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Immigrants share their stories: America’s Table celebrates U.S. ethnic diversity

Posted by: Website Admin on 11/22/2010

BY JESSICA STEPHEN

jstephen@kenoshanews.com

Food and family history mingled Sunday as Congregations United to Serve Humanity gathered to give thanks for the diversity that is America. From the generations of Italian and Jewish families who helped build Kenosha to the new immigrants building lives here after coming from Mexico, ethnic diversity, history and our bond as Americans were celebrated during America’s Table.

About 60 people attended the interdenominational Thanksgiving event Sunday evening at Trinity Lutheran Church, 7104 39th Ave., in Kenosha. “We are such a diverse nation, and there are so many ethnic groups and religious groups that we are enriched by,” said Rabbi Dena Feingold, one of several local clergy members who led the event.

“This is designed to bring the whole community together about all the things we are thankful for, including appreciating America for its diversity,” Feingold explained. Visitors brought ethnic foods, from Jewish Mandel bread, a biscotti-like dessert dusted with sugar, to lefse, a traditional Norwegian flatbread.  People also shared their experiences as immigrants or the descendants of immigrants to the United States.

Here are a few of their stories:

Juan Carlos

When Juan Carlos arrived in the United States, he spoke no English. He also didn’t have a visa.

“I know I broke the law, and I felt bad about that,” he said. So he worked hard to learn English in school and connect with his community, which has grown to include CUSH.

“It’s not easy for immigrants to live here, especially when you have no family,” Juan Carlos said. “But when I see people like you, I feel more strong.” He encouraged the group to consider that most Americans came from somewhere else. “If we’re not from other countries, we’re from other states,” he said.

And he urged people to reach out to the newest generation of immigrants to this land.

“I invite you to find someone from another country. It’s no matter from where. You can see what we are about.”

Olga

After more than a decade in the United States, Olga still didn’t seem clear on what was scarier: leaving Mexico with four small children — ages 8, 6, 3 and 10 months — or doing so with the help of a 14-year-old smuggler, who ran at the first sign of immigration officials. “He was more afraid than we were,” she said.

Olga fled Mexico to escape domestic violence. With help from other relatives in America, she raised $5,000 for a “coyote,” or smuggler. Then, they started walking.“We walked and we walked and we walked,” she recalled, only to be abandoned near the border.

“Now, it seems kind of funny, but at the time I was so frightened,” Olga said. Today, she has five children — ages 21, 18, 17, 13 and 9 — and a new life. “I’m very grateful to people like you and the life we’ve been able to have here,” she said. “I really am thankful.”

Mary Ann Passarelli

Her grandparents didn’t talk much about the old country, but all Mary Ann Passarelli had to do was look around her Kenosha neighborhood to know she was from Italy.Tomatoes overflowed in gardens. Bread was baked from scratch. Neighbors bought grapes in October to make wine and took turns buying a pig in January to make sausage.On Sundays, children awoke to the smells of onion and garlic in olive oil and the sizzle of fresh meatballs.

“Americans were people who ate peanut butter and jelly on mushy white bread that came out of plastic bags. I was Italian,” said Passarelli, a second-generation Italian.

In her neighborhood, that meant a community that shared one push mower, one bush trimmer and one extension ladder. It meant living with your grandparents or, if you’re grandparents lived a few houses away, visiting at least twice a week. It also meant stopping in for ice cream with “grandma” and “grandpa,” even though the owners of the corner shop weren’t even Italian.“Our neighbors were one big family,” she said. Today, life is different, but some things haven’t changed.

“We’re all Americans now. Irish, German, Polish, Jewish — American citizens all,” Passarelli said. “But, somehow, I still feel a little bit Italian.”

Nathaniel Lepp

Nathaniel “Bud” Lepp might have grown up Nathaniel Lepkovski, if his family name hadn’t been shortened when his grandparents came to America. Lepp’s family fled Poland in 1902 to escape “the persecution and death of Czar Nicholas,” Lepp said. They came to Kenosha because they had a cousin here, a farmer in Pleasant Prairie.

In 1918, B’nai Zedek, Kenosha’s Orthodox Jewish synagogue, was formed, and Lepp’s grandfather, Lewis Lepkovski, became its unofficial rabbi. “I could never speak to my grandfather because he only spoke Yiddish,” Lepp explained. Lepp’s father, Charlie, delivered kosher meat with a little red wagon and went to college with his brother.

“They went to Madison with hand-me-down clothes, no money and lived in an unheated attic,” Lepp said. Lepp’s uncle became a doctor in biochemistry and discovered vitamin B6. Lepp’s father became a lawyer and practiced in Kenosha for 50 years. “That’s my story,” he said.

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