The Meaning of Heritage
We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Many of us search for our ancestors to better understand what our previous family members did to move their family forward.
As Italian immigrants, our ancestors endured many hardships and bias when they arrived in America. There was rampant racism among Americans, who viewed the southern Italians as inferior, because they lived rural lives in small villages far from the northern, major Italian cities. Northern Italians were considered cultured and often received formal education. Southern Italians, who made up almost 80 percent of the Italian population that came to America, came from small rural towns, rarely had a formal education, and were often illiterate. Terms like “ethnic white” were used to describe them when they arrived here, which was considered one of the less offensive terms. Over time they were referred as WOP, daego, guido, and guinea.
But they did what we have all been taught over the generations. They put their heads down and worked. They provided for their families. They learned to read, write, and speak the English language. They did all they could to prove they were worthy of their newfound country.
They often came with close to nothing in their pockets. They risked everything to leave all they knew.
Now I know I focus on the stories of Italian immigrants in New Jersey, but I would like to share with you a story of an American of Italian descent from Washington DC. He is also one of my favorite actors.
The paternal great-grandfathers of Christopher Meloni immigrated to the United States from Velva and Sardinia. Their stories begin seemingly like every other immigrant from Italy. They came to America looking for a better life. His great-grandfather, Enrico Meloni, had a greater challenge than most.
Enrico was given up at birth. He was left in a foundling wheel; a safe way to anonymously give up your child.
I first heard of a foundling wheel in the MASH episode Yes sir, that’s our baby, where a child left outside The Swamp is ultimately left at a foundling wheel as a way to hopefully give her a better life.
Enrico’s parents did the same. They hoped he would have a better life from those who could properly provide for him.
According to records, he was cared for until he was 12.
When Enrico came to America, this story was lost to the ages. That is, until Christopher Meloni wanted to understand his family.
“I owe you a debt,” Mr. Meloni said. “I think that’s what my feelings are.”
Just as I know I owe my great-grandparents a debt. I learned that lesson as a child from their grandchildren. As I grew up and began to learn all they endured, I began to understand how much I debt I owe them. And as I have aged, I have to tried to live up to the debt I owe them.
The debt we all owe our ancestors.