Mary Grace Dromi Hume

As Interviewed by J.V., April 8, 2015

Mary Grace Dromi Hume: In Her Own Words

They [my parents] were in Southern Italy, and they came over because of hardships in Southern Italy. There was famine. My father came over first. They [my parents] met here. The families were from the same town.

He came over to try and get a job and better himself, and there were no opportunities where he was. And then my mother came over as a result of an earthquake in Italy. There was a big disaster in Southern Italy and people were able to emigrate, the United States let in people from this country because of the disaster. This immigration was a closed immigration, there were only a certain number of people who could come at a time. There were certain limits to the amount you could come from that area, that’s Southern Italy, at a time. The earthquake gave her an opportunity to come over. Both my father and my mother worked in the garment district in New York City. [They were in] very menial jobs, my mother was a seamstress, [and] my father was a presser. The garments were made [as] the seamstresses would make them, the pressers would press them, and they would go to the stores or however they worked that way.

They [my parents] provided very well for me. It was very difficult. They worked long hours. The pay was very menial, it was almost, you know, not well paid. They both had to work.

We went to public schools, I was able to go to college, and had a very good job in New York before I met and married my husband.

And I was born here, myself and my sister, and actually, we spoke Italian before we spoke English. We learned English very quickly, as soon as we went to school, but the whole neighborhood was Italian, so everybody spoke Italian.

There were different ethnic groups and ours was Italian. There were people basically from the same town in Italy called Cinquefrondi, which means “five leaves”. It’s in Southern Italy, the nose of the boot, that’s the area, Calabria. All these people in this neighborhood were from this town. They were almost like extended family, but it was just kind of “whose cousin is whose cousin?”

They lived in Queens and Ozone Park and that certain area. The whole area was, as I say, Italian. There were pizza stores, there were Italian bakeries, they just tried to make that neighborhood as much as what they knew in the old country.

And it stayed that way for a long time, and as I say, there were ethnic groups. Next couple of streets down, there was a German neighborhood. I grew up with Italian bakeries and German bakeries. They were really cool!

They [my parents] certainly tried to be assimilated into the United States and into America. They loved this country, they really were grateful for this country and being able to survive, but they brought with them all the traditions from their country to the cookies we make now around Christmas to the Celebrations of the Saint Days, the religion they brought with them, that’s what kept them all together and that’s what they knew. Well, one of them especially that you know about is that we make a special kind of cookie around Christmas time. There is one we don’t make that I love to make. It’s called a pignolata, little honey balls. But, unfortunately, in Texas the weather doesn’t allow the honey to stick, so it doesn’t work that well, that’s why we’ve never done it. [Laughs]

And, as I say, certain foods, not only the cookies, but the pasta and the sauce that we call gravy. The food that came from, especially from Southern Italy, of course I still do them. And along with the food, in New York especially, they have the Festivals for the Saints, they still have them in the streets. [There is] The Festival of San Gennaro or The Blessed Virgin, they’ll have the statue in the streets with bands and stuff, and it is like a carnival. They’ll sell food and they’ll do all sorts of stuff like this. And that’s still done there, I don’t think it ever has been done here. But, yeah, I keep as many of the customs that I can remember or I can do.

But yet, as the years went on, of course they tried to be assimilated into the United States and the first thing about that was, of course, learning the language. And, as soon as they learned the language, it brought them up socially a bit. It took a long, long time but it did, eventually it did.

They were very, very patriotic, I’ve got to say, they, as I say, were very grateful for this country and they wanted to vote, they wanted to do all that stuff. My mother especially wanted to become a citizen, and they both were citizens, and wanted to take the test to vote.

And how this girl’s story goes is when she became a citizen, my sister and I told her, “Okay mom, next year you’re gonna vote. You’ll take the test and you’ll vote,”

And she said, “Oh, we’ll take it now.”

You usually take the test in the Grammar Schools, so she went, took the test, and she missed one she needed to pass. We said, “Okay, don’t worry about it. You’ll study, and next year you’ll go,” and she said, “No, no, no, no, no, no.”

She took this test in P.S.63. Schools in New York had P.S., public school, and they had numbers. She said, “P.S.59 is down the street, I’ll go take the test again.”

She did and she passed. She voted that year! [Laughs]

It was very important to her that she [could] vote. And as the generations went along, it became more and more Americanized, but still I have to say to this day, relatives I have in New York keep traditions that they know even though they’re fourth and fifth generation.

There was a general prejudice against Italians because, well, as I say, they were the last immigrants that were coming in, they got the most menial jobs. They may have been well educated in Italy, but when they came, they had to take what jobs were available in order to feed their families. Then there was the stigma of the mafia, which were the crime families, which trickled down to all Italians. It was a stigma, and some people feel that all people were like that which was ridiculous. It was just a small number of people that were coloring this whole thing.

We went to public school, and as I said, different neighborhoods were different ethnic groups, but they were all in school. So, we went to school with Jewish people, with German people, Italians, Irish, and lots of black families. There weren’t that many at that time in that area, but they were all in public schools. And it was a melting pot, they called New York a melting pot and it was. And it was kind of neat, you really did meet all these different cultures. Though you didn’t know it then, you kind of absorbed it. As I say, it was a big Italian group, but there were many other groups.

Several of my very, very good friends were African Americans. There was always some prejudice, yes but I have to say not as much as in the South. They certainly had opportunities, more opportunities than they would’ve, I think, in the South. Unfortunately, people can’t see much past people’s skin color and that’s a terrible thing, but back then, unfortunately we called them colored people.

Yeah, they [my family] all started out there. In fact, my Uncle Joe was a builder, and he built this house in Queens. It was a big house where we would do family things. They were there for a long time and then some of them bought homes on Long Island. We stayed in Ozone Park in that house, so my aunt and my family had a house. We were originally in Queens, and then the families migrated to Long Island and bought homes there. Eventually, most of the family lived on the island.