Thursday, July 3, 2008

Independence Day

The Fourth of July has always been a strange day for me. I have had some major things happen to me on that day.

In 1994 I was living in Cochabamba and July 4th was the first day I began work in the Prison of San Sebastian. This was a transformative place for me in life and it was my own declaration of independence.

But by the far the best 4ths I have ever had were spent in Pinzolo-val Genova the hometown of my Grandfather celebrating with the Grinders.
When Michelle Obama talks about being able to take care of a family on a working class income she is talking about a certain kind of person- someone like my Grandfather Rinaldo Vanzo.

He immigrated to New York in 1920 and worked on Houston Street as a Grinder- that is he sharpened knives. Most of the Molete in the USA came from one place, val Rendena in Trento. This valley was famous for two things Knife Grinders and Catholic Missionaries.

In the town of Pinzolo the entire tourist infrastructure was built by returning Molete who made their money in Detroit or New York or Chicago and today companies like Cozzini in Chicago are traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Pinzolo today has a monument to the grinders who returned to Italy after years away and introduced so much to that region of Italy. They also gave so much to their adopted nations.

These grinders went to the US, Australia, South America and Canada and they would return to Italy and gather on July 4th to eat Polenta of course. They all were from the same towns but they spoke english with accents from Boston, New York, Chicago, New Orleans and Australia.
As a child I was amazed by these men (they were all men). I was amazed by their optimism and their solidness. There was nothing weak or flaccid about them. For me they will always be America.

My grandfather spoke Italian, German, Yiddish and Hungarian and his clients were European, Asian and African American. the grinders did not care as long as they could sharpen your knives, and supply you with cutting tools. They also grew to understand that every person's culture was special and had value. I grew up eating Jewish Deli and Tub Butter, Hungarian pancakes and the best fried Chicken all gifts from my Grandfather's clients. All were treated with respect and were valued by him.

When my grandfather died in 1980 he was a wealthy man- not just in money but in friends and family. The attendees of his funeral were a United Nations of restaurant owners and people whose faces were as different as the colors of the world. He is buried in North Arlington, New Jersey his coffin faces New York and he has a great view of the city he loved and where he made his fortune.

His story is lost in today's America because there were no wedge issues for him. He did not hate anyone and he only wanted to partake in what everyone else was doing. He was without bigotries or elitism. When Michelle Obama talks about the solidness of her father I think of my grandfather Rinaldo Vanzo for whom I am named and look for the America where someone like him can be more while taking everyone with him. That is why we need a change in America- so the next wave of Rinaldo Vanzo's can build their lives and enjoy what America really is about.

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