Watching My Father Get His Citizenship Taught Me What It Means to Be an American
He found honor in learning the Pledge of Allegiance and the Preamble to the Constitution. But he didn't trade in pride for our heritage.
Editor’s Note:Reader’s Digest is partnering with WeThePurple.org to republish articles from our archives that dramatize and revive patriotic enthusiasm about democracy and its core values. This piece from February 1992 tells the quintessential immigrant story. Warning: The account contains ethnic slurs.
As I entered junior high, Papa and Mama, whom I had loved without question, suddenly became an embarrassment. Why couldn’t they be like other parents? Why didn’t they speak without accents? Why couldn’t I take peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my school lunches, rather than calamari? (Yuck, the other kids said, he eats squid legs!) There seemed no escape from the painful stigma I felt in being Italian, the son of Tulio and Rosa. “Buscaglia”—even my name became a source of distress.
One day, as I left school, I found myself surrounded by a group of boys. “Dirty dago!” they shouted. “Your mom’s a garlic licker, and you’re a son of a dirty wop. Go back where you came from!”
It seemed an eternity before I was released from the circle of pushes, punches, and taunts. I wasn’t really certain what the epithets meant, but I felt their sting. Humiliated and in tears, I broke free and dashed home. I locked myself in the bathroom, but I couldn’t stop the tears. What had happened seemed so wrong, yet I felt helpless to do anything about it.
Papa knocked on the door. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “What is it?”
I unlatched the door, and he took me in his arms. Then he sat on the edge of the bathtub with me. “Now tell,” he said.
When I finished the story, I waited. I guess I expected Papa to immediately set off in search of the bullies or at least find their parents and demands retribution. But Papa didn’t move.
“I see,” he said quietly. “They finally found you. Those cowards who don’t know us but hate us all the same. I know they hurt you, but what they did wasn’t meant just for you. It could have been anyone who is different.”
“I hate being Italian!” I confessed angrily. “I wish I could be anything else!”
Papa held me firmly now, and his voice had an edge of anger. “Never let me hear you say that again! Italians make beautiful music, paint wonderful pictures, write great books and build beautiful buildings. How can you not be proud to be an Italian? And you’re extra lucky, because you’re an American too.”
“But I don’t want to be different!” I objected. “I’d rather be like everyone else.”
“Well, you’re not like everyone else. God never intended us all to be the same. And would you want to be like the boys who hurt you?”
“Then wipe your tears and be proud of who you are. You can be sure it won’t be the last time you’ll meet such people. Feel sorry for them, but don’t be afraid of them. We’ve got to be strong.”
He dried my tears. “Now,” he said, “let’s get some bread and butter and go eat in the garden.”
Papa came to America in 1911, leaving behind in Montalenghe, Italy, his young wife, year-old child and the only existence he had ever known. The plan was that Papa should go to Gallup, N.M., and work in the mines until he had accumulated enough money to send for his family. He would amass a small fortune, educate his children, then return to his village to live out his remaining years in dignity. It did not quite work out that way.
The stark reality of the damp, dark mines hardly proved the opportunity Papa had envisioned. It wasn’t long before he borrowed some money and set off for Los Angeles, where he found a job as a dishwasher in a small restaurant. Soon he was promoted to waiter and then to maitre d’.
Mama arrived in America a year later. She was detained on Ellis Island until her small son recovered from the measles, and feared that Papa would give up on her. But Papa met every train from New York for weeks until she finally descended into his arms on the train platform in Los Angeles.
Mama immediately took over the management of their modest, two-room house, her first real home. She took in washing and ironing and, like Papa, worked day and night. Soon there were more children, a larger home and, finally, a newfound feeling of security.
I was 14 when Papa announced that he was going to apply for his U.S. citizenship. He joined a night class to improve his English and prepared in earnest for his naturalization exam. He bought a large notebook, writing paper, and a dictionary. He picked his clothes for the first class with great care. He even got a haircut.
Papa loved being a student. Every evening he would gather his books and papers and settle in to do his homework. He read and reread citizenship study guides.
It wasn’t long before Papa could recite the Pledge of Allegiance and the Preamble to the Constitution. He memorized the Bill of Rights and, much to our amazement, learned the names, in order, of the first 32 Presidents of the United States. He insisted that we quiz him in every spare moment, and he rattled off the answers before we could finish the questions.
Who discovered America?
“Cristoforo Colombo, in 1492.”
Who were the Pilgrims?
“Some nice-a people who came, like me and Mama, to America on a boat, da Mayflower, in 1620.”
He would use his newfound knowledge to enrich casual conversations with family and friends. “Don’t forget,” he’d say, “dis is a government of da, by da and for da people.”
Papa loved his teacher and was very popular in class. He was given a certificate for being the only member of his class who could recite the Gettysburg Address without a single error. He received honorable mention for his short speech titled “Why I Came to America.”
At last, Papa was ready to take his final exam. This was a tense time in our household. For days before he was to appear at the Los Angeles Federal Building for his exam, we all walked on eggs. So it was with great relief that we watched Papa leave the house, with his two required witnesses, to take the exam. No sooner had he left than Mama started praying.
“Don’t worry, Mama,” we assured her. “Papa knows everything. He knows more than the examiner.” We would not allow ourselves even to imagine what our home would be like if Papa failed.
When he returned, his face was lit with the unmistakable light of success. I can still see him striding triumphantly up the walkway in what was undoubtedly one of the proudest moments of his life. Papa’s victory was made all the sweeter because the examiner had singled him out for special recognition. He had commented on Papa’s fine preparation and had observed that he was going to make an outstanding citizen.
Still, Papa was a little disappointed that he had not been asked enough questions. After all his studying and worry, only three things were asked of him: What is the highest court in the land? Who was the third President of the United States? What is a democracy? His preface to each of his responses was “That’s an easy one.”
The swearing-in ceremony was all that was left to make Papa, at last, a real citizen. With hundreds of others, he was required to take the oath of allegiance. We all dressed in our Sunday best, squeezed into our dilapidated car and drove to the courthouse.
The citizens-to-be and their families were separated, and Papa was soon lost in a crowd of people whose cultural diversity seemed less important than their shared accomplishment. I remember very little about the ceremony itself except for the moment in which Papa spotted us in a sea of spectators and waved happily, elated upon becoming a new citizen.
Afterward, we all hugged him with congratulations. “You see,” he said, “I’m an American now.” He paused for a moment and became very pensive. Then he added, looking straight at me: “Of Italian descent!”
Of course, Papa hadn’t solved the problem of bigotry that sunny California day long ago when we ate bread and butter in the garden—or even by becoming a citizen. But his example of pride and determination taught me what an American is. Now I know that acceptance, understanding—and true patriotism—can come only from the strong.