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James Ferragut, Published July 05 2009

Ferragut: Nation’s promise is ageless

My grandparents Andrea Ferraguto and Marie Scala arrived in America on March 20, 1911, on a ship called the Canopic. They left their homeland in Sicily for a magical land called America, a place where anything was possible. They married in 1917 and settled in Boston’s West End, the Italian conclave.

It was in Boston where these poor Sicilian contadinos (farmers) began a new life and started a new family. My grandparents weren’t Italian aristocrats or 10th-generation middle-class business owners. They were poor.

They blended seamlessly with the thousands of other immigrants in Boston’s West and North ends. Their neighborhoods were homes to the Irish, the Polish, the Jews, the Greeks and the Russians. Their first son, Salvatore (Sam), was born in 1919 followed by four more boys. My dad, Sebastian (James), soon followed; next was Gaetano (George) then Domenico (Domenic) and Giuseppe (Joe). My grandparents ascribed “American names” to the boys when each started school.

Uncle Sam and my dad were good students and were fortunate to attend prep schools. World War II drew all of the boys into service all over the world, and when the war ended, they all returned to Boston to start their own lives.

My dad had a different vision though. He wanted to escape the neighborhoods and their provincial thinking. After 19 years of ethnic stereotyping and four more years in the Air Force being called a “wop” or worse, a “dego,” he moved to Chicago, neutralized his name from Ferraguto to Ferragut, met and married my mom and started his version of a new life.

My dad started working for General Foods, representing their highly successful product “Jell-O.” As a sales manager, his job was to set up sales territories. He traveled a lot and was transferred often. My older brother and I were born in Duluth; my younger brother was born in Minneapolis. When he was transferred to Fargo to set up the territory, my mom cried for weeks at the thought of leaving Minneapolis. When he was to be transferred to Kansas City, he said enough is enough. With three kids, a great neighborhood and opportunity ahead, he decided to stay in Fargo.

This is all background for our most recent trip to see my side of the family last month. It was a love fest, a food fest and a reminder for me that I am part of a large, vibrant Italian community.

Ultimately, the Ferraguto story is that of the ageless American Dream. Living most of my life in Fargo and being embedded in primarily a Scandinavian culture, returning to Boston reminds me that the parallels of immigrant stories aren’t any different. No matter where the “homeland” was, the story of the American Dream has been and is alive and well. The gift of democracy, the grace of freedom and the promise of a better life is real, ageless and being celebrated this weekend.

And I want to thank my Uncle Sam (Salvatore) and the vibrant Ferraguto family for reminding me.

Ferragut is a bank vice president for marketing and a regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary pages.