Traveling with letters

The journey, real and metaphorical, of every emigrant, of all emigrants, can be told through the thousands of letters that make up a considerable part of the documentary holdings of the Cresci Foundation.

They relate to a wide chronological span: from the period of the "great emigration" to the exodus of the 1950s and 1960s of the last century and, as is always the case when it comes to the history of emigration, they are "lacunose," in the sense that they tell, to a greater or lesser extent, only some of the thousand facets of the phenomenon. Through them, one can perceive, first of all, the difficult takeover by a people of "peasants" of such a high instrument as writing with the acquisition, at first, of a relationship with the state bureaucracy and, after emigration, of another, far more important relationship with family, relatives and friends who remained in Italy.

Emigration, in truth, did not automatically function as a flywheel for the greater diffusion of literacy-just think of the courses programmed by the General Commissariat of Emigration in the first three decades of the twentieth century and of the famous program "It's never too late" made by national television in the 1950s and 1960s-but it did, it can be said, forced emigrants to use this new and harsh tool, to express themselves on paper at first with an approximate Italian language and then to contaminate it, as the time spent abroad increased, with words from the language of the country of adoption. One writes in dialect Italianized and, later, Americanized or Spanishicized or infranciosato. There is an "at will" use of graphic signs: from upper and lower case letters to the division of words into syllables, from carriage returns to punctuation marks placed somewhat as they happen.

The important thing is that the message gets through. In this text, only some aspects of the long and arduous migration journey of so many Italians will be "read" through epistolary correspondences.

 The fear of "crande luciano"

An emigrant from Lucca to Brazil writes in 1910, in a letter to his family, about the fear of the ocean from the time one leaves from Genoa until one arrives. He does not realize that the journey and the fear, real, of that mass of water that is constantly moving and can suddenly rage, also represents the dividing line between a before, which gave security because one knew it well, and an after, unknown from all points of view. One does not realize that that passage from one place to another, is a moment of suspension that is charged with all possible existential anxieties even if one is an emigrant "from the bow," thus looking to the future, imagining it to be better, and not "from the stern," looking to the past and already deeply regretting it.

Still a few years after her departure, she has not processed the mixed feelings she experienced during the trip and conveyed, in her letters, to her family:

"after you have picked chestnuts come to Brazil you dear father can come and then sirivolta a sieme and that you are afraid of the crande luciano because there is not mica brooms to be silenced" (Brazil 1913).

From these words shines through his being a "man of the land," still conditioned by the rhythms of his home country-after the autumn chestnut harvest-and, probably, not because he tries not to confuse his father with the seasonal inversion between Italy and South America, but because, in his mind, the climatic rhythms of his home country have remained unchanged. He also still and only finds a physical explanation, linked always to his being a peasant, for being afraid of the sea: not even a broom plant to keep himself balanced on the ship.

Yet the voyage, an essential part of the whole migratory adventure, has found little echo in Italian literature, with the almost unique exceptions of Edmondo De Amicis in "Sull'oceano" and Luigi Capuana in "Gli americani di Ràbbato," which is moreover considered a children's text. De Amicis' text has the connotations of a réportage journalistic, with the 'accurate description of the trip to Argentina made in 1884 and the strong attention given to third-class travelers. Capuana's account also reserves ample space for the lives of emigrants in the United States.

The lack of interest in such an invasive phenomenon for the entire life of the country finds its main cause in politics, made more of words than of deeds: in the liberal era and during fascism, words about emigrants knew inflation, deeds famine. Liberal governments exalted the producers of future wealth; Fascism transformed them imperio into "Italians abroad."

In contrast, emigrants in their writings describe in detail the living conditions on board.

"It is eight o'clock on the day after boarding the table heads are called to take rations of butter and bread to be distributed to the others during the week; horror ... disillusionment begins ... the bread we are distributed would make even dogs shudder; it is made of bran, rye, pepper, flaxseed and a thousand and one other filthy things. ... In the evening ... we were given tea. Imagine a little filthy, sugarless water; none of us could put it near our mouths ... the distiller on board broke down ... for days we drank nothing but really rotten water full of worms which by good fortune (I say good fortune because not at the certain precaution) found itself in several barrels that served as for ballast in the ship's bunk ... a Russian engineer who was on board tried and succeeded in accommodating the machine."  (Diary of 117 days' journey from Hamburg to Australia, 1876).

In some cases, having arrived, for example, in New York, "In the land of $ 3 dollars about worth 15 lira for nine hours of work the fortune was eminent"   the journey is not over: it continues to Canada and holds new unknowns.

"We enter the issuing uifici in Canada. accepted is cordially escorted to the train ... Received by the conductor cid introdozione to the comforts in the train. treating us demographically, demonstrated how to use theetto, a device applied on the outer wall mechanically over the seat. ... arrived in Toronto Ontario ... [at the restaurant] shyly seated a little apart comes the servant with order book ... was not to understand how to give order only one word Bistek. collindice we were served like everyone also the bill like everyone $ 1.50 equal to 7.50 lire. together we muttered half a day's work for only a meal? this made suspected luck was not so close , there are illusions" (Travelogue 1912)

Fortune was not imminent and America was not "the Merica" imagined and dreamed of.

As for living conditions, in reference to how, in Italy, a "poor man" was used to being treated by a "lord" or anyone who held any power, the expression rattling demographically worth more than a social history essay.

On what the migratory adventure would cost so many Italians, especially but not only in the period of the "great migration," one can quote a message sent to a friend by an emigrant after landing in 1907 in the United States:

"I couldn't send you the postcard from Paris because we didn't go through.".

To go to America, therefore, one had to go through Paris!!!

One did not and does not pass through Paris, of course. The joke, however, lends itself to exemplifying the ignorance-in the literal sense of things not known or misunderstood-of the emigrants, the nature of the information with which many of them prepared for their encounter/encounter with "another world."

 The baby, you will let me know....

"the baby you will let me know if via made tribulation and you will tell me if it continues to go better if you have hope that it will chimney at least toward spring and how many teeth it has made you will tell me all the things I o very much like to know them, the letter that my brother wrote me gredetemi chio I was not able to read it once intiera without crying ... you will receive 600 lire ... that you may balance as you tell me your debts. [...] how much they all love me I am not that far away 5 hours by train."

A Tuscan wet-nurse, from France, writes these words to her sister, also a wet-nurse but left, for a time, at home to care for her children and grandchild. They are part of a not very extensive correspondence, covering several years of the first two decades of the twentieth century.

The word "baby," placed at the 'beginning of the period, signals the dominant concern of this mother who attempts to console herself by pointing to the distance, only a few hours by train, that separates her from him.

The answer is reassuring. The baby - tame in name, not in fact - is made to be loved by all.

" as for your baby don't think about it he's fine ... and you make vorbene to all Now then I tell you that your Mansueto mia said that you did well to go away because he says that you were hurting him ... I tell you that if you saw him eating dase you would stay I stubita come to the little table and vol in front of the salvieta so you don't dirty yourself"

He is growing well, the baby, doing his own thing. And table and "salvieta" witness his progress.

In these as in other letters from nannies, there is no desire to make themselves independent of the burden of the family; at most, it is possible to detect an awareness that the pain of separation, especially from children, can be at least partly compensated for and soothed by a life that could be described as "comfortable."

In turn, mothers of now-adult children also seem to validate the image that, certainly in the United States, one has of the Italian family, mostly of southern origin: patriarchal, in which it is difficult to loosen the bonds that bind the various members, and with a "mother hen" who is constantly worrying about the dangers that her "baby" might run in that "Blessed is America and those who invented it." :

" We read in the newspapers about an attack on the railroad between New York and Philadelphia ... If you go to Canada, don't be reckless with all those horses, take care not to ride in a car, and try to regulate yourself to eat (Italy, s.d.).

The reference to the 'automobile induces dating the letter between the 1920s and 1930s. The suggestion to beware of Canadian horses is, today, incomprehensible, and to the advice to watch out for food one would like to add what, even today, is another topos of the mythography of the Italian mom: "Put on your wool sweater."

Beyond the joking comments, however, we can imagine how avidly any news published in Italian newspapers (probably in the various illustrated supplements) about a distant and unknown land was read, without realizing that it was the out-of-the-ordinary event that was being told to readers. The anxiety produced by stories so distant from the everyday was heightened, more often than not, by colorful and visually striking drawings.

To talk about women is also to talk about men and the couple's relationship. If from many letters the strong bond that exists between the spouses is evident from others the deterioration of that relationship is clearly highlighted. We are not referring to betrayals and double families (rather usual behavior in the world of emigration) but more simply to tensions and misunderstandings almost always to the detriment of the woman.

"Dear sister I hear my husband's reasons and that he tells of the walks he made I'm glad that he enjoys himself so at least he can say that he came to Italy for one purpose and then he also turned out the other, he left here so sad ... that he had his heart torn by the thought, of having to do and suffer so much, and then if he couldn't find, alive, who wanted to find his father: but then after that sie had a good time walking around he did well sosi can say that he was not in Initalia at all ... Cossi I am happier too to know that he eats that he drinks and that he is well and that you are all happy with him too ... you say he drinks ... but to tell the truth he is good propprio and attached to the family that he just see me happy and the girls we do not lack anything and then He is all happy, he is without vices no one he has always worked always made ziudizio always waited for his family what more should you want? Dear sister when will he come for here? He tells me to come in September or early October I'm going to see that he'll wait for the chestnuts he'll come in Novenbre perme even come early it seems to me a century that he's missing even the girls can't wait for his father to come but by now month before month after we make up for it. (Brazil,1938)

The long quote serves to emphasize the ambivalence of the writer's feelings: her husband in Italy, after her father's death, is having a good time and she tries to be happy about it even though she hopes for a quick return; she is sympathetic-or wants to show herself as such? - with him and defends him because, although he drinks, he has never wronged her or her daughters. It seems, reading the letter, that the woman wants to convince herself more than her sister.

On the other hand, in the missive that follows, Paola tells her parents, without pretenses, about her difficult encounter with her husband after a long separation determined at least in part by misunderstandings between them.

"The ship arrived at the Buenos Aires dock at 4 p.m. but among the few people there was no Rainaldo ... I went, with the representatives of Italy ... and behind the gate I heard Rainaldo's voice calling:" Paola." So the representatives made a man about 80 kilograms fat, dirty, sweaty, with a face just swollen and big like a pig enter the dock: it was Rainaldo!... I remained silent with a very visible expression of disgust on my face, hugged the little ones and we all went in search of the suitcases. I couldn't even give him my hand, I couldn't, I didn't ask him anything nor did he ask me anything nor did he approach me, as if our people didn't exist, with the utmost indifference we talked about the suitcases ... after two and a half years not even a hand! [...] I do not tell you all my thoughts and feelings. ... The next day, in the evening, we went to La Plata: still no hand-holding or anything else."

The journey as an "emigrant," despite the fact that it is the 1950s, the pain of separation from the family left in Italy and the anxiety of 'meeting her husband, almost a stranger after so long, finds an effective synthesis in this letter written more than a month after landing in Buenos Aires. Paola is not a scholar but manages to deposit well on paper the feelings and fears that run through her mind and body. The 26-page-long piece of writing, in addition to recounting the travails of the voyage to Argentina with two daughters who became ill on board due to the poor quality of the food-and like them all the other children on the voyage- , resumes, at intervals, the discourse on the difficulties of the marriage relationship.

Over time, Paola and Rainaldo's lives find new points of balance.

Paola, a woman of "today" succeeds in expressing the sufferings of so many women "in emigration," sufferings derived from the distance of their husbands and their behaviors.

Finally, again on the man/woman relationship two short quotes, the first from a "poem," anonymous but sent from abroad to Italy, on the happy moment of falling in love:

"Pero ti prego dessermi costante/As I'll be to you faithful Lover ...If you lasi me I want to take poison/If I should in vain always love you/Better death than to live ... So I bid you farewell and I'm ill content/for I have no more sheet to wager/A lot of farewells does you in the moment/How many stars and in the sky and weights in the sea/Where I missed you you must excuse me."

the second from a letter from one who, once he left in emigration, does not want to surrender to the evidence of a finished relationship:

Adored and kind Humble, Giacche di na morato mio cuore non lascia me avere pace ne giorno né notte sempre pensando achi sara schordata dime chi sa quanto tempo da poi che io sono partito di talia non avrà avuto più il minimo pensiero dime come se non fossi nato ma anchecho per questa volta ti riscricrivo questo mio foglio che con questo sono gia 6 che tenemando senza che io ho mai avuto due linee date non sapere se la hai ricevute ono ma a questa poi se tu me rispondere non cie scusa perché la siguro e questa non puoi dire di non averla ricevuta. So I beg you to give me a prompt answer and tell me the pure truth ... that then I to the best I can remove this thought of mine towards your beloved person giacche non mivedo unworthy of being loved given." (Brazil, 1897)

I come to write you two lines

The Cresci Foundation's holdings of letters amount to more than 10,000 items not yet all transcribed. As already mentioned, they cover a time span from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1960s and come from all continents and all regions of Italy.

An anthology of them is proposed here, asystematic and without special pretensions.

They are, in almost all, writings to family, relatives and friends and have as a common trait the translation of the oral model into the written one and the redundant exposition especially in the part concerning health news-both of those who remained in Italy and those who moved abroad-and the usual formulas of greeting. It can be said that many letters say "nothing," but the use of repetitive formulas is reassuring to the writer and the recipient: one is still part of a unicum, which can always be counted on.

"My Dear Parents Here I am over this miserable sheet of paper to give a beloved reply to your dear letter and legendola my consolation dimolto only that on hearing your writing I found that you all enjoy good and perfect health both you dear father and you dear mother and my sister Mariuccia, and Angelina and uncle and aunt and my nephews and my sister-in-law and her mother and sister and still my nephew and so on to this day I can tell you that it also follows me and my brother and the whole battery ... Dearest Parents now then you can never see how great my con tenteza was just in hearing that you have made the retraction and we wait every morning to receive it that you believe as well that it seems to me a thousand years to see you even yes well that we see each other over a piece of paper but you believe that it seems to me that I have not seen you for 100 years and I am just a 16 of months ... now you see that the I want to end quickly I greet you dear father and you dear mother and my sister mariuccia and angelina and uncle and aunt and my nepotini and my sister-in-law and her mother and her sister and my nepotina and the gostina and the nonziata and the Dvice and Alfredo and Pietro and his family and in soma all I conoscienti I greet you all voglialtri" /brasil, 1910).    

An extreme case of repetitiveness is given by some letters, sent from Brazil, years apart, which always report the same news: basically the composition of the family that has grown up abroad and now has several dozen members. In this case, it seems that instead of reinforcing the family bond, it is noted, without being aware of it, that it has now been dissolved.

Typically the topics one writes about are those of everyday life: work, people one hangs out with (often relatives or villagers), different habits, home, climate differences, the food one eats and the far better food one can eat in one's home country.

The new world elicits varied and sometimes conflicting evaluations and emotions.

"Now it's already a month or so that I've been here and posse tell you little about this City, but what little I can tell you and the impression I got of it was more than good. City this ultra modern where the movement of all sorts is indescribable, well organized all sorts of public services. Here you don't know misery, hundreds of cars parade on every street, palaces and shops that in Italy unfortunately you don't see any. Of course all modern things, antiquity here you don't see any."

The writing is by a man, recently arrived in Buenos Aires in 1930. A woman, in 1921 a longtime resident of New York City, writes instead:

"Ugly life I desire to no one and yearn for the solitude of my little three-story house from where I enjoy air and a ... picturesque view ... a chaos of beautiful things that afflict even those and confuse to the point, for us who are not accustomed to it, that we put dismay and feel safe other than at home, on a Rockeincea (rocking chair) by the stove that warms everything and everyone."

Both of them are adult and rather cultured people; both recognize that cities offer a lot. The attitude they hold toward the migration experience is completely different and should not depend, in the former case, only on the short duration of the experience abroad. Often the distinction comes through work, through the greater or lesser ease of relating to one's neighbor, through the greater or lesser sense of security and fulfillment relative to the life one leads.

In so many letters it is one sentence, thrown in almost by accident, that gives a glimpse of what the choice to emigrate cost. A grandmother, writes about a grandchild "his name is Tony ...And he asked me where home Italy is." (USA, s.d.).

The naïve question hints at the many times Tony must have listened to his grandmother's nostalgic tales of an Italy that exists, for sure, but where exactly it is "at home" is unknown.

Sometimes then someone goes through life with a suitcase always ready to return: and this is a way of resisting by deluding oneself:

"You will let me know the news ... And here you always work ... but in this land I hope not to grow old." (Brazil, 1920)

In other cases events of world importance pass in the letters:

"At thetro I don't know what to tell you that I am well and so I would like it to be of you people. Let us let you know that here we had a big flu That they were sick almost everyone at once so many houses there was no one to get up and several died as well but no one else for this time sie brought back fori"  (USA, 1918)

This is how "the Spanish" with its millions of deaths worldwide is told: the tragedy is universal but the narrative is internal to the circle of the neighborhood, acquaintances, friends, family above all.

Even what can be called "the wonders of other worlds" have a place in some correspondence:

"Dear Sister Pia I let you know that the Star recounts to me all things fraccia [France] and I tell you that it makes me A mazare from laughter dear Pia let me know if your mistress Arimeso the thermometers to the qulo to the boys." (Italy, 1910)

The thermometer: a little-known instrument!

       Remarkable then is the indifferent, man-of-the-world tone with which one who, in the hotel where he works, goes from making meatballs to cleaning latrines, writes to his friend that he can call him since he has the device in his room:

 " I for now o found a place that touches me to do all quality of work in the kitchen in the hall at the Bar the latrines .... how is it in Florence here it snows slowly and it is cold but to me not in door because to a room all heated by radiator. and 'ò cold and hot water in the room. and Phone. if you want to call me on this and the number Colubus 5 - 9341" (USA, 19 )

As for the outcomes of the integration process, a word used here in the simple meaning of "the absence of particular problems of integration into a new reality," there are few and superficial traces:

"Dearest sister, ... as for the American Lady, did you not understand? Do you really want me to explain myself clearly, she is a concovine of hers." (Latin America? Date?)

The American lady is the concubine of the brother to whom she therefore refuses to visit; this is not a sign of integration but at least a recognition, contested as much as you like, of the existence of different patterns of life. On the other hand, the continuous and frequent exchange of letters, the thought of having a place to which you can return and of a family that will lovingly welcome you when needed, simultaneously slows down and facilitates the arduous process of integration.

Instead it is superficial, again in the sense of lack of problems, the smiling acceptance of a Santa Claus, foreign and little known in Italy in 1930:

"Tell me Mina not even this year Santa Claus is bringing you a Baby?" (Italy, 1930s).

Everything flows, everything changes, said the philosopher. Even emigration.

"what I recommend is that we don't bring anything to eat and don't tie up our suitcase with ropes."

These recommendations are made in the 1960s by a Sicilian emigrant to Australia to his brother-in-law who is about to join him and to whom he has paid for the trip.

The "old emigration," the letter seems to say, is good to forget.But forgetting is not good: today's Italy is also the child of emigrants. Just as the Italy of tomorrow will also be the daughter of immigrants.