When We Were The Emigrants

emigrants italian
Photos by Stefano Ciocchetti. Courtesy of Società Cooperativa Sistema Museo

We are all just passing through one, single earth.

By Chiara Severini

The migrant crisis is a highly topical issue: almost every day we are bombarded with news and updates on the situation of the coasts of Italy and of other Mediterranean countries which are affected by the migratory wave of refugees coming from war-torn countries. The European governments are struggling to find a way to cope with this perpetual emergency and seem to find it hard to communicate and adopt a common line.

Italians are increasingly unhappy with the state of affairs: These days, it is common to hear comments such as “we don’t have enough space for them”, “they are taking our jobs”, “they’re invading us”, “prima gli italiani” (a local version of the Trumpian “Americans first”) and so on, that should sound a note of warning.

We ought reflect on our history

We ought to stop for a minute and reflect on the meaning of nationality and on our own history. We can’t just forget a past marked by a real exodus that saw millions of Italians leave their country to find a future somewhere else.

Some expressions we use in Italian still remind us of this history of migration: “trovare l’America”, (which litterally means “to find America”) is used to say that someone became rich all of a sudden, and it could be compared to the English expression “to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow”. We also use “lo zio d’America” (“the uncle from America”) to talk about someone who is rich and generous enough to support us financially. The fact that this imaginary uncle comes from the United States is not fortuitous: the expression originates from a period of great emigration towards a land that Italians, and Europeans in general, depicted as a place where everyone could find their own richness.

The Museum of Marchigiani Emigration

I have recently visited the Museum of Marchigiani Emigration dedicated to the inhabitants of the Marche region that emigrated at the end of the XIX century and in most of the XX century. I was there with a group of students that were in Recanati to study Italian. They came from Australia, South America, Argentina, Uruguay, México, Brazil. In general, every year, thousands of people of all ages come to Italy to study our language and discover something more about the origins of their families. Their surnames (and sometimes their names as well) reveal the story of emigration of their ancestors: they tell us a lot about our past, about the value and meaning of mobility and of the absence of barriers.

The students and I were given a guided tour of the museum and learnt many interesting facts that should be part of everyone’s cultural background. How many Italians have emigrated? What forced these people to leave their birthplace? How was the journey that led to other continents? What were their expectations? How was the actual place they arrived to? What was it like to be an expat at the time?

More than twenty million Italians took the decision to leave what they knew to head to the unknown. Let’s take the number of Marche’s inhabitants to understand the scale of this phenomenon: around 700 thousand people abandoned this region, predominantly made of small towns and inhabited by relatively few people (its population is around 1,5 million today). The main reason they decided to leave was the need to find a job to maintain entire families. Sometimes, only one member of the family was able to embark on the journey; in other cases, everyone moved to country of destination. In the event that only some family members emigrated, they would send part of their earnings to Italy (the money received was called rimessa) and manage to compensate thus for the lack of work in the homeland.

A cardboard suitcase and little else

The imaginary of the destination of their journeys (United States, Canada, Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Australia, just to name the most common ones) was created by the commercials they saw in posters, leaflets, postcards: what they expected to find was a world full of possibilities and opportunities.

Those who desired to emigrate could obtain their permit by receiving the letter of some relative who was already there or of an employer, who used to pay the one-way ticket. This latter was quite expensive and not easy to pay back, though. That’s why many Italians took the decision to travel as clandestines.

The two principal ports from where the ships left were Genova and Napoli. A cardboard suitcase which contained the few things they owned (be it some clothes or something to eat) was all they could afford to take with them in a journey that lasted a month or more. Not everybody made it to their destination: a common risk was, for example, falling ill during the trip which meant, in the worst cases, being thrown overboard to avoid the contamination of the other passengers.

Once arrived at their destination things weren’t easy either: work was hard, the new country was less idyllic than they had imagined and the family was far away. Many learnt to write in order to send letters home to keep their contacts alive. Pictures of food and feasts were sent to reassure those who were at home of the wealth that expected them once they had the possibility to reach their family.

Italians are citizens of the world

At the end of the museum tour, a big touchscreen monitor is at the disposal of the visitors to do their own research: a website, ciseionline.it, makes it possible to find those who emigrated. By writing the surname of the person we’re looking for, we can see when, from where and at what age they had to leave. If we’re not lucky and we cannot find this person among those who registered at the departure, we can consult Ellis Island’s website, Castle Garden’s, or the Centro de Estudios Migratorios Latinoamericanos, which registered all those who arrived.

It can be said that we Italians are citizens of the world: this means that we cannot be blind to the needs and sufferings of others, those who are experiencing today what our own ancestors lived before them. Safeguarding our culture and our values is licit, but it is also essential to respect others and be open to understanding and sympathy. All things considered, we are all just passing through one, single earth.

Photos by Stefano Ciocchetti. Courtesy of Società Cooperativa Sistema Museo