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The Elephant in the Kitchen

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

Pass at LV; photo by Kateri Likoudis Connolly (This was written in 2018 as a part of a larger work). There’s a moment during a Mexican quinceanera, a blow-out-the-doors party marking a girl’s fifteenth birthday, when the young lady steps forward - completely decked out in spangled finery like a fairytale princess - and dances with her father. In this case Eric, our line cook, must dance with two of his daughters. He’d had to delay his eldest daughter’s celebration for a year, so, this is a twofer. There’s a DJ and a mariachi band. There are hundreds of people here, nearly all of them from Puebla, snazzily dressed in some of their best threads, drinking and eating from apparently unlimited troughs and pools. Steak, shrimp, rice and beans, wine, beer, rum, vodka, tequila, and mezcal. All on Eric’s dime. There must be over two hundred adults in this rented hall. Three hundred? There are hordes of little kids. We've thrown big events at our restaurant. At least I'd thought they were big. I was wrong. I briefly wonder “How the fuck did he pay for all this?”, but then remember his work schedule for the past few months. Arriving in the morning with his wife to clean the restaurant, staying to make pasta and do other prep, then returning to cover service. Sometimes from 7 or 8 in the morning until 11 at night. Extra work we didn't ask or need him to do. But time he requested, was desparate for to rustle up enough scratch to cover this shindig, a rite of passage the enormity of which I’m only just now beginning to fathom. Planning and paying for this would've broken me. It’s overwhelming taking it all in: table after table packed with people chowing down with gusto; an army of servers delivering drink and grub; the ceiling hung with colorful décor; happy music blaring; young people dancing, children vectoring about in packs, closely followed by their attentive parents. Whole families are here. I’m getting a glimpse of how large and close Philly’s Puebla community is.

This is our first time at an event thrown by one of the Mexicans on our staff. That wasn’t held at Le Virtú, that is. As a group, they’ve thrown parties there, including a 60th-birthday celebration for my brother Fred. They invite the whole staff, of course. For Fred’s fiesta, several of them brought food they’d made themselves, traditional dishes from Puebla and Guadalajara. It was a surprise party. Fred’s been to Puebla, put up there for a couple weeks by the families of staff members. They happily took him everywhere, feted him every night. Fred’s affection for and rapport with the Mexican contingent at Le Virtú are central to our success and some of the reasons for the family vibe the restaurant enjoys. It’s a feeling I wouldn’t want the restaurant to be without. And one that was earned over years of working together.

Eric’s daughters are stunning. They’re beautiful human beings, already as tall as their mom and dad, slenderer but strongly built. Like their parents, their features are Mesoamerican. Though it’s apparent that this ceremony has been exhaustively choreographed and practiced, there’s a tentative nature to their movements that betrays some nervousness. The eyes of a significant part of a community watch their every gesture. It’s been made clear to me by Eric’s co-workers, with whom we’re sitting, that this is a knowledgeable audience. My admiration for the young women grows exponentially as, despite the pressure, they pull off every step. It’s all too sweet for words. Eric – low to the ground, solid, a fireplug of strength – dances with each of them in turn. This is the first time I’ve seen him formally dressed. His powerful build wants to erupt from his suit. His mien is also a little tentative, but it’s clear that he too has been practicing for this dance. And that fact boggles my mind. On top of a work schedule that would’ve reduced most guys to an insensate lump, he found time to practice with his daughters. It’s humbling. The crowd take it all in, a sea of smiling faces. Love radiates from every nook, cranny, and soul in this vast hall. And I’m blindsided by an emotional wave. My eyes tear up and my throat catches.

It’s a privilege to be here in this community, to watch it celebrate a young girl’s coming of age with the same sense of purpose that it applies to its work. This release of pent-up energies and emotion is entirely benign, infused with mutual respect and love. Despite what seem like unlimited reservoirs of free booze, there’s no drunken stupidity, loutish behavior, catty comments (that I can understand or intuit, anyway) about the party’s décor or planning, none of the snark and drunken bullshit that have attended so many middle-class American family-themed events to which I’ve been reluctantly dragged. There’s a pride in this hall that is hard-earned, a happiness that persists despite hardships both natural and artificial, punishments often sadistically and arbitrarily imposed by outside forces. There’s community in this room, shared experience and values. There’s no way around the fact that, for centuries, they’ve been put upon, exploited here and in their own country, but always maintaining (from an outsider’s vantage) a stoic dignity, behaving in a way that we claim to hold up as an example but seem loath to acknowledge or emulate: resolutely and substantively showing up to get the job done without fanfare or boast. This might be the most bedrock, fundamental, goddamned, so-called “American Values” event I’ve ever attended. These are the Americans we aspire and/or pretend to be. I’m not sure what Cathy and I have done to deserve the honor of our invitation, but this experience and the epiphanies it causes are transformative. The word that comes to mind - unexpectedly, as it’s not a word I use or a quality I trust given the slant often applied to it in our broader culture - is “wholesome.” This is Hallmark shit I’m watching, stuff I used to make fun of. And now I’ve got tears in my eyes. Why would anyone object to the presence of these folks as part of their community? How could you see this celebration or daily witness their work ethic and comportment and summon hate? Is it just ignorance and fear that makes so illogical a reaction to them possible? Is it just because they tend to keep to themselves and the work that many of them do has become invisible to some of us? (But to no one in the restaurant industry, though some pretend it’s not happening). Because we don’t want to do that work or think about it? What is our problem? That this cultural demonstration plays out in a climate in which this community has been maligned, vilified, and targeted by a candidate for and now occupier of our nation’s highest office, agencies within his (our) government, and his throngs of ignorant and often rabidly enraged supporters lends this event an air of protest. One that I’m certain isn’t intended, but still. That these folks are a defiant lot, I’ve no doubt. Their history makes that clear, as do our experiences working with them. I don’t mistake their humility and willingness to handle tough jobs for servility or weakness. They will fight when they must. They demand respect and appropriate renumeration. They will not be exploited. And their moral courage and constancy allowed Cathy and me to find our own. Beyond wanting to defend the people with whom we've worked for years and on whom we’ve relied to run our business, we had our own personal reasons for supporting immigrants and immigration reform. In 2017, we started doing events in support of individual immigrants and refugees and organizations fighting for the rights of all arrivals, documented or not. Better late than never, I hope. I wrote a piece explaining our motivations and sent it off to Philadelphia Magazine. It ran online and focused the attention of not only our supporters but also our detractors. A Philly Republican mayoral candidate used us to stir his base. We received threats (burning down our restaurant was the most popular idea). I spent hours each week in a dark, mind-numbing place on social media responding to people who either lacked compassion, empathy, or knowledge of immigration history and their own family’s place in it, or who were proudly xenophobic and/or racist. But, in a departure from my normal non-restaurant related responses to such demonstrations of ignorance or hate (I’ve done my time in Zuckerberg’s jail), I interacted as constructively as I could with these people. If we wanted to begin a national conversation on the issue, we’d need to be willing to converse. I can’t say that I made much headway. Facts have little purchase in that community. But facts, the history, they matter.

(White Star Line Cretic)

When my grandfather Alfonso Cretarola landed in Boston in 1909 (he’d sailed from Napoli on the White Star Line’s S.S. Cretic which, from his descriptions, better have been boiled in between transatlantic voyages: during transit, cleaning services in steerage dealing with the effects of seasickness, dysentery, and other maladies had been less than top-hole), America wanted Italians like 14th-Century England wanted the Plague. Italians then arriving were predominantly southerners, described as unskilled, ignorant, uneducated, and with a tendency toward criminality. A lot of these stereotypes originated in northern Italy, which had united the peninsula at the barrel of gun in the 1860s. Cesare Lombroso, a doctor in the northern Army of Vittorio Emanuele II (the Piemontese King of Sardegna who became the first king of a united Italy), had taken up the “scientific” study of racial types, and was pretty sure that he’d discovered an inferior one in southern Italy. He came to this judgement of terroni (a northern pejorative for southern Italians that connects them to the terra, the soil they tilled, and references their darker skin) in part, by studying and measuring heads and facial features. Some of the heads he examined had been only recently separated from the bodies of executed southerners. (A museum dedicated to this quack’s work - which inspired Nazi theories - is still open at the University of Torino in Piemonte). To this day, families in southern Italy are trying to get the skulls of their ancestors returned to them for proper burial. If you ever wonder whence the Italian North-South divide, start here. The internments, summary executions, and occasional outright massacres perpetrated in the South during the period of resistance (known as the Brigantaggio) were underlined by such attitudes and beliefs. These prejudices continue to inform Italian politics and governance to this day.

(Execution of a southern "Brigante," post-unification, 1861) The terroni arriving in America were also thought to be resistant to assimilation. Worse still, they were ardent papists. They practiced a brand of the (then, in America, an acorn that hadn’t fallen very far from its English tree) hated Catholicism that seemed even more pagan to observers than the Irish variety (the fear of which persisted right up until the election of JFK). Alfonso was a quick study and figured that maybe the Italian hand he’d been dealt wasn’t a winner, so he changed his name to fly under the radar. But his skin color often foiled his attempts to go on the ethnic DL. His complexion was described on various documents as “dark.” His WWII draft card identifies him as a “Negro.” And I think we all know how the US has, often as a matter of policy, treated African Americans. (Let me be clear: in no way would I compare the plight of Italian immigrants, my nonno included, to the atrocities suffered by the African-American community). The environment he arrived in was toxic. In 1891, eighteen years before Alfonso’s arrival, eleven Sicilian immigrants were lynched by a mob in New Orleans after they were acquitted on charges of murdering the city’s police chief. It’s one of largest mass lynchings in American history. Teddy Roosevelt, then a member of the US Civil Service Commission, summed up the zeitgeist in a letter to his sister Anna: “Monday we dined at the Camerons; various dago diplomats were present, all much wrought up by the lynching of the Italians in New Orleans. Personally, I think it rather a good thing, and said so.” Teddy had been elected president by the time the 17-year-old Alfonso innocently stepped off his boat.

(Anti-Italian cartoon, 1903) Not that Alfonso would’ve been deterred had he been aware of all this. Which I’m pretty sure he wasn’t. Nor any of his 183,217 co-nationals who made shore in 1909. Deprivation, lack of opportunity, existential dangers, political persecution, the desire to help one’s family or give one’s children a better life, these things have always lit hopeful fires under desperate asses and driven people to leave their homes, endure hardships and alienation, to risk all. These motivations should be familiar to most American families. They’re bedrock to America’s history and offer what ought to be culturally solidifying commonalities. But, as the Italian expression went, “L’ultima che entra chiude la porta” – “The last one in closes the door.” Willful ignorance and historical amnesia might be America’s most durable attributes. In 1921, America’s then predominantly WASP, would-be cultural guardians had had just about enough of the waves of "dagos" washing up on their shining seaports and infesting their alabaster cities. That year, nativist fears led to legislative action. A law was passed applying immigration quotas by nationality (it also banned all Asians, save Japanese and Filipinos). The quotas reflected, in part, the perceived desirability of an ethnic group. In 1924, the act was strengthened. It targeted southern and eastern Europeans (the latter because the Powers-That-Were were also less than enthusiastic about Jews; the act also eliminated all immigration from Japan). In 1921, over 222,000 paesani had made the cruise. In 1924, their quota was set at 3,845 (for Germans, it was over 51,000; for Brits, 34,000). The Golden Door had slammed shut.

(Anti-Chinese cartoon, 1870's) Of course, xenophobic and racist impulses had long before infected our immigration policy. People who looked like Cathy and my mother-in-law had been banned by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. That legislation provides a vivid window on nativist freak-out and panic. It not only barred entry to all Chinese, it also stipulated that Chinese who’d managed to make it into the country before it took effect could never naturalize. This legalized racism emboldened some whites to drive out the Chinese who’d settled among them. In 1885, in Rock Springs Wyoming, angry miners - who saw the Chinese as competition for jobs - shot and stabbed them in the town’s Chinatown. Some were burned alive in their homes. In 1887, thirty-four Chinese miners were slaughtered at a similar event in Hells Canyon, Oregon. It wasn't until during the Second World War, when we allied ourselves with the Chinese who’d been fighting against the Empire of Japan since 1937, that restrictions on Chinese immigration were somewhat relaxed. As a representative of the Chinese government, Cathy's grandfather served with "Vinegar" Joe Stilwell, American commander of the Burma/China/India theater. Cathy’s mother would later become secretary to the family of Claire Chennault, leader of the Flying Tigers, the American volunteers who protected the skies above China in their P40 Warhawks before and after our entry into the war. Cathy’s father’s family had sneaked into the U.S. before the war, possibly to escape the slaughter being perpetrated in China as a matter of Japanese war policy. Her uncle Yip, though an undocumented immigrant, enlisted in the American army and fought and was wounded in Italy. In the engagement in which he earned his Purple Heart, he was his unit’s lone survivor. The trauma scarred him for life. But none of these people – Cathy’s mother, her grandfather, or Uncle Yip - would’ve been allowed to legally emigrate to the US until 1943.

(Flying Tiger P40 Warhawk, with American pilot and Chinese/American crew)

Alfonso naturalized that very year, after authorities had confiscated the short-wave radios in Reading’s Italian section and some unnaturalized Italians had been forced into Montana internment camps. Italian-born opera star Ezio Pinza was locked up in New York but then released without explanation or charges. Joe DiMaggio’s Sicilian-born dad had his fishing boat confiscated in San Francisco and, owing to a five-mile traveling restriction, was forbidden from visiting the family restaurant on Fisherman’s Warf. This while his son was serving in the U.S. Army Air Force (albeit as a baseball player at a California airbase). Still, Italian Americans enlisted in the military at a high rate during the war in a demonstration of affection for and loyalty to the country that seemed to skeeve at their presence.

The massive migrations that created Italian neighborhoods in places like South Philly, Bensonhurst in Brooklyn and Belmont in the Bronx, Boston's North End, North Beach in San Francisco, Federal Hill in Providence, Taylor Street and Hull House in Chicago, and The Hill in St. Louis came before the immigration prohibitions against and quotas on most nationalities. The historic immigrant populations of our section of South Philly - the Italians, the Jews, the Irish - arrived here at a time when, though unwanted and unwelcomed by the predominant culture, they weren't barred from coming. The talk of "legal immigration" in our current conversation usually ignores that fact. Many - if not most - Americans don’t know this history. The fact that legal methods have often been used to enforce prejudicial, racist, and xenophobic laws also makes most of the anti-immigration arguments (against Mexicans, Muslims, African "shit-hole" countries, for example) more than a little suspect. None of this is new. The first Nativist "Know Nothings" organized to bar the Irish and the Germans.

And terroni who came after Alfonso, did quotas and prohibitions stop some of them from trying to sneak in? As if. Like others at the time and many immigrants and refugees arriving today, the pressures they were under, the existential challenges and dangers they faced, their love for their families and children, and desperation to live a better life, to have just a fighting chance, trumped any legal concern. A lot of us, living soft lives far removed from want and mortal danger, seem to have forgotten that desperate, threatened people will do a lot of things to survive. And as far as survival options go, emigrating to a land mostly comprised of former immigrants and their spawn - finding work, opening businesses, and adding to the cultural richness of their adopted country - seems fairly benign. It’s the story of America. Well, that AND slavery and genocide. But you get the picture.

Authorial aside: contrary to what some might think, I love this country. Its possibilities, especially. I confront its faults and failures like I try to face my own: because I want us to live up to our own rhetoric, aspirational visions, and stated missions. To not do so would seem an abdication of responsibility, a betrayal. Anyway, like most southern Italians arriving in the first half of the 20th century, my grandfather probably wouldn't have made the cut after 1924. He had no family here, would’ve been judged unskilled, undocumented, and undesirable. He didn’t have an education to speak of, coming from a family of dirt-poor farmers, and spoke only his village’s dialect, which grew more useless with each step he took away from home. Ponder that for a moment. Most of our ancestors wouldn't have qualified for entry after 1924. Alfonso, I’m sure, would've come anyway. He was capotosto (hardheaded) and determined to help his family in the only way he could: by making himself scarce. And, of course, Italians, like other nationalities, did sneak in from Canada, Cuba, and Mexico after 1924. But over time, America mellowed to the presence of the undocumented immigrants living inside its boundaries and realized that most of them were leading productive lives as integral parts of their communities. They were working, supporting and starting businesses, employing other Americans, paying taxes. So, ways were found for them to attain status.

Hell, Reagan granted amnesty to nearly 3,000,000 undocumented immigrants. Why not now? I know. That was a rhetorical question.

(Italian neighborhood, South Philly 1940's)

After Eric’s dances, we sit back down for more steak and shrimp (and a couple of tequila shots, at the orders of staff members at our table).The mariachi band plays on, Eric’s coworkers party happily, and Cathy and I decide to up the amount on the gift check we’d brought. Jesus. This is insane. And, as he’s done several times before the dance portion of the blowout, Eric checks in on us. By this point his face is a portrait of happy exhaustion – now that it’s almost over, all the work, practice, and lack of sleep has started to catch up with him. Are we okay? Do we need anything? How’s the food? Can he get us another drink? We assure him that we we’re maiali in merda and tell him to enjoy his own amazing party.

Around 11 pm, we get up to leave. As we make our way out the door, small bands of people arrive, probably having just punched out from their own work shifts all over the city.I don’t have to ask myself if any of our people here will be in shape and ready for work the next day. Banged up or not, they always answer the bell.It’s their defining characteristic. They’ll be ready to kick ass again tomorrow, that’s for sure. And a question pops into my head while pondering all this on the way out: who the hell’s cooking tonight at half of the restaurants in town?

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