My great-great-great uncle was a thief. Of course he was, we joke, he was Italian. But that’s just the setting. He would have done it regardless. When life all boils down, thieves are thieves.
He was a bank manager in Italy. He lived in a small town, the name of which has been lost in the countless retellings. Much of the story has, to be honest. But the core of the story still stands, like old Grecian columns amongst the crumbled ruins. He managed a bank, and needed money. So he stole. From his own bank. From little old ladies and families saving up for a holiday and friends who would help him move. He stole. And then he ran.
Argentina is usually where he ends up. Someplace without an extradition policy. Sometimes when I hear the story, I picture an olive-toned Snidely Whiplash with big sacks of money, great green dollar signs stitched into them (because I don’t know the symbol for the lire, and they didn’t have the euro back then), laughing at his own cleverness. And then I start thinking about how the water in the southern hemisphere spins the opposite direction when it cycles down the drain. How weird is that?
My great-great-grandfather was my thieving great-great-great uncle’s business partner. He ran, too. A warrant was out for my uncle’s arrest, as one Casagrande is as good as the next. That was our name back in the Old Country: Casagrande. Big House. Fitting, I think, for a family of crooks.
My great-great-grandfather was a thief in his own right. He fled to America, settling in coal country Pennsylvania. There’s no glamour factor, which may be why he chose it. Argentina was sexy and noir. Pennsylvania was boring and grungy.
He and his wife settled in coal country, north of Philadelphia. He went to the mines in search of work. Sneaking his way underground, he found a dead miner. He stole his work clothes and finished out the day for him. At the end of it, he collected the dead man’s pay. The foreman didn’t care. What’s one dust-covered Italian from another?
My great-great-grandfather didn’t just steal the man’s clothes and pay. He stole his name. He went into the mine a Casagrande and was reborn a dead man. There’s a certain note of bravery to it, if you ignore the criminal aspect. He was a man of status and respect in Italy. His brother fouled everything up, forcing him to flee. So he took up a job that was far below what he was used to, just to put food on the table. You have to respect that.
Except, of course, when it’s cold and rainy and disgusting. Then it just annoys you. Because that bastard could have gone to Argentina.