Our Italian Migration Story Part 1: The Promise

Modern Italy was not a unified country until the mid-nineteenth century, and unification was hard-fought. In 1860, a charismatic leader named Giuseppe Garibaldi led a rag-tag militia and finally removed the French Bourbon occupiers after two hundred years of brutal tyranny. The movement was named after the militia’s battle cry – Risorgimento! Garibaldi turned over control of the rugged Italian south to Victor Emmanuel II, King of Piedmont, creating the Kingdom of Italy. For the first time since Roman times, Italy was one country with a promise that this new regime would restore Italian greatness. The peasant warriors who reunited the country returned to their farms. One of these warriors was my great great grandfather Samuel Demma.

Samuel was nineteen when Italy won unification. He returned to a simple life of sustenance, and immediately married his boyhood love Giovanna Palumbo. They inherited a share of Samuel’s family’s small date farm in Scandale, a tiny town in Calabria, Italy’s southern most province. The Calabrese people were dirt poor and these newlyweds were no exception. Railroads had not yet reached Calabria. It wasn’t until the 1850s that the Calabrese people enjoyed indoor bathrooms, finally putting an end to men, women, and children relieving themselves in the streets.

Meanwhile, in the recently reinstated capital city of Rome, King Victor Emmanuel II was anxious to modernize and expand the northern provinces of Lombardy, Piedmont and Venice. To fund this revitalization, the government began levying new taxes on Italians, which crippled the already impoverished south. So debilitating were these taxes that the peasants again took up arms. This time, poor southern farmers formed militias financed by the recently ousted Bourbon king, and the Italian peasants of the South fiercely attacked their own countrymen in civil war. It would take the North years to crush this rebellion and restore peace. Thousands of Italians died during the savage struggle, one of them being my great great grandfather Samuel. His wife never had the chance to tell him about their baby boy she was bearing.

Alone and desperate, the pregnant Giovanna begged her brother Serverio Palumbo to move in with her. Serverio agreed, and would nurse his pregnant sister through two months of bed rest. She cried during the endless hours of idleness dreading the life her child would inherit. The world was changing around her. Illness, famine, and the policies of the new regime had decimated the southern countryside. She wondered, “Would it be better to never be born at all rather than being born into such a hopeless life?” which startled her and filled her with shame. She fearfully suffered through those last weeks of pregnancy, with no comforts and no strength.

Leonardo Demma was born in 1872. Giovanna felt more terror and exhaustion than love on her son’s birthday. Despite the achievement of surviving the birth of her first child, she knew her toughest days were in front of her. But Leonardo’s innocence and tenderness gave Giovanna hope. There was goodness in her world now, and she would spend the rest of her life protecting and preparing Leonardo.

Inside their home resided three adults – Giovanna, her brother and his wife; two babies, Leonardo and his cousin Nicholas; a donkey who helped with the farm and transportation; and two chickens. The family ate mostly home-grown beans, vegetables, soups, and crusty bread, only tasting meat once or twice per year. Most of the cooking was done outside over a stone enclosed fireplace.

Life on the farm was brutal. The summer sun split the arid ground open with gouges bigger than the donkey. Several other families worked on the farm, including many of Leonardo’s uncles and cousins. The boys began helping with chores before they were five years old, and soon began working from sunrise to sunset with the adults.

The center of the community in Scandale was the Saint Francis de Paolo church in the center of town. Saint Francis, the patron saint of Calabria, lived in the thirteenth and fourteenth century. Known for his miracles, Saint Francis was most famous for walking on water. Legend had it, he once was denied passage to Sicily by a boat crew, and sailed the journey across the Strait of Messina using only his cloak and his staff.

Peasants were systematically denied schooling, and nearly three-quarters of the towns did not have roads linking to other towns. There was no sense of country and a deep sense distrust of rulers had been ingrained in the Southern population. Each region of Italy, and to a lesser degree, each town, spoke a distinct dialect. The variations were so different that someone from Calabria would not understand someone from Campania who would not understand someone from Abruzzi. Italy was a unified country only in name.

After unification, Rome began rapid deforestation in the south, using the timber to modernize the northern provinces. The resulting change to the southern ecosystem hurt all kinds of plants and farms. Worse, stagnant pools of water caused a malaria outbreak that was the worst Europe had ever seen. In 1881, Giovanna was one of twenty thousand southern Italians who would die from the disease.

Giovanna made her only son make her a promise in her final days. At church, she was told of a growing country at the other side of the Atlantic. The local priest promoted America as more than a land of opportunity, it was a paradise on earth. Already, Italians were leaving poverty and persecution behind by the tens of thousands, and one of the greatest human migrations in history was under way. “This land is cursed, Leonardo. If you stay here, your sons will be born poor and they will die poor. Bring light into your mother’s life one last time – promise me you will move to America. Promise me you will begin a new life as soon as you can.”

Leonardo’s promise warmed his mother’s heart one last time before she was gone.