Derek Gentile: Immigrants seek dream, just like us
PITTSFIELD -- Let me tell you a little immigration story that my family knows well.
I had a great uncle who lived up the street from my family when I was growing up in Adams. I saw him on a nearly daily basis, because when I lived on Glen Street, I had to walk by his house when I walked to school.
He and my great-aunt were really sweet people. I remember that he had an amazing collection of Reader's Digest magazines, and whenever I wanted, I could go over to the house and borrow as many as I could carry. I didn't read the stories, but I remember that the humor features were always pretty good.
In many ways, Uncle Fred and Aunt May had a lot to do with my interest in reading growing up.
Anyway, years later, when I was just starting out at The Eagle, Uncle Fred died. I remember I was in our old bureau in Great Barrington (in what is now Bizen restaurant), when my mother called.
"Uncle Freddy passed away," she said.
We commiserated for a moment and I asked her when his obituary would be in the paper.
"It's in today," she said. "On the obituary page."
I looked, and I couldn't find it. I relayed this information to my mother.
"Oh yes," she said. "I forgot to tell you. It's under his real name."
And she told me my uncle Fred's real name. Which I had never known. I was a little weirded out. I didn't understand why someone would change their name. Was he a criminal? Was he here illegally?
This was clearly some kind of family secret. But my mother had imparted it fairly quickly, and I didn't sense there was any trepidation. To quote a famous coach, It was what it was, apparently.
I wanted to ask my great aunt, but I wasn't sure if it would upset her. So I asked my uncle Jerry, mom's brother, what the situation was.
"Well, he changed it because it just made things easier, Rick," said Jerry. (All my relative on my mother's side called me Rick or worse, Ricky.)
I knew what he meant. My great-uncle grew up French in an Irish neighborhood in the early part of the 20th century. The woman he wanted to marry was Irish. A majority of the people with whom he did business were Irish.
Frankly, my mother told me years after his passing that she wasn't sure Uncle Fred could have gotten married to Aunt May had he not changed his name. It would have been, in mom's words, kind of a scandal. French people were considered inferior to the Irish -- at least in that part of Adams, in that era.
I realize how odd that sounds in 2014. But in Adams, for most of the 20th century, we had a French Catholic church, a Polish Catholic church and an Irish Catholic church. I think I've said this before: I didn't realize for the longest time that, as a Catholic, I could go to any of these churches. I thought they were all different religions. These churches even had their own religious classes.
So he changed his name. And it probably did make things easier. And he wasn't a criminal and he wasn't here illegally. I certainly don't know how the decision affected him. There was, in my dealings with him, no more affable man on the planet. But that's a heck of a secret.
We are a nation of immigrants, as everyone reading this knows well. And we all have stories about struggle and trying to adapt that may be somewhat similar to that of Uncle Fred's.
But the point is, the Irish and the French and the Mexicans and the Colombians come here because this is a better place, not because they want to destroy the United States. We might do well to remember that when we think ill of them.
Derek Gentile is an Eagle staffer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter, @DerekGentile.
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