By Dondiego Nunziata
I’ve begun my discussion on my blog focusing on the history that led up to the mass exodus of Napolitans and Sicilians, from their homelands, to the four corners of the globe over a hundred years ago. Many of us who read these histories do so in a language different from that of our ancestors, who last laid eyes on our beautiful motherland. Forced to flee by the advances of an invading army; forced to flee from the repression cast down upon them from a foreign legion; forced to flee the rape, murder and thievery of their culture, and of everything they held dear –- our ancestors faced an even more daunting challenge once their decision to leave their fallen Kingdom became the reality of their new lives. Here’s one experience, of the millions of exiled Napolitans and Sicilians, once they arrived on the shores of their new countries, many of which were just as unfriendly as the homeland they left behind.
As a schoolteacher by trade, I get to witness first hand the trials and tribulations of the teenage set. Thirteen-year-old girls and boys, easily molded by their early experiences, come in and out of my life each year, and I know that what they experience and learn during this crucial time in their lives has an impact that exceeds no other. The trials these children face, however – even the worst and most heartbreaking ones – pale in comparison to what young Carmela had to endure as she journeyed to America and beyond.
It began by saying goodbye, to her entire family, in the tiny Lucanian village of San Fele…
“No stone should remain standing,” was the Piedmontese order given at Pontelandofo. The town’s most beautiful woman – or at least whom we think was the most beautiful woman, because all of the invading Piedmontese took their turn with her – Maria Izzo, was tied to a tree naked, her legs raised in the air, and repeatedly raped until the last soldier finished with her. That soldier then forced his bayonet into her belly, leaving her to bleed out. We can now see why it was of the utmost importance for Francesco, our last King’s namesake, to get his family out of Lucania. Even though the massacres at Casalundi and Pontelandofo occurred thirty years prior, the prevailing attitude and oppression remained – and still remains today throughout the South.
According to Francesco’s death certificate, once he arrived, this once proud medical doctor from San Fele, was only able to secure himself a job as a veterinarian in New York City. Most likely, his language and status as an immigrant prevented him from obtaining a medical license in New York at the time. But before succumbing to heart disease in 1905, Francesco managed to become the catalyst in an extremely heart-breaking, but unfortunately all-to-common, narrative — the narrative many Napolitans and Sicilians shared once they arrived here in the “land of the free”…
Carmela though, was a fourteen-year-old girl. And for those who have not had the pleasure, fourteen-year-olds are not the most easily convinced once they get their heads wrapped around an idea. I have a daughter of my own, and everyday I fear the future, that one day she will be fourteen. One day she will think she knows best, and I will know I’m done for. That day came for Francesco when his daughter Carmela refused to take work in the bustling city of Manhattan in August of 1896. To Francesco, he had no choice.
It may seem cold and calculated, but knowing what I know of Napolitans, it was necessary. Francesco gave his youngest daughter a choice: work and help support the family and herself, or go. Carmela refused to work. Perhaps it was the two weeks she spent in Manhattan with her fellow San Felese emigres. Perhaps it was the false freedom that America promised, and still promises its people, new and old alike, today. But something told Carmela to refuse her father’s demands to work and earn, and instead make a demand of her own, a demand to learn and go to school.
She perhaps had read about the work of brave women like Susan B. Anthony, and realized that for her future she needed to learn. She already knew how to read and write Lucanian, but here in America, that wouldn’t get her far past Mulberry St. She wanted to learn English and go to school. Instead of dropping her off at school, though, her father dropped her off at an orphanage for young girls in Rockaway, Queens. Today, only St. John’s Home for Boys remains near the beaches off the Atlantic, but at the turn of the century orphanages and alms houses were a necessary part of New York and American Society, and the Rockaways housed many. Like many immigrants to this new land, Francesco had to make a heart-breaking decision: keep his daughter and risk starvation, or give her up, and know she’ll be fed and educated and perhaps have a chance at a better life. In reality, he had no choice. He had to say goodbye to his little star.
After this latest exile, she cut off all ties to her family, and took to heart the message given to her from the Protestant Orphanage where she lived until she turned eighteen. However, in doing so, she lost a connection to her homeland, her Catholicism, and her parents. Even though a reunion did take place with her mother after her father’s death, things were never quite the same and the distance was clear even to Carmela’s children.
Her star may not have been realized in a very public life, but she managed to raise seven successful children. Two became veterans of the Second World War, serving the United States honorably in Europe, helping to defeat the Nazis and free Western Europe. One son went on to become a Medical Doctor, fulfilling the intellectual promise first set forth by her father, and another became a New York City Police Officer who served his home community of Coney Island for almost fifty years.
Dondiego Nunziata is a fourth generation Neapolitan-American living in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and two children. The focus of his blog, Where Have You Gone Joe DiMaggio?, is to highlight the forgotten culture of so many Neapolitan-American and Sicilian-American families who mistakenly identify themselves as “Italian” and to begin a journey to regain self-determination for a region of Europe that for all but the last 150 years was one of the most successful and productive in human history.