Voices of Difference

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DV, 20 min. 2001

Directors: Sandra Boero-Imwinkelried, Vincenzo Mistretta
Producers: Maria Saccomando Coppola, Rita Clement

This Documentary investigates the stories of three women who have immigrated to Western New York: one from Ireland via Scotland at the turn of the last century; another from Syria in the Middle East in 1991 and the last from Guyana in South America in 1994. The contrast between old and new immigrants creates a new perception of diversity in our community that can be used by both educational and business institutions.


The Making of the Video: Voices of Difference
Stories of Immigrant Women in WNY

by Marie Saccomando Coppola, Ph.D.
as told to Cheryl A. Thompson

Where did the idea for making a video on immigrant women begin?

When the Women’s Pavilion 2001 began to plan for the celebration of the Pan American Exposition, they created a focus group on Immigrant Women. I was most interested in the subject because of the graduate work I had done at the University of Buffalo in the American Studies Department. There I was introduced to looking at U.S. history from another country’s point of view. I learned that the personal was political—a maxim of U.S. feminist literature of the sixties. My idea was to focus on women in order to compensate for a history of Buffalo that concentrated on the achievements of men.

The department encouraged students to construct research that was meaningful to their lives. As the daughter of a Sicilian immigrant, curiosity about my heritage lead me to create a research project based on collecting oral histories from women in Sicily and comparing them with Sicilian American women. The resulting dissertation is entitled: Toward a Missing Link in the Identity of Italian American Women: Oral Histories of Sicilian and Sicilian American Women.

Oral history is particularly suited to women because it allows the researcher to be personal. In some cases my questions brought great anguish. It exposed the intimacy of the questions that this kind of research involves.

Why include more recent immigrants?

At first, my only thoughts were to collect stories of women who came to this country during the largest wave of immigration at the turn of the century. But patterns of immigration have changed. The bulk no longer comes from Europe; Latin America now has that distinction according to “Profile of the Foreign-Born Population in the U.S.:1997.” People coming into Western New York more recently represent cultures different from the majority that came at the turn of the last century. If we only focused on immigrant women at the time of the Pan American Exposition, we would merely be celebrating the past. Instead we wanted to use the past in order to see present-day Buffalo more clearly. By showing the experience of women who have recently come from other cultures, we have a comparison of how far we have come as a community in understanding women who have come from other lands.

Kathryn Neeson’s story of her mother is the traditional immigrant tale that many of us have heard in our own families: sacrifice, determination and hard work brought success to many. Against this backdrop of an often-told account are the stories of two women who have come to Western New York in the 1990’s in search of higher education and research opportunities. Comparing the obstacles faced a hundred years ago with what women encounter today gives insight to role immigrant women play in our community.

What is the meaning of the title, Voices of Difference?

Immigrants from the early 1900’s did not look like those who were already here. Coming mostly from southern and eastern Europe, their skin was darker, their names were longer and their accents were hard to understand among other dissimilarities, making them targets for the intolerant. Difference can be interpreted in many ways but most simply, it is being “the other”—the one who is different. It could be color, race, gender, spiritual belief or anything the society dictates. The women in the video voice the experience of being the different one.

How did you obtain women to interview?

Some women came forward from the publicity generated by the Women’s Pavilion Pan Am 2001 about the Immigrant Women’s focus group. We reached the major ethnic groups that were here in 1900 through community organizations. For the more recent arrivals, U.B.’s Center for the Americas and Women’s Studies helped.

We wanted a cross section of ethnic groups represented in our research. As we began to include more recent immigrants, we looked for women who came during different decades after WWII. Fourteen women spoke to us either about family members or about their own experience. Since our goal was to produce a half-hour video, we were forced to select stories that encompassed the experiences of the others.

Whose stories do you tell?

Kathryn Neeson relates a classic turn-of-the-last-century story about her mother, Winifred Gilmartin. It begins with the potato famine in Ireland which forced Kathryn’s grandparents to migrate to Scotland when Winifred was three or four years old. Winifred’s mother died in childbirth. As a young woman Winifred immigrated to Canada but really wanted to be in the U.S. She entered illegally through Detroit but the trauma of being an illegal alien was more than she could bear. Eventually she returned to Scotland and went through legal channels to re-enter the U.S.

The stories of the two women we interviewed who came to WNY in the 1990’s connect with research opportunities offered through U.B. Sawsan Tabbaa was a practicing dentist in Damascus, Syria. At present, she teaches and researches gene therapy at U.B. As a Muslim woman who wears a head covering for religious reasons, she is a target of intolerance drawing negative remarks on the street.  “I have to struggle double to prove myself….they look down upon me….Since you’re covered, you must be dumb.”

She shows courage to go out on the streets every day although she did not go out on the day of the Oklahoma bombing when prejudice against Muslims prevailed. Sawsan is trying to understand cultural diversity by taking a course in the Education Department. “I am learning about the oppressed and the oppressors…Know there’s a difference, accept it and then move on….”

Monica Jardine came to the U.S. in 1970 to pursue graduate work because there were no universities offering Ph.D. programs in Guyana at the time. Guyana, which is on the northern coast of South America, had recently received its independence from Great Britain. After working in the SUNY system for a number of years, she chose Buffalo for her home in 1991, teaching in the Women’s Studies Department. She takes exception to the label “immigrant,” referring to texts that describe people with her experience as “transnational migrants.” She explains that today’s technology makes more communication possible and keeps the connection between the old and new land. The experience of immigration is not just what happens to you on the outside in a new environment. It includes what you left behind: family, friends, loyalty to a national identity. “…you learn to be an immigrant….you learn to leave behind a lot of dreams….you never completely do.”

How do women keep their culture alive?

Cooking is the last vestige of a subculture to disappear. Leslie Carr talks about her grandmother’s inventiveness and resourcefulness. “She could live on a shoestring. Her recipes have been passed down. What she could do with beans and pasta!”
Janice Zampogna sees the work ethic applied to feeding a family as the greatest legacy: “…always working…had to adapt to the food available here…made a lot of soup: chicken, cabbage, blood.” Judy Bratty described the contents of the Easter baskets her family would take to church to be blessed: ham, veal, horseradish, eggs, bread with a cross on top, Easter lamb [butter]. We made coffee cakes, pickled pigs’ feet, perogi [dumplings], Polish sausage, bow ties with powdered sugar.

“My mother made lard with pork rind…birch beer [carbonated]…canned peaches, pears, pickled eggplant,” relates Anne Greenman whose heritage is Sicilian.
To this day Margaret Rizzo shows the influence of her grandmother’s cuisine with the pots of parsley and basil growing on her balcony. Ann Scibetta Marnie talks of her mother’s garden where she grew tomatoes, peppers, asparagus, string beans, carrots, endive, basil, mint, onions, zucchini and raspberries. She canned enough tomatoes to make spaghetti sauce for the year. Her husband was a hunter; he expected her to cook whatever animal he brought home: rabbit, woodchuck, etc. She had all the recipes in her head.

Modern Technology
For more recent immigrants, technology helps to keep their culture alive. Satellite discs bring worldwide programs into our living rooms. When our film crew walked into Sawsan Tabbaa’s home, we saw a broadcast on TV in Arabic. Originally from Damascus, Syria, her family is able to keep in daily touch with the culture they left. However, technology can work against the wishes of new immigrants. When Heybhin, a Korean student who helped with the filming, heard the stories about women who came in the early 1900’s, she wished she had no interference from the family she left behind. Heybhin’s parents constantly telephone, leaving her longing for the opportunity that many women had to re-invent themselves.

What is the value of the video on Immigrant Women?

This video was created in part as a legacy for the Women’s Pavilion Pan Am 2001. It draws attention to Buffalo as a magnet for people of diverse cultures over a one hundred year period. In 1900 they came for work in a great industrial and commercial center; more recently our study showed women attracted to the area because of the research and educational opportunities at the University of Buffalo among other reasons.

After watching Voices of Difference, people will look upon recent immigrants with some of the same empathy they have for the past immigrants. There is a tradition in our society to praise the first in our families to come to the U.S. for their courage, determination and hard work. Those who have arrived lately have many of those same characteristics. The video will make people think of what the newcomers and the old-timers have in common. That would make this a better place to live.

It has value as a teaching tool in diversity training and education courses in schools, universities and at the workplace. It can be used in the State mandated eleventh grade U.S. History course in the unit on immigration, in multi-cultural studies, sociology, psychology, women’s studies and other history courses as well as ethnic festivals.