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Send Gisella back: One immigrant family’s story

Virtually every reader who has ancestors with a first name of foreign origin like Mario, Shannon, Ezra, Hermann, Alexandra, Wang and Juan, has a similar story to tell. The first generation of their families in the United States came from a foreign country with a good heart, an attraction for American values and ideals, a fierce work ethic, tenacity, energy, an entrepreneurial spirit, discipline and resourcefulness — but with little more than the clothes they were wearing. If they were legal immigrants here today, they wouldn’t meet the restrictions of President Trump’s proposed new immigration means-testing and “merit-based policies” for legal immigration They would likely be deported, as would President Trump’s immigrant grandfather, mother, wife and in-laws. And so would my Mom, Gisella Sozio, and my Pop, Albert Mannello.

Gisella Sozio was born in Cellino d’ Attanasio, in the Province of Teramo in Abruzzo, Italy, on Nov. 30, 1910. She was a happy, vibrant young girl, though she lived in abject poverty, incredibly without even an outhouse. Her only “luxury” was a single kitchen fireplace where the family burned discarded scraps of wood for heat and cooking. Gisella used to joke that she had running water — that is, water she had to run to get from a town-owned well.

As a beneficiary of the country’s family-based immigration policy at the time, Gisella emigrated to America in 1928 when she was 18 years old. Her father and mother, Odorizio and Maria Sozio settled in Tamaqua and Gisella lived there with her two brothers Albert and Guido, and her sister Josephine. There, Gisella worked with all the other members of her family at Sozio’s Bakery on Dutch Hill. Jessie, as Gisella was known, also picked out her unsuspecting husband, Albert, as he played trombone in a marching band. Albert never had a chance with this winsome and vivacious young lady, and the newlyweds moved to Mt. Carmel in the early 1930s. They spent their honeymoon picking and hauling home bushels of strewn coal near coal mines and breakers outside of town.

For most of the rest of her life, Gisella was a resident of Mt. Carmel. Albert and Jessie were able to save enough money to buy the home of their dreams on South Grape Alley between Maple and Vine Streets. It had an icebox, a coal-fired kitchen stove and an outhouse, no less. The couple had three children, Sammy, Mary Ann and Tim, all of whom, through their parents’ guidance and support, quickly entered the middle class and had children better off than they were.

Sadly, Albert was permanently disabled in a mine cave-in when he was 32. Gisella, supported her disabled husband and family by working every day in a sewing factory on stretch waist bands, evenings as a cook at Nicoletti’s Restaurant, later as an owner of her own small pizza and bread shop, and weekends catering weddings or cleaning houses. In addition, she raised three kids, all the while with her in-laws living in her home. Generous, non-materialistic to a fault and a fantastic cook and baker, Jessie found time to take the lead at all the fundraising feasts of her beloved St. Peter’s Church in Mt. Carmel. St. Peter’s was filled with samples of Jessie’s intricate cutwork so prized by all her friends. Ever fun-loving despite her difficult life, Jessie was renowned for her show-stopping performances at weddings, where for decades, she danced to the rhythmic cadences of a Tarantella with a tray containing a full pitcher and ten full glasses of beer atop her head.

Fiercely revered as a life model by her 15 grandchildren and great grandchildren, Gisella Sozio Mannello is just the kind of person to whom some today would say: “Go back to where you came from.”

For the sake of full disclosure, if we follow President Trump’s desire to prefer rich people with health insurance and incomes over poor people with dreams and determination to make it on their own, we should be honest and transparent, confessing it to the world and ourselves. If we, indeed, support Trump’s position, a first step might be to change Emma Lazarus’ words on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty to this:

“Give me your energetic working-aged adults between 22 and 40 with job offers that pay at least 150 percent of median household income.

“Your English-speaking bilinguals who can pass a citizenship test most Americans can’t.

“Your Nobel Prize winners, Ph. D.’s, Olympic medalists and those wealthy enough to invest at least $1.35M.”

Immigrant families like yours and mine helped build and defend this country. Yet when they first arrived here, particularly toward the end of the 19th century, many suffered abuse and rejection by so-called nativists who believed that “immigrants brought crime and chaos, threatened the cherished safety net, and caused the withering of national culture and tradition.” Despite fact-check evidence to the contrary easily referenced in comparative crime rates reports, we hear echoes of this sentiment today from the President of the United States.

It’s more sad than ironic that the very descendants of those immigrants who were discriminated against, persecuted, and in some cases actually murdered, have themselves now become nativist, anti-immigrant zealots despite surnames indicating their Italian, Irish, German, Jewish, Greek, Chinese, even Mexican, heritage, whose ancestors suffered the same cruel abuse upon their arrival in America because of their “foreign” origin.

A statement I came across recently surely bears repeating to descendants of immigrants: “If you’re lucky enough to do well,” (and rise to the top) “it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down.”

Tim Mannello is a retired healthcare executive and business consultant residing in Williamsport.

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