Foreigners Go Home: The Executions of Sacco and Vanzetti
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The first thing people say, upon meeting me for the first time, is, "But…what do you mean you're not American? You sound so American! How come you don't have an accent?" I've heard it often, and it happens nine out of ten times - honest!
I've gotten used to it by now. I explain to them that I was fluent in English by the time I was 10 years old and that I have a good ear for languages (like my dad, who speaks about four or five). Truth be told, I'm quite proud of the way I come across - it's great to tell people that English is actually my second language! Some think I'm lying and demand proof. "Show me your passport!" "If you're really Brazilian, then say something in Portuguese!" And on and on…
Rain Rain, Go Away!
The fact that I don't have an accent is fascinating to many people. I dispel many stereotypes about immigrants, such as speaking broken English, living in ethnic neighborhoods and having darker skin. Some people go further and accuse immigrants of stealing jobs from Americans, being a burden on the economy and living off welfare. I know I am generalizing, but I know from personal experience that some people do not expect someone who looks like me to be an immigrant.
In times of economic hardship and fervent patriotism, being an immigrant in America can be very dangerous. During the "Red Scare" of the 1920s <> two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, paid the highest price - their lives. They were unfairly tried and unjustly executed for the murder of two men that occurred in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1920. According to Kenneth Davis, author of Don't Know Much About History, "Sacco and Vanzetti had three strikes against them. They were Italian. They were immigrants. They were anarchists. In 1920, those traits won no popularity contests in America."
Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested because witnesses told the police that the murderers "looked Italian." Unfortunately, they were carrying guns at the time of their arrest, and when questioned, offered vague answers about where they had been and how they had obtained their weapons. However, their hesitation was due to their poor command of English, and their political beliefs -- as anarchists, they feared the police.
Their trial began on May 31, 1921. The presiding judge was Webster Thayer, who undermined the fairness of the trial by asserting that "we have to protect ourselves against anarchists and Reds." Judge Thayer also approved the selection of 12 very conservative white jurors, none of whom knew anything about Italian culture and had trouble understanding the defense witnesses who spoke very little English.
The prosecution argued that Sacco and Vanzetti behaved like guilty men. They had been armed, they gave false accounts when arrested, and their ammunition was consistent with the weapons used during the shooting. The clincher came when the prosecution cross-examined Sacco about his anarchist beliefs, charging that he didn't love his country. (In 1917, Sacco and Vanzetti both fled to Mexico to avoid the World War I draft, because,
like other anarchists, they thought the war was only for the benefit of capitalists, not the common people)
Even the jury foreman, a former police chief, was not interested in justice. When a friend asked Ripley about the possible innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti, he responded, "Damn them, they ought to be hanged anyway."
On July 14, 1921, the jury found them guilty and sentenced them to death. They spent the next six years appealing the verdict. During that time, their popularity grew as people became outraged at the blatant unfairness of the trial. Just before the execution, demonstrations were held in major cities where a number of well-known writers, including poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, participated. Unfortunately, despite public outcry, the state electrocuted Sacco and Vanzetti on August 23, 1927
The convictions and executions of Sacco and Vanzetti came at a time when America was strongly against immigrants, communists, socialists and anything foreign. Strict immigration quotas were put in place in 1921, 1924 and 1929, reducing the total number of immigrants entering the US to 150,000 (mostly white Anglo-Saxons from Great Britain). As Neda explains in her article, thousands of people were arrested and deported during this same period as the country fought off the "communist threat." What better way to send a message to would-be agitators than by killing two Italian anarchists?
Fortunately for us, the message backfired. As soon as they were executed, Sacco and Vanzetti became martyrs. Thousands of people up and down Boston's North End, the city's Italian neighborhood, followed their funeral procession. And scholars and intellectuals viewed their trial as one of the worst examples of American injustice.
After completing our research, Neda and I began looking for Sacco and Vanzetti's funeral parlor. On our way, we met Frank Ania, an Italian immigrant from Sicily who arrived in Boston over 40 years ago. He sensed what we were looking for when we asked him about Langoni's Funeral Parlor. "Sacco and Vanzetti!" he exclaimed. "Yes!" I replied enthusiastically. I couldn't believe our luck - a few minutes before I'd been telling Neda that I wanted to find an old Italian immigrant who could tell us about this story. Frank fell from heaven!
"They were innocent," Frank told us in his accented English. "Many people here know about Sacco and Vanzetti and they think they were innocent. But they were killed because they were anarchists." And he spoke of the present. "Even today, you turn on the TV and you see innocent people put in prison and killed."
Eighty years after Sacco and Vanzetti's trial, America has yet to fully embrace its immigrant population. As recently as 1996, Congress passed a law, known as The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRAIRA), which many organizations, including the American Bar Association, consider excessive and unfair. Under this law, any immigrant can be deported to their home country for committing minor offenses, even if they have lived in the US for years. Also, they can be held without bond indefinitely while waiting for their deportation hearing.
The IIRAIRA is a tough law that sends a clear message to many immigrants: "We don't want you here." I am amazed at how little I know about it, considering I'm a green-card holder - a "resident alien" according to my documents. I have the luxury of looking American and sounding American (whatever that means), which has provided me with a sense of security. Unlike Sacco and Vanzetti, I know my rights, I speak fluent English and I blend in, but their story reminded me that I am still an outsider here. When times get tough in America, immigrants are more vulnerable to being kicked out, locked up and sometimes, executed.
Just before being executed, Vanzetti wrote:
"What I wish more than all in this last hour of agony is that our case and our fate may be understood in their real being and serve as a tremendous lesson to the forces of freedom so that our suffering and death will not have been in vain."
In vain they were not. The story of Sacco and Vanzetti is one that ought to be remembered but never again repeated.