TEARS FROM ISCHIA
My name is Jenna and I come from an immigrant family.
My mother is first-generation American. I was raised by my grandmother and my
great-grandparents for much of my formative years while my parents worked long hours. My
Great-Grandmother was one of 18 children, all who came to the US over a period of years
between 1915-1932 in search of a better life from the hardships of rural and ravaged Ischia.
They came here in search of independence, not from a tight-gripped government or systemic
oppression, but from the patterns of poverty and harsh climate of a nation bitten by its own
Ischia is a small Island in the middle of the Mediterranean that is a mixture of North African,
Middle Eastern, and European influence. It’s an island with beautiful views and an ugly history.
And I know all of this because at a young age, my Great-Grandmother didn’t read me bed-time
stories. As I sipped coffee from my baby bottle and drifted off to sleep, she recounted her
childhood of where she came from and the life she lived that sharply contrasted the comfort of
where I grew up.
I was taught the ABC’s, numbers, and how to read and write long before I started school from
two people who had no more than 6 years’ education. And while my peers had never heard a
language other than English, I could win a bar fight in 2 languages by the age of 7. My
Great-Grandmother taught me story after story of hard living and having to eat gizzards because
of food shortages as I stuffed cookies into my chubby cheeks two at a time.
But these stories are what shapes us, and although I never physically endured any of the
atrocities she did—except for maybe sibling rivalry—I had a perspective of the world quite
different from my American friends.
FREEDOM HAS A PRICE
The price of freedom is never free, and freedom doesn’t always come through wars. Sometimes
it’s just the decision one makes to intentionally live a better life by overcoming the adversity of
the current environment.
For my family, it was to sacrifice what little money they made to pay for a boat trip to a strange
city, to rent an apartment, and to make it work no matter what. Yes, America was free. It
afforded everyone an equal starting point no matter who you were or where you came from.
Even for my Great-Grandmother, one of 18 kids sharing a one-bedroom home in Brooklyn,
saved enough money to buy a place out in suburban Connecticut where they could have more
than one bed. For the sake of freedom—in this case from poverty and struggle—they sacrificed
for a better tomorrow.
My great grandparents worked hard and saved money. They understood famines and survived
the Great Depression without harm because even though food was plentiful in the US, the
memory of life without it still haunted them.
Where Americans had grown accustomed to their freedom, my family recognized the need to
save and plan. Just as the land was unpredictable in its yield, so would be the grocery stores
that sold their lush crops. And rather than be dependent on someone else, on opened his own
store to ensure a consistent food supply.
Up until my Great-Grandmother’s death, she had a pantry of non-perishables to last months.
This baffled me as a child, considering how close we lived to a grocery store and how many cans
of slimy vegetables she hoarded. Living in the Land of the Free in a time when America was
enjoying far more freedoms than ever, the sound of a hard life in Ischia hummed
quietly—though I couldn’t hear it.
A SEED PLANTED IN STONY GROUND STILL GROWS
My mother is first generation American, born here the daughter of immigrants. America offered
her more freedoms than Ischia, like working at a job of her choosing and attend college as a
female, let alone college at all.
I’ve watched her grow from a house cleaner to a senior executive at one of the US’s largest
companies during my lifetime—all without a degree. I watched her use the sacrifices of a poor
Italian couple with 18 kids living in a one-room apartment as ambition to become independent
and take advantage of the freedoms here in the US.
I’ve watched this one woman who statistically was unlikely to ever leave the poverty level put
aside the labels and the stereotypes of what it meant to be an outsider and pursue the freedom
this nation offers. I’ve watched her become independent from the stigmas of having a child at
young age, coming from a one-parent home, and whose mother endured her own set of
challenges, to now living a life many Americans might envy.
I’ve watched her every step of the way as she pushed forward into the unknown, pioneering
into new territory, and shaking off the limits that history put on her. I continue to watch as she
now challenges the barriers that plague those without an immigrant identity and who uphold
entitlements not afforded to outsiders. In a nation built on independence that shouted freedom
from the roof tops, adversity was no stranger. And yet even after generations of progress,
freedom still came at a price.
Born in America, she had access to plentiful opportunity—as long as she shed the identity of her
past. Freedom for a better life presented itself under the condition that she must turn a blind
eye to a fate rooted in poverty and struggle to pursue something greater. She could see her
dreams come true at the expense of becoming independent from the expectations of both her
heritage and the society she was adapting to. She did it, and I watched her.
I see her today as an inspiration and as someone who stands as proof that this nation offers
opportunity, freedom, and independence like no other for those brave enough to chase it. I see
her as she continues to explore the depths of her individualism and pursue a life not afforded to
nor dreamed of by her ancestors.
I see her.
She set the bar high for what I could be, and she’s shown me what tenacity looks like.
And when I look in the mirror,
I want to see her.
EVERYONE WANTS GREATNESS
My mother is first-generation American and my father’s family has been here for quite some
time longer, although his lineage is largely a mystery to me. I attended a normal public school
and opened a bakery at 18 when my friends went to college.
For me, opening a bakery was a big deal. I felt as though I had “made it” until an American
asked why I was not pursuing college. Horrified by my desire to become a baker, he remarked,
“what a waste of a brilliant mind, to choose a mindless career—a trade no less—by choice.”
My father was a tradesman and my mother was in sales at the time. I didn’t know the
difference. My parents gave me permission to be whatever I wanted to be, and I could take as
long as I needed to figure out what that was. I could hear this ignorant man’s criticism humming
quietly and for years it kept me up at night.
I had the freedom to be whatever I wanted, but did I make the wrong decision?
Had I used my independence foolishly?
My parents gave me the freedom to dream of a life better than what they could give me. They
gave me the best they could offer in hopes I would live life differently. Most of my friends never
had those experiences and their parents encouraged them to aim for status quo. Their families
had roots in America far longer than mine and I felt they wasted their opportunities by
sacrificing their individualism and passion for mediocre.
Who wanted to work their whole life so they could start living at retirement?
Didn’t they want to enjoy life while they were young?
Was their parents’ sacrifice meaningless?
The truth was that I didn’t see myself as anything greater than an independent business owner.
I could be anything—*anything!—*and I hadn’t even tried.
By taking an oath never to be mediocre, I inevitably became it.
A NEW TOMORROW
The beauty of freedom to choose doesn’t mean one is free from the consequences. It does
mean that freedom, while it still lasts, offers an opportunity to start again and still net a better
outcome than the first try. Freedom always presents with it a hurdle to overcome. Luckily, I
come from a long line of pioneers, overcomers, and achievers—although you’ll not likely find
them in history books.
The irony is that while I live in an environment rich with freedom, I still reserve the
independence to choose a life that will lead to the same struggles my ancestors fought to
overcome. I’ve been on a new pathway for several years now and aiming at a much higher goal
than just a small business. To live mediocre is to dishonor my freedom to live, bought with the
travail and tears of those that have come before me.
Now, having long forgotten how to speak Italian, I still remember the sacrifices my family made
nearly 100 years ago. As I drift to sleep at night, I think about the stories my Great-Grandmother
and I wonder what ones I’ll tell my granddaughter.