An interview with my Grandfather who grew up in Italy during World War II, and moved to Canada when he was 18 to live the "American Dream", but in Canada, and his views on how the Ideals and Creeds of western nations have changed since he came over.
The following is a transcript of an audio interview conducted over the phone.
Crystal: What is your definition of the American Dream?
Nonno: To be free to express your opinion, your religion and your political views, and then also to enhance your life the way you live. Like to have a good job, so you can earn money. For me it was to have a house, to have enough money to have a house, get married, have a family, and that I could support my family. Give my family a good standard of living and make enough money to send them to school, so they can have a good education and that in turn will give them a better chance to have a better life, to have more education for themselves and a better standard of living for themselves. So as far as I’m concerned I have achieved my American Dream while in Canada. [Back in Italy], I wanted to go to university to get an engineering degree, but I’d have had to leave my town- but my parents didn't have the money to pay for my room and board.
My dad, before I was born, he wanted to have the “Canadian/American dream” too because his brother was living in canada, so his brother called him over. He had his papers to come over and everything, but at that time all immigrants [to North America] landed in New York, so he took the boat and went to New York, but while he was traveling from Italy to New York they changed the law. They no longer allowed immigrants to go to Canada through the U.S. because a lot were jumping off the train and staying in the U.S., and they were in a bad situation financially; it was the Great Depression. So they wouldn't let him go to Canada. They kept him in Ellis Island for six months and after that, rather than pay for him to go to Canada by boat, they said no. They had ships going back to Italy empty becauses they went from Italy to New York, but going back there was nobody in it, so they said ‘Ok we’ll take you back;’. So he had to go back to Italy after staying in New York for six months. He lost his dream and he said it was the first time in his life that he cried. But anyway, he managed.
We weren't rich. He found a job in the mines. He was above them, but he made enough money so that I could go to high school. I could at least finish high school, but I wanted to have a better life, cause you know, right after the war, things were really bad, and I didn't want to see war again. So I wanted to go to a decent country; I wanted to have a decent life, respectful, raise a family in my own place that I can call my own, and Nonna and I achieved that. We raised three wonderful kids, we are proud of them, proud of the grandchildren. This is the dream. This is my American Dream, and I'm living the American Dream right now because I am reasonably healthy, don't have to worry where our next meal comes from, don't have to worry about vacation, we have everything we like to have. especially good health.
All in all, to me, I fulfilled my dream. I have everything I came here for, I have enough money, I’ve worked hard all my life, and I didn't expect anybody to maintain me. I came over, and I didn't have a penny. I actually owed my uncle, who paid my trip, 310 dollars in 1951 (so quite a bit, 65 years ago). It took me a year to pay him back because when I came over there was a small recession. I had to work in a tool shop as an apprentice. I was making barely enough to pay my room and board, but as I joke with Uncle Paul, I had one dollar left after my living expenses, and I used it to go dancing at Caboto. And that's where I met Nonna. It’s lucky I had a dollar!
My family history is an easily recognizable storyline: European immigrant comes to Western country, starts off with nothing, works hard, and ends up 70 years later with everything he could have ever wanted. Curious as to how this exactly transpired, I interviewed my grandfather, who immigrated to Canada from northern Italy after World War II, about his experiences with the “American” Dream, and what it means to him. His experiences gave me proof that the American Dream isn’t just limited to America, but rather, it’s an idealistic mindset. Moving halfway across the world for an opportunity and the promise of a better life for your future children and your future spouse isn’t just for those who are planning to move to America. It’s the community of the area you move to that enables this “dream” concept to come true. My Grandfather’s Uncle and the community in Canada welcomed my Grandfather with open arms: paying for his trip, helping him learn english, and helping him get a job. Without those welcoming community members, his rise to success as an engineer would have never happened.
During this interview, I can piece together how he’s viewed America (and by extension, Canada)’s changed dream- and where there are dreams, there are creeds. I believe the American Creeds of the past and today have helped to create the Dreams available-or not available. In the past, communities were welcoming to immigrants. Our country was built on immigrants after all. If you got a little bit of help, and were hard-working, you were successful. It was like a simple mathematical formula. In my grandfather’s experience, as time went on, and people have made more money, they have gotten more selfish and less willing to help others. The American Creed now is self-centered, and that one should focus on their own success before helping others. My nonno has seen the world go from apocalyptic war to forgetting what fighting is like and lobbying for violent action. He has seen the people in the West lose respect and tolerance for new people, ideals that are vital for a peaceful society. As America continues to change, one can only hope that our society will recall upon that value of tolerance that helped shape us into who we are.
Crystal: Has it [The Dream] changed since then?
Nonno: Quite a bit, because at that time most of the people were more concerned to have a future, a good job, and to raise a family and to have their own home. My dream was to own my own home and to raise a family, find a wife, and give them the best that I could afford and send them to university. At that time the idea was to have a job and a good future. Today it’s more modern. They [today’s generation growing up in America] want more things that are not the basic needs of life. They might have some extravagant desires, but they are not really necessity of life. But of course they want to have more than the necessity. But it's changed. There isn't that much respect right now for somebody’s else’s thinking, religion, language, or country, etc. We are more looking for selfish things, for ourselves, even though there's a lot of people helping each other and the poor and less fortunate, we are more interested in our own life, our own passions than others at this time. This is because we made a lot of progress, and we have more money, and we are wealthier now then we used to be, of course, so it's natural to have things in life you couldn't afford before. And that is a good thing which we do have now, but I don't know if we… Well, we could've got greedy a little bit, but the dream itself is always the basic- you want the best for yourself, for your family. This is the majority.
Some of the violence today is maybe because of tv and movies- there's too much violence. There was not violence here. Right now there are too many guns. I grew up, when I was a kid during the war; I’d seen the horrors of the war, people being killed the bombs from airplanes dropping everyday. It was different then. I try not to see violence like that. I always like to see people get along and be friendly and communicate and tolerate the other religions and other ways of thinking, politically. Respect. I'd like to see more respect with our neighbors.
Life has been very good to me. I didn't expect too much. I didn't reach for the sky, I only reached for the moon, and I got up to the highest mountain, and I’m doing fine. I'm enjoying the retirement, I have enough to buy whatever I’d like, like commodities and the new technology- tvs, internet blah blah, all these things that you know. But I have enough that I can enjoy myself. I like the work in the garden, we pass the time. We have enough to have a comfortable living enjoying life.
I wish you that you’ll have your dream too, and it might look tough right now, but don't forget, always be positive. Never, never be negative. Always look on the bright side.