10 October 2010

LIFE: Il Giorno di Colombo

SARONNO, Italy - "God Bless America", my grandmother used to say. My grandfather used to say something else. She was thrilled to be in America, and he, well that's another story. My grandparents were just two of the two million Italians who immigrated to the United States at the beginning of the 1900’s.

My Grandparents when they were still just dreaming of America

My grandmother was fiercely proud of her heritage. She loved Italy, she loved the food, the weather, the closeness of her family. She just didn't want to live there, and mostly she did not want to raise her children there. She was not alone.

Between 1870 and 1920, almost 5 million Italians boarded steamships for America. Only Germany matched that exodus - one of the largest immigrations in modern history. Whole towns in Southern Italy, and some of the poorest areas of the Veneto and Tuscany, were emptied as people jumped at the opportunity for a better life. And yes, maybe even riches. In all fairness my Grandmother and her family were not starving, it was just that she saw America's open immigration policy as a once in a lifetime opportunity not only for her children but for herself and my Grandfather as well.

The town they left behind - Piansano

My Grandfather was a furniture maker, but in the impoverished province of Lazio, there was little money for furniture. To supplement the family income he had turned to making wine barrels and was managing to make ends meet, but barely.

And then one day a stranger came to town with an offer my Grandmother couldn’t refuse. The stranger was an agent. His job was to travel throughout Italy spreading an golden image of America, rich and generous, democratic and open, a country with endless possibilities for success. And best of all the company the agent worked for would take care of the paperwork. It was an irresistible combination: the agents were salesmen true and the product they were selling was good.

 Piansano: The cars may be newer but not much else has changed

So my Grandmother made a plan. My Grandfather, and her brother Joe would go to America first. They would get jobs – which according to the agent there were plenty of -  earn money, buy a house and then send second class steamer tickets for her, my father and my Aunt Louise, who was just a baby. My Grandmother wanted to go to America but not in steerage. I don’t know how much resistance there was to her idea, all I know is that on Feb 18. 1913 my Grandfather, and his brother-in-law Joe Bronzetti, were walking around in that land called America.

There were millions of immigrants

As soon as they stepped off the boat they were offered work. The Pennsylvania Railroad was being built and the railroad company needed men to help lay railroad tracks. So my Grandfather and Uncle Joe signed on. The company offered to provide food and inexpensive shelter along the way, the cost of which would be deducted from their pay. When the project was completed they would get the money they had earned, less their expenses.

You probably already know the end of the story. When the project was completed, there was no money, the paymaster had left town and taken the payroll with him. My Grandfather and Joe had heard from other Italians they had met while working on the railroad that some families from the province of Lazio had settled  in upstate New York, in a town called Siracusa.  It was their only hope. Stranded in a foreign country and unable to speak English, the two men began walking from Reading Pennsylvania to Syracuse, New York. To survive the journey they were forced to beg for food and shelter along the way.

What they longed to see

Newspaper articles published in that period claimed that Italian immigrants, especially those from Southern Italy, seem to beg for the pure pleasure of begging. Obviously they never met my Grandfather and Joe. When my Grandfather and Jot got to Syracuse they both found work, got settled and bought a house. Uncle Joe went on to own a string of bars in Syracuse, and I doubt there is an old timer in Syracuse who doesn’t recall with nostalgia hanging out in Joe’s Bar and Grill on Lodi Street, including yours truly. On April 14, 1915 my Grandmother, my father and my Aunt Louise, who will celebrate her 100th birthday on Nov. 1 boarded a ship bound for America.

 In few other countries in the world have the Italians had as much success as those who went to America. The children and grandchildren of the factory workers, masons, laborers , and waiters who landed on Ellis Island in the early 1900;s have gone on to become accountants, lawyers, doctors, engineers and managers, and yes even journalists. They have opened shops and restaurants. They have become business owners and politicians. With their sweat and tears they built America. They are the embodiment of the American dream.

Many Italians settled in New York's Lower East Side

The first Italians immigrants in America had to jump through a lot of hoops in order to survive. Many were embarrassed to be Italian and changed their name to make their lives easier. When I was growing up we lived next to the Bond family. Their name wasn't really Bond, it was Bonacci. And my cousin Jimmy;s favorite story is about his friend Mario who changed the name of his auto mechanic shop to sound more American. Instead of calling it Mario Bianco's, he renamed it Mario White's. My cousin still shakes his head over that one.

What brought on this wave of nostalgia is the Columbus Day celebrations that will take place across America tomorrow. On October 11 thousands of us, the descendants of all of those who sacrificed and suffered to get to America, will celebrate Columbus' discovery. It's an important day for Italian-Americans, because with this celebration, Italian-Americans can rediscover their pride in being Italian and they have a lot to be proud of.

Still happy after all these years

There are now between 25-50 million Italians in America. Four million just in the metropolitan New York area, 8 million in the Tri-State area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. According to a recent study by the Angelli Foundation, the average income of Italians in America is 25% higher than that of the average American. Imagine that. The population of beggars has become 25% richer than the average American. Not bad.

On a trip back to the United States a few summers ago, I spoke with a number of Italian-Americans. Many of them have never visited Italy and they were very interested in hearing about life in Italy today. In talking to them I heard a curiosity about the land their families left nearly a hundred years ago. It was nice. It was also a major factor in deciding to write this blog. Happy Columbus Day.

1 comment:

  1. Can you tell me where you got the photo with the caption "Many Italians settled in New York's Lower East Side"? I work for a magazine and we would like to publish that particular photo.