10d-The Serrapede Family in America: Learning about the prejudices Italian Immigrants Encountered

Introduction

This posting was originally entitled “10d-Station Break:  The Trevi Fountain”.  It started out as an informal entry about my visit to the Trevi Fountain in Rome during the Summer of 1976.  Prior to the trip my view about the fountain was shaped by Hollywood movies and the accounts relatives gave of their own vacations in Rome.

At a deeper level, the posting enabled me to present a subject I had struggled with, namely learning about the very strong opposition Americans had towards admitting Southern Italian immigrants to the U.S. from 1900 through the 1920s.  I now realize that I had two purposes in crafting the posting this way.  One was to show how different my personal experience of the Trevi Fountain was from what was presented by the popular culture I grew up in.  Likewise my Great Grandfather experienced a different reality in America than the one he may have heard from other birds of passage.  The discovery of many news articles from the 1900s through 1910s which present in all the immediacy the bias against Italian immigrants was a new experience for me.  It was one I was not prepared for since I had never been taught this in school nor had my grandparents ever complained to me of it.

To honor the memory of Great Grandfather Gennaro, I have changed the title and added this introduction so the reader will get a better idea of the purpose of this entry consisting of various memories and discoveries.  It reflects the changes this family history project is making in my thoughts and life on many levels.

The Trevi Fountain:  More beautiful than I had envisioned

My first view of the Trevi Fountain.  Rome, June-July 1976. 

Grandpa Sam’s niece Italia and her husband Antonio hosted my Grandparents and I when we stayed in Rome during our vacation in Italy in the Summer of 1976.  On a very bright, hot day Italia and her daughter Stefania took Grandma Josie and I out for a whirlwind tour of Rome.  We covered all the major sites including the Vatican.  As the sun climbed higher into the sky the heat and brilliance of the sun increased.  When we came to the Trevi Fountain it beckoned us to draw closer and closer.  This fountain was bigger than anything I’d seen at home, including the fountain in Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village, New York.  The fantastic palace in the background added to the sense that I had stepped into a movie set.  It was everything I expected and more.  I wanted to linger there but since we had a full schedule there was only enough time to take one photo.

My Childhood vision of Italy and the Trevi Fountain

 My paternal Aunt Maureen and Uncle Alex had achieved their lifetime dream of taking a vacation in Italy in the mid-1960s.  They both loved Italian culture, language and cuisine.  As a child I heard Aunt Maureen and my Mom discuss their favorite films.  One of Aunt Maureen’s was “Three Coins in the Fountain”.  She said it was one of the first films that brought the beauty of Rome to her and made her want to go there on vacation.

I never grew tired of hearing my Aunt and Uncle describe this film which was made in 1953, the year I was born.  The story centers around three American women who are on vacation in Rome.  Each throws a coin into the Trevi Fountain and makes a wish.  In the course of their vacations each woman has her wish come true. Each wish fulfillment also brings complications into their lives.

By the time I was 10 years old in 1963 I thought everyone loved Italy, Italian food, and culture.  Mrs. Sachs, my 5th grade teacher at P.S. 204, loved opera and even took us on a trip to see a performance of Rossini’s “Cinderella”.  During trips to the Brooklyn Museum or Metropolitan Museum of Art my parents now spoke to me about the Renaissance.

As I grew up, I knew that there were some people who associated Italian-Americans with organized crime.  As a 10 year old, though, my outlook on life was still very optimistic.  We weren’t all considered gangsters, I thought.  Everyone knows that there are good and bad in all groups.  Such were my thoughts.  I was sure that most Italian-American immigrants were welcomed into the communities where they settled.  They were responsible, hard working, family oriented people.  I could never even think that America would not welcome them when they left Ellis Island to begin their new lives in America

The America Great Grandfather Gennaro came to

I began researching what the conditions were like in the U.S. when Great Grandfather Gennaro Serrapede came here during the period 1900-1913.  Through the research and discussions my Uncle Sammy and I discovered just how deep the animosity was against Southern Italians.  For the cultured, educated Northern Italians there was the acceptance and respect my teachers had me believe extended to all Italians.  Until we read actual news articles from 1914, my Uncle and I did not have any idea the extent of the prejudice and hatred the Southern Italian immigrants had to deal with in this country.

Neither my Uncle nor I grew up aware of the degree of this prejudice.  We knew in a general way that people outside of our community held sentiments that included a disdain and sense of cultural superiority.  Much of that was mitigated by growing up in the Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn, NY.  During the 1930s through the 1970s the ethnic majority was Italian-American.  No matter what we experienced in other neighborhoods or during our travels we always came home to a place and community where we did not have to deal with that.  Learning about the America to which Gennaro Serrapede came during the early 20th century brought with it an emotional response.  How to express what we experienced during our readings and discussions was a challenge.

Expressing my reactions to the attitudes Southern Italians experienced in the period 1900-1920

One night I sat down and wrote three letters to Gennaro.  When completed the contents of the postings were in draft form covering the contentious material and giving thanks for Gennaro’s fortitude and strength to return to the U.S. anyway so that he could earn wages to support his family.  These letters will appear in the next three postings.  At the end of this series we will upload the original news articles which caused us to reconsider many long held beliefs on how Southern Italians were treated in this country.  We hope that what we have learned about the hardships in Italy and how eager many Southern Italians were to come here legally and obtain employment will offer another side and dimension to the story which the writers of that 1914 publication did not consider.

Making up for lost opportunities during the vacation to Italy in 1976

When I was in Rome Italia discouraged me from throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain.   She thought it was superstitious.  If I had known then what I know now about what our ancestors had endured I would have felt great sadness for them.  I wouldn’t have wanted to toss a coin into the fountain and wish to come back to Italy.  There also would have been an element of disgust at the Italian government for failing to help the Southerners after Unification.  I would, though, have had a different outlook when we went to Agropoli.  I would have been more attentive to the relatives I met.  I would have listened more to what my Grandparents told me as they pointed out who was who and what relationship they had to us.  I would have learned earlier what our ancestors were like.

I may not have actually thrown a coin into the fountain but in my mind I did.  I have not physically returned to Italy.  Yet the Italy of long ago, when my ancestors were alive, is now entering my life through this family history project.  I am so glad that now Uncle Sammy and I have this knowledge to appreciate the earlier generations of our family who lived long before we were born.

Resources

Three Coins in the Fountain
1953 Film Trailer at Youtube

“Three Coins in the Fountain”
New York Times Review published May 21, 1954
by Bosley Crowther
http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9B02E5DD173FE23BBC4951DFB366838F649EDE

Official website of the Trevi Fountain
http://www.trevifountain.net/

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