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My Grandparents Rocco and Nicoletta’s emigration story started like most – the pursuit of opportunity represented by the “American Dream.” It was the belief that hard work results in real economic progress for your children and generations to come.
Prosperity in rural southern Italy in the post-war era seemed like an impossible dream. After an application process that lasted more than ten years, Nicoletta and all of her children except her oldest daughter, Rosetta (due to visa problems) and Rocco (due to obstinacy) boarded a ship in April 1960 bound for America.
Burdened with thoughts of what will be left behind (their way-of-life, relatives, home, friends, church, etc.) and what was coming (a city 1,000 times larger than Forino, a new language, different nationalities, skyscrapers, etc.) combined with excitement for the opportunity awaiting them, Nonna (Italian for Grandmother) displayed the courage and commitment required to leave her husband and daughter in her home and depart for a distant country. Gaetano, my Father, was very particularly excited by the prospect of the economic opportunities awaiting him in America.
On the boat, Gaetano and his older brother, Gabriele (whom we now call "Ralph"), spent the entire time roaming the ship eating and drinking to their hearts’ content. They fondly remember the boy they befriended who packed prosciutto and salami for his relatives in America. Once the captain announced the meat could not pass customs, the Chef sliced the meat and the boys held a party every night in a life boat to consume it before arriving in America. The devious boys secured wine for their festivities by feigning illness in the dining room. The diners scattered, and the scoundrels gathered the wine bottles left on the tables.
After a two week voyage filled with seasickness, mischief, and a close encounter with the Harlem Globetrotters, they spotted the Statue of Liberty. Their hearts leapt with excitement in anticipation of all the new world had to offer. Perhaps foreshadowing his future factory ownership, Gaetano was amazed by the enormous factories on the Hudson River.
Making it in America required strength behind the courage. Armed only with an address scrawled on a scrap of paper, Nonna walked in search of the factory to get the job available to emigrant woman at the time. With her limited English, she asked a postman for directions by showing the paper and exclaiming, “Paper talk.” Undaunted, she did not stop until she found the factory and secured a position sewing linings into coats. The children quickly settled into jobs or school.
Gaetano started his lifelong career in the food business with a dishwashing job at Chappy’s diner in Paterson, New Jersey. From that humble beginning and without any formal education in America, Gaetano learned to become a chef, owned restaurants, and eventually founded a very successful food company that made and sold products in every state of his adopted country.
Within one year Rocco and Rosetta made the passage and the family was united to pursue the American Dream. However, the opportunity Rocco and Nicoletta pursued was not necessarily for themselves, but for their children and their descendants. For Rocco and Nicoletta, America meant hard work to support their families, not luxury on gold-paved streets. Fortunately, both lived into their 90s and saw the fruits of their emigration. They enjoyed seeing their children pursue prosperous careers and raise loving families that produced American grandchildren (with a great sense of their heritage). Gaetano eventually built a house in his Italian hometown, but he never considered permanently returning, and became a U.S. citizen in 2016.
Poppy and Nonna returned to the old country a couple of times to visit, but never wavered on their decision to emigrate or had any desire to return permanently. Nonna frequently exclaimed in normal conversation about anything good, “Thank you America.” Nonna and Poppy, my grandparents, were eternally grateful for this great country and overjoyed their family took advantage of the American Dream.
~Written by my brother Richard