MAMMA’S DIARY – DIARIO DI MAMMA
It’s not what you think. This is not a political story, nor is this the story of a child of the DREAM Act frightened about today’s United States. Actually, this story should inspire anyone of any group – both Democrats and Republicans – who reads it. It is a reminder for me of whence I came. This is my favorite story of the American dream, the one about my peasant people and how they got here and how I came to be an American, born and raised. It’s how I’m choosing to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Once upon a time in a land shaped like a boot, far, far away from my beloved New Jersey, there lived my ancestors on both sides of the family. We come from the island of Ischia, a province of Naples in Italy. While the two families were friends back in the old neighborhood, they couldn’t have imagined that two of their children would meet and marry years later and make them all family. But before any of that could happen, there would be great suffering, the kind that changes the course of history and the lives of individuals. Fascism rose in Europe and around the world. World War II happened. And my people were hungry, literally hungry, for a better life that included steady work and food on the table. They scattered. Some people went to Argentina, others to Canada. Some went to France, others to Algeria. Some went as far as Australia, others went to the United States of America.
My maternal grandfather Rocco Di Costanzo went to France first. But America e’ sempre America, America is always America. And he wanted a slice of that good life he had been hearing so much about. His mother wrote a note to Giovanni Luciano, my maternal grandmother’s father, asking if would be willing to marry off one of his daughters to her youngest son, so he could get a green card and work in the U.S. Luciano had moved to the United States from Ischia years earlier and indeed his wife was a U.S. citizen and his children were all American born. One of his daughters was already pretty much taken, and the other – my grandmother Concetta – was deep into a crush but still very much single. So, my great-grandfather packed up my grandmother, who was 19 at the time, and headed home to Ischia. My grandmother will tell you with tears in her eyes – tears for all she lost and all she gained on that trip – how she sat at a table with my grandfather’s entire family. My grandfather’s mother turned to her and said, “Well, are you going to marry my son or not?” At 19, she looked around and saw no allies, not even her own father. She didn’t want this. But she says she was too embarrassed to say no, so she said yes.
Within a week, she was walking through the streets of Ischia with all her long-lost relatives and their neighbors throwing confetti at her feet and a string of children – some as young as 3 – sitting on the altar. We’re pretty sure my father – who would eventually marry their daughter – was among the kids as his in-laws, who barely knew each other, wed. While marrying an American is still a legal gateway into the nation, there are conditions. To begin, as it was then and now, couples must prove their union is for real, to create a life together and not just to get a visa. The system tries to root out sham marriages.
This was a sham if ever there was one. My grandmother felt forced into the union, and my grandfather, just barely 20, continued to write to his beloved in Italy and even promised he’d eventually go back to her. My grandparents didn’t even honeymoon together. My grandmother, her father, and another woman who married someone from Ischia went to Venice together. And my grandfather had to go spend some significant time in Canada before he could enter the United States with papers. Proving your marriage is real is something with which I’m familiar because I went through it with my husband. It took two years, and we needed to show shared bills, joint tax returns, family photos of our extended families together, our son’s birth certificate, and get grilled in interviews with immigration agents. Twice my husband was put in immigration jail at the airport (it’s a real thing), and ours was a union built on love. We had two friggin’ weddings for goodness sake. Who would pay that kind of money for a fake marriage? Things weren’t as strict back in my grandparent’s day, pre 9-11, but you still weren’t supposed to marry for citizenship. But I digress.
Of course, my grandparents never did part ways. They were married for nearly 60 years and had six kids before my grandfather passed away in 2015. Love certainly grew. My grandfather lost touch with his beloved in Italy long, long ago. In the technical sense, they might have been considered illegals. If that’s not illegal enough to satisfy you based on what I promised in the headline, then look at my father’s side of the family. They fit the bill. We were WOPs, without papers. My Zio Michele, my father’s oldest brother and classmate to my maternal grandfather, was 18 years older than my father and grew disgusted with work in Ischia.
The family had been selling wine to distributors when, in the night, someone stole the barrel and dumped half of it on the ground. It takes a year to make a barrel of wine. That meant that a year’s worth of work was now worthless. My grandfather cursed those who did it, and indeed they ended up dying ugly deaths. (I’m not supporting this, but man that evil eye seems to work, so be warned.) And Zio Michele had had enough. My grandfather gave him his blessing and found him a spot as a stowaway on a ship headed to the United States. Ironically, he was with a cousin of my mother’s and they hid in a closet. An ally keeping their secret would bring them food.
Toward the end of the trip, someone found silverware that fell through a vent near where they had been hiding. They were swiftly put into a jail. Shady police officers (sorry, but it’s true) ushered them out of the jail, hid them under blankets on the floor of a car as they left the parking lot, and delivered them to relatives already in the United States. My maternal great grandfather wouldn’t help his cousin. He feared for his own American citizenship, so he sent him back to Ischia. Zio Michele, however, had uncles in New York, who hid him on a farm. For a year, he tended to the farm and mostly stayed in a loft bedroom. He kept a ladder that could be thrown out the window near his bed, so he could run from the authorities if anyone came looking to deport him.
After a year, friends from Ischia, who were living in New Jersey, dressed him like an American soldier, brought him to church, and told him to pick a wife among the parishioners. He chose my aunt, an Italian American, whose family came from Calabria but who was born in the United States. At first, she turned him down. She assumed he had another family in Italy and this was all a ploy. But my uncle was persistent, and she changed her mind. Indeed, marriage would also make him legal. They were married more than 50 years and had four children together. Again, whether it started as a sham or not, it was real in the end. In 1960, 10 years after becoming legal, Zio Michele brought my paternal grandparents, two of my aunts, and my father, who was 13 at the time, to the United States.
The rest of us – we owe our lives, our Americanness – to my grandparents and uncle. Without their willingness to sacrifice everything and take on the fear of the unknown, we would not even exist, let alone have the chance to thrive. It’s humbles me every time I think about it.
My father, his sisters, and grandparents had tickets to American and even made friends on board the ship that brought them over. They watched movies and speculated about what their new life would be like. They had more hope than those who came before them. In many ways, my father would become the most American of the bunch. He was the only one to go to school in the United States, and he graduated from a New Jersey high school. He is the only one who married an American – my mom, whose family comes from Ischia but who had been born, raised, and educated in the United States. Yet, in many ways, he was also the one who stayed the most Italian. He travels back to Italy often, maintains all the traditions (winemaking, building a large presepio or nativity scene every Christmas, speaking the dialect of his hometown), and still keeps in touch with friends and family in the Old Country. And I, his daughter, married a native of Ischia, which keeps us all the more connected. Perhaps, it was because as the baby of the family, he was protected from the hard times, the suffering, the famine. He was born after World War II. Perhaps, it was because in Italy he had a sacred childhood filled with playing soccer in the piazza and getting comforted by his mother. He often says he has only love for Italy.
Still, America is always America. My father credits the country with educating him and allowing him to build a business and have a family with some financial security, something he realizes was not quite possible – or at least not in the same way – in Ischia. Now, the United States, of course, is home. That’s something for which to be more than thankful. God bless America!
Di Meglio has written the Our Paesani column for ItaliansRus.com since 2003. You can follow the Italian Mamma on Facebook or Twitter @ItalianMamma10. For more handmade crafts and party gear, visit the Italian Mamma store on Etsy.