My recent visit to Buenos Aires and the research into my story that takes place there in 1945 reminded me that people very similar to those who poured into the United States at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries also streamed into South America. Especially into Buenos Aires, which is called the "Paris of the South," but given its diversity of people of European background (and its 24/7 life style), it's more like the New York of the South.
Many of my 1945 fictional Argentine characters and also a number of the true historical characters in the story are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Writing about them got me to thinking about what it was like for people who left their families to cross the ocean. My elegant grandfather Gennaro Pisacane left Italy at the dawn of the Twentieth Century. He was 16. He came from an important but impoverished family, where tradition demanded the eldest son inherit the property, the second become a priest, and the third go to the army. Born a second son, he had expected to grow up to be a clergyman.
But then his older brother died. As he was leaving school at age 16, he found himself the head of the family, with a mother, two younger brothers, and four sisters to take care of in a land of starving people. He took nobleman’s sense of honor and his education (considerable for a poor immigrant of his era) to the land of the free and the home of the brave. Here he endured, married the beautiful Maria Sabina Alfieri, had seven children, and managed to support all of them, as well as his mother and siblings until they were old enough to take care of themselves. Eventually, he brought most of his siblings to the New World, where they thrived.
|Gennarro Pisacane and little Patty, 1945|
|Emma Lazarus's House|
Just about every day, I pass the house where Emma Lazarus lived. There is a plaque on it with part of her moving sonnet, “The New Colossus.”
Here is the poem, in case you have not read it in a while.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Emma Lazarus, 1883
When I pass there, I think of Gennaro. Sixteen is such a vulnerable age for a boy. He said good-bye to his mother knowing he would never see her again.
He taught me to love music. Here is song from his native land that is generally taken for a love song about a man and a woman, but when I hear it I think of Gennaro and his mother — how he must have longed to see her and the places it describes again and how, when she heard it, she must have longed for her son.
If you want to know the lyrics in Neapolitan or English, look here.
Try not to weep!
* Jewish Women's Archive. "Photo of immigrants on boat looking at the statue of liberty." <http://jwa.org/media/photo-of-immigrants-on-boat-looking-at-statue-of-liberty> (March 6, 2012).