Further reading

Travelling” through Letters

The real, as well as metaphorical, journey of every emigrant can be told through the thousands of letters which make up a considerable part of the documentary heritage of the Cresci Foundation. These letters cover the long period between the “great emigration” era and the exodus of the 1950s and 1960s. There are undoubtedly many gaps, as always happens when the history of emigration inevitably focuses to a greater or lesser extent on just a few of the thousand issues involved in the phenomenon. Through these letters we can perceive the difficulties for a population of “farmers” of mastering a sophisticated medium of expression like writing. These people’s first contact with the written word came from their dealings with state bureaucracy, and then through the much more important relationship with family, relatives and friends who remained in Italy.

Emigration did not in actual fact contribute significantly to teaching the skills of literacy through the courses organized by the General Commissionership for Emigration in the first three decades of the twentieth century, or through the famous television programme Non è mai troppo tardi (It’s Never Too Late) in the 1950s and 1960s. But emigration certainly forced emigrants to use the difficult new instrument of the written word, to express their feelings on paper in poor Italian, later contaminated as they unwittingly picked up more and more words from the language of their adoptive country. At first they wrote in their Italian dialect, which later became heavily tinged with American, Spanish or French. Graphic signs were used at the writer’s whim – conventions regarding the choice of capital or small letters, the division of a word into syllables for a break between lines, paragraphing and punctuation being very freely interpreted. The main thing is that the message had to get through.

In this sense, only a few aspects of the long and difficult journey of many Italians will be focused on by looking at their letters.

The fear of “crande luciano[1]

In 1910, an emigrant who left Lucca to go to Brazil wrote a letter to his family, in which he told about his fear of the ocean while travelling from Genoa to his final destination. He did not realise that his journey, as well as his fear of the restless currents threatening to churn the water menacingly at any stage of the ocean crossing, represented a separation between before, meaning the security of the familiar, and after, meaning the great unknown. He did not realise that this transition from one place to another was a moment of suspension filled with all sorts of existential fears, even if you were a “bow emigrant”, that is to say someone looking at the future in a positive way, and not a “stern emigrant”, looking back at the past with keen longing.

Though he had been living abroad for some years, he was still not able to come to terms with his mixed feelings during the journey, or when writing to his family: 

“doppo che avete colto le castagne vienite al Brasile voi caro padre potete vienire e poi sirivolta a sieme e che avete paura del crande luciano perche non cie mica delle ginestre da tacarsi” (Brasile 1913).

(The man asks his father  to visit him in Brazil once the chestnut harvest in the Lucca countryside is over. He adds that he thinks his father is afraid of the ocean because he would find no clumps of wayside broom to clutch on to during the crossing” - Brazil, 1913).

 These words clearly show that he is a “man of the land” and still feels the seasonal rhythms of life in his native village – starting with the autumn days spent picking chestnuts. But he is not trying to help his father by deliberately overlooking the reversal of seasons between Italy and South America. More likely, inside his mind the seasonal changes of his native village remain unaltered. Also revealing is his ability to find only one explanation for being afraid of the ocean: there is not a single broom plant to catch hold of so as not to lose balance on the ship.

And yet the journey, an essential part of the emigrant’s adventure, hardly left any mark in Italian literature, apart from a few exceptions such as “Sull’oceano” (On the Ocean) by Edmondo De Amicis and “Gli americani di Ràbbato” (The Americans from Ràbbato) by Luigi Capuana - a text considered suitable for children. The work by De Amicis has the features of a journalist’s prose, with its detailed description of a journey to Argentina in 1884 and a sharp focus on third class travellers. Capuana’s account also extensively describes life for emigrants in the United States.

The relative lack of interest in such an ever-present feature of the nation’s life may be the  result of politics, based more on words than on action. During the liberal age and Fascist period, a lot was said about emigrants but hardly anything was done. Liberal governments exalted these producers of future wealth; Fascism suddenly turned them into “Italians abroad”.

In their letters emigrants talked about conditions on board ship in detail.

“Sono le otto del giorno dopo l’imbarco i capi tavola sono chiamati a prendere le razioni di burro e di pane da distribuirsi agli altri durante la settimana; orrore… cominciano le disillusioni… il pane che ci viene distribuito farebbe rabbrividire perfino i cani; esso è fatto di crusca, segale, pepe, seme di lino e mille e mille altre porcherie. … La sera … ci hanno dato il the.  Figuratevi un poco d’acqua sudicia e senza zucchero; nessuno di noi l’ha potuto accostare alla bocca …si guasta il distillatore di bordo … per dei giorni non beviamo che acqua veramente marcia e piena di vermi che per buona sorte (dico per buona sorte perché non al certo per precauzione) trovatasi in diverse botti che servivano come per zavorra nel bastimento… un macchinista russo che trovasi a bordo tenta e riesce di accomodare la macchina”  (Diario di 117 giorni di viaggio da Amburgo all’Australia, 1876).

(In this letter, an emigrant tells of their first food rations on the ship, saying that they are deeply disappointed because the bread is disgusting and tea is dirty water with no sugar. He then adds that the water distilling plant on board is broken, so for many days they have to drink water infested with worms, until a Russian engineer finally fixes the machine” – Diary of 117 days of travel from Hamburg to Australia, 1876)

       In some cases, when arriving for example in New York, “nella terra dei $ 3 dollari circa valore di 15 lire per nove ore di lavoro la fortuna era eminente[2] the journey had not finished but continued as far as Canada, with more surprises along the way.

“Entriamo nelli uifici di emissione in Canada. accettati  è cordialmente escortati al treno… Recevuti dal condottore cidiede introdozione alle comodita in treno. trattandoci demograticamente, dimostrato come usare iletto, un congegno applicato sulla parete esterna meccanicamente  sopra il sedile. … arivati a Toronto Ontario … [al ristorante] timidamente seduti un poco apparte viene il servente con libro dordine … non era da comprendere come dare ordine solo una parola Bistek. collindice fummo serviti come tutti anche il conto come tutti $ 1,50 pari a lire 7,50. insieme mormorammo meza giornata di lavoro per solo pasto? ciò fece sospettò la fortuna noneracosì vicina , cisono illusioni” (Diario di viaggio 1912)

(Here the emigrant speaks of his arrival in Canada with other Italian citizens. They are politely welcomed, ‘democratically treated’- his own words - and escorted to the train. They then have lunch and cannot understand the menu except for the word “Bistek” (which is how he writes beefsteak). When they pay the bill, they find out that a meal equals half a day’s wages for them ($ 1.50= 7.50 liras) and feel that fortune is not as close as they thought – Journey Diary, 1912)

Fortune was not waiting with open arms and America was not the “Merica” they had imagined and dreamt of.

The expression “treating us democratically” is worth far more than an essay on social history, considering the way a “poor man” was usually treated by a “gentleman” or any other person holding an important place in society.

To have an idea of how much the emigrants’ adventure would cost many Italians, particularly during the “great exodus”, we can quote one emigrant’s message to a friend following arrival in the United States, in 1907:

“I was not able to send you a postcard from Paris, because we didn’t go that way”.

Was it  really necessary to go through Paris to reach America? …

Obviously Paris was not on the way to America, and neither would it be today. But the joke is emblematic of how little the emigrants knew of the world, how little information they had to help them prepare for arrival – and hard-won survival – in the “other world”.

Let me know about my baby…

“il bimbo mi farete sapere se via fatto tribolare e mi direte se continua andare migliorando se avete speranza che camini almeno verso primavera e quanti denti a fatto mi direte tutte le cose che o molto piacere di saperle, la lettera che mia scritto il fratello gredetemi chio non sono stata capace di leggerla una volta intiera senza piangerericeverete lire 600 … che possiate pareggiare come mi dite I votri debiti. […] quantame mi vogliono tuti bene non sono mica tanto lontana 5 ore di treno”.

(A wetnurse asks for information about her baby. She says that a letter from her brother made her cry. Lastly, she says she will send 600 liras for her family to pay off debts and that she is quite happy with herself since everybody loves her and she is not too far from home.)

A Tuscan wetnurse working in France wrote these words to her sister, who was also a wetnurse but stayed home to look after her children and her little nephew. This letter is part of small series exchanged over a long period of time during the first couple of decades of the twentieth century.

The word “bimbo” (baby) at the very beginning of the excerpt highlights the prevailing worries for this mother, who tries to comfort herself by pointing out the relatively small distance between them – only a few hours by train.

       The reply was reassuring. Everyone loved the baby, who was called Mansueto (meaning “gentle” in Italian) but in actual fact was far from quiet.

  “ in quanto del tuo bimbo non ci pensare che sta bene … e si fa vorbene a tutti Ora poi ti dico che il tuo Mansueto mia detto che ai fatto bene andarvia perche dice che gli menavi … ti dico che selo vedesti mangiare dase resteresti I stubita viane al tavolino e vol davanti la salvieta per non I sporcasi”

(The wetnurse’s sister reassures her, saying that the baby is loved by everyone and that he can eat by himself and even wants a napkin so as not to dirty himself.)

       The baby is surely growing up, since he does everything for himself. And the table and the “salvieta” (napkin) give some idea of the progress he is making.

In this letter, as well as in others written by wetnurses, there is no particular desire to be free of family responsibilities. One can only notice a certain awareness that the pain of  parting from the family, particularly from children, can be compensated - at least in part - by the rise to a “better off” status. 

Italian mothers of adult sons also confirm the image of the Italian family in the United States, particularly those from the south – a close-knit, patriarchal family with an overprotective mother who is constantly worried about the risks her “baby” may run in that “Blessed America and whoever invented it”:

“ Abbiamo letto sui giornali di un’aggressione in ferrovia tra New York e Filadelfia … Se vai nel Canada non fare imprudenze con tutti quei cavalli, bada di non andare in automobile e cerca di regolarti a mangiare (Italia, s.d.).

(A mother tells her son that they read about an assault on a train between New York and Philadelphia and warns him to stay away from dangers – horses, cars – and to eat well – Italy, date unknown)

The reference to the car dates the letter between the 1920s and 1930s. The mother’s advice  to stay away from Canadian horses seems incomprehensible today. Nowadays, her concern about eating well might correspond to something like: “Put your woollen pullover on”.

 Joking apart,  we can only try to imagine how avidly people would read any news in the Italian press from an unknown, faraway land (possibly in the various illustrated supplements), without realising that such accounts were really more the exception than the rule. In the majority of cases, the stir caused by these stories so distant from the average reader’s everyday life was further increased by striking colour images. 

Speaking of women also means speaking of men and of couples. Many letters highlight the strong bond between husband and wife, while others reflect the deterioration of this relationship. There is no reference whatsoever to infidelity or to second families born out of wedlock (something which was quite common in emigrant communities), but more simply to tensions and misunderstandings which were nearly always to the detriment of the woman.

Cara sorella sento che ragioni di mio marito e che raconta delle passegiate che a fatto sono contenta che si diverte che cossi almeno puole dire che e venuto inn’Italia per un iscopo e poi ha’ risultato anche l’altro, lui di qui e partito tanto triste … che aveva il quore stracciato dal pensiero, di dovere fare e sofrire tanto, e poi se non avesse potuto trovare, vivo, chi voleva trovare suo padre: ma poi dopo di quello sie divertito a passegiato a fatto bene cossi puole dire che non sia stato in Initalia per niente … Cossi sono più contenta anchio sapere che mangia che beve e che sta bene e che siete contenti anche voi tutti di lui … te dici che beve … ma per dire il vero e buono propprio e affezionato alla famiglia che lui basta che mi vedeme contenta e le bimbe che non ci manca nulla e poi Lui e tutto contento, lui e senza vizzi nessuni lui a sempre lavorato a sempre fatto ziudizio atteso sempre alla sua famiglia che si deve volere di più? Cara sorella quando venirà per qua? Mi dice di venire a settembre oi primi Ottobre vado avedere che aspettera le castagne verrà in Novenbre perme venisse pure presto mi pare un secolo che manca anche le bimbe non vedano lora che venga suo padre ma ormai mese prima mese dopo si rimedia. (Brasile,1938)

(A woman writes to her sister. She asks her about her husband, who went back to Italy to visit his family after his father’s death. She is happy to know that her husband is enjoying himself and taking long walks. In reply to her sister, who says that he drinks a lot, she says that he is a honest man and a good worker and that he has never caused trouble to her and her daughters. She ends the letter in the hope that he will come back soon from Italy, since she misses him very much – Brazil, 1938) 

This long quotation highlights the ambivalent feelings of the woman writing: her husband is in Italy after his father’s death and is enjoying himself. She is happy to know this, but hopes he will come back very soon. The question is: is she in agreement with him – or does she want to appear so? – and willing to defend him because, even if he drinks, he has never done any harm to her or to their daughters? Reading the letter, it seems as if the woman is trying to convince herself, rather than her sister.

On the other hand, in the following letter Paola does not lie and tells her parents about her difficult reunion with her husband after a long separation, partly caused by misunderstandings between the two of them.

La nave arrivò alla banchina di Buenos Aires alle 16 ma fra le poche persone che vi erano non c’era Rainaldo … Andai, con i rappresentanti dell’Italia … e dietro la cancellata sentii chiamare la voce di Rainaldo:” Paola”. I rappresentanti fecero così entrare sulla banchina un uomo sugli 80 chilogrammi grasso, sporco, sudato, con la faccia proprio gonfia e grossa simile al maiale: era Rainaldo!… Rimasi zitta con una espressione di disgusto visibilissima sul viso, abbracciò le piccole e andammo tutti in cerca delle valigie. Non potei dargli neanche la mano, non potevo, non gli chiesi niente né lui chiese niente a me né si avvicinò, come se le nostre persone non esistessero, con la massima indifferenza parlavamo delle valigie … dopo due anni e mezzo neanche la mano! […] Non vi dico tutti i miei pensieri e i miei sentimenti. … Il giorno dopo, la sera, andammo a La Plata: ancora non ci si era dati né la mano né altro.”

(Paola arrives in Buenos Aires with her daughters to join her husband Rainaldo who has already emigrated. When she finally spots him in the crowd, she is disgusted with his appearance and can hardly recognise him. He has put on weight and  looks dirty and sweaty. Paola keeps on repeating that she is shocked and that  they act like strangers and do not even hold  hands, not even when they go to La Plata  the following day).

The journey as an “emigrant” in the 1950s, the trauma of separation from her family in Italy and the fear of meeting her husband, by now to all intents and purposes a stranger after so long a separation – all these issues are effectively summed up in this letter, written shortly after Paola’s arrival in Buenos Aires. Paola was not a scholar, but nevertheless managed to write a lucid account of her feelings and sensations. This account, which is 26 pages long, tells about the difficulties of  the journey to Argentina, during which her two daughters and all the other children on board ship suffered food poisoning, and dwells on her marital problems.

As time went by, Paola and Rainaldo’s life found a new balance.

Paola, a woman of “today” managed to express the suffering of so many emigrant women, distant as they were from their husbands and their attitudes.

Lastly, here are two short quotations concerning the relationship between the sexes. The first  is taken from a short anonymous poem, sent to Italy by an emigrant, talking about the bliss of falling in love:

“Pero ti prego dessermi costante/Come io saro a te fedele Amante …Se tu mi lasi voglio pigliare il veleno/se ti dovessi in vano sempre amare/Meglio la morte che campare … Dunque ti dico addio esono mal contento/ per che non ho piu foglio davergare/ tanti saluti ti fa nel momento/quante stelle e in cielo e pesi in mare/dove ho mancato mi devi scusare”

(I kindly ask you to keep in touch/ and I will always be your faithful lover…If you leave me I will poison myself/ If I had to love you forever in vain/ I would rather die than live…That is why I unhappily say goodbye to you/since I do not have any paper left to write/I send you as many greetings as the stars in the sky and the fish in the sea/ and if I broke any promise, please accept my apologies.)

The second letter comes from a man who, after emigrating, could not accept that his  relationship with a girl he had courted in Italy was obviously at an end:

Adorata e gentile Umile, Giacche di na morato mio cuore non mi lascia aver pace ne giorno ne notte sempre pensando achi si sara schordata dime chi sà quanto tempo da poi che io sono partito di talia non avra avuto più il minimo pensiero dime come se non fossi nato ma pure ancho per questa volta ti riscrivo questo mio foglio che con questo sono gia 6 che tenemando senza che io abbia mai avuto due righe date non so se tu lai ricevute ono ma a questa poi se tu mi voi rispondere non cie scuse perche la siguro e questa non potrai dire di non averla ricevuta. Dunque ti prego di darmi una pronta risposta e di dirmi la pura verita … che alora io alla meglio che posso levo questo mio pensiero verso la tua adorata persona giacche non mivedo degno diessere amato date.” (Brasile, 1897)

(The  man writes to a girl called Umile after emigrating. This is his sixth letter to her, but so far he has not received any reply. This time he has decided to send the letter by recorded delivery to ensure she receives it,  and asks her to be honest and let him know her feelings for him once and  for all, because he is deeply in love with her – Brazil, 1897)

I am writing you these few lines…

The letter collection of the Cresci Foundation includes more than 10,000 items which have not been completely transcribed yet. As we have already mentioned before, these letters cover the  period from the mid-1800s to the 1960s, coming from all over Italy and indeed from every corner of world.

Here, you will find an unsystematic anthology, without any particular pretensions. 

The majority are letters to family, relatives and friends. All transfer the simple patterns of speech into writing. In many cases they superfluously repeat news – particularly comments on how everyone in the family is. The customary opening and closing formulae are used. Some letters do not talk about anything in particular, but the use of repetitive formulae seems to reassure both writer and addressee that they are still bound by a relationship which is a constant in their lives.

“Miei Cari Genitori Eccomi sopra a questo misero foglio di carta per dare una amata risposta alla vostra cara lettera e legendola mia consolato dimolto solamente che udendo il vostro scritto cio trovato che godete tutti una buona e perfetta salute tanto voi caro padre che voi cara madre e mia sorella Mariuccia, e Angelina e zio e zia e miei nepotini e mia Cognata e sua madre e sua sorella e ancora mia nepotina e cosi in fino a questo giorno posso dirvi che segue anche di me e mio fratello e tutta la batteria … Carissimi genitori ora poi non potete mai vedere quanta e stata grande la mia con tenteza solo nel sentire che avete fatto il ritrato e noi si aspetta tutte le matine per riceverlo che credete pure che mi sembra mille anni di vedervi anche si ben che si vediamo sopra a un pezzo di carta ma credete che mi sembra di non avervi veduto da 100 anni e sono apena una 16 di mesi … ora vedete che il voglio termina in fretta vi saluto voi caro padre e voi cara madre e mia sorella mariuccia e angelina e zio e zia e miei nepotini e mia cognata e sua madre e sua sorella e mia nepotina e la gostina e la nonziata e la Dvice e Alfredo e Pietro e sua famiglia e in soma tutti I conoscienti vi saluto tutti voglialtri” /brasile, 1910).    

(A young man writes to his family in Italy. He has been living in Brazil with his brother for 16 months and misses his family so much that he tells them it feels like 100  years since he last saw them. He then asks his parents twice  to say hello to a long list of relatives, both  at the beginning and at the end of the letter. He is also glad to know that his family has sent him a studio portrait and cannot wait to receive it- Brazil, 1910)

An extreme case of repetitiveness can be found in some letters sent from Brazil over a period of several years, which always report the same information – basically talking about how the family has grown bigger and now includes dozens of relatives. In this case, it almost seems that by now the family has actually started to fragment, instead of being strengthened by bonds of kinship.

Usually, the topics people wrote about were those of everyday life: work, people they went out with (often relatives or fellow countrymen), the unfamiliar habits of their new homeland, the house, climate differences, local food and that from their native region -  always their favourite.

The new world stirred up various and sometimes mixed evaluations and emotions.

  “Ora e' già un mesetto che sono qua e posse dirle poco di questa Città, ma quel poco che posso dirLe e l’impressione che ne ho provato e' stata piu' che buona. Città questa ultra moderna dove il movimento d'ogni sorta e' indescrivibile, ben organizzato ogni sorta di servizio pubblica. Qua non si conosce miseria, centinaia di automobili sfilano in ogni strada, palazzi e negozzi che in Italia purtroppo non se ne vedono. Certo tutte cose moderne, antichita' qua non se ne vede.”

(A man talks about his new life in Buenos Aires, saying that the city is pleasant and modern with  well organised public facilities,  something which cannot be found in Italy. He also adds that everything goes fast and that it is impossible to find the ‘ancient’ things which are common in Italy.)

This account was written by a man who had just arrived in Buenos Aires in 1930. By comparison, a woman who had been living in New York for some years, wrote in 1921:

“Vita brutta che non desidero a nessuno e agogno la solitudine della mia casina a tre piani da dove godo aria e un … panorama pittoresco … un caos di belle cose che affliggono anche quelle e confondono al punto, per noi che non ci siamo avvezzi, da mettere lo sgomento e da non sentirsi sicuro altro che a casa sua, su una Rockeincea (poltrona a dondolo) vicino alla stufa che riscalda tutto e tutti.”

(This woman says that the only thing that comforts her about her life in New York is being alone in her home, sitting on a rocking chair next to the stove which warms up everything and everyone. She does not feel safe outside, in this unfamiliar and chaotic city. Note the misspelling of ‘rocking chair’: Rockeincea.)

Both these people are adults and seem to have a certain level of education. They both acknowledge that their adoptive cities offer many opportunities. Their attitude towards emigration is completely different – in the first case it does not matter that the writer emigrated just recently. What matters is the opportunity to work, to socialise, to feel relatively safe and fulfilled.   

       In many letters, a seemingly unintentional turn of phrase often reveals how much suffering was involved in emigration. Thus, a grandmother writes about her little grandson that “lui si chiama Tony …E mi ha domandato dove sta lItalia di casa” (USA, s.d.).

(“He is called Tony….and he asked me where Italy is.” - U.S.A., date unknown)

This innocent question helps us understand how many times Tony must have listened to his grandmother talking longingly about Italy. Such a place must surely exist, but he does not know where it is.

       There were people who spent their whole life with a suitcase packed in readiness for their return to Italy, a way to survive and hold on by cherishing fond hopes:

“Mi farai sapere le novità … e qua si lavora sempre … ma in questa terra spero di non invecchiarci.” (Brasile, 1920)

(“Please, let me know about anything new…here, we always work…but I hope I will not grow old in this land.” – Brazil, 1920)

       Other letters include events of global importance:

“Altro non so che dirvi che io sto bene e cosi vorei che fosse di voialtri. Vi facci sapere che qua abbiamo avuto una grande influenza Che sono stati ammalati quasi tutti in una volta tante case non ciera nessuno di alzati e ne sono morti pure parecchi ma noialtri per questa volta sie riportata fori”  (USA, 1918)

(Talking about a serious flu epidemic in the United States, the writer  says that many people died of it, but the family are all well – U.S.A., 1918)

This is how the “Spanish flu” pandemic was explained, with the millions of lives it cost all over the world. This tragedy was universal, but the account was set within the boundaries of the neighbourhood - acquaintances, friends and, most of all, family.

       Even the so-called “wonders of other worlds” found a place in a few letters:

“Cara sorella Pia ti faccio sapere che la Stella mi raconta tutte le cose di fraccia [Francia] e ti dico che mi fa A mazare dalle rise cara Pia farmi sapere se la tua padrona Arimeso il termometri al qulo ai ragazi.” (Italia, 1910)

(“Dear sister Pia, Stella tells me everything about France and I must say that she always makes me laugh so much. Dear Pia, please let me know if the lady of  the household  put the thermometers inside the children’s bums again.” – Italy, 1910)

The thermometer – a little known device!

       It is also interesting to notice the almost blasé tone, typical of a society man, of a hotel employee who does anything from preparing meat balls to cleaning the toilets. He writes to a friend that he can phone him, since he has a telephone in his bedroom:

 ” io per ora o trovato un posto che mi tocca a fare tutta qualità di lavori in cucina in sala alla Bar le latrine .… come va a Firenze qui nevica piano e fa freddo ma a me non mi in porta perche a una camera tutto riscaldato a termosifone. ed’ ò laqua fredda e calda in camera. e Telefono. se mi vuoi chiamare sui questo e il numero Colubus 5 – 9341” (USA, 19  )

(“I found a place where I must do any kind of job in the kitchen, the hall, the bar or the toilets…how are things in Florence? Here it is snowing and it is cold, but I don’t care because my bedroom is heated and I have hot and cold water, as well as a telephone. If you want you can call me at this number: Colubus 5-9341”- USA, 19 )

       Concerning the outcome of the integration process (integration being understood here as a simple “absence of particular problems of settlement in a new environment”) a few obvious points can be briefly observed:

“Carissima sorella, …  in quanto alla Signora Americana non hai capito? Vuoi proprio che mi spego chiara, è un sua concovina” (America latina? Data?)

(“Dear sister, …..as for the American lady, have you not understood? I will be very clear, she is his concubine” -(Latin America? Date?)

The American lady is simply the woman her brother lives with out of wedlock – as a result of which the writer refuses to visit him. While this is certainly not a sign of integration, she does reluctantly accept the existence of other lifestyles. On the other hand, the continuous and frequent exchange of letters, as well as the thought of having a place to return to and a family, which would warmly welcome you back if necessary, surely slowed down but at the same time in a sense facilitated the difficult process of integration.

       By comparison, the smiling acceptance of a foreign Santa Claus, hardly known in Italy in 1930, is an indication that things are moving in the right direction:

“Dimmi un po’ Mina neppure quest’anno Santa Claus ti porta un Baby?” (Italia, anni 30).

(“But tell me, Mina, will Santa Claus bring you a baby this year?”- Italy, 1930s)

 Everything flows, everything changes, said the philosopher. So does emigration.

“quello che ci raccomando di non portare niente per mangiare e di non legarsi la valigia con le corde”

(“What is important is that you do not have to bring any food with you and you must not tie your suitcase with strings.”)

These recommendations were given in the 1960s by a Sicilian who had emigrated to Australia and was paying for his brother-in-law’s ticket to join him.

       The letter almost seems to say that “old-fashioned” emigration should be forgotten. But we should actually never forget: the Italy we know today was to a certain extent born from emigration, just as the Italy of tomorrow will to a certain extent be born from today’s immigration.


[1] “crande luciano” is a misspelling of “grande oceano”, which means “wide ocean”. The majority of the letters published in this text contain similar mistakes and show evident signs of illiteracy.  They will be simply summarised in English.

[2] “In the land of dollars, 3$ equalled around 15 liras for nine hours’ work and money was there to be made”.