An immigrant family's tale shows America's strengths

Immigrants' tale is all-American

April 03, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN A DIFFICULT season, Paul Baker reminds us of the good life. Nations wage war, but families endure. Baker's latest memoir, La Famiglia, warms the heart with tales of scuffling through the Depression, of street life in Little Italy, of reaching for the full America while holding on to fundamental tribal strengths.

Across the generations, Baker was known to sports followers as the basketball coach of Towson Catholic High and the University of Baltimore, a man whose very name seemed a reflection of mainstream America. He was largely unknown as a man who came from a family called Mugavero.

In his first book, Moments in Time, published six years ago, Baker recalled the glad life of gymnasiums and cheering crowds and helping kids reach for their full potential. In La Famiglia, he recalls the joys of a loving family holding together when times were tougher than these.

Through history's rearview mirror, we sometimes wonder how they did it. There is the Baker grandfather Gregorio, wishing to avoid the public baths, who fashions a large family tub from a discarded horse trough. There are the women Anna and Mary doing piece work at home "for 1 1/2 cents per buttonhole," working so hard "they would literally be sewing in their sleep to finish the pile of garments." There is the grandmother Adelina, in search of a live chicken for dinner.

"Striding through the pens, peering for the plumpest birds, she would spot her prey," Baker writes. "The little Italian clerk would reach into the wooden pen and grab the flapping, smelly thing by the legs, bind it with a cord, stuff it into Adelina's double shopping bag, and away we would go.

"All the way home, the chicken would be struggling to get free, flapping and cackling. As the trolley began to fill up, she would holler for the chicken to behave - in Italian, of course."

In such a hysterical public scene we see snippets of a familiar American journey, in which the first generation clings to the old ways and the old language, and the children venture into a wider world.

For the Mugavero family, the journey begins with the grandfather, Gregorio, leaving turn-of-the-century Naples for Baltimore to open a bakery. Three o'clock every morning, Gregorio rose to knead flour and bake bread. The wife, Salvatora, fashioned curtains for the store windows from the flour sacks. When washed and pleated, the sacks were made into clothing for the nine children. But the bakery closed "one frozen winter night in 1930," when Gregorio's hand was caught in the mechanism of a new electric kneading machine.

"The family carried him through the snow-covered streets up to Johns Hopkins Hospital, a three-mile trek," Baker writes. "There was no ambulance service. Gregorio lost his right hand. Unable to work his trade, he took on small jobs as the Depression bore down on America."

Baker's father, born on Fawn Street, was Nicola Mugavero, who made his Depression-era living as an amateur boxer, street hustler, pool hall proprietor and, working his way to new heights of the American dream, manager of the Fiorita Club, a neighborhood speakeasy.

But he seized his moments. With the Depression over, Nicola Mugavero got a high school diploma, a new job at the Penn Station ticket counter, and moved his family from Little Italy to a house on the city's west side. Also, a new name. The father Gregorio had been a baker, and so the son became - a Baker.

"Was it wrong for my father to distance himself?" Baker asks. "In terms of self-preservation alone, I think not." He recalls an era: of the Sacco-Vanzetti case casting "a dark shadow on young Italian males," of "the huge wave of immigrants ... [reaching] our shores. Out of their own enclaves, they were persona non grata.

"Many Italians changed their names," Baker writes. "During my lifetime with him, my father never said or did anything to lead me to believe he was ashamed of being Italian. But he never publicized it and preferred to be known as an American."

Sometimes it happens that way. The son Paul becomes a coach of that most-American game, basketball, and goes a lifetime with the American name. But writes a book to remind himself, and the rest of us, that he forgets nothing, and treasures every piece of it.

In a time when Americans watch their sons and daughters go off to war, and hear our political leaders talk of defending "the American way of life," it is useful to remember that such a way of life has always involved struggle. But we come through it with loving families, with strong traditions, and with a desire to reach for common ground.

La Famiglia is a joyous reminder.

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