I seldom thought that when I said “See ya!” to dear friends, when I moved to another place or changed jobs, that it was unlikely I actually would ever see them again. Even with phones and email, this is just what happens when we move, even just a few miles away. Life is busy. Travel is expensive. New work, friends and interests consume our time. The things that made us feel close to someone–shared interests, our children, our job, our hobbies–change. The longer we don’t see someone, those things we once chatted about every day start to seem unimportant. On the one hand, there is too much tell to catch up on since the last time you spoke, most of it seems irrelevant to the relationship you once had. But the people of our past, the experiences we shared, the hardships we endured and the accomplishments we achieved, the love and fear and anger we felt… our past made us who we are. We learned lessons that have value for those who come after us if we share our stories.
While the obituaries of my great-great uncles lauded them for being members of the Santa Croce Camerina San Giuseppe Society of Paterson, the stories of our origins were seldom shared by the time I was born. My parents’ generation wanted to blend into the melting pot America had become by 1950. The fabric of the old ways and the old stories became frayed, tucked away in photo albums with faces no one knows.
Today, at 97 years old, my father is the last survivor of his generation, and he isn’t even sure where his grandparents were born. He is certain that his father’s father wasn’t from Sicily, even though the spelling of Criscenzo with an “i” is only found in Sicily. It took considerable research to determine that my great-grandfather’s name was actually spelled Bernardino De Crescenzo when he immigrated to the United States in 1897. But the clues to his parents and family in Italy end with his name on that passenger list.
On the other hand, there are enough newspaper stories about my father’s father to fill a book! He was a complex character, part charismatic and generous, and part con man. Some newspaper stories were glowing, some shameful. As with most bad boys, he’ll get more than his share of attention here – right or wrong, he proved to be interesting.
There is much less to tell about the Fuimarello side of my family. My mother’s parents ended up in Poughkeepsie, NY where there were plenty of construction jobs for immigrants. I found some information to back up the few stories my mother told me about her mother – stories I am eager to retell. Both grandparents came from Castel San Giorgio, a small village in the Campania region south of Naples that was leveled by an earthquake in 1980 – more on that later.
I remember reading the book, The Italians, by Luigi Barzini when I was in high school. The book invoked in me an overwhelming sense of regret that my parents, intentionally or not, had shared nothing with me about the people and culture who came before me. My last name, Pompeian features, and big Catholic family had marked me Italian, but the only thing I knew about my Italian-ness was that pork neckbones were the secret ingredient to making irresistible spaghetti sauce.
Barzini painted my people with an unvarnished bias and it stung. Imagining myself a descendant of Da Vinci, I taught myself to take notes in his mirrored script – much to the amusement of my high school classmates. But I read in Barzini’s book that he viewed my people, Southern Italians, with disappointment, if not outright disdain.
It wasn’t the wealthy, well-educated people of Northern Italy who endured two weeks in steerage class to come to America – it was her poor and destitute from Naples and Sicily who were welcomed with the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. On steamship passenger lists, their race was noted as “South”. Their WWI draft registrations described them as short, stout, and ruddy. How discouraging it must have been for them to leave everything behind to come to a country that called them wops and guineas, good only for cheap labor. Even as late as 1984, as a member of the Board of Directors for the Long Island Advertising Club, I was told I could not be on the executive committee because I was half-black, a racial slur for dark Italians. I can only imagine the insults and barriers to success my ancestors faced. But they persevered.
Reclaiming Pride in My Heritage
I only have to look at my siblings and cousins to see the brilliance that was lurking in a people made of a stock simmered over centuries of conquest by every great ancient civilization that sailed the Mediterranean Sea – Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoth, Byzantines, Arabs, and Spaniards. It’s chiseled into our very nature to stand together against oppression and to do whatever it takes to provide for our families. We talk with our hands because throughout our history it allowed us to blend, adapt and thrive no matter who was in power or what language they spoke.
Those survival traits born of intergenerational trauma – persistence, creativity, resourcefulness, and hopefulness, are embedded in our genes. After a generation of good nutrition, education, and economic stability, we hold our own alongside “well-born” Europeans and Americans. And while the planet can’t afford any more double-digit families, there’s something positive to be said about large Italian families – we continue to look out for one another. Knowing there is always a sister or brother or cousin who won’t leave you behind is the most valuable inheritance to be had.
The Census every decade shows a progression from struggle to prosperity in my ancestors’ lives. Starting in 1910, with multiple families crowded together in one house, by 1920 some owned their own homes and kept them for the rest of their lives. They began on the lowest rung as laborers, but less than ten years later they were skilled weavers, dressmakers, and cabinet makers. Another decade and they were professionals and business owners. They persevered through the Great Depression and two World Wars, and their grandchildren are college educated and have fully woven themselves into the great American quilt.
Unfortunately, in the process of leaving behind the superstitions that for centuries had substituted for education, and blending in to salve the sting of prejudices, we lost the stories that bound us to our heritage – the stories that we should be retelling with pride. While compiling this book, I sometimes thought, I should call Mom, she would know more about this story. And then I realize that she has been gone for over 40 years!
So the needle is in my hands – I’ve stitched together this collection of family trees, bits of stories, poems, and recipes, for my siblings and cousins, our children, and grandchildren, so that they can share with their children our stories — the resilient and brilliant fibers woven into our being.
Thank you to everyone who helped me pull together this information, particularly:
- my sister, Donna Rose Criscenzo, who calls me several times a week, offers excellent editorial critique and filled in a lot of gaps with a family tree she worked on over 20 years ago;
- my husband, Juan del Rio, who listens to me read the same pages over and over and suggests better ways of saying what he knows I’m trying to say. And he makes lunch and dinner when I’ve fallen into the abys of writing and research and reminds me to go take a walk;
- my grandson, Graham Sevigney, who turned out to be an excellent proofreader,
- and my father, Bernardo E. Criscenzo, who still remembers things that happened 90 years ago and gladly shares his stories.
- Daughter of Bernardo E. Criscenzo and Rose M. Fuimarello
- Niece of Nina M. Criscenzo and Edward Henry II
- Granddaughter of Rosalia Zisa and Joseph Pipp Criscenzo
- Granddaughter of Carmela Mazariello and Francesco Fiumarello
- Great-granddaughter of Antonina DiMartino and Giovanni Zisa
- Great-granddaughter of Bernardino di Criscenzo and Antoniette Faricelli
- Great-great-granddaughter of Giuseppa Milazzo and Gaetano DiMartino
- Great-great-granddaughter of Giovanna Iozzia and Francesco Zisa