I dreamed about publishing essays under a new byline. I tried out pseudonyms for my next book. I wrote down alternate names, said them out loud. A name change would make introductions easier. Now, when I extend my hand and say “Fischkin,” people look at me funny, as if I might be holding live bait.
I can live with Barbara. As a first name, it is dated. But Barbara will come back in style. First names do. I was almost named Benita. Benita Fischkin. Think of that. My mother loved that name, until a friend said a cute nickname for me could be Mussa—close enough to Mussolini.
That was all my mother Ida Siegel Fischkin had to hear. She was a passionate supporter of the State of Israel, a lifetime Hadassah member and a child survivor of an antisemitic pogrom. Benita went down the drain. As a little girl, bored with Barbara—too easy to spell—I asked my mother if she had ever wanted to name me something else.
“Benita,” she said. My mother hid little from me.
Wow, I thought, wishing she had gone through with it. A name like that dripped with fame, fortune and beauty.
Benita as a baby name for a newborn girl must have been making the rounds of pregnant mothers in our Brooklyn neighborhood, circa 1954. Very odd since this was less than a decade after World War II. My guess: When it came to villains, Hitler was the main event. I bet no one ever said: “For a boy, how about Adolph?” Read more »
by Andrea Scrima (excerpt from a work-in-progress)
When they arrived in the U.S., Southern Italians brought with them the sense that they’d been branded as underdogs, that they belonged and would forever belong to a lower class, but the birth of the Italian-American gangster was rooted in attitudes toward the Mezzogiorno that dated back far earlier. After Italy was unified under Vittorio Emanuele II in 1861, a new national government imposed Piedmont’s centralized administrative system on the South, which led to violent rebellion against State authority. Politicians and intellectuals took pains to deflect responsibility for what they saw as the “barbarism” of the Mezzogiorno, and were particularly receptive to theories that placed the blame for the South’s many problems on Southern Italians’ own inborn brutishness. The decades following Unification saw the nascent fields of criminal anthropology and psychiatry establish themselves in the universities of Northern Italy; implementing the pseudosciences of phrenology and anthropometry in their search for evolutionary remnants of an arrested stage of human development manifested in the people of the Mezzogiorno, they used various instruments to measure human skulls, ears, foreheads, jaws, arms, and other body parts, catalogued these, and correlated them with undesirable behavioral characteristics, inventing in the process a Southern Italian race entirely separate from and unrelated to a superior Northern race and officially confirming the biological origins of Southern “savagery.” Read more »
There are a number of videos circulating on the web that show angry white people screaming at Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to “Go back to where you came from!” It takes a special brand of stupid for, say, a Texan living in a town with a name like Llano located in Llano County to tell a Mexican or Mexican-American to “go back to where they came from.” For when you’re in Texas—a different spelling of the Spanish Tejas—in a county named Llano, which means plain or flat in Spanish, and in a town also named Llano for its flat ground, and you find yourself yelling at someone named Garcia or Gallegos to go home, you might be the one with the problem.
In a country with state names like Colorado, California, and New Mexico, and city names like Santa Fe, Amarillo, La Junta, and San Diego, it’s obvious that explorers, ranchers, store owners, priests, and law men had previous history in what is now Mexico. Our forebears were not just the ones who landed on the east coast after crossing the Atlantic, but also the ones who came up from south of the border, long before a border existed.
More than 200 years before the United States was even a gleam in the eye of one of our revolutionaries, Spaniards traveling up from what is now Mexico were exploring the southwest. In 1540, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado set off on a two-year exploration in search of the mythological seven cities of Cibola with hopes of bringing home gold and silver. Leaving the territory of present day Mexico, he traveled through what is now Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and possibly Kansas. On his trip he encountered the Grand Canyon but never found the promised gold and his trip was considered a failure. Read more »
This past spring, I found myself sitting, masked, at a wooden desk among a scattering of scientific researchers at the Museo Galileo in Florence. Next to me was a thick reference book on the history of astronomical instruments and a smaller work on the sundials and other measuring devices built into the churches of Florence to mark the cyclical turning points of cosmic time. The gnomon of Santa Maria del Fiore, for instance, consisted of a bronzina, a small hole set into the lantern ninety meters above that acted as a camera oscura and projected an image of the sun onto the cathedral floor far below. At noon on the day of the solstice, the solar disc superimposed itself perfectly onto a round marble slab, not quite a yard in diameter, situated along the inlaid meridian. I studied the explanations of astronomical quadrants and astrolabes and the armilla equinoziale, the armillary sphere of Santa Maria Novella, made up of two conjoined iron rings mounted on the façade that told the time of day and year based on the position of their elliptical shadow, when all at once it occurred to me that I’d wanted to write about something else altogether, about a person I occasionally encountered, a phantom living somewhere inside me: the young woman who’d decided not to leave, not to move to Berlin after all, to rip up the letter of acceptance to the art academy she received all those years ago and to stay put, in New York. Alive somewhere, in some other iteration of being, was a parallel existence in an alternative universe, one of the infinite spheres of possibility in which I’d decided differently and become a different woman.
Not long before this, a friend in Graz had told me that she’d been born on American soil and so, theoretically at least, was an American citizen. She’d never lived there, however, and this was her ghost, her own parallel existence. In July of 1950, her parents had sailed from Bremerhaven to New York on the United States Army Transport W.G. Haan, a ship of displaced persons that had been reacquired by the Navy and enlisted in the Military Sea Transportation Service. Their intention was to emigrate; they’d applied for their visas, all their papers were in order, and yet they were refused entry and caught in limbo for more than a year before being sent back to Europe. My friend was born in this limbo, on Ellis Island. Read more »
At its founding, the United States was an overwhelmingly rural nation. The inaugural census of 1790 showed that 95% of all Americans either lived in isolated rural areas, on farms, or in tiny towns with fewer than 2,500 people. However, a steady national trend towards urbanization began immediately thereafter.
The rise of American cities during the 19th century was spurred on by the Industrial Revolution, which created a high demand for labor. Cities became population magnets, drawing workers from around the country and eventually around the world. One generation after another, people left the American countryside behind and headed for the nation’s new and growing cities. The scales slowly but inexorably tipped in the opposite direction, and today's census numbers are practically reversed from those of 1790.
For most of American history though, rural populations did not falter. Rather, they continued to grow side by side with cities. While they were not able to keep pace with rapacious urban expansion, the sheer volume of rural America nonetheless rose at a substantial rate. Two factors largely explained the ongoing growth of rural populations despite the urban syphon: natural increase and immigration.
Agricultural families typically had a higher birth rate than urban families because children provided valuable labor on the farm from an early age. At the same time, rural America received its fair share of foreign immigrants. While stereotypes of 19th and early 20th century immigration often focus on Irish, Italians, and Jews making new homes in American cities, waves of Germans, Scandinavians, Slavs, British, and many others passed right through those cities and continued on to the heartland.