Day With Antonia Sparano Geiser
Interview with Italian American“Second Generation Migrant writer”
By: Michela Valmori Antonia Sparano was born in the United States in Kingston, New York, however her mother, Maria Marzia Maiello was born in Italy, in 1920. She was raised in the small Italian town of San Nicola La Strada, 20 miles north from Naples. At the age of ten Maria fled her native Italy, with her mother, Vincenza and brothers, Francesco and Domenico to spare, as she said, her kids from the “rising tide of fascism” in 1930. They left everything and everyone they had behind, to find freedom, work and eventual comfort in the United States. Those were the Great Depression years in America. They reunited with Maria’s father who had already made the move almost eleven years before. Here started the story of her family migration… A story that was common to more than 4,000,000 Italians who left their country for the “promised land” between 1880 and 1924 in search of a new life and new opportunities. Some of them worked hard and reached their goal, some just tried but soon got disillusioned and went back to Italy, some others unfortunately managed to bring to the USA the worst we had in Italy, and that’s how they made fortune. As a matter of facts, around Italian immigration and the figure of the Italian immigrant we find the rise of common places and stereotypes that as it always happens, tended to generalize concepts, but, if on one hand the concepts to oversimplify were funny and innocent ones, like saying that all Italians drink Espresso and eat pizza, others were likely to depict the worst side of the Italians, inexorably linking the image of Italy to the idea of mafia, criminality and fascism. The label that was soon generated has been worn for long time, and made Italians feel different and “unrelated” to the surrounding universe. All immigrants had to face the experience of feeling suspended between two worlds, being at a certain point too far from the their own country, but still too distant from the arrival one: they felt like not being Italians anymore, but not being Americans yet. This feeling of “suspended identity” gave birth to some of the masterpieces of Italian American literature, ‘cause the writing of the own experience was a kind of attempt of reconstructing the selves, it was the way of giving expression to the private sufferance and giving words to the inner displacement. In October 1997, Antonia Sparano Geiser started to document her “oral family history”, her intention as stated by herself was “not to let my Mom’s stories be lost to time and to share them with the next generation of family who, not as fortunate as I didn’t hear them first hand from my grandmother or her mother”.
…Eating brunch I started asking… Q.: When did your family move to United States? A.: My mother Maria Marzia Maiello, aged ten, moved to Northern America with her mother in December 1930 with her brothers, but her father had already settled there since 1920. They left Naples on the 29th November 1930 onboard of “Vapore di Bandiera Italiana Roma”, through Gibilterra and reaching American coasts after nine days. The third class ticket cost 2,250 lire each, plus 15 lire harbour tax and 360 lire emigration tax, spending a total of 9,143 lire. They arrived in New York harbour on December 8, 1930. They saw the Statue Liberty from the ship and they knew that it was the symbol of their freedom. My father Tony was born in America, but spent much of his youth in Italy. His father, an importer of wine and other items, travelled every few years with his whole family between Italy and America. Dad grew up in the town of San Benedetto, which is so close to Caserta, and my mother’s birthplace Santa Nicola. Q.: How was the first impact at the “New Land” for your mother, her brothers and your grandmother? A.: My mum remembered that they had to go through Ellis Island immigration and that took a lot of time. They were tired and had to wait in a big room for the arrival of my grandfather Giulio. They were happy to be introduced to their papa and felt a familiarity to him since they had grown with his brothers in Italy. It was night by the time they took a taxi to the apartment that Papa had rented and furnished for them in Brooklyn, at 146 20th Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues. My mother remembered that Italy had been warm at the time of their leaving; New York was so cold! Francesco and Domenico, her brothers, were wearing short pants and they were all freezing, but reuniting with their papa was a huge and very humbling experience for them all. They had been very happy in Italy; they truly didn’t want to leave their homeland. Grandma certainly didn’t want to leave her widowed mother and her work in her store. But, they came with hope and a promise of better times for all of them. Q.: So, did your parents meet in Italy, in Santa Nicola? A.: No! They met here in Brooklyn.
Q.: Why did they escape from Italy? A.: My family was escaping an oncoming dictatorship with Mussolini. My grandmother Vincenza simply stated she “didn’t want her two sons to get involved in what she saw was a coming war”. Oddly enough her two sons did get involved in war world II but, served proudly as United States citizens against the very powers that they ran away from Italy, with their mother as young teenagers. Q.: How was life when your family arrived in America? A.: It was in the midst of the Great Depression. There was much poverty here in the States. The Stock Market had crashed a year before, in 1929, and my grandfather was out of work on disability due to an accident he had at work. So, whatever money or treasures my grandmother had brought with them from Italy were soon again. Q.: What were the biggest difficulties they had to face? A.: The biggest difficulty they had, after arriving here, was the fact that there was no money once their treasures and savings were gone. They all pooled their money to purchase whatever they might need. My grandmother had owned and run a grocery store in San Nicola, the poverty they were subjected to here in New York was humiliating and very humbling to her. She came from a very well respected family. Her brother owned and ran the bakery and bread store. Her father was like a town elder, dignified and greatly respected in San Nicola. But, as the poverty continued with the Depression the children and also my grandmother began to think they had made a mistake in coming to America. They had such a loving and extended family in San Nicola, they really had no one here in America. Q.: Where and how did your family live? A.: They came to Brooklyn and lived in an Italian neighborhood, and there they did not experience much prejudice. Soon enough my grandmother impressed a shop owner with her sewing skills and he set her up with a shop sewing machine in her apartment for her to work on. Francesco, the oldest child, went out to work shining shoes, Domenico worked in a store and Maria, my mother would work cleaning off strings from the newly sewn clothes in a factory sweat shop. Q.: Did they have enough money to live?
A.: Salaries were very low and sometimes they ran out of money; when they were short and needed foodstuffs, they said the Jewish lady that owned the food store would let them buy on credit. They always praised that Jewish lady and always paid their bills once the money came in. Q.: Those were years in which a lot of Italians moved to America in search of a new life. Do you think that behind your family “memoir” we can meet some constants? A.: There are always similarities in the stories of immigrants. Constants, being many things. Some immigrants were soldiers of fortune, others, seeking religious freedom, or simply seeking adventure. I have great respect for my ancestors, who faced diversity and survived despite the circumstances. They arrived from Italy with dignity and their indomitable spirits. With strong work, ethic, intelligence and perseverance they became proud American citizens. They brought their stories and shared them to keep the memory of Italy alive in their hearts, repeating them lovingly and always with laughter and tears. Q.: How was the feeling of Americans towards Italian immgrants? A.: Italians occupied at that time the lowest step of society. When they built the Erie Canal in upstate New York, the Italian immigrants were paid less than the African Americans. Italians had to work hard to gain trust, because a lot of Italians were behaving badly, committing crimes and being linked with the Black-hand. So, being a honest Italian was made difficult but they worked hard and persevered to gain the respect of the Americans. Q.: How did you get to the idea of documenting your family’s experience? A.: I simply didn’t want the stories I heard as a child to be lost to the next generation. I had no idea of what I was getting into at the time. I had purchased a computer from a friend and typed up a little memory of my mother from Italy. When I brought it to her I thought she would be pleased... she read it, slammed it on the dining room table and commented, “Do you think my life is only one page?” “Oh, no”, I thought, “here we go” and that became nine months of working on a manuscript. Bella Mamma had a wonderful memory; I ended up with a 200 page manuscript and a mother insisting that we publish the “book”! That year was truly the best year of my life.