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Joey Vento Está Muerto

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I always cringe when someone says they are going to speak their mind, because it usually proves there's not much in it.  Joey Vento, who owned Geno's Steaks in the Italian Market, was a guy who spoke his mind.

And what did that mind contain?

A heavy dose of macho.  One primal scream. Several tablespoons of jingoism.  A half-cup of xenophobia. A dash of hate. And there you had it.  Pure Joey.  Vento, who died last week at 71, got his 15 minutes of fame a few years ago by posting a sign at his shop that said: This is America. When Ordering Speak English.

The sign was directed at the Mexicans who had begun showing up in the Italian Market, not far from Joey's steak shop at 9th St. and Passyunk Ave.  Not so much as customers, but as residents and merchants.

To Joey, it looked as if there was a brown tide rising, which threatened to engulf his corner of the world.  And he was right.

The number of Mexicans in Philadelphia has tripled in the last 10 years.  Most of them come from Mateo Ozolco, a town of 2,000 in the mountains about 100 miles south of Mexico City in the state of Puebla. Most of them live within shouting distance of Vento's end of the Market. (For more on Philadelphia Mexicans, read the story we posted in May about the community.)

The Italian Market, south of Washington Avenue in particular, isn't very Italian at all.  The storefronts have been filled by Mexican merchants and that end of the Market has become the unofficial epicenter of the Mexican community in the city.   


Of course, that southern end of the Market wasn't very Italian before the Mexicans arrived. It was mostly just empty.

Today, though, if you stand at the corner of 9th and Washington you are confronted by the reality of the Market circa 2011: Half Italian, one-quarter Mexican and one-quarter Asian (mostly Vietnamese.)

As an ecologist would put it, what was a fading monoculture has become a thriving biodiverse environment. What happened at the Market happened to Philadelphia as well over the last 30 years.

Joey made a fundamental - but understandable - mistake when he looked at the Mexicans. He thought they were there to destroy his corner of the world.  Instead, they saved it. But that rescue came at a price: the market, the neighborhood, all of South Philadelphia had to change as well.

I was born in South Philadelphia.  My family has roots in South Philly that run back to the (pre-Italian) days of the late 1860's.  (In fact, my mother - South Philly Irish born and bred - pointedly never referred to the Market as the Italian Market, but as the Ninth Street Market.)

I have lived in the neighborhood for 25 years and I have witnessed the changes that so unsettled Joey.  South Philly was really an Italian enclave back in the early 1980's, but was on the verge of change.  And many residents were having none of it.

I remember going to a community meeting at Palumbo Rec Center once for a discussion on permit parking. Well, discussion may not be the right word.  The room was filled with older and younger residents, clearly in a culture clash over the issue. There was shouting and screaming and much gnashing of teeth.

The older residents were afraid that if permit parking was allowed, their children - visiting on the weekends from New Jersey - would get ticketed. They would be denied their birthright of visitation. The newcomers favored it because the neighborhood was becoming a parking lot for folks who worked in Center City, but wanted free parking all day. The old folks were having none of it.  As the room filled with cigarette smoke, tensions rose.

One particularly vociferous old timer, waving her Virginia Slims at one of the city officials, yelled.  "It's a change and we don't like change!"

But, Rita, I asked her (gently, so she wouldn't give me the evil eye), what if it is a good change?

She looked as if she wanted to spit at me.

It doesn't make any difference, she hissed, its change.

After he put up his sign in 2005, Joey became a hero of the anti-immigration crowd - for a while.  He never advanced beyond the fringe because he sure didn't look like them. Joey would have looked right at home at the Badda Bing Club, but not on the dais with the God-fearing, All-American, Wonderbread white Protestants who made up the majority of the movement.

The pinky ring. The blingy, over-sized necklace. The black dress tee-shirt emblazoned with Geno's. The tattoos. And the accent - pure, undiluted South Philly - that was, to outsiders, often unintelligible. He may have been espousing an All-American creed, but he didn't look or sound the part.  There was something exotic, even foreign about him.

Joey had a love-hate relationship with what made him famous. For starters, other merchants were thoroughly pissed at him for making his xenophobia seem like a statement for the whole Market. The new generation of Market owners liked the Mexicans and Asians, who ran decent businesses and brought in crowds.  To them, Joey was like the louche old uncle who would ruin family gatherings with rants against blacks, Jews and homosexuals - though he never used those polite words.

Joey himself did a tactical retreat from his own statements, saying that he wasn't anti-Mexican or anti-immigrant, he was just making the point that if you live in America you should learn to live by our rules and speak English.  Or, in the case of Joey, at least some dialect of English.

Joey's gone now, but he would be happy to learn that when we were talking to Mexicans as part of our Cover Story in May, a few expressed concerns that their children - immersed in the broader Anglo world - were losing touch with their roots and were speaking only English outside the home. 

They could see the day where Abuela and Abuelo would be chattering in Spanish at family gatherings, while everyone else spoke English.  Not only when ordering a cheesesteak.  But all the time.

And they were sad about the prospect of that change.

 

-- Tom Ferrick

 

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