Our Italian Migration Story Part 2: The Cachemire

Five years after his mother’s death, my great grandfather Leonardo Demma was becoming a man. He was just five feet three inches tall, with broad shoulders and a lean muscular build. His wavy hair was jet black and his eyes were dark brown and set deeply behind bushy black eye brows. His olive skin became almond colored while working on the family date during the summer months. Leonardo thought about the promise he made to his mother for hours as he tended to his family’s land. He imagined the steps he would need to take to get out of Calabria. He wondered how he would get his passport and how he would get to Naples. He wondered most about what his life would be like when he reached America.

Around this time, Leonardo’s cousin Nicholas married a charming young woman named Rosina Orsina. Rosina looked as if she was from a different class – like a wealthy countess from the aristocratic society of Rome. She had a gaunt frame and moved about lightly with grace and dignity. Her cheek bones and long nose shaped her face and her thin red lips contrasted convincingly with her milk white skin. Leonardo was captivated by her soft hazel eyes, in which he detected an inner peace and contentedness that he envied. She flashed Leonardo a smile, which immediately flushed him. He was shocked by the overwhelming feeling of warmth, and this made him blush, which embarrassed him causing him to blush further.

“How lucky you are, my cousin,” he said as he kissed Rosina’s cool and fragranced hand – a foreign gesture he imagined would impress the sophisticated bride. Nicholas was amused by his cousin’s reaction to his Rosina and he kissed his new wife aggressively to diffuse the awkwardness Leonardo caused. All Leonardo could do was hope to meet a woman like Rosina in America.

In 1892, Leonardo had saved enough money for a train ticket, a passport, and a steamship ride to New York City. Rosina, the only person on the farm who could read and write, accompanied Leonardo to get his passport and to see him off at the train station. She admired and envied Leonardo. She saw the emotions in him playing like a movie on his face. First a smile of excitement and joy, now the excitement becomes anxiety, now worry, now sadness, now joy again. She tried to talk to Leonardo about the farm and his youth, which succeeded in distracting his mind. Before he knew it, he was kissing Rosina on the cheek and then on a train to the port city of Naples.

As his train approached Naples his heart raced in exciting anticipation at the first time he would see a city. Naples was the former capital of the southern kingdoms of Italy, and, with a half a million residents, was the largest city in Italy at the time. Millions of Italians would journey through Naples, just as Leonardo would, before the Great Migration was over.

But Leonardo’s lonely train ride allowed worry to creep back into his thoughts. All of Italy had heard about the horrible cholera epidemic in Naples. The population density and a poor sewage system caused the disease to spread wildly, leading to mass hysteria and an economic depression for the tourist city. For Leonardo, he worried that his cohort could be one of the ships departing from Naples to be turned away from America and quarantined. He prayed for protection as the tall buildings rose over the southern Italian countryside.

When Leonardo’s eyes first met the Cachemire, his mind could not believe such a vessel was built by man. The steamship was brand new, less than ten years old. A leviathan of steel and iron, the Cachemire stood forty feet above the water and measured over three hundred feet in length. Leonardo would board with seven hundred of his compatriots (gum-padres as he pronounced the word later shortened to goombas in America).

He found no comfort in the incredible mass of people gathered at the port who shared his fate. They all seemed eager and fearless, but Leonardo’s lonely eyes, sunk deeply behind the brim of his hat, his pulled back brow, clenched jaw, and pursed lips conspicuously communicated the dread and terror he so desperately tried to hide. America mind as well have been the moon, and the Cachemire a spaceship. “Was life on the farm so bad?” Leonardo wondered as he wandered closer to the ramp leading up to the deck of the Cachemire. He looked down at his shoes, as one foot slowly and involuntarily advanced in front of the other. “It’s not too late to turn back,” he pleaded with himself. He glanced at the men to his left and to his right, quickly returning his gaze to the floor before connecting with their eyes. His heart raced, but before he knew it, the dirt ground had turned into a wooden ramp and then a steal deck. For the first time ever, his feet no longer stood on Italian soil.

Time accelerated. Leonardo’s thoughts were quiet and he melted into an environment he could not comprehend. He felt utterly out of control.

Smoke plumed out of the three giant stacks protruding from the center of the deck blending with the grey sky above. The steam mixed with the foul smell coming from the ocean and the boat began moving in the opposite direction Leonardo expected it would. He became disoriented and nauseous. He rushed to the rail, his stomach felt contracted, and he watch with a sense of regret was the steamship pulled farther and farther away from the land. In this desperate moment, Leonardo suddenly remembered his mother Giovanna. He remembered he was fulfilling her dream. He closed his eyes, tried to picture her face, and slowly he became calm.