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When I was a senior in high school, I applied for a $500 scholarship from an organization called the Sons of Italy.

I didn’t know much about the Sons of Italy except for the few times my Italian grandfather had mentioned them in passing. In their own words, here’s what the Order Sons of Italy in America (OSIA) are all about:

We are a national organization of men and women who represent the estimated 26 million Americans of Italian heritage, dedicated to promoting our culture, our traditions, our language, the legacy of our ancestors, and our contributions to the U.S. and the world. … We exemplify the very best of what it is to be Italian American.

To compete for the scholarship, I had to write a short essay on why I was proud to be an Italian. Easy money, I thought. I ate pasta and meatballs with my dad’s side of the family every Sunday for as long as I could remember. Surely, I could parlay this pseudo Italian-ness into a saccharine story about my Italian pride. Even if I didn’t really believe in the concept of ethnic pride.

When I told my family the next Sunday that I was writing the essay, my Italian grandmother beamed—that is, until I spoiled her good cheer by admitting that I was not, in fact, proud to be Italian.

“Not proud to be Italian?” she said, incredulously. “What would you rather be?”

It wasn’t that I would rather be something else. It was just that I never felt a sense of pride for being something that I had no control over. It’s not as though I’d been given a choice and selected to be half-Italian, 3/8 Irish, and 1/8 Portuguese. I’d simply been born with this heritage. The way I saw it, I was nothing more than a random soul floating around, eventually landing in a human body that happened to be a part of an Italian family from Queens, New York. How proud could I really be about that?

Over the years I’ve tended to identify more with my Italian side, perhaps for no other reason than my last name. (Had I been outfitted with my mother’s maiden name, Kelleher, I wonder if anyone would have sniffed out my Italian-ness.) But really my ethnicity was nothing more than a small talk topic of no more significance than the weather.

About eight years ago, my mother and grandmother (my Irish-Portuguese side) were invited to an unveiling ceremony for a new exhibit at New York City’s Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The museum opened in 1988 and serves as an educational memorial to the millions of American immigrants who settled in New York and lived in almost sub-human conditions as they tried to find work, raise a family, and build upon their social status ever so marginally with each passing generation.

My family was invited because one of the museum’s tours apparently mentioned one of my Irish-American relatives who struggled so mightily to find a social and financial foothold in 1860s New York City.

At the time I didn’t attend the ceremony, and didn’t give much thought to the Tenement Museum for years after the unveiling, even after my mother visited it a second time and assured me it would be worth my while for me to go see. I still didn’t budge, and so for our wedding anniversary she just went and bought two tickets for my wife and me.

In February 2015 we finally visited the museum. And I was blown away.

Our knowledgeable and engaging tour guide, Rebecca, unfurled the remarkable—yet almost banal for new Americans in the 1860s—story of Joseph and Bridget Moore.

Hmmm, I thought, Moore. When, earlier in the week, I had told my grandmother I was finally going to the Tenement Museum, the name she told me to listen for was Jane Moore.

As Rebecca continued to tell Bridget and Joseph’s story, I realized that the tour included more than a mere mention of a long-ago relative of mine; the exhibit was the story of my own family’s origins in America.

By the end of the tour, as I slowly connected the dots of the real-life characters in Rebecca’s story, my family members, I discovered that Jane Moore was the daughter of Joseph and Bridget, making her the grandmother of my grandmother—my great great grandmother.

The hour-long tour covered the many challenges Irish-American families like the Moores faced: substandard living conditions; not enough work opportunities; specious blame for bringing cholera to America; crooked politicians leveraging financial favors given to poor Irish for their votes; and little to no medical care or government-sponsored financial assistance. (In the Moore’s case, a lack of medical care or access to medicine led to the death of one of Jane’s infant siblings. The tour included a room recreated to look like the site of the child’s wake, complete with a tiny coffin.)

Towards the end of the tour, Rebecca showed us a picture of Jane and her husband; Jane was the only one of Joseph and Bridget’s eight children (four of whom died during childhood) to have her own children. One of those children was my grandmother’s mom. Rebecca told us that two of Jane’s grandsons grew up to be a New York City fireman and policeman.

Those grandsons are my uncles (my mother’s twin brothers), Chris and Kenny.

I’m usually not a crier, but something struck me in that moment. That I’m a sixth generation New Yorker. That my family’s humble beginnings had been preserved so beautifully. And that every day Tenement Museum tour guides like Rebecca are telling complete strangers from all parts of the world the story of how the Moore family survived an Irish potato famine in Ireland, a hellish five-week trip in the hulls of a slave ship, treacherous and sometimes deadly working and living conditions, and evolved into the family I belong to today.

I still can’t quite say pride is the right word for what I feel towards my ancestry, whether it’s the Italian, Irish, or Portuguese pieces of me. But I certainly have a new appreciation for all the work and sacrifice and hardship that led up to my own existence. And for that, I should strive to make my ancestors proud of me.

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