13 October 2013

LIFE: This Country Called America

CHIAVARI, Italy - "God Bless America", my grandmother used to say. My grandfather used to say something else about America. She was thrilled to be there, 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. 
 Taken when America was still a dream
My grandmother was fiercely proud of her heritage. She loved Italy; she loved everything about it, the food, the traditions, 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, close to 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 (VT)
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 the 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: yes, the agents were salesmen for the steam ship companies but the product they were selling was good. 
The cars may be newer, but little else has changed
So my Grandmother made a plan. My Grandfather, and her brother, Joe Bronzetti, 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 really 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   were walking around in that land called America.  

As soon as they stepped off the boat in New York the two men were offered work. The Pennsylvania Railroad was being built and the railroad company needed men to 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.  

 So near and yet so far
You probably already know the end of the story. When the project was completed, there was no money. The paymaster had skipped town and taken the payroll with him. They were destitute. My Grandfather and Uncle 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. Their only hope was to try to get to Syracuse and meet up with their piasani.

Stranded in a foreign country, and unable to speak English, the two men left Reading, Pennsylvania and began walking north. To survive the 233 mile journey they were forced to beg for food and shelter along the way. Anti-Italian newspaper articles published at the time claimed that Italian immigrants, especially those from Southern Italy, seemed to beg for the pure pleasure of begging. Obviously they never met my Grandfather and Joe.

Finally, free to go
When the two men got to Syracuse they found work, got settled and bought a house. A year later, on April 14, 1915, my Grandmother, my father and my Aunt Louise boarded a ship bound for America. Uncle Joe went on to own a string of bars, 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.  

In few other countries in the world have the Italians had as much success as those who went to America. The children, grandchildren and great grandchildren  of the factory workers, masons, laborers, and waiters who landed on Ellis Island in the early 1900’s have gone on to become senators and governors, lawyers, doctors, engineers and managers, and yes even journalists. 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
It was not easy being Italian in those days and our forefathers had to jump through a lot of hoops in order to survive. Many 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 I always loved my cousin Jimmy’s favorite story about his friend Mario who changed the name of his auto mechanic shop to sound more American. Instead of  Mario Bianco's, he renamed it Mario White's. 

What brought on this wave of nostalgia is the Columbus Day celebrations that will take place across America tomorrow. On October 14 thousands of us, the descendants of those who sacrificed and suffered to get to America, will celebrate Columbus' discovery. It's an important day for Italian-American because with this celebration, we can show our pride in being Italian, and we have a lot to be proud of.
As I remember them
There are now between 25-50 million Italians in America. Three million just in the metropolitan New York area, 5 million in the Tri-State area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. According to a study by the Angelli Foundation, the average income of Italians in America is now 25% higher than that of the average American. Imagine that. The population that was once looked down on, laughed at and called gangsters and beggars has become 25% richer than the average American. Who’s laughing now? 

On a trip back to the United States a few years ago, I spoke with a number of Italian-Americans. Many of them had never visited Italy and they were interested in hearing about life in Italy today. In talking to them I heard a curiosity about the land their families left more than a hundred years ago. It was nice. It was also a major factor in my decision to start this blog. What’s also nice are all the Italian-American Facebook pages where people just like me can celebrate their Italianness every day, and keep alive the customs and traditions their grandparents and parents brought with them in their search for a better life in this country called America. Happy Columbus Day.

 photos: Ellis Island web site.


  1. That's a great story! And what a walk. Che coraggio!

  2. Loved this article Phyllis. Made me feel proud and a bit tearful. LL

  3. Thanks for taking us ''there''.