It's the Italian week here in Montreal and if you are Italian or Italo-Canadian like myself, you have most probably been associated to quite a lot of stereotypes. For example: how most of us have two kitchens in our home and that we like prosciutto, mortadella and tarantellas. All too often when I discuss Italian immigration however, I am hit by the misconception of individuals who think most Italians made their move to Canada because they were penniless. As a first generation born in Canada having heard the reasons of why both my paternal and maternal grandparents and parents left their beautiful country time and time again, I feel the need to share a little of their point of view. My goal here isn't to claim I know the history of all Italian immigrants and the reasons as to why they came to Canada but rather, to add variety and truth to these reasons by writing about the story I know so well.
In the late 1880s, the Italian immigrant population consisted mostly of Northern Italian artisans and shopkeepers seeking a new market in which to grow and practice their trades*. Throughout the 1950s, over 20,000 Italian immigrants entered Canada annually. In contrast during this time, primarily farmers and laborers made the move in search of a steady source of income*. This is, I presume, the part where people misunderstood Italian farmers and laborers for a "lower" class and are depicted as poor peasants. Farmers (who also exist in Canada) were used to working outside all day, eating al fresco and coming back to their home at night only when they were done tending to their herds. No wonder they appeared different from the highly industrialized movements that were ongoing in "l'America". While it is true that some were indeed less fortunate and suffered hardships especially following WWI, WWII and natural disasters and did leave to find better opportunities, not all Italian immigrants left for those reasons. Some of these harvesting farmers, like both my grand-parents, were doing quite well and left for other reasons.
Farmers are providers
In a mountainous panorama like that of Italy, being a farmer was something to be quite envious of. Farmers were land owners and usually provided for the nearby villages; selling their fresh harvests and goods. You have land? it means you can be independent from the rest. If taken care of well, your soil gives you back the fruits of your hard labor. Whether you had acres of land or a small patch, you could work for yourself and feed your family through the year and other villagers often came knocking at your door to work on your property. In other words, you had crops? you were an employer, a provider, a supplier and had the potential to be quite prosperous. Apparently, in both my parents' villages, all land owners were quite anal with the definition of their crops as they were often back to back to the neighbour's crops. Big rocks were carefully lined to separate each patch and don't even THINK of getting an inch more on your side.
Both my paternal and maternal grandparents had rather large properties and worked off their own land. The farming business was very patriarchal though. The estates were usually ran by the head father figure who had either purchased or inherited the property. This person usually dispatched work and managed revenue and employee wages.
La Masseria is the name of the estate on my mother's side of the family. Masseria refers to "fortified farm house" usually found in the countryside. Sitting on the lower end of a valley and looking up to its nearby village, La Masseria was well known to the citizens who lived around the area. Its acres of land, its architectural beauty, the sheer size running up to three stories high and all painted in white adorned with a balcony slightly hidden under a lovely arch. That's not counting the fountain that had fresh running water all year round. This dreamlike estate was home first to my great-great-grandparents who bought the property. Through the years, La Masseria evolved to have up to 30 men and women working the fields, tending to the animals (chickens, sheep, pigs, cows, rabbits, pigeons, horses, mules and even 110 bees hives!) and essentially running the place like a true business.
La Masseria knew many years of glory and became known as a reputable employer and provider for many who came knocking at its doors. It also withstood the unforgiving repercussions of the war with its sturdy walls and endless food supply; a heavenly refuge to a few soldiers as well.
Contrada (meaning "zone')"Rizia" was the name of the estate, also a masseria, on my father's side. It was my great grandparents who purchased the land as well. Facing an exquisite panoramic view of hills and never ending sky. Decorated with an orange terracotta rooftop, Rizia was home to five families and counted up 40 individuals working there at one time. With fresh well water and large stone floors, it was once a harmonious and well ran business of its own as well. Not only that, it was the home to many animals including my grandfather's beautiful black horse that was apparently well known in the village.
"Rizia", like the Masseria, also held its share of crazy WWII stories and was in a similar situation to that of la Masseria but in the next door village. It too, like most, was a family estate ran by a patriarchy system. All the same, every member of the family laboured hard, harvesting the land and living by their fresh produce.
Reputation is identity
As it often happens in small towns, each family has its identity; one that enabled any family member including the children to walk in a grocery store, grab a handful of candy and the parents paid it later. Families were well known in town and earned the trust of others. My grandfather on my mother's side was recognized for his thirst for learning, he was fascinated with books and reading everything and anything, even the back of cereal boxes or bottles always in a quest to know more. Knowledge is power and, curious by nature, this is something my grand-father understood and applied very well and through which he earned his reputation in town.
My paternal grandfather on the other hand was very well known for his brilliant craftsmanship. He built and carved almost anything out of wood: chariots, utensils, tools, toys and even skis for my father. With his own two hands and precise calculations, he brought his ideas to life and turned them into impressive and very practical creations. There wasn't anything he couldn't fix. Grandpa' Lemme was also quite gifted with the ability to understand and play music. He was talented with his accordion and played it by ear and straight from the heart, especially in festive occasions of course. In essence, both my grandfathers were instigators of their own and sought brighter futures.
Entrepreneurial dreams and freedom
Being ambitious and visionary workers, the patriarch business model that was running La Masseria and the Rizia contrada caused significant feelings of distress and resistance for both my grandfathers who yearned to grow and manage their own home and revenue in a more modern way. They both envisioned more options for their family and of course, for their children and definitely did not want anyone else to be calling the shots.
Being aware of the Italians moving to Canada as its constructions and manufacturing industries required labor and having family members who had done the move before, they decided it was time to seek out new opportunities. In 1958, by coincidence, my grandparents from both sides purchased their tickets to Canada.
One foot in Canada the other in Italia
Of course opening the door to a new adventure means leaving another behind. The price of leaving was quite high: leaving the comforts of home and the security of the Masseria and the Rizia estates. Leaving family and friends behind. Being stripped of your identity when you arrive in a new city, no longer being able to use your family name and reputation as trusted value.
All of these sacrifices to answer their entrepreneurial and be independent. Free of patriarchal rules. Free to be the creator of your own future. Learn a new language, a new trade. Still, leaving Italia must not have been easy and I cannot even imagine leaving my hometown not knowing what to expect. Lest we forget though that many, including both my grandfathers, had survived the war and were used to braving the unknown. They kept contact with their families and had pieces of home shipped to them by ordering books and things regularly, keeping up with both countries all at once.
On both paternal and maternal sides, the families were crop owners and had endless food supplies. They, as many others did, I have no doubt, sacrificed a lot to come to Canada and left behind a home that they very much loved. They rebuilt their social life and eased the estrangement that came with the process of moving to a new country with the help of clubs and banquets.* They found jobs, contributed to the economy and in building the city, all the while bringing their salsiccia, vino and tarantellas along with them.
This is most likely why my parents insisted we maintain the Italian culture and enrolled us in Saturday Italian school (12 years!), sensitized us to old traditions but kept an open mind for new ones as we returned to the old country regularly. They told us the stories of our ancestors to ascertain we properly understand and remember where we came from. We do.
Funnily enough now, with the bio and environmental movements, everyone seems to want a piece of land! ;)
Bee Italo-Canadian and proud.
My name is Ivana. I love photography and meeting people. I hold a Master's in counselling psychology and work as a career consultant. Music is my fuel and an important source of energy in my life. I drive my vespa around the city and I love what I do! :) About this blog: me on my artistic soap box!
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