It’s common knowledge that good storytellers are not always writers. With that in mind, Marge Caprara and other members of the Italian-American Historical Society (IAHS) decided that some of those non-writers finally find their way into print. They formed an oral history committee and began to cajole their friends and family into telling their stories about growing up in an Italian-American community.
Now into its second printing, “Voices of Rhode Island’s Italian-Americans” sets down portions of the transcripts garnered in 62 interviews and pairs them with pictures to give us a glimpse of what it was like as Italian-Americans struggled to become patriotic citizens but not lose their connection to their own culture. Fifty-one of those oral histories are set down in this book. Some are funny, some are sad, but all of them display the human side of being a hyphenated-American in difficult times.
Michael Neri, for instance, retold his story about being stopped on his way to certain sugar-shock when his grandfather found him and his cousin helping themselves to some sweets in his Federal Hill bakery.
“When we were small boys, I was the oldest, so I might have been six, my brother was five and cousin Jackie was either four or five,” said Neri. “We liked the jelly machine because one of us would stand there and the pipe that came out of the jelly machine to fill the jelly doughnuts was just about my mouth’s height. One of us would clamp onto the jelly machine and the other two would pump us full of jelly. This only worked for a short while because once grandpa spotted us, he got pretty irate. He would say a lot of things in Italian. It was probably better that we didn’t know what he was saying. If he didn’t throw us out of the doughnut shop, he would always throw us in the other room and told us, ‘Maka boxes!’”
The book, which was compiled and edited by IAHS member Barbara R. Carroll, also tells the story of how hard these immigrants worked to make a better life. The 182-page book includes almost 300 original photographs and excerpts, and describes the hardships, hopes, determination, cooperative spirit and industriousness of these immigrants and their families.
The histories are by second-generation immigrants who were well assimilated by the time World War II came about and many were blessed with success, although even that had its down side sometimes. Dr. James Tramonti talked about his uncle from Sicily who was doing well in real estate before the war.
“My uncle sold the property on Gaspee Point and bought a summer house in Conimicut Point,” said Tramonti. As word of the hurricane reached Providence, Tramonti’s uncle picked up his two daughters and headed for Conimicut, to make sure his wife and his little boy were safe.
“By that time, Conimicut Point was flooded. The car stalled in the water and he and the two girls managed to get into a house. In the meantime, the little boy convinced his mother and other relatives to seek another house, which they did … and they were safe. The house with my uncle and two girls collapsed. The two girls floated clear across the bay to the east shore together in a window frame from the side of the house. My uncle was injured and drowned. It was night by then and the girls found their way to car lights on the shore. My uncle was found nine days later.”
Frank Williams talks of being poor, but he also remembers his mother baking her own bread before they made it big in the landscape business with Forest Hills Nurseries.
“She made her own bread and she made it every week, even when working during the day,” he remembered. “Four or five o’clock, I would wake up to the smell of the bread she was ready to bake. This went on every week … She made meals … We learned … My uncle and I made the sausage. We did everything – grape, we made wine.’
Tony Williams remembered his mother’s habit of what we now call “recycling” or “re-purposing” the bags the flour came in.
“It was during the Depression years,” said Tony.
“She would always get flour by the bag, 100-pound bags, and after she used up the flour, she would wash the bags and then make underclothes for my sister and my brother. That’s what we used for 10 or 15 years.”
Caprara tells about how hard the Williams boys worked in the early years.
“Those boys used to take a lawn mower on the bus to go to the east side and mow lawns,” she said. “Can you imagine doing that?”
“The book was very successful in its first printing,” said Caprara.
She credits the team of interviewers and transcribers who spent more than two years collecting the histories. Altogether, the book represents the efforts of almost 80 people.
Carroll is a genealogist who has specialized in Italian and Rhode Island research for almost 30 years.
“We had two goals when we started the project,” said Carroll. “We wanted to collect accounts from Italian-Americans throughout Rhode Island and we wanted to reflect the diversity of the Italians who immigrated to Rhode Island. The book accomplishes both goals and tells real life stories, which can be entertaining, tragic or inspirational.”
Caprara said the book is not limited to stories of ethnic pride conquering stony bigotry and intolerance, and Carroll allows Frank and Tony Williams to explain why they changed their name to the English spelling of their Italian forebears, which was Guiliermo.
“You have to understand that there was a lot of prejudice against immigrants in those days,” she said. “I remember people telling me of signs they used to see when they were looking for work, saying, ‘Italians and Irish need not apply.’”
The book is divided into three sections: Emigration from Italy, Everyday Life for Rhode Island’s Italian-Americans, and Rhode Island Italian-Americans’ Return to Their Paesi. There is a six-page factual introduction about Italian immigration to Rhode Island. The appendix contains a list of places of family origin in Italy.
The IAHS-RI has more than 500 members of Italian descent from all over Rhode Island. Its mission is to foster the appreciation and preservation of the Italian culture in America and to celebrate the contributions of their sons and daughters to the history of the state of Rhode Island. The late Virgilio DelVecchis and the late Ray Gallo founded the non-profit organization in 1979.
Almost wistfully, Caprara said she sympathizes with people who now come to America to seek a better life and wishes that people would remember that we all were immigrants at one time and treat them with respect and help them. Perhaps reading “Voices of Italian-Americans” will go far toward persuading them.
“It helps to remember what our parents and grandparents went through when they came here,” she said.
For more information about “Voices of Rhode Island’s Italian-Americans” or IAHS-RI activities, contact Marge Caprara, P.O. Box 40160, Providence, RI 02940, Tel: 944-1897. Email: email@example.com. Website: www.IAHSofri.org.