School: a century of lagging behind
A school in Africo, on the Aspromonte, photographed by Tino Petrelli in 1948. Illiteracy finally dropped below 15 percent, but progress was very far behind the more developed countries.
At the outbreak of World War I, a century after primary education had become compulsory in Scandinavian countries, half of Italians still did not know how to read and write.
The 1950s: still great pockets of misery
The poet Alessio di Giovanni dedicated a series of poignant and compassionate verses to the "carusi" (child slaves):
“…They descend, naked, amidst the filth
falling to the bottom of the sulphur slopes;
and as they approach the grinding machines,
they set to prayer: Jesus, have pity!…
But after, having been under that infernal confusion,
they shout, blaspheming like dogs,
that even ‘that Christ’ has abandoned them …”.
“I greet you on behalf of my 8000 citizens, 3000 of whom have emigrated to America, and 5000 are preparing to follow them". It was with such bitter sarcasm that the Mayor of Moliterno welcomed President Giuseppe Zanardelli, visiting the Lucania provinces in the early 20th century.
In the decade 1901-1910 the number of people (per 1000 inhabitants) who emigrated were as follows: 33.7 from Abruzzo and Molise, 31.6 from Calabria, 29.7 from Lucania, 29.5 from Veneto and Friuli, 21.6 from Campania, 21.5 from Sicily and 20.6 from Marche.
Emigration from the South itself was analogous to a “haemorrhage” (it was spoken of in terms of "the blood of the emigrants), an undeniable “emptying” of the countryside, villages and cities. The spread of emigration «fever» was driven by low wages, hunger, agrarian crisis, recurring disasters (earthquakes, floods and famine), the desire to become smallholders and to put an end to age-old oppression.
Christopher Columbus, what have you done? You have ruined the best of youth. And I who have crossed the sea/ on the black wood of this ship. America is awash with money and is full of cannons and balls, and the wives of the Americans / weep bitterly for being left alone…
On 25 December 1908 l’ the “Avanti!” newspaper published this song, as heard from Calabrian peasants of the time. Columbus was vilified as the cause of emigration, of the ruin of the old world, of dispersion and perdition. The cause of weeping and abandonment, the loneliness of wives, mothers and sisters, the erosion of family and the dying off of traditional values. Between 1876 and 1900, almost 300,000 Calabrians – a quarter of the entire region’s population – directly undertook voyages, either provisional or definitive. For many emigrants setting off – and for family members left behind, who would have access to new foods – America became a kind of Mardi Gras, a land of milk and honey. Within a few years, the "Americans" changed the old face of the villages and countryside, buying land, building new homes, starting businesses, expressing a new mentality and new social relations.
Nardodipace is not just a place: it is a myriad of villages, microcosms, little worlds left to their fate, a myriad of little worlds born elsewhere, away from Calabria. A symbolic village. Whose history encompasses that of so many others. Nardodipace reveals, in the corners of her ancient and postmodern houses, her narrow alleyways and her deserted squares, a thousand stories of floods and abandonment, reconstruction and flight, slowness and mad dashes, expectations and disappointments, escapes and returns, hopes and disenchantment.
A municipality created to aggregate multiple hamlets met a crushing and coruscating destiny. Many families left for Venezuela, Australia, Canada and the cities of Northern Italy.
The 1961 census recorded 2,729 inhabitants and in 2001 only 1,387. The old village had 108 people and the Ragonà locality 179. In late 1972 and early 1973 yet more devastating floods occurred. And again the pattern of evacuations and relocations.
Prisoners of poverty and ignorance, our forefathers often discovered far-off distant places thanks to the magical images of the “Mondo nuovo”, an optical device (translator’s note: literally “new world” but known as a zograscope in English) that was a sort of forerunner of the cinema. Goldoni in his eponymous comedy described it as “an industrious machine that shows many marvels to the eye; and, by virtue of the optical glasses, even the flies seem like horses.”.
It was also in those fantastical voyages that the sellers of dreams found fertile terrain: from the “new world” to the New World continent.
Upon boarding, the ships often turned out to be very different from what was promised. An emigrant who departed Genoa in 1887 on the steamship “Mexico”explained to the «Voce Cattolica» newspaper of Trento:
“That cargo ship had been used to bring coal from America. The sailors considered we emigrants to be of such little consequence that they did not even take the trouble to clean it. On first entering it, we found it so disgusting it turned our stomachs. Many of us stood up and railed against the agent who simply forced us back into the midst of all that filth”.
There were many who opted for France, Switzerland or other old Europe countries instead of the New World.
Others still preferred to leave for the Americas from foreign ports.
IThe voyage in any case was a Calvary:
“wrote Regina Favetti from America to her sister Clotilde in a letter later published in “Il salto nel fosso” (A jump in the ditch), by Rudy J. Favrett.” The year was 1898. Half a century later, in the 1950s and 1960s, travelling on the "treni dal sole” (emigrant trains from the South), as we know, wouldn't be much different.
…Packed in like beasts
on the freezing prow buffeted by the winds,
they migrate to wild and distant lands;
ragged and emaciated,
they cross the seas in search of bread…
(Edmondo De Amicis, The Emigrants.)
The gap between the ticket classes was huge. The emigrants were merely “human tonnage”. It took a law to force the ships to provide dining areas for them. Until then,
as Oreste Grossie Gianfranco Rosoli explains in “Il pane duro” (Hard bread),"the state of the distributed food was a humiliation and without the minimum observance of the principles of hygiene". The doctor Colonel Teodorico Rosati wrote: "Squatting on the deck and on the stairs, with the plates between their legs and a piece of bread between their feet, our emigrants eat like the wretched poor at the convent gates. In terms of morale it is depressing and in terms of hygiene very dangerous, because we can all imagine a steamship deck, tossed by the sea and strewn with all manner of intentional and intentional refuse of that travelling population".
Loaded to capacity with “human tonnage” and often utterly ramshackle old relics, the emigrant ships were exposed to epidemics that could be devastating. According to Nicola Malnate, an inspector at the port of Genoa, our forefathers were sometimes transported on the same vessels that had been slave ships, “with a speed of 8 knots and less than 2 metres of air for every emigrant.
The ocean was a nightmarish experience for those who had never seen it. Especially as the sanctuaries were full of votive offerings with ships at the mercy of the storms. Those who had already reached the Americas sent letters, like the one from Veneto citizen Francesco Costantin and unearthed by Emilio Franzina:
“I cannot find the words to fully describe the turmoil on the steamer, the tears, the rosaries and profanities of those who undertook the journey involuntarily, amidst high storms. The fearsome waves rise toward the sky, and then form abyssal valleys; the steamer is assailed from stem to stern, and battered on the flanks.”.
After the endless and often tragic voyages to the country where they would seek their fortune, the first reaction was often heart-sinking disappointment. And the image of the Corcovado in Rio de Janeiro, the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Darling Harbor in Sydney would remain forever in the memory of our emigrants. However, nothing could ever have matched the siren charm emanating from the Statue of Liberty at the gateway to New York. It was the very symbol of the dreamed-of paradise. It was as if all newcomers, even the illiterate, knew Emma Lazarus’ verses engraved on the base of the statue:
“Give me your tired, your poor
huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
“Wop” was one of the most common and offensive nicknames for Italians in the United States. The sound is similar to the pronunciation of “guappo”, a word from Neapolitan dialect signifying the historical dandy-like Camorra gangster. It was also the acronym for WithOutPassport.
A condition common to many, even in America. Gang boss Albert Anastasia said that in just a few years, the Mafia managed to smuggle 60,000 immigrants into New York, despite the Ellis Island checkpoint.
Over a century, the number of Italian expatriates without a passport would surpass four million.
The emigrants’ official entry into the dream country was always a tough hurdle (for illegal immigrants it was something else altogether), both in Europe and in the Americas or Australia. The Ellis Island filter was particularly severe; everyone went through the sieve with health checks, aptitude tests and criteria so rigid they were often demeaning and humiliating. More so since there was much prejudice against our country, undermined as it was, by cholera, pellagra, gastroenteritis, tuberculosis or trachoma. An article by Regina Armstrong (“Alarming Facts About Our Poor Italian Immigrants”, in «Leslie’s Illustrated» 1901) reported: “There are a great deal of organic diseases in Italy and many people with disfigurements, many lame and blind people, many with diseased eyes. These children, before they are old enough to barter their afflictions, were displayed by their parents or relatives to arouse pity in passers-by and attract alms”.
The photo opposite, taken by Jacobs Riis in Little Italy in 1898, shows a group of Italians crammed into a room in Bayard Street. In his book, How the Other Half Lives, Riis wrote: “In just one tenement block, which had a total of 132 rooms, there were 1,324 Italians, mostly men; Sicilian workers who slept in bunks with more than ten people per room.”. He explained: “the police despatches, which record the killing of men and women by rolling off roofs and window-sills while asleep, announce that the time of greatest suffering among the poor is at hand. It is in hot weather, when life indoors is well-nigh unbearable with cooking, sleeping, and working, all crowded into the small rooms together, that the tenement expands, reckless of all restraint.
Then a strange and picturesque life moves upon the flat roofs. (…)
In the stifling July nights, when the big barracks are like fiery furnaces (...) every truck in the street, every crowded fire escape, becomes a bedroom, infinitely preferable to any the house affords. (...) Life in the tenements in July and August spells death to an army of little ones whom the doctor’s skill is powerless to save”.
“How bitter this bread is”, reads a verse of the song “Lacreme napulitane” (Neapolitan Tears). And it really was bitter, that bread earned so far from home by our forefathers. And to get it they had to be prepared, at least initially, to do anything at all. The most exhausting, the most humble and the most dangerous jobs.
And sometimes those that weren’t entirely legal. We have even built railways in Persia along the ancient Silk Road. Wandered the fairs of Europe with the “bear men”, the “monkey men” and the orchestra men.
All-too-long the victims of xenophobic malice, from Australia (where newspapers screamed ''invasion of the olive-skins” in 1925) to England (where the Italian district was given the name “Abyssinia”), Italians were the subject of a multitude of discriminatory cartoons and insulting nicknames.
BABIS: toads (France)
BAT: pipistrelle (US: if bats were bird-mice, Italians were white-skinned blacks)
CARCAMANO: swindler who would lean his hand on the scales (in Brazil)
CINCALI: ‘cinqualioli’ i.e. morra players (Switzerland and Germany)
DAGO: from "dagger", or possibly "dey go" or Diego, a typically Latin name (USA and Australia).
GUINEA: negro (United States). Derives from Guinea negro.
MACARONI: or SPAGHETTI: worldwide
PAPOLITANO: cross between pimp and napoletano (Argentina)
Too many tragedies, too many fatal accidents
The history of our emigration has been marked by episodes of mass loss of life. Sometime these were the result of natural disasters, but often it was deplorable human error if not heinous intent. Like the massacre of workers in New York on 25 March 1911, when a fire ripped through the upper floors of a building that housed a shirt factory. Inside, 500 women worked in appalling conditions, with the doors barred from the outside. When the fire broke out, they were trapped. The fire escapes collapsed under the weight and the poor souls began throwing themselves to the ground.
“Someone thought of placing nets to catch the bodies falling from above,”, wrote the “Daily Telegraph”, “but these were soon torn by the violent force of these macabre projectiles”.
The final death toll was 146. At least 39 of them were Italian. According to many, the tragedy gave rise to the idea of International Women's Day.
The “tragic inevitability” of Marcinelle
A cart was derailed and crashed into high-voltage electric cabling, left exposed without protection: the tragedy of Marcinelle was also caused by carelessness and lack of safeguards for workers. It was August 8, 1956. The fire provoked by the short-circuit caused the deaths 262 people, 136 of whom were Italians. The eldest was 53 years old, the youngest 14. Marcinelle was but one of the disasters that struck our community in Belgium: from 1946 to 1963, in fact, as many as 867 Italians died in the mines.
The burden of the past
“America has become the promised land of Italian hoodlums!”, thundered Police Chief Theodore Bingham in the New York of the early twentieth century. “The trouble is you can't find a single honest one”, sneered Richard Nixon in 1973. Thinly veiled racism. But, wrote Gay Telese, it is undeniable that among the 27 million respectable people we have exported, especially to the USA, there have been a number of criminals, who found in the Mafia a short-cut to the American dream. And the names Al Capone, Frank Costello Lucky Luciano sometimes managed to overshadow those of the decent people who toiled for a living. This is a burden we carry. The legacy of a past so violent that in 1903 the murder rate in the peninsula was 6 or 7 times higher than in the major European countries. In 1967 the Justice Committee reported US 24 "criminal cartels" whose members "were exclusively of Italian origin".
The most lynched group after black people
Anti-Italian xenophobia has erupted in various places and ended in bloodythirsty manhunts. But the toll has been highest in the United States: there, along with the Chinese, we have been the most lynched people after the blacks. So many of our emigrants were killed and humiliated by ridiculous remunerations that a newspaper published a nasty vignette in which the Secretary of State said: "These Italians cost so little it’s worth lynching them all.” Any occasion was a good one: in 1891 in New Orleans 11 Italians were slaughtered by 20,000 protesters who had stormed the prison, declaring them guilty of a murder of which they had actually been acquitted.
Kalgoorlie – beer and blood
It was Australian Day of 1934. Gold miners who worked in the gold mines of Kalgoorlie, 500 kilometres from Perth, had been drinking heavily. All it took was a spark – a trivial quarrel that got out of hand, escalated and ended in tragedy; the Anglo-Saxons went on the rampage, causing three days of devastation. They burnt and destroyed everything that was Italian or belonged to the Slavs, who were considered the “partners of Italians.”. Three people died and dozens were wounded. The damage was incalculable.
Italy has given to its host countries millions of amazing workers and also some major civic figures. People such as Filippo Mazzei (one of the fathers of the United States Declaration of Independence), Fiorello La Guardia (the best-loved mayor of New York), the painter Paul Cézanne, the Australian writer Raffaello Carboni, creator of the Argentine flag Manuel Belgrano, inventor of the telephone Antonio Meucci, inventor of the microprocessor Federico Faggin, novelist Emile Zola, statesman Léon Gambetta (who reinvigorated France after the defeat at Sedan), artist Jack Vetriano and father of the western genre Charles Angelo Siringo.
Women, despite being at the heart of many extraordinary events, have often chosen to remain on the sidelines in the history of emigration. There were many, however, who did establish themselves. To name a few: Maria Rosa Segale, known as Sister Blandina, a formidable figure in the conquest of the West. Tina Modotti, photographer and leading intellectual and activist of her time. Mother Frances Cabrini, the first “American”. saint. And Rita Levi Montalcini, who became a scientist of world renown. Going on to win the Nobel Prize for medicine. She returned to Italy later in her career.
Astride an ostrich, at the controls of a cardboard aeroplane, at the wheel of a pretend car, in a reconstruction of an Old West saloon with a life-size doll, on studio bicycles or with an Apache wig and dagger. These strange posed pictures were an index of success and were often made in professional, well-equipped studios with the oddest and most eccentric backdrops. The whole family would even have a complete wardrobe, supplied by the artist, to ensure that they were immortalised with the utmost elegance. The message sent back to relatives in the old country, in Calabria or Friuli or Tuscany or Basilicata, was this: I have arrived; I have become a gentleman. They are photos of tenderness, simplicity and beauty. Where, after so much effort and so many tears – an explosion of joy: finally, things turned out well.
(…) I'm lean as a nail and blond
as an mature ear of corn swaying in the Sun:
Every day and more!
Though the tropical sun has given my skin
a slight bronze-yellow colour that contrasts
with the blue of my enquiring eyes.
And I have lost a tooth. (…)
The next time I write to you
I’ll send a photo of myself,
vyou'll see what a handsome man I am!
At least if you have any taste…!
from a letter by Silvio Alto da Serra, San Paolo, Brazil 1926
(Paolo Cresci Foundation archive, Lucca)
Thanks to the generosity of the Istituto Luce (www.archivioluce.com), La Nave della Sila has the privilege of using the Luce reserved space inside the first smokestack to exhibit a large part of the footage on Italian emigration. These stories of migration to America and Australia are both collective and personal in nature. For example, a young boy's departure for Argentina or the story of Filippo Gagliardi, a Campanian who made his fortune in Venezuela and bestowed upon his village, Montesano, so many things: the aqueduct, 105 houses for poor families, the Capuchin Convent, the Carabinieri barracks, a nursery school and finally the new cathedral.
It was virtually impossible to recreate a third class cabin; those dormitories were just too big to set up in the Nave della Sila. But the central smokestack houses some elements of what those rooms were. The iron bunk beds with the occupant's number, the shabby personal baggage piled up on one side, the dark, the noise of the engine, the sense of oppression ... Just enough to convey how hard it was to travel in those conditions. Edmondo De Amicis wrote:
“The Commissioner, who went down often to the dormitories, furnished descriptions that would break your heart and assail your stomach. He saw there under a tangled mass of human bodies, one above and through the other, with backs against breasts, feet upon faces and skirts to the air; entanglements of legs, arms, heads with loose hair, creeping, rolling on the filthy plank tables; a blighted atmosphere, where from every corner came the sound of weeping, whimpering, invocations of the Saints and cries of despair.
The third smokestack of the Nave della Sila hosts the richest collection of songs related to Italian emigration. Visitors are free to listen to any selection of them. Old album recordings on 78s miraculously recovered and "pop songs" presented at Sanremo, such as the splendid "Ciao amore" by Luigi Tenco, popular tunes known by all, like "Mamma mia dammi cento lire" (Mamma, give me a hundred lire) and now forgotten minor masterpieces like "Chiantu de l 'emigranti. " It even boasts truly rare gems like "1913 Massacre", sung by Woody Guthrie and recounting the tragedy of those who perished at the Italian Hall in Calumet, which describe on page 62. A beautiful soundtrack, composed by Gualtiero Bertelli. Together with his Compagnia delle Acque, he recorded dozens of songs of the Great Exodus and managed to recover missing songs like the haunting melody for "I cinque poveri martiri di Tallulah" (The five poor martyrs of Tallulah).
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