Tag Archives: immigrants

One immigrant’s story

In 1990 eight-year-old Victoria Glazomitsky stepped off a plane at Kennedy Airport with her mother and father, her paternal grandmother and grandfather and her three-year-old brother, Misha.
They were immigrating from what was still the Soviet Union. Her grandmother didn’t want to leave. But everyone else did, including her father, who as an engineer could surely get employment in the US.
He would finally. But for two years the Glazomitsky family lived on food stamps and welfare. They struggled to learn English. They depended on a family member who had come earlier. They moved around. Victoria and Misha went to school. The family finally could support themselves. The grandmother gradually lost her nostalgia for her homeland. They all became citizens.
In one way, Victoria’s story is like all immigrant stories—a hope for a better life, a long journey, a struggle to fit into an unfamiliar country, and eventual success, especially for the generations following.
But it is also her unique story. What better way to celebrate the Fourth of July than by telling an immigrant’s story. After all, unless we are descended from the First Peoples in North America, we all have one, even if that immigration was forced upon us, as it was for so many Africans.
Victoria said she has achieved success in America because of good mentors and good luck. It’s possible, however, that her drive, persistence and determination to do well also helped her. But again, that is a typical immigrant’s story.
Victoria was a good student interested in art and art history, so when she enrolled at UMass Boston, that’s what she studied. She also was good at math, a native Russian speaker and believed she had a knack for business, so she also majored in International Management.
She caught the attention of Professor Paul Tucker, a renowned art historian, who became one of her important mentors.
After college, with financial stability as a goal, Victoria first went into the insurance world. After a couple of years, she knew it wasn’t for her. Professor Tucker helped her sort things out and steered her to the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln. At first she was an assistant to the director, but when the 2008 recession hit, the deCordova had to let several staff members go. Victoria took over their duties.
At first, it was a burden of more work and sorrow at the loss of co-workers who were also friends. Later, though, she realized that learning everyone else’s job and steering the complex projects other staff members have formerly managed gave her valuable experiences.
After about five years Victoria confided to the director that, having learned what she could there, she planned to move on. Before she could start a job search, however, the director himself found her a new job.
He had been at a conference with the director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. PEM’s director had a number of projects in his expanding museum that had no supervision. He needed someone who could take them over, even though some were still amorphous. The deCordova Museum director said, “I’ve got the perfect person for you.”
Victoria attributes that career builder to the luck of having her director sit next to the PEM director. Maybe.
During her three years at PEM, Victoria acquired a friend who would become her husband and a future stepdaughter. She and her stepdaughter often traipsed around Boston’s museums. One day in the fall of 2014, they stepped into the Nichols House Museum on Mount Vernon Street on Beacon Hill. They enjoyed their visit, and the docent told them about the upcoming house tour in December that the musuem has annually sponsored. She couldn’t remember the details, however.
Victoria looked up the house tour online and had good luck again. She found on the web site that the Nichols House was looking for a new director to replace Flavia Cigliano, who was retiring after 16 years at the small museum’s helm. Victoria applied and got the job.
Now with her Russian origin masked by her flawless, unaccented English and her husband Todd McKay’s last name, Victoria is moving on, too soon as she puts it, since she intended to stay at the Nichols House Museum at least five years.
She’ll become the managing director of advancement at the Boston Society of Architects Foundation. This job will help solidify her fund-raising skills.
It’s curious about immigrants. Soon they become so American that their talents and accomplishments mean that no one thinks about their more complicated story than those of the native-born.
Nichols House Museum President Kate Enroth’s comments reflect that.
“We are sorry to have Victoria leaving the Nichols House Museum,” said Enroth. “She had great ideas for new programs and events that brought attention to the museum. Most importantly, she led us in the final steps to gaining the significant honor of accreditation by the national American Alliance of Museums. We wish her well in the next stage of her career.”

Summer feasts

Have you ever been to a feast on the streets of the North End? I decided this is the summer I’m going. I knew little about them for many years. Recently, they seem to have proliferated.

It’s true, said life-long North End resident Nick Dello Russo. The reason I knew so little about them is that for awhile they were on life support. But now they’ve returned, with celebrations on at least half the weekends all summer.

The North End feasts were brought to America from Italy where each town had a patron saint, Nick said. Many were harvest feasts that provided an opportunity to get together with friends and neighbors and catch up on gossip. Most importantly, they were an opportunity to introduce single young people to one another.

Nick said wakes were also such an opportunity.

“How many times was I dragged to a wake of someone I didn’t know just to show me off?” Nick complained. But we digress.

The weekend feasts were (and still are) sponsored by local saints’ clubs. They recreate the festivals held in the fishing villages of Sicily and hill villages in the province of Avellino, from where many North Enders’ ancestors came.

They usually start on a Friday, but the big day is Sunday with a Mass and a band. Revelers march around the streets with the image of the saint and visit the other saints’ clubs. They invite the crowds to pin money on the saint’s garments.

“When I was a kid, the ladies would have a big sheet and you’d throw money into the sheet from your window,” Nick remembered. “Many old Italian ladies would make promises—if Saint Anthony would give them a certain favor they would march in St Anthony’s feast and you’d see scores of these old ladies carrying a large candle and marching barefoot. They’d have their sons or grandsons dressed up in a St. Anthony outfit with a rope around the waist. They were doing it to say thank you to the saint.”

All that stopped when the ladies died out and the North End changed after World War II. The overhead Central Artery cut off the neighborhood from the city. At the same time North Enders, along with other Bostonians, heard the call to the suburbs and were not interested in maintaining the old traditions. It was difficult to get the young people who stayed to join the religious clubs that sponsored the feasts, Nick said.

But recently, even more changes have come. The Central Artery was buried, opening up the neighborhood once more to the city. People remembered how good city life was and moved back. While less than one-third of North End residents now identify as Italian, everyone relishes the North End’s Italian flavor, and the neighborhood, with its many restaurants, has grown as a tourist destination.

This has its pluses and minuses, according to Nick. On the one hand, the weekend feasts are good for business. “The restaurants like them,” said Nick. “And it’s trying to keep a veneer of southern Italian culture.”

The feasts are money makers for the saints’ clubs. Money is pinned to the figure of the saint who is being celebrated. Big and little stands selling or promoting something pay a fee to set up along the parade route. Nick is skeptical of how much good the feasts do. “They generate a lot of money and [the clubs] do some charitable works,” Nick explained. “But no one has seen the accounting.”

The feasts draw more tourists than locals, which is one complaint. Another is that the feasts have been commercialized. While families used to set up tables in front of their houses and welcome visitors with home-made wine, now the tables are typically set up by commercial entities, so the celebrations haves lost some of their homey flavor. And the parades take over the narrow streets, making it even more difficult for cars to negotiate the North End’s challenging traffic patterns.

On the other hand, the feasts are great entertainment. In at least one feast, little girls, dressed up in finery, sail over the crowds on pulleys and drop garlands of flowers on the saint. It doesn’t get much better than that. Such entertainment is exactly what city life is all about—action and vitality. “I tell people if they want peace and quiet, move to Wellesley,” said Nick.

Street life such as this introduces non-Italians to traditional celebrations. It still enables people to meet one another and exchange gossip, and everyone patronizes the small, local businesses of which the North End still has plenty.

The biggest feasts are in August. The Fisherman’s Feast of the Madonna Del Soccorso di Sciacca is held from August 18 through August 21. Saint Anthony’s Feast takes place from August 26 through August 28. You can find the complete feast schedule on www.NorthEndBoston.com.

Nick is a fan of the feasts despite their drawbacks. He’s also a fan of the North End. He mentioned that a food emporium from New York called Eataly is moving into the Pru shopping mall this fall, recreating an Italian experience. “Why would they want Eataly when they can go to the North End?” he asked. The North End, even though its residents are no longer all Italian, has tenements with granite countertops and is a neighborhood in Boston, is still the real Italian experience.

Immigrants, 1850

Recently I researched and wrote a book about a group of immigrants who came to America in the 1840s and 1850s. Getting to Grand Prairie: One Hundred Londoners and Their Quest for Land in Frontier Illinois will appear this summer. It tells a true story of the farming community I grew up in. I’m preparing the book’s index now.

Although I have published three books with commercial publishers, I could not find one for this book. I can understand—where is the market? These immigrants were not fleeing poverty or religious persecution as were many 19th-century arrivals. It was not the high drama publishers want.

At some point, though, I realized I had a ready-made audience. Those hundred Londoners now have hundreds of descendants and, in doing the research, I acquired many emails. Why share proceeds from this book with a publisher when I already have buyers? I’m not David McCullough. Most lesser known authors have little negotiating power and realize little profit from their works. I decided to publish it myself.

But that’s not what this column is about. It’s about what I learned about views toward immigrants in researching this book.

Today, some Americans heap vitriol on hapless children fleeing deadly gangs in Central America. Some Americans, especially those elected to Congress, want to send back the offspring of illegal immigrants to a homeland they left as children. Some Republican presidential candidates draw support by stimulating nativist bigotry and fanning fears of immigrants stealing jobs and wreaking havoc. Donald Trump’s statements are inflammatory, but other presidential candidates seem to agree with him even if they won’t express it in his terms. Meanness all around.

The research for my book showed the attitude toward immigrants was different in America in the mid-1800s, especially in the Middle West. There was land to be sold, business to be done and a population to build. Only 20 years after Illinois became a state, its citizens clamored for everybody to come. It was mostly European immigrants who were arriving. Germans, Scandinavians, Poles, Irish—all were welcome. The skin color was the same as the American-born, but they were nevertheless exotic.

I learned the most about the Londoners, since they came together and had a great impact on their new community. They chose Illinois’ Grand Prairie because they were invited.

A land speculator, Isaac Sandusky, sponsored a lecture in London, extolling the virtues of the Grand Prairie, which stretched south from a growing Chicago along the Indiana border. It was one of about 100 named Illinois prairies, separated by rivers or forests. Abraham Lincoln’s family moved from Indiana and settled on Goose Nest Prairie, just west of the Grand Prairie, when he was a young man. The prairie names were used because the civil boundaries had either not been established or were in flux. Sandusky, whose original family name was Sodowsky, was said to have noble antecedents in Poland. Maybe that is true.

Isaac and his family had bought thousands of acres from the federal government in the 1830s and early 1840s, paying $1.25 an acre. They sold parcels for $4 or $5 an acre during the 1840s and ‘50s, so they prospered from the immigrants they had invited. They also sold the newcomers equipment and livestock.

It wasn’t just the Sandusky/Sodowsky family welcoming the immigrants. Immigrants were a profit center everywhere, so those with an eye on making money welcomed them.

New York (and presumably Boston) was prospering from the dozens of ships owned mostly by American investors that sailed from Europe, bringing 300 to 500 immigrants per crossing. A shipboard letter one of the Grand Prairie immigrants wrote described the customs agents as polite and welcoming as they boarded the Hendrik Hudson, with no restrictions on what immigrants could bring with them. The agents examined the passengers for signs of illness, but they allowed all to enter.

Immigrants paid for passage on the ships, enriching the owners and crew. Even the poorest bought supplies from local merchants when they arrived. They paid for trains, stagecoaches and boats that took them inland. It wasn’t hard to start a business or find a job. Such a welcome made me rethink some rejection stories of Irish immigrants in Boston. Some probably had a hard time. But it is also likely that many entrepreneurial Yankees saw the Irish as potential customers who would soon be buying what they had to sell.

The immigrants whose stories I unearthed were luckier than many. They spoke the same language as Americans. They shared an ancestry with many of them. The ships’ manifests show they often came with families. That was not true of the Irish and Germans on the same ships. They usually came alone.

Even though the immigrants were welcomed, they must have had mixed feelings. In most cases, they would never again see family or friends left behind. Finding a job, starting a business, learning the language and culture, even if they had commonalities, must have been both frightening and exciting. And then there was looming that awful war.

What comes through strongest is that in the mid-19th century, Americans realized they needed the immigrants. Today, except for economists, university research labs and large-scale farmers and business owners, most folks don’t see the connection. It’s true in Europe too. A couple of years ago, when visiting in Oxford, England, I heard people say, “We have enough people here.” I realized it was code for “No more immigrants.”

I don’t know how to solve the immigrant problems that appear to be worldwide. I do know we must pay tribute to our history of welcoming immigrants, and we must find a humane way to do it.