Tuesday, May 30, 2006

English only at Geno's

I'll hava that a cheezastaka sanwich.

The Philadelphia Enquirer via Michele Malkin
An old struggle to adapt to a new country's ways

By Gaiutra Bahadur
Inquirer Staff Writer

How do you say cheesesteak with in Spanish?

Joseph Vento, the owner of Geno's Steaks, doesn't know. And he doesn't care.

Just read the laminated signs, festooned with American eagles, at his South Philadelphia cheesesteak emporium: This is America. When Ordering, Speak English.

Vento's political statement - from a man whose Italian-born grandparents spoke only broken English - captures the anger and discontent felt by many Americans about illegal immigrants.

With a battle looming between the House and Senate on legalizing some immigration violators, the public backlash is framed by two complaints:

One, my grandparents came legally. How come these guys can't? And, two, my grandparents had to learn English. How come these guys don't?

"Go back to the 19th century, and play by those rules," said Vento, 66, whose grandfather became a U.S. citizen in 1921.

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 Senate bill passed last Thursday, which gives some illegal immigrants a chance to become citizens, included an amendment that would make English the national language.

An English-only movement also took shape in the late 19th century, with an abortive attempt to require newcomers to read a passage in English at Ellis Island. In the end, the literacy test was administered, but in the immigrant's native tongue.

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. Now, in a way, the neighborhood has left the couple's descendants. Geno's sits at Ninth and Passyunk, the hub of Little Italy turned home to thousands of Mexicans.

Some try to order a cheesesteak. And it bugs Vento if they can't ask for American cheese, provolone or the classic - Cheez Whiz - without pointing.

"If you can't tell me what you want, I can't serve you," he said. "It's up to you. If you can't read, if you can't say the word cheese, how can I communicate with you - and why should I have to bend?

"I got a business to run."

Vento, who lives in Shamong, put up the signs when the immigration debate seized national headlines six months ago.

With Geno's Steaks tattooed on his arm, Vento is used to publicizing things, especially what's on his mind. Speak English signs also poster his Hummer. He has driven through South Philadelphia blaring through the SUV's P.A. system denunciations of neighborhood business owners who hire illegal immigrants.

"I say what everybody's thinking but is afraid to say," Vento said. More.

5 comments:

Henry "Conductor" Gomez said...

Vento's rant is more ethnocentric bullshit. This guy's family maybe came legally because the country was wide open to European immigrants back then. And they may have learned English but I assure you it took several years, especially for the older immigrants. You know what fuck Geno's. Pat's steaks (right across the street) is and always was better.

A.Perales said...

This is something that has been coming along for a long time. I don't know how long you have lived in Southern Cal but I lived in Pasadena and then Orange County until 1973 and have seen a total change of the population makeup. When I visit Orange County, an area overwhelmingly white, one notices the demographic changes over the years. Many cities in Orange County are predominantly Mexican. And things will not get any better.

Ombia said...

Yeah, Geno's grandparents came to the U.S. legally alright (that just means they came "white").

After all, isn't that how Elian came? Legally? I mean WHITE?

PlatItAgain said...

Regardless of your political or ethnic bend, there is no disputing the fact that if you enter another country, you should at least make the effort to speak the host countries official language. You certainly don't start out sounding like a Princeton grad, but you get respect from others that way. Respect is earned

I was in Guatemala a few years back and some jerk behind a pizza counter started spouting off when I tried to communicate with him. Time for a reality check people -- you are in the greatest damn country in the world!!! And noone is preventing the folks from Mexico coming here legally. People from India, Russia, China, everywhere ... immigrate legally everyday and they don't exectly all look like they belong to the local country club if you know what I mean. Fair is fair

BTW, the people at Geno's have helped countless non-English speakers order through the years. Guess the "journalists" conveniently omitted this fact

PlatItAgain said...

Regardless of your political or ethnic bend, there is no disputing the fact that if you enter another country, you should at least make the effort to speak the host countries official language. You certainly don't start out sounding like a Princeton grad, but you get respect from others that way. Respect is earned

I was in Guatemala a few years back and some jerk behind a pizza counter started spouting off when I tried to communicate with him. Time for a reality check people -- you are in the greatest damn country in the world!!! Noone is being stopped from immigrating to the US legally, so all this white or not white crap, is just that -->> Bravo Sierra!!

BTW, the people at Geno's have helped countless non-English speakers order through the years. Guess the "journalists" conveniently omitted this fact