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La mia famiglia Italiano – Immigrant Heritage Month

Like Julia and Jenna before me, I too would like to share a little bit about my family heritage for Immigrant Heritage Month. For a third generation Italian-American, I’m as Italian as it gets. My family heritage concentrates in Sicily and the Naples, Italy area. In fact, Italians are the fourth largest European ethnic group to emigrate to the United States (US) and the seventh largest worldwide. The largest migration of Italians, close to 4 million people, started in the 1880s shortly after Italy’s unification (north, south and Sicily).
My great grandparents on both side of my family emigrated to the US during the 1880s and 1890s beginning of Italian immigration to the US. My family in this generation came as very young children and, as far as we know, were processed through Ellis Island. My great grandfather on my father’s side came to the US when he was only 5 years old and became a US citizen at the age of 10. My great grandmother on my father’s side came to the US during 1893, from Naples, Italy, and became a US citizen at the age of 20.  Similar timelines can be seen for my mother’s side of the family; however, one primary difference is that this side of the family originated from Sicily too. Unfortunately, we don’t have many more details than the basics: names, dates of birth, dates of death and, for some, information regarding their immigration to the US.
Post-Italian unification, Sicily and the southern regions of Italy were overpopulated, impoverished, and suffered under an oppressive tax system. Life there was so difficult that the Italian government encouraged people to emigrate out of the country! During the massive migration starting in the 1880s, when Italians came to the US they too were ostracized, looked down upon, and treated differently (in other words, badly). In response, Italians stayed with their own and formed “Little Italy” neighborhoods in the northeast. Their new lives involved a manual labor positions and my family was no different. From my father’s side, the men were general laborers. On my mother’s side, the men were skilled laborers, such as barbers and bakers. And, on both sides, women typically didn’t work at all.
In addition to the historical migration from Sicily and Italy to the US, my immediate family made its own migrant journey within the US. As was typical for most Italian-Americans, we lived in New York; however, when I was nine, my family relocated to Tucson, Arizona. Just as my great grandparents experienced a culture shock coming to the US from Italy and Sicily, I found myself in a similar situation after resettling in Tucson. While this move was within the US and there were no language issues to contend with, there were (and are) many lifestyle differences I struggled with. For years, all I wanted to do was get back to New York. I wanted to go to university in New York. I wanted to work in Manhattan. My parents took the same type of risk to give me and my brother a better life than what New York could offer us. While I didn’t know it at the time, they were right to move when they did.
I have learned my great grandparents’ generation took a risk to pursue a better life in a foreign country, where they didn’t know the language, they fought to make something of themselves, and those who came before them didn’t welcome or accept them. It’s interesting to me the number of parallels I can draw from my ancestors’ lives in Italy and Sicily and the lives of many Latinos who emigrated to the US beginning in the 1980s. Having spent most of my formative years in Tucson and having graduated from The University of Arizona, we lived side by side with Latinos who came to the US for a better life and who performed the same manual labor-type jobs my great grandparents’ generation did before them. I have more than an academic understanding of their motivations for leaving their home country, risking everything to come to the US even if they entered “illegally.” Like my Sicilian and Italian ancestors, they had nothing so they had nothing to lose by coming to the US. And, I for one, am glad my ancestors took that risk.

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Christine Swenson

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