Friday, June 19, 2009

My Kind of Town, Grassano is....

Both sets of my grandparents came from a small town in southern Italy called Grassano, which lies in the region of Basilicata in the province of Matera. In the year 968, the area that is now Grassano was part of the Byzantine Empire. During this period it was under Arabic control until the second half of the Tenth Century, and then, in 1048, became a Norman fortified town. In the fiftheenth century a Jewish community arose. The first documents showing the town name of Grassano were dated 1123. At this time, Grassano was a kind of suburb of the town of Tricarico. The inhabitants, called "Grassanesis", never loved this dependence, so they asked Ladislas the Magnanimous (King of Naples) for their independence. Grassano was declared an independent village on January 19, 1414. The town remains small to this day with a population of 5,792. Grassano's Patron Saint is Sant'Innocenzo, which I always understood to be the rough Italian equivalent of my name, James.

Like so many Italians, my grandparents sailed from the port of Naples between 1908 and 1912 and passed through the gates of Ellis Island in New York harbor. If your ancestors entered America the same way, you should visit Ellis Island; I promise you it will be worth your time. Also, their website contains valuable records and search tools for tracing your family's arrival. Ellis Island - FREE Port of New York Passenger Records Search On our last visit we saw a moving film on what the immigrant experience was like. While walking around, we wandered into a room that displayed posters of some of the great ships that travelled in and out of Ellis Island. One poster stopped me in my was an image of the ship "Brasille", (see photo left) the very same boat that brought my grandparents to America! I felt chills all over, as if Grandpa and Grandma were sending me a little message from beyond. I am so proud of my grandparents for having the courage to leave behind all that was familiar to them, and trying to create a better future for their families.

When immigrants like my grandparents arrived in this country, they weren't exactly welcomed with open arms. They banded together in small Italian-American enclaves in all the boroughs of New York city. The neighborhood parish was the center of their social life, and many magnificent churches were actually built by Italian men who possessed the skills of stone masons and brick layers learned in "the old country". Early Italian immigrants had one goal when they arrived in America: to assimilate. They adopted their new homeland passionately (the way Italians do most things). They strove to "blend in" not wanting their children to endure the treatment they suffered as "foreigners" in a new land. As we look back, we see how well they succeeded. While traces of prejudice toward Italian-Americans still linger, clearly we have made our mark on this country. We can point with pride to the children of immigrants who now occupy the highest places in medicine, government, education, science and the arts, but a price was paid for those gains.

In many Italian-American homes like mine, the Italian language was not spoken. Children were encouraged to speak English. The only time Italian was spoken was when the communication was not for our ears. My father's mother lived with us. She spoke no English, but we conversed in a fractured combination of English and Italian. I regret that Italian was not spoken in our home. Young children have an affinity for language, and it's much easier to learn as a youngster rather than as an adult. I studied Italian for three years in college, but it was taught in that painfully stilted way that focused on grammar rather than just conversation, and I remember virtually none of it today. This suppression of our Italian culture was not done maliciously, but was a sad side effect of the zeal with which Italian-Americans embraced their new homeland.

I am proud to be an Italian-American. As I grow older, I think I feel the tug of the old country more than ever. I want to stand on the soil of the country my grandparents left so many years ago. I want to breathe the air they breathed, to see the faces of the people. We are traveling to Italy for the first time this October, and I am very excited to be making the trip. All of us whose families immigrated from Italy should do what we can to reconnect to our roots, and encourage our children to do so. I recently joined an organization called the "Center for Italian-American Culture, Inc." based in New Jersey. I believe in their goals and their mission to celebrate the Italian-American culture. If you're interested, check out their website at or call them at (973) 571-1995 for membership information. Evviva Italia! (It means Long live Italy...I looked it up.)


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The Whiner said...

Oh I am so glad you are encouraging me to re-connect to my roots, because I just booked myself a ticket on your tour. Just told them to add everything to your credit card, you wouldn't mind a bit. And I knew you wouldn't want to pay for extra rooms, so I am sharing with you and Mom. No no, I won't hear of paying my own way and going on my own trip...this is family after all!

joe del broccolo said...

Really wonderful blog! I went to Italy twice, and loved every moment I was there! After my initial visit, I remember dreaming I was still in Italy, and when I woke, I was very sad. It will take you away with the culture, sophistication, the charm of the people and the beauty they create in music, art and the culinary world. I fully understand your feelings about the language inthis country. Whenwe meet, we should cover that.
Thanks for a little pride in my ancestry, pisano!
Joe Del

Jim Pantaleno said...

Laura: Ask your mother.

Joe: Thanks for the kind words. I'll add Italy to the list of things to talk about at dinner. Will call you next week for the name of the restaurant. See you on July 8.