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Boston Pays Tribute to Immigrant Grandmothers


Diane Modica points to her younger self, standing beside her late "nonna," an early 20th-century immigrant from Sicily. She and her grandmother were included in the City of Boston's "Immigrant Grandmothers" mural in East Boston.

She is known as "nonna" in Italian, "abuelita" in Spanish and "Grandma" in English. But across cultures, the grandmother is the matriarch and foundation on which the family unit is built.

In ethnically diverse East Boston, home to a large immigrant community, a new mural serves as a visual tribute to grandmothers and the values that residents of what is known as "Eastie" share across ethnic lines.

"It makes me feel identified," Salvadoran-native Guadalupe Gonzalez said of the mural, known as "Immigrant Grandmothers," which stands tall underneath an overpass along a park known as the East Boston Greenway.

"I identify with these grandmothers that came with nothing, [like me], that came with a dream," said Gonzalez, a 59-year-old mother of two and grandmother of four. She shares a powder-blue, triple-decker home with two other immigrant families from El Salvador in what is now an area comprising mainly immigrants from Latin America.

Using photos of local grandmothers as inspiration, an East Boston "Immigrant Grandmothers" mural aims to capture the similarities of each generation's stories in a single frame.
Using photos of local grandmothers as inspiration, an East Boston "Immigrant Grandmothers" mural aims to capture the similarities of each generation's stories in a single frame.

Gonzalez's East Boston neighborhood, located about a kilometer from the mural, reflects the changing demographics throughout the port city's history.

Heidi Schork, Director of the Mayor’s Mural Crew for the City of Boston, conceived of the idea for the "Immigrant Grandmothers" mural after noticing more elderly women on East Boston's streets than in other areas of the city.
Heidi Schork, Director of the Mayor’s Mural Crew for the City of Boston, conceived of the idea for the "Immigrant Grandmothers" mural after noticing more elderly women on East Boston's streets than in other areas of the city.

Heidi Schork, director of the Mayor's Mural Crew of the City of Boston, conceived of the idea for the mural after noticing more elderly women on the streets than in other areas of the city — "going to market, sweeping the sidewalks and going to medical appointments."

"I noticed, in looking over a lot of reference photos, that the posture of making tortillas and making pasta is exactly the same," Schork said, an example that transpired into three centerpiece grandmothers.

Among other motifs are local churches, a topic Schork said "broke the ice immediately" among Italian and Central American grandmothers, along with polka-dotted dresses — "the international grandmother outfit."

Left of the mural's center, one such immaculately dressed older woman stands proudly beside her young granddaughter, who is wearing an organza dress to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation, a rite of passage in the Catholic Church.

"It had these little pleats in the front of it, and you had the little white gloves," Diane Modica, an East Boston-based lawyer, said of an outfit she once wore when she was a child, in the company of her grandmother. "My grandmother standing next to me, it evokes such memories."

WATCH: Women with Ties to Mural Discuss its Significance

Boston Pays Tribute to Immigrant Grandmothers
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United by purpose

Modica, the granddaughter of early 20th-century Sicilian immigrants, lives in the same house that her family bought in 1922. Although the immigrants of her diverse neighborhood come from vastly different origins than a century ago, Modica says they are united by their reasons for settling.

"They're not doing anything different than what we did," Modica said, "which is come over, work hard, raise their family, take care of their family and hope for a better future."

The completed artwork presents typical East Boston homes, together with villages of southern Italy and Central America. It is one of a series of City of Boston mural projects inspired by a larger national campaign "To Immigrants With Love."

An East Boston mural celebrates Mexican-born activist Veronica Robles and Sicilian entrepreneur Carmello Scire, both immigrants to Boston. The artwork is part of the City of Boston's "To Immigrants With Love" project, which celebrates Boston’s immigrants, old and new.
An East Boston mural celebrates Mexican-born activist Veronica Robles and Sicilian entrepreneur Carmello Scire, both immigrants to Boston. The artwork is part of the City of Boston's "To Immigrants With Love" project, which celebrates Boston’s immigrants, old and new.

"People here are really linked to where they came from, even if it was generations ago," Celina Barrios-Millner, Immigration Integration Fellow at the Mayor's Office for Immigrant Advancement, told VOA.

"We want to connect that pride and that love for today's immigrants, as well."

Like the women in the mural and near her Boston home, Gonzalez believes in the value of hard work, and looks up to labor leaders and civil rights activists such as Dolores Huerta and the late Cesar Chavez.

Guadalupe Gonzalez, an immigrant grandmother from El Salvador, says her Boston neighborhood's "Immigrant Grandmothers" mural makes her feel identified. "I identify with these grandmothers that came with nothing," Gonzalez said, “… that came with a dream.”
Guadalupe Gonzalez, an immigrant grandmother from El Salvador, says her Boston neighborhood's "Immigrant Grandmothers" mural makes her feel identified. "I identify with these grandmothers that came with nothing," Gonzalez said, “… that came with a dream.”

She credits her achievements as a house cleaner to provide for her youngest son's education in El Salvador, and now — she hopes — the next generation, too.

But for those achievements to be possible, she counts longevity among her blessings.

"[Life] doesn't take years away," Gonzalez said. "The years give you life!"

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