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Warmest regards: Living in the ‘Bloody Fifth’

Published July 27. 2019 07:22AM

By Pattie Mihalik

Ever since my story about the accomplishments of two immigrants from Haiti garnered so much backlash, I’m realizing many immigrants are subject to scorn.

I thought it was a sweet, noncontroversial story about the Haitian immigrant who received a scholarship for cooking school. She and her husband — both legal immigrants — are working hard to build a better life.

Several angry emails said the scholarship should have gone to “Americans, not foreigners.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about how recent immigrants are treated.

Stop right here and realize this. I am only writing this column about legal immigrants — those who come here legally with sponsors and a means of making a living.

While I do have strong opinions about the thousands of people crashing our borders, I avoid anything remotely close to politics in my column.

After the harsh reaction to my story about the Haitian immigrants, my thoughts are drifting to my own experiences.

My grandparents came here from Southern Italy and settled in a part of the coal regions where many Italian immigrants lived.

They told stories about the hardships they endured because they were Italian. They were often called “foreigners” and were sneered at by many.

My dad said they could only get hired for the most dangerous underground mining jobs no one else wanted.

By the time my generation came along, much of that was no longer the case — except for the area where my grandparents lived.

We with family there thought of the Fifth Ward as a close, nice community.

Those who didn’t live there called it the “Bloody Fifth.” Many believed it was a dangerous place with dangerous people.

When I worked for my first newspaper, it was because I once had family in the Fifth Ward that got me my first promotion.

I was only working for the paper three months when a tragedy happened in the Fifth Ward. A resident there shot his best friend who was also his next door neighbor.

I was surprised when my editor assigned me to write the story. No rookie ever got assigned a murder or the top story — no matter how talented he or she might be.

I later learned I was given the story because the senior writers didn’t want to go into the Fifth Ward at night.

Also, because of my family background, the editor thought the families would talk to me.

I probably was a good fit to write the story because I felt so much empathy for both families involved in the tragedy.

I knew the two families were extremely close. They were godparents for each other’s children and basically functioned as one big family.

I knew that there was nothing the law could do to the shooter that was worse than the remorse he was suffering in his own mind.

The two close friends got in an argument while drinking. One pulled a gun, shooting his buddy and essentially ruining lives of both families.

Well, I did the interviews, getting what we call “background color” by talking to both sides of the families.

It was late when I finished and began walking back to my car.

A guy I vaguely knew started walking with me, saying he was going to walk me safely to my car because emotions were high in the Fifth Ward that night.

I never forgot his answer when I asked why he would do that.

“Because you are one of us and we take care of our own,” he said.

That’s how it was when I was growing up. I often said I had about a dozen mothers looking after me because everyone took care of each other.

But I was an insider. Others looked at us differently.

The only outrageous bigotry I experienced came from the principal of the neighborhood elementary school. After school hours he cleared the playground, saying, “no fish eaters allowed.”

And when he dismissed his class at the end of the day, Catholics had to sit there for a full 20 minutes after the others got dismissed.

Today, it’s almost impossible to believe that something like that went on in our public schools.

Sometimes change comes slowly, but it does come.

My husband was the first Catholic hired by that school district. Andy never made an enemy in his life, and I know he helped change the school district for the better.

Laws have helped change society, too. But you can’t legislate attitudes.

What is going on at our border is fueling bad feelings toward the illegals crashing their way here.

Some say don’t call them illegals. Call them refugees.

Yet, their arrival is far different from that of past immigrants and from legal immigrants like the Haitian couple.

From the backlash I received from writing about that couple, it’s clear emotions are running high toward all immigrants.

Perhaps times will change, just as times and circumstances changed for my grandparents and for others living in the “Bloody Fifth.”

I remember how hard my grandmother studied for the test she had to pass to become a U.S. citizen. My grandparents were so happy and proud when they were granted citizenship.

Do many immigrants feel that way today?

As for me, I’m going to wave the flag and mean it when I sing “God Bless America.”

Now, more than ever, we need every blessing we can get.

Contact Pattie Mihalik at newsgirl@comcast.net.

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