Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Life in America

Experiences from the years that I lived on Iola Street in Dorchester, Massachusetts:

 Maria on the left, beautiful mom on the right, and a young cousin.
Photo taken in September of 1954

The years lived on Iola Street were the years when I attended Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior High and then Jeremiah E. Burke High, in Dorchester, MA.  My first year in public school was a successful one academically and so-so socially.  Right from the beginning at Wendell Holmes I obtained good grades, in fact that first year I had all A’s and one B. I was honored at a school assembly and it was announced how ‘this little girl who had just learned the language’ was obtaining such good grades. I went home with my report card and told my parents of the assembly and my recognition. My father looked at the report card and yelled at me for not receiving all A’s! I knew then for sure that no matter what I did, I would never do good enough to meet his expectations.

 My teachers loved me and respected me, in particular I remember my math teacher who used to use me as a good example to the rest of the class (or course that did not gain me any friends), and my art teacher who was impressed with my work.  My art teacher liked my pen and ink renditions and without my knowledge she assembled a portfolio of my work and sent it to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for consideration for their art program for high school students.  I was asked by the museum to take their test to compete for a spot in their program. I was accepted.  The next year I was in High School and that is when I began my four years stint at the Museum. Two days a week I was given permission to leave my regular classes at noon in order to travel to the Museum and continue classes there.  Actually I took classes at the Museum for only three years because students in their senior year were allowed to leave school early to go to work.  My father decided that the family needed money more than I needed art classes.  

While in Junior High in addition to the art scholarship I earned the bronze medal (third place) from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for my artistic poster entered by my art teacher in a ‘Be Kind to Animals Poster Competition’ sponsored by Massachusetts. I still have my treasured bronze medal.

I am forever grateful to those two Junior High teachers who saw me in a positive way and helped me maintain a sense of self worth. The art teacher in particular started me on a path that has enriched my life through art endeavors and the appreciation of art. Two interests that have helped me maintain my sanity.   

Right from the start at the Oliver Wendell School, I was involved with school activities especially work with the Red Cross group.  At some point I was asked to be the chairperson for one of the girls who was running for a position on the Student Council, her first name was Carol.  Brilliant me! I came up with the slogan “Vote for Carol she is a barrel”!  Remember that my knowledge of the English language was very limited and I did not know the nuances of the language. I knew that the slogan rhymed and that was enough for me. I made lots of posters with a drawing of a barrel and the slogan, and then I posted them all over the school. I am not a hundred percent sure but I think Carol won.

Let’s go back a little to my first day at OWH, it was the school year 1954-1955.  I was frightened and lost that first day.  At lunch time I bought my preferred lunch, a Devil Dog and a carton of chocolate milk. Carrying my tray I looked around for an empty spot at any of the cafeteria tables but not one face sitting at those tables seemed friendly.  In fact when I approached a couple of tables, I was rudely told to go sit elsewhere.  In desperation and humiliation, I looked harder for a spot and saw one at the ‘segregated’ table where only black faces were seen. I headed for that table and asked if I could sit with them. The girls were friendly enough and reluctantly allowed me to sit with them. They did ask me if I really wanted to sit with them and showed a sense of concern for me, a concern that I did not understand until months later when I started to learn about racial discrimination in the USA.  Sitting at this table was Hilda H., a very nice person who soon became my friend.  

Little by little I started to make friends but not with the in crowd, most of my friends were girls who were somewhat of outcasts or rejected for one reason or another.  There was Esther N. who limped and somehow did not fit in.  I later learned that she was a Jew who had been in a concentration camp as a baby where she had contracted TB of the bone, hence the limp.  Esther and her family became my friends and they remained family friends until we lost contact in the late 1970s.  Another friend was a girl whose name I do not recall but was avoided at all costs by the other classmates.  She was from a very poor family and the school ‘knew’ that she had lice.  Well she did, and she gave them to me.  In any event I befriended her.  Since I was a child and living in Librizzi, I always felt for those classmates who were ‘outcasts’ and always befriended them, even if I also was rejected because I was friends with  those who were considered of a ‘lower class’.  Another friend at the junior high was Sherrie N. Sherri was a little older and very mature acting.  Sherri and Esther continued to be my friends during our High School years.  I will write more about these two friends later.

The one girl that I greatly admired was an older looking girl, tall, blond, well developed, and wore lots of make-up.  I thought that she was the epitome of the American girl and I wanted to be just like her.  One day I came to school wearing tons of eye make-up and loud lipstick, I really felt very American.  This older looking girl took me aside and asked me to wipe off all of that make-up.  Surprised a said that I wanted to look like her and why couldn’t I wear the make-up and she could. She looked at me and somehow she tried to tell me that she was a ‘tramp’ and that I was not! Of course I did not know the word tramp at the time nor would have I known the implications of the word until much later in my life.  Yes I did wipe off the make-up.  It was many years before I realized what a true friend this young person was to me, and what courage it must have taken for her to say those horrible words about herself.  I do not know what happened to her but I hope that life has treated her well. 

While at OWH well meaning people started my ‘Americanization’.  My name was no longer Maria but Mary, no it was not my choice but this is what my teachers called me.  My last name lost the accent, once again not because it was my choice but because others decided this for me. So my centuries-old honored name of MuscarĂ  became Muscara or as the kids pointed out I was Maybelline black mascara.  Yes, the pronunciation of the last name also was changed, no accented last syllable and the u was now pronounced as an A and not as a U.  While at the Junior High I accepted the name Mary by the time that I got to high school I felt lots of resentment. More than resentment, I felt uncomfortable since Mary just wasn’t me!  The first few times that the homeroom teacher called me Mary I responded but one day I did not respond to the morning attendance call. The teacher looked at me and asked why I did not say ‘here’ when she called my name. I looked at her with a perplexed look and informed her that my name was Maria.  From that day on I regained my identity, at least for my given name.  Recently I looked at my junior high school graduation certificate and sure enough, my name written on it is Mary and no accent on the surname.  The high school diploma correctly gives my name as Maria but no accent on my surname.  Partial victory in my effort to keep my identity intact!

As I said, Hilda H. and I became friends.  She was sweet and kind and I believe that she thought the same about me.  We considered each other ‘dear friends’ according to the comments on our class graduation photo. Several times during the first year of our friendship, Hilda was invited to my house for lunch and I to hers. We lived within walking distance.  Our friendship grew despite the fact that I had never seen or heard of a black person until a few days before I left Italy for the USA.  The first black person that I ever saw was a male walking the streets of Palermo when we went there to pick up our AMERICAN passports at the American Embassy. Since I did not know about a black race I had no prejudices built in me, and I had no idea of slavery in the USA, nor about the Civil War. I knew nothing of the conflicts between North and South.  I knew nothing about the fact that history was being made at that very moment, and that the years of 1954 and 1955 were the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Some of the milestones created in those two years were the Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas; the killing of Emett Till; Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat; etc.  

There were some good movies being shown at the theaters in those two important years and Hilder and I decided to go see a movie together.  We started out from my family’s apartment off Talbot Street, a major road at the time, with the intent to walk the mile or two needed to reach the theater.  Soon enough we were confronted by jeering people, young and old.  These people yelled profanities at us, nasty racial comments that I did not understand at the time, epithets, they spat on us, and they did their best to make us cower from fear.  I was bewildered, I had no idea what was going on but Hilder knew.  She tried to talk me into going back home but I insisted that we go to the movies.  I guess those Librizzi Red Ants genes made their appearance and I was not going to give in to bullying, even if I could not understand the why and what was happening.  Once again, it was a few years later when I began to unravel the events of that day and to this day I cannot understand how and why there was so much prejudice in a northern state that fought against the south in the Civil War. I know the realities of North and South and the myths, and I know about prejudices and human beings regardless the geography. But I still do not understand.

What movie did we see that day? Who knows? It is all an unnerving blur.  Records show that some of the popular movies at the time were Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, The Seven Year Itch, Guys and Dolls, Helen of Troy.  As I write this a memory is making an appearance, I see a beautiful actress on a horse with blond tresses wrapped around her head. I remember how much I coveted those tresses. Was she Helen of Troy?  In my memory the horse is flying across a meadow and I wonder if while I watched the horse gallop across the screen I wished that I were free and happy as that horse seemed to be. Perhaps I wanted to escape my unhappy reality full of rejection and humiliations. 

The above account is an excerpt from my "Remembrances", an ongoing  collection of my memories and experiences of life in Librizzi and  the USA

From time to time I will add other similar posts.