“Be Italian!” – All Aboard the Time Travel Train, from Phoenecians and the French Revolution to Fellini and Far Niente! Part I

Papa loved being Italian. Partly because of the Italian culture– the traditions, the food, the music, the people– holy cannoli, what’s not to love? But he also loved being Italian because he considered his heritage an honor. He knew what his family had to go through to get to America. And not just to get to America, but then to survive, and thrive in the new country. He also knew of the many that tried but did not make the journey. Those who courageously sacrificed themselves to make life better for their families and themselves. To Papa, that alone made anyone that risked the trip worthy of at least some of his respect.

But over time, the concept of “Being Italian” has changed, and the meaning of the term “Italian” has come to mean more than just geography of origin. It is more than citizenship, ethnicity, or even culture. Being “Italian” has become a modern passion- and not just for those that have it in their blood. We see it represented in the world’s adoration and celebration of Italian food, choices for travel destinations, movies, music and even in the media. Just take a peek at the series of new Fiat commercials that celebrate that the “Italians are coming!”:

Without saying more than those four words, the ad makes it clear that being Italian brings with it excitement, spontaneity and sex appeal (and also a tiny army of very zippy cars!) And who are we to argue? Apparently the theme worked for Fiat as well– in 2013, after only a few short years on the U.S. market, the Fiat 500 ranked #56 in top US car sales, out of 152 different models sold in the US.1

So, ok, we get it, people love Italy and for very obvious reasons. But was it always this way? And what exactly about Italy and being Italian is so appealing? To help myself better understand the breadth (did someone say bread??) of the Italian phenomenon, I did some time-traveling from the earliest roots of Italy to modern day. I discovered so many things I never knew about my heritage- and about the events and people that made us all fall in love with the country and the culture. And you know me, once I find something great, all I want to do is share! So, dear friend, amico, paesan, whether you are Italian or honorary Italian, I invite you now to take the tour with me- we’ll be traveling first class on Papa’s “wonderful, whimsical train of life.” Those of you that read the book How Do We Love? have already been passengers!

“A tight chain of elegantly-rusted passenger cars approaches the station. Brakes screeching, the ancient machine rolls to a stop in front of me. The music fades calando to silent and everything becomes quiet. The only sound is a susurrus breeze trying to tell me some secret I used to know but now can’t yet understand. The window of the conductor compartment struggles to slide open, and when it does, Papa leans out. Not really Papa, but some vapor version of Papa all misty and sparkly and not-yet, wearing a collapsible top hat and World War II flying goggles. He’s eating a plate of something and it smells like an Italian restaurant and my favorite memories and home.”

Blog1 Train

cool train image from our friends at Free Software for Sharing

Whether you already have a ticket stub is of no concern here, mi amore– everyone is welcome on this train and the ride is free, so please climb aboard! For those of you that like to plan ahead, here is our breathtaking itinerary:

First stop? Italica Kingdom Station– we’ll travel far, far, so very far back in time to the homeland before it was the homeland– a mystical, ancient time of warring tribes and empires and invasions. While we are there, we’ll carefully, secretly, hike around the battlefields to peek in on the antics of Napolean to see just when and how Italy became Italy (it’s much more recent than you think!).

After safely surviving the centuries of incursions, we will climb back aboard for our next stop– Stazione di Difficolta e Speranza (Difficulty and Hope Station) in the time of the World Wars–when most of our beloved, brave ancestors decided that while they loved being Italian, maybe Italy wasn’t the best place to do it (talk about not just sitting around and accepting your fate!). We’ll see why coming to America wasn’t just a simple, giddy, gold-paved decision about wanting a better life– and involved much more than just buying a ticket, taking a boat trip and showing up at the next port.

Those two parts of the journey will leave us hungry for more– and, like every good Italian, just plain hungry! So we will have a brief siesta, to eat, to drink, to visit the family, maybe listen to some music and even take a nap. When we return we’ll be at our next stop- Sophia Loren Station. Here we’ll disembark once again and take a romantic, nostalgic “passegiata” (Italian stroll!) along the path of Italian culture popularity in the United States: Italian language, romance, foods, movies, music, and traditions. You’ll remember all the reasons we adore Italy (as if we could ever forget!)

And finally, our last stop will be a very special station– one in the future where you can have all the Italy you want in your life! We’ll guide you through a colorful, bustling marketplace and pause at quite a few stands- where you will meet a few genuine Italian-Americans and learn how to do everything Italian, on every budget- from having your very own Italian night at home, to learning the language, to living in Italy or even becoming an Italian citizen!

Ok, friends– did you hear that? It’s the station whistle– are ya in? Then all aboard, this car is about to depart. Hop on and I promise that by the time we get you back home, you will remember why the world adores everything Italian!

 Stop 1- Italica Kingdom Station

Blog2 Italica Station

Blog3 Italica Bridge Photo

Photograph by Paolo de Faveri http://paolodefaveri.photoshelter.com/image/I00001TCryfxELQ8

Ancient Tribal Italy

Stepping down off the train, we see a beautiful, forested landscape. When we think of Italy and the time of great-grandparents, we may think of the small towns and cities they came from. But what about their grandparents? And the grandparents before that? Did you know that many of our ancient ancestors came from tribes? Have you ever considered to which tribe your family belongs?

“Modern” humans, our most ancient ancestors, appeared on the peninsula we now know as Italy about 40,000 years ago. Those were either the Indo-European hunter-gatherer-wanders, called “Italics” (tribes like the Umbrian, Roman, Volsci, Samnites, Celts, or  Ligures) OR what many refer to as the actual indigenous peoples of Italy- tribes such as the Etruscans, Elymians, Sicani or prehistoric Sardinians! Shortly after those tribes came the Greeks, Carthaginians and Phoenicians. Take a look at the map and find your ancestors’ homeland- and then see if you can get a better idea of the tribe from which you may have originated. It looks like Papa’s ancestors, located in the interior land below Naples, may have been the original Italics or possibly Greek!:

Blog4Tribal Map

Source: http://www.kidseurope.com/Newsletter/LanguagesofItaly.htm

As time moved on, other tribes moved in- tribes like the Gauls (descended largely from Vikings) and Greeks, but also tribes of German heritage from German occupation near the Black Sea (tribes called Ostrogoths, Goths and Visigoths). Sicily had Ostrogoth, Byzantine, Arab and Berber tribes, and when Sicily was conquered by Normans between the 11th and 12th centuries she had tribes that were a mix of all the cultures!

It wasn’t until 31 BC, when a Roman emperor named Octavian created a formal “administrative region” from all the different pieces of land and called it, “Italia.” But even with the lovely name, government, rules and laws, everything within Italia was still a messy mishmosh of kingdoms, principalities, republics, duchys and marquisates that stretched all the way from Sicily up to to the Alps. Everyone wanted a piece of this rich, fertile, beautiful land and its peoples.

Between 31 BC and 1796, “Italia” continued to be a mixing pot for a dense, dirty soup of powerful leaders and invading armies battling for territory.  The next three maps show just a glimpse into how Italy changed over those centuries, from 1000 AD to 1796 AD:


Source: Map from MapMaster.com, Wikimedia Commons Free Use Image


Source: Map from MapMaster.com, Wikimedia Commons Free Use Image


Source: Map from MapMaster.com, Wikimedia Commons Free Use Image

And then, in 1796, came the one, the only, Napoleon Bonaparte:


This famous painting, “Napoleon Crossing the Alps Into Italia” by Jaque Louis-David, housed at the Musée national du Château de Malmaison Wikimedia Commons, Public domain.

During the French Revolution, Napolean gained support from the people of Italy, and secret, revolutionary clubs formed all over Italia. Rebel factions wanted all these fragmented city states to be joined in a single Republic of Italy. In 1796 Bonaparte and his forces headed through the alps into Italia, and when they were finished, Napoleon had made himself Emperor. Eventually North and Central Italian City States were unified under the name, “Kingdom of Italy,” with Napoleon as King! The rest of the north was annexed to France and under French rule. Only Sicily and Sardinia remained free of French rule. This is what the Kingdom of  Italy looked like in 1810 after Napoleon:


Source: Map from MapMaster.com, Wikimedia Commons Free Use Image

(Oliviero Family sidenote! This was a very important time for Papa’s family. It’s ridiculously complicated, but the short version begins with the House of Bourbon taking over Naples, a lot of French infighting,  everyone pissing off the Spaniards, and the Austrian Hapsburgs eventually getting all involved. It ends with Papa’s great-great-grandfather DeMarsilia being employed as personal physician to one of the Bourbon Kings in Naples, saving the King’s life and being given the title of “Don” (Lord) and a bunch of land on the southwestern coast of Italy. If Papa’s father had stayed in Italy, the descendants would have been “Dons” and “Donas” (Lords and Ladies.) Papa said it was a sore point with his cousins when they discovered that they could have been considered royalty had the family stayed in Italy- especially when the girls found out that this would have made them eligible to marry a prince!)

And finally…Italia becomes…Italy!

In March of 1861 (that was only 153 years ago, dear friends- our great Nonnos and Nonnas saw this happen!), Italy was finally united under the rule of King Victor Emmanuel II ( You know, the guy that commissioned Rome’s “beloved” Wedding Cake monument!). Italian troops occupied Rome, and in July 1871, Rome formally became the Capital of the Kingdom. The Roman Pope at the time (Pius IX) was a rival of Italian kings and refused to cooperate, considering himself a “prisoner” of the Vatican. It was not until 1929 (yes! Only 85 years ago!) when the Pope finally accepted unified Italy with Rome as the capital.

After the initial “unification,”  Italian rulers started to expand their “empires” by creating colonies outside of Italy. The first Italian colonies were in Africa, and when Benito Mussolini and his fascists conquered Ethiopia in 1936, the “Italian Empire” was founded (I’m starting to better understand the finer points of Star Wars now…). Italy went on to colonize Eritrea, the Aegean Islands, Somaliland, Tientsin and Libya. But Italian Imperialism and Colonialism was not to last, as World War II destroyed fascist Italy and its colonial power. On June 2, 1946, Italy held its first free, non-fascist election, and Italians chose a republic to replace the monarchy. The king was no longer in power and the Italian constitution was put in place on January 1, 1948. Think about that– in the lifetime of you, your parents or your grandparents, this was all happening in Italy!

And that, my friends, is our brief tour of the area surrounding Italica Station and the ancient Italian past. Now, let’s get back on the train and head to our next stop– to explore what life was like for our more recent Italian ancestors.

Stop 2- Stazione di Difficolta e Speranza (Difficulty and Hope Station)



 Source: Wikipedia Commons, Unknown Artist. United States Public Domain image.

Italian diaspora- time to leave the homeland. Do you know why Nonna and Nonno left Italy?

A “diaspora” is the term for when a population moves away from its original homeland- voluntarily,  forcably or a little of both. It may come all at once, or in waves, over time.

There was an Italian diaspora that occurred right after the unification of Italy in 1861 and continued through the 1920’s, with one last large wave after World War II ended (although most left between 1861 and the start of World War I in 1914).

Right after unification in 1861, many Italians left because they had no land. The “feudal system” of land ownership was removed, and the land once owned by kings, nobility and aristocrats was redistributed to the peoples of Italy. However, many Italians in the South did not receive land- and therefore had nothing to farm. Many left Italy as a result. (Some of those without land did stay, but participated in a practice called “Mezzadria”– renting or leasing land from Italian owners. Tenants would tend the crops and provide a share of money back to the landowners. This was the reason Papa went back to Italy for the first time in 1937. As we just learned, Papa’s family had received land, and as you read in the book, he went to Italy in 1937 to check on their tenant, Ferraro. Ferraro had not been sending any money to the United States, and Papa’s family was concerned that the property had been abandoned or sold illegally.)

In the next wave of emigration, From 1900 through the end of World War I, Southern Italians also left because of problems in the South- there was an environment of post-war lawlessness, a chaos brought about by lack of civil services and enforcement, land issues (see feudal system, above!) and much sickness from poverty and bad living conditions. Sicknesses such as cholera (an intestinal disease caused by fecal bacteria) and pellagra (a dangerous vitamin deficiency) caused many deaths, especially in children and the elderly.

Times were clearly very difficult for Italians in Italy after World War I. The country and its people were weak due to lack of jobs and resources, and groups took advantage of that weakness with struggles for rights and power (which seemed, up to that point, never-ending in Italy!) The struggles and scarcity led to the rise of Fascism in the country. Eventually, around 1922, the Fascists took charge, and, during the first five years of fascism, 1.5 million people left Italy.2

The vast majority of Italians went to South America, ending up in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. (In our own family, Papa’s father came to the United States and his father’s brother went to Brazil. There is an entire group of Olivieros in Brazil!) North America was the second most sought out destination for Italian emigrants, and Australia was the third. Of those that went to the United States, most started their new lives in New York City, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, New Orleans and San Francisco. 3

Emigration away from Italy did not necessarily makes things better for Italians. As if courage to prepare and leave everything behind was not insurmountable enough for Nonno and Nonna, it was extremely challenging to accrue enough funds for the ship ride. Once on board, the ride itself was grueling for many. There were different ticket prices for different types of people, but the most common ticket for immigrants was passage in “steerage.” Everyone remembers the James Cameron movie “Titanic”- and the romance between first-class passenger “Rose” (played by Kate Winslett) and steerage passenger, “Jack” (played by Italian-American actor Leonardo DiCaprio.) Known for his obsession with attention to accurate historical detail, Cameron created a (deleted) scene of what he believed would look like the main section of steerage:

It seems fine enough, but it is important to remember that the people in steerage had to spend days and weeks in those cramped quarters. Also, the luxurious Titanic sailed decades after the earliest immigration waves began, and years after improvements commenced on trans-atlantic steerage conditions.

The excerpt below is from a 1909 Report of the United States Immigration Commission. The report was based on special agents of the Commission that secretly traveled as steerage passengers on 12 different transatlantic steamers. “There had never before been a thorough investigation of steerage conditions by national authority, but superficial investigations…had disclosed such evil and revolting conditions on some ships that the Commission decided to conduct an investigation sufficiently thorough.”4

This is what some of the special agents found in their visits to steerage:

“The old-type steerage is the one whose horrors have been so often described. It is, unfortunately, still found in a majority of the vessels bringing immigrants to the United States. It is still the common steerage in which hundreds of thousands of immigrants form their first conceptions of our country and are prepared to receive their first impressions of it.

The sleeping quarters are large compartments, accommodating as many as 300, or more, persons each…The berths are in two tiers, with an interval of 2 feet and 6 inches of space above each. They consist of an iron framework containing a mattress, a pillow, or more often a life-preserver as a substitute, and a blanket. The mattress, and the pillow if there is one, is filled with straw or seaweed.


Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540. LC-USZ62-11202.

No sick cans are furnished, and not even large receptacles for waste. The vomit of the seasick are often permitted to remain a long ‘tame before being removed. The Boors, when iron, are continually damp and when of wood, they reek with foul odor because they are not washed.

The open deck available to the steerage is limited, and regular separable dining rooms are not included in the construction. The sleeping compartments must therefore be the constant abode of a majority of the passengers. During days of continued storm, when the unprotected open deck can not be used at all, the berths and the passageways between them are the only places where the steerage passenger can spend his time.


Photo Credit: Edwin Levick photo. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540. LC-USZ62-11202.

When to this very limited space and much filth and stench is added inadequate means of ventilation, the result is almost unendurable. Its harmful effects on health and morals scarcely need be indicated. Two 12-inch ventilator shafts are required for every 50 persons in every room ; but the conditions here are abnormal and these provisions do not suffice.


Source:  http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/immigration/italian-immigrants.jpg

The food may be generally described as fair in quality and sufficient in quantity, and yet it is neither; fairly good materials are usually spoiled by being wretchedly prepared. The preparation, the manner of serving the food…and disregard of the proportions of the several food elements required by the human body, make the food unsatisfying and therefore insufficient. This defect and the monotony are relieved by purchases at the canteen by those whose capital will permit.


Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540. LC-USZ62-11202.

Considering this old-type steerage as a whole, it is a congestion so intense, so injurious to health and morals, that there is nothing on land to equal it. That people live in it only temporarily is no justification of its existence…It is abundant opportunity to weaken the body and implant there germs of disease to develop later. It is more than a physical and moral test; it is a strain. And surely it is not the introduction to American institutions that will tend to make them respected.”4

From reading this description, one can see why Papa’s pregnant mother, Elvira, arrived on the shores of New York sick and weak, and lost the baby shortly thereafter.

Off of the Ship…And Onto the Docks

For people that survived the ship ride, their arrival on Ellis Island could also be extremely challenging. Leslie Allen, author of the American history novel, Ellis Island, gives us a detailed glimpse into the life of an immigrant that has just disembarked from their means of passage onto the immigration docks: (immigrant photos from various sources added for purposes of illustration and not an original element of Allen’s book. Unless otherwise specified, photo source is http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/070_immi.html, Prints and Reading Room of the United States Library of Congress.)

Some had used their life savings to purchase one-way tickets to a destination they had only heard about. Having sold their few worldly possessions, they boarded a steamship with little more than the clothes on their backs and dreams in their heads. An immigrant said, ‘If America didn’t exist, we would have to invent it for the sake of our survival.’

The 1891 law placing immigration under federal control contained a provision that excluded people suffering from dangerous contagious diseases. Trachoma, a communicable eye affliction, was especially feared. Passengers preparing to debark would ask each other if they “looked sick in the eyes.” They also worried about other ailments; whether sea-sickness was a disease, or would a child with a sty be torn from its family and sent back to Europe. Some people thought they had to pay something to the American inspector and doctor. They worried as to whether they had enough money to pay the officials.


Source: National Park Service, as found on www.ellisisland.org

Even the steerage passengers were lined up according to their appearance. The steamship companies were aware of their reputation so they placed prosperous-looking and respectable passengers in front. Behind them were women with handkerchiefs on their heads. They were followed by the more alien-looking in their best: Russians in matted sheepskins, Greeks in white kilts, etc…Tickets and vaccination cards were in the caps, hats or teeth of the immigrants whose hands were full of baggage and babies. Some officials gave them a rough shove, shouting in a dozen languages to hurry. They hurried, and then waited – sometimes for hours – aboard barges.


A barefoot immigrant woman waits for her turn. http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/immigration/italian-women.jpg

The busiest year was 1907 with 866,660 immigrants. The busiest day of that year was May 2, 1907, when 11 ships arrived with 16,209 passengers and four more ships arrived, making the total number of passengers 21,775. At such times, immigrants often had to remain aboard ship for two or three days. There were so many immigrants to process that the staff couldn’t spend more than two minutes with each of them, and they had to work nine hours continuously. There were never enough interpreters. Fiorello LaGuardia, future mayor of New York, was an interpreter – he spoke Croatian, Italian and German. He said they had to work seven days a week for two years.


Immigrants entered the main building in groups of 30, then marched to a wide, steep staircase. It was an inconvenience for the immigrant who had to carry a feather bed, pillow, wicker basket and maybe a small trunk. While the immigrants were struggling up the stairs, medical inspectors stood looking down at them. If anyone gasped or seemed faint of heart, the letter “H” was chalked on his back. Medical examiners eyed them from head to toe. If a child was carried, but looked old enough to walk, examiners suspected infantile paralysis. More chalk marks were added: “B” for back, “L” for lameness, etc. Elaborate hairdos were a suspicious sign of scalp ailments. Lice were commonplace, but didn’t rate a chalk mark. ‘Eye’ men flipped back eyelids with buttonhooks looking for trachoma, whose victims were usually deported. During stringent mental exams doctors looked for symptoms of retardation, such as tremor of tongue, biting nails, unusual decoration on the clothing, etc. The immigrants who were marked by “X” were led away for closer observation. That yielded detailed notes, such as: “heart beats rapidly when talking to strangers.” “He fell in love with a young lady on board ship. She did not reciprocate.”

Blog15Chalk markings

If the doctor cleared them, people then went to the huge Registry Room. Thousands of people lined up in winding rows to the immigration inspector who sat behind a big desk on a high platform, under a portrait of George Washington and an American flag. An intimidating sight to the immigrant.


There were many questions, many fears. What is your name? Where are you from? Where are you going? Do you have any relatives in the United States? How much money did you bring? Do you have any physical or mental health problems? What is your height? Your weight? Are you an anarchist? Are you a polygamist? Some of this information is contained on the one line for each passenger on a ship’s manifest. The manifests with the names and records of our ancestors are the history of the populating of America during this period.

Some immigrants passed into America with their names intact. Many didn’t. Names were often misspelled or altered on the manifests. Immigrants sometimes shortened their names or Americanized them. Sometimes the officials “helped” them. Thus, Portnovsky became Porter, Schmidt became Smith, Goldstein became Gold.

When the immigrants were asked where they were going, it took ingenuity to decipher the replies. “Szekenevno Pillsburs” was Second Avenue, Pittsburg. One newcomer said “Springfield.” “Which Springfield?” “The cheapest one.”

Four out of five immigrants were free to go their way. Some of the rest received a white badge – temporarily detained while awaiting relatives or money. The detainees called Ellis Island the “Isle of Tears.” An inspector stated he had seen many jails, some pretty bad. But none as bad as the dormitories on Ellis Island where detainees had to wait.


Italian children with white badges wait for their family http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/immigration/italians-id-tags.jpg



In 1914 deportations rose to 16,588 people. Several hundred chose suicide to deportation. Echoes of happiness and grief, despair and triumph haunt the halls of Ellis Island’s empty buildings. There was the “kissing post” where families were reunited, and the “stairway of separation.” From it, one passage led to the railroad ferry, another to the boat for Manhattan, and the third to detention and possible deportation. For some people it was a joy; if nothing was wrong with them they went with their families. For those not admitted, there was heartbreak and desolation.”

Welcome to the United States – Now Go Home…

Immigrant families may have been profoundly relieved when their family members arrived safely from the long voyage and joined them in their new home – but not everyone was happy to see the throngs of immigrants pouring into ports like New York, New Orleans, and others. Many existing United States citizens were nervous about the continuing influx of immigrants.

Wikipedia shares an excerpt from a New York Times article of April 17, 1921, titled “Italians Coming in Great Number,” which discussed the vast numbers of people at the Italian ports waiting for ships to take them to the United States and other countries.

“…The stranger walking through a city like Naples can easily realize the problem the government has to deal with. The side streets…are literally swarming with children, who sprawl in the paved roadway and on the sidewalks. They look dirty and happy…Suburbs of Naples…swarm with children who, for number, can only be compared to those in Delhi, Agra and other cities in the East Indies…”

Similar sights began to appear on the streets of immigrant neighborhoods in the U.S.A.- a population size, energy and dynamic that had not existed prior to the waves of immigration:


Mulberry Street – Now Little Italy, Lower East Side NYC, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain circa 1900

The fears of existing U.S. citizens were heightened by the unknown- who were these new neighbors, and exactly what were they bringing to the United States with them? After a ship called the “Italia” came into port, it was determined that some passengers were carriers of smallpox, and the entire manifest of ship’s passengers had to be detained. Word spread that the incoming immigrants were infected and this caused quite a reaction from those on shore, especially those that were not so keen on the influx of new neighbors in the first place.

Newspapers ran stories about the sheer numbers of people coming in off of the ships. One example is a New York Times editorial piece from December 18, 1880, about the Italia, called “Undesirable Immigrants.”  Here are just a few excerpts taken from an editorial piece: (for entire article see: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=FB0C11FB395B1B7A93CAA81789D95F448884F9 )

Excerpt #1:


Excerpt #2:


Excerpt #3:


Not exactly the welcoming that our friends in the Fiat commercial gave to their immigrating Italians, si?

In addition to having throngs of fearful citizens, The U.S. and other countries were industrializing after the World Wars and saw the immigrants as an excellent source of extremely cheap labor. This demand for workers resulted in many immigrants being hired by companies before they even left Italy, the companies paying their ship fare. Many of these immigrants were then employed under horrendous conditions (such as sweatshops) and found themselves in conditions of indentured servitude or near slavery.

Blog30Plumage Sweatshop

Women working at a plumage factory. Source: http://www.EllisIsland.com

In 1901 the Italian government created an office called the “Commisariat of Emigration” to help assist and protect its citizens leaving Italy for foreign shores. The Commisariat set up hostels at the ports so that people would not have to sleep on the docks waiting for their ships, kept order at the ports, provided health inspections, enforced ticket costs to ensure there was no “price gouging,” scalping, or trading of ship tickets, and worked with receiving countries to ensure emigrants would be received at the destination country. Italy’s Commisariat of Emigration suspended emigration to Brazil for some time when it was found out that many migrants had ended up as slaves on Brazilian coffee plantations.

Eventually, countries started to put quotas on emmigration and immigration. Italy restricted emigration out of Italy between 1920 and 1930, and the United States created the Emergency quota act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924 in an attempt to curb the flow of new people coming into the US.

We Made it! Now What?

If Nonno and Nonna were released from Ellis Island, they still faced additional challenges. The first, finding suitable places to live and decent work opportunities. In the early phases of immigration, people often stayed wherever they could, which included “tenement” buildings and cramped living quarters.


Source: http://www.museumoffamilyhistory.com


Source: http://www.museumoffamilyhistory.com

Papa said that at one point in his childhood in New York, they had 16 adults and children living together in a “moderate sized apartment,” which Papa said was always clean and cared for – each of the occupants contributing to the household regardless of age or skill level. Papa said his bed was in the dining room, and his jobs at 5 years old ranged from cleaning the pans under the “ice box,” to stirring the wine on the fire escape (see Papa’s recipe for “Immigrant Ice Wine” at the end of the blog!), to loading coals into the coal heater in the basement.

In the later phases of immigration, many people had families waiting for them with places to live and possibly even jobs. But even with those “luxuries,” starting a new life in a new country was challenging. Families, even children, often worked together to make enough money to stay in shelter, food and clothing.


An Italian family sews doll garments together. http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/immigration/italians-garments.jpg


An Italian family sorts coffee beans for packaging. http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/immigration/italians-coffee.jpg


Cramped living quarters in an Italian tenement in 1910 http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/immigration/italian-tenament-1910.jpg

Blog25farming together

Italian family farming together in 1890 http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/immigration/italian-farmers-1890.jpg


Italian men work at the dock http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/immigration/italian-dockworkers.jpg

From the Etruscan Tribes to Ellis Island Occupants- Gratitude for Their Courage and Fortitude

As you have seen, my friend, life for Italians, from the time of tribal conquests through the time of arrival on the shores of America, has always been challenging. But those of us reading this are living proof that our ancestors not only survived the grueling rigors of life as an Italian, they thrived. (Those experiences may also give us a clue to the root of the famous Italian passion and perseverance for life!) Once our ancestors came to America, they settled in, did what they had to, and worked very hard to create the lives that we-their descendants- would eventually enjoy. I hope the stops at these particular stations have given you have a better idea of what your ancestors- whether Italian or not- went through to establish life in this country.  After all, every single American, with the exception of our Native American brothers and sisters, are either immigrants or are descended from immigrants in some way. As Papa would say, “for that we gotta give em our respect.” I could not agree more. Thank you Great-great Nonna Rosina, Great-Grandma Elvira, Great Aunts Gaetana & Gilda, Great Grandpa Vincenzo and Papa. If not for you, who knows if and where I would be!

Now, dear ones, I know that part of our time-travel tour was intense. Those two stops are the most grueling and you, dear traveler, are most deserving of an intermission! You will need a good siesta, because when we return, we will board the time travel train again for our next stop- Sophia Loren Station. There, we will take you through the fiesta of Italian culture in America – the foods, the music, the cinema, and all the things we have come to love about Italy! You won’t want to leave that leg of the tour, but trust me it will be worth boarding the train one last time for our trip to the future, where you will meet some remarkable Italian-Americans and learn how you too can “Be Italian!”

Until the next time we meet, enjoy the food, the wine, the love and life. It’s the Italian way! Ce vediamo prossimo mese! See you next month!

Papa’s Recipe of the Month: “Immigrant Winter Ice Wine!”

Papa always told a great story about one of his family chores- tending to the batches of wine they used to make out on the metal fire escapes of their apartment in the Bronx, New York.(During prohibition, the wine was made in the apartment building basements which required a descent down many, many flights of stairs.) Once Grandma or one of the Uncles had made a batch of homemade wine from crushed grapes, sugar, extra yeast and water, it was placed in large glass jugs and had to be stirred often to prevent the ingredients from settling at the bottom.

Papa’s job was to take a long handled spoon or stick and stir the mix 20 times. He was to do this every day. In the winter, it was also his job to bring the wine in on very cold days, so that it would not freeze and ruin the brew.

Papa said that one very cold day, an extra large batch of wine was ready to go, having fermented for the proper amount of time. Papa gave it one last mix, but in his haste forgot to bring the batch inside. Early the next morning he remembered and woke up in a panic, rushing to the balcony, expecting to see the wine frozen solid and ruined. Upon inspection he realized that 2/3 of the jug was frozen and 1/3 was a dark, deep, syrupy liquid. He poured the liquid into the glass and tasted it. It was the sweetest, most potent, wonderful wine he had ever had! Only the water had frozen, and what was left was all the color, flavor, sugar… and alcohol.

At first the family was furious – Papa had ruined an entire month’s worth of wine! But then he convinced them to to taste it – and a new family tradition was born. Every cold snap from that point on, they would remind Papa to bring in the drinking jugs. But they always made a small, separate batch and left it on the balcony to freeze.

Even as an adult Papa continued making his own winter ice wine, in the smallest of batches, as a special treat. He wouldn’t start from scratch, but instead would buy a jug of inexpensive wine ( usually Ernest and Julio Gallo Lambrusco), and when it was about 1/2 empty he would set it out on the front stoop to freeze. In the morning, he would break a hole in the center of the ice with a meat skewer or ice pick, and pour the luscious nectar through the hole into a smaller bottle. When he moved to Florida he would pour wine into old yogurt cups and freeze them, achieving the same effect but in smaller quantities. He would pour the liquid into small apertif glasses and enjoy the results – a few sips of nectar and nostalgia, that took him right back to winter in the Bronx and that fire escape wine.

  1. Fiat- www.goodcarbadcar.net/2013/10/usa-car-sales-rankings-by-model-september-2013-ytd.html
  2. Cohen, Robin (1995). The Cambridge Survey of World Migration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 143. ISBN 9780521444057.
  3. “15° Censimento generale della popolazione e delle abitazioni” (in Italian). ISTAT. 27 April 2012.
  4. Steerage Conditions – A Report of the Immigration Commission – 1911 http://www.gjenvick.com/Steerage/1911-SteerageConditions-ImmigrationCommission.html#ixzz2ueZ9dVgV
  5. Glazier, Ira (February 1993). “Review of: The National Integration of Italian Return Migration: 1870-1929” by Dino Cinel, New York Cambridge U. Press, 1991”. The American Historical Review 98 (1): 198–199. ISSN 0002-8762

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Leah
    Jul 21, 2014 @ 01:20:59

    Hey Danielle! It’s Leah from the plane. Really excited to read your first non-fiction novel! Was wondering if you could send me and my aunt copies. We plan on cooking the recipe on your page, and reading it as we go! Can’t wait. If you could shoot me an email that would be fantastic. Hope your enjoying the wedding, get back to me once you have a chance. =]


    • papasitaly
      Aug 02, 2014 @ 16:39:27

      Hey Leah! So great to hear from you – will definitely send on the books and cant wait to hear how the recipe turns out! Each blog post has one – let me know if you and the family have any favorites, I’m writing part two of the “Be Italian” post and would love to add any you think would make people drool :). Just finished listening to your beautiful original piano piece, “We Are All Together” at your stubbornmeatball page on soundcloud.com. Moves me every time. Thank you for sharing your beautiful gifts!


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