California Forum

Immigrants, ethnic culture can thrive in American unity

Immigrants wait in the registry room at Ellis Island in New York harbor in this 1924 photograph.
Immigrants wait in the registry room at Ellis Island in New York harbor in this 1924 photograph. Associated Press

My great-grandmother, Rosa Bordoni, arrived from Northern Italy with seven children in tow in 1909. She gave birth to my grandmother, Josephine, on a little farm outside Martinez in 1911. Poverty, prejudice and their traditions led them to form tight family circles.

Grandma Jo settled in Crockett. She picked fruit in the Central Valley, took in washing during the Depression and labored at C&H Sugar factory after Pearl Harbor to V-J Day. Aunt Jennie’s family lived in Port Chicago; her home was destroyed the night the ships exploded. Uncle Sam escaped death on the docks that night because he was on a smoke break.

Our family was far from perfect; many of them drank too much. That said, my folks labored and started businesses, sent their kids to college or into lucrative trades, fed us too much and loved us so much it hurt sometimes.

They transmitted our Italian culture to us daily by example – work hard, study hard, play hard, worship God, honor our elders and, above all, maintain family ties as the bedrock of our collective strength. We were proud of our country and our heritage.

Our family exemplifies the European immigrant experience. Notwithstanding the hardships, we were incredibly blessed compared to so many Americans today.

At the time we thought it was just hard work that got us ahead, but it turns out that recipe included a teaspoon of pigment that made all the difference. Being “white” allowed us to assimilate while maintaining our cultural identity. The prejudice my relatives overcame doesn’t compare to the unreasoned hatred faced by today's immigrants, which is being laid bare anew in these tumultuous times.

Stories like mine need to be told to remind us that we all came here from somewhere else, that ethnic culture can thrive nested in American unity, and that we all want the same things – a loving family, a good job, good schools, a decent home, a better future for our kids, respect in old age. For me, uniting around these positive values, rather than dividing around negative ones, is what it means to be American.

Christina Arrostuto, who lives in Auburn, visited Ellis Island in 2002 and found the record of her great-grandmother. Contact her at