Monday, June 05, 2006

No Cheese Wid for me

I only wish that I ate cheesesteaks, just so I could protest by refusing to patronize Geno's Steaks after this column in the Philadelphia Inquirer, An old struggle to adapt to a new country's ways.

Joseph Vento is extremely proud of the fact that he has "laminated signs, festooned with American eagles, at his South Philadelphia cheesesteak emporium: This is America. When Ordering, Speak English."

Even better, he in effect admits that he would refuse to serve his own Italian born grandparents, who (like my own) spoke broken English. The article says:

Joseph Vento's grandfather and namesake, a street-corner jeweler from Sicily, had trouble with English.

"They tried," Vento said of his grandparents. "They had a hard time. Look at the price they paid. They were limited."

The Ventos rarely left their South Philadelphia neighborhood.
However, unlike him, I have great admiration and respect for my grandparents efforts in dealing with the difficulties of moving -- as adults -- to a foreign country and trying to adapt to a new language and customs. I can remember my grandmother, who loved to travel, being reluctant to venture outside our neighborhood, because she was embarrassed by her heavily accented English, afraid that people wouldn't understand her.

Of course, Vento doesn't care about others. It should be his way or the highway. It also doesn't matter that he didn't quite get the history of the immigration influx at the turn of the previous century correct. After all, people like him never do worry about the facts. As the Inquirer noted:

But history challenges many assumptions about the hurdles aspiring Americans used to face, say scholars of the last massive migration to the United States, which occurred between 1880 and 1920.

"There was no such thing as an 'illegal' immigrant," said Roger Daniels, a member of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island History Committee and author of Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigrants and Immigration Policy Since 1882.

The Old Country often required exit visas, which created the possibility of illegal emigrants. But the United States did not issue entry visas until 1921.

Before that, no meaningful immigration restrictions existed, except for a bar on Chinese enacted in 1882. Congress imposed no other limits on the number of immigrants - from any one country, or in total. About a million arrived each year in the early 1900s. It wasn't until 1924 that Congress imposed an annual cap of 155,000 immigrants.

"If you could get here and weren't terribly diseased, you could get in," Daniels said.

By contrast, backlogs, country quotas and annual caps now make legal immigration a tortuous and nearly impossible process for many, said Thomas Conaghan, director of the Irish Immigration and Pastoral Center in Upper Darby.

Past immigrants, once here, faced a backlash fueled by anxiety about religions, languages and races that were relatively new to the United States. Fear of anarchist and "Red" ideologies and the competition for jobs also played roles.

Help-wanted ads limited applicants to native-born Americans, said Kathryn Wilson, director of education at the Pennsylvania Historical Society.

Current critics of illegal immigration echo earlier generations of nativists, say academic experts on ethnicity.

"A lot of the rhetoric was similar: 'They don't speak English. They don't want to be Americans,' " said Mae M. Ngai, a University of Chicago historian and author of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America.

The real issue was revealed in a follow up editorial by Deborah Leavy, AT GENO'S, NO ENGLISH, NO SERVICE:
Jimmy, the guy at the window at Geno's when I stopped by, denied the rule was aimed at foreign tourists. "Some people have taken it the wrong way," he told me between taking orders.

"If you come here from France, and you're on vacation, you shouldn't have to speak English. I try to work with them."

And how do you tell the tourists from the immigrants, legal or illegal - unless what you really mean is Mexicans.

"This was a predominantly Italian neighborhood, and for some reason it's turning Mexican," complained Vento. "They're not speaking the language. It's a big problem, and it's getting worse."
Ahh, yes. It finally comes out. The English only rule is merely bigotry against Latinos. By an Italian American no less. A man who's own relatives no doubt experienced bigotry gets his turn.

Good news is that it's not so for everyone. As Leavy observed:
Not for Tom Francano, who has been taking orders across the street at Pat's King of Steaks for 27 years. "We welcome everybody. We speak everything here. We're multicultural."

Long Live Pat's!

UPDATE: Like me, Attytood was a little late to this controversy. In his post, "QuerrĂ­a un filete de queso....CON!" -- the disgrace that is Geno's Steaks, and what can be done about it, he notes the misremembering or disconnect between reality and perception in the English only debate. Contrary to popular belief, as this article, Immigration—The Wages of Fear, notes: "Hispanics are learning English faster than did Italian and Polish immigrants a century ago."

I also like the idea of the meet up at Geno's with 100+ people, ordering in various foreign languages over the 4th of July week-end. Sign me up!

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