At least until the end of nineteenth century, Italian emigrants crossed the ocean on obsolete sailing ships which were rightly called “Navi di Lazzaro”. The journey, which could take as long as a month even in the early years of the last century, was made in conditions that would be unimaginable today. And the worst part was the accommodation.
Berths, all on the lowest deck, opened on to corridors which received air only from the hatches. Conditions were cramped everywhere. As a result, in the morning everyone was forced to move to the main deck, on the bridge, regardless of weather conditions. Respiratory and intestinal diseases were rampant and mortality was very high.
The suitcase has long been a symbol for emigration. And before the suitcase, there was the so-called “fagotto”: a piece of cloth, or a shawl in the best case scenario, in which one could wrap up the few things to take away to the new country. In some of the pictures published here you can see women “infagottate” (bundled up), acting in lieu of the luggage they did not possess by wearing layers and layers of clothes, in order not to leave their poor but precious belongings unguarded in the hold. And inside the fagotto, or the suitcase, there would be a whole “world”: memories of a family now far away, a ticket for a relative or for a fellow citizen, sometimes a letter of presentation for someone who could hopefully give a hand, perhaps some food, a musical instrument – seemingly little but in its way a world.
And, for the far-sighted, a sort of makeshift dictionary. In the Cresci Foundation archives is an example of a booklet with phrases and expressions in English, containing sentences such as:
“Ianmen, ai nide bai santin ciu it, iu uil scio mi becher sciop Giovanotto,
io abbisogno comprare qualche cosa da mangiare, voi volete mostrarmi panettiere bottega”.
From the 1920s on, the duration of the journey and conditions on board significantly improved, with the advent of the huge passenger steamers on which large numbers of emigrants sailed.
In the earthly paradises described by the “Guides”, harsh reality was actually very different. Shortly after their arrival, emigrants started to realise what America was really like, and not merely the country they had dreamt of. The images of an earthly paradise which had dazzled them were rudely shattered by the cumbersome bureaucratic formalities which they had to go through, particularly in the United States, where many of them were denied admission because they had crippling diseases.
Those who were accepted were treated, almost bartered, as if at a cattle fair or a slave market. Various measures were taken over the years to limit the numbers of immigrants.
In Argentina and Brazil, which became home to masses of Italian emigrants, even landing was not easy. Voyagers could land only after being transferred from the ship on little boats (in Argentina the last stretch of sea was even crossed on little horse-carts, while in Brazil Sao Paulo was reached by train from the port of Santos).
Once on the mainland, people were accommodated in structures which could be defined as “temporary mass accommodation” – the Hotel and the Hospedaria for immigrants.
The governments of the two countries provided general information on local customs and traditions, as well as job centres, though there was no selection of the newly arrived on the basis of their working skills.
The driving force behind the emigrant was the “migratory chain”, a network of relatives, friends and fellow citizens who had already been part of the exodus and were in a position to guide the newly arrived through every stage of the experience, helping them settle more easily.
When immigrants reached the New York City harbour they were forcibly routed to Ellis Island where they underwent a long and strict screening. Many immigrants were rejected and had to return to their homelands as a result of immigration laws. The reasons for rejection were many: health and hygiene (e.g. trachoma) extreme poverty, age (too young or too old), family status (widows and orphans with no-one to care for them in the USA). In 1917 the long (for more than twenty years) promised and announced Literacy Act (Immigation Act 1917) was passed. This immigration law, featuring a ban on illiterate immigrants, seriously reduced immigration and meant rejection for many Italian immigrants, especially those coming from Southern Italy regions.
Further restrictions on immigrations came into force with the enactment of 1921 and 1924 Quota Acts that set very small annual “quotas” of immigrants allowed in the country according to ethnicity.
The Statue of Liberty – which has always been called Miss Liberty – was donated to the United States by France as a sign of friendship, and was closely linked to the phenomenon of emigration only after Emma Lazarus’s verses had been carved on the pedestal where the statue stands: “Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp! (…) 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!”.
The beautiful lady seemed to be as great as America, and as the emigrants’ dreams of “making it to la Merica”. Actually, on arrival in the port of New York, after staring with due amazement at the imposing lady, emigrants were disembarked and forced to Ellis Island, where a long series of regulations meant a drastic selection. Yet, in the imagination of many emigrants, the Statue of Liberty became America with all its contradictions. Not only did they find out that roads were not paved with gold, but they also realised that it would be their job to build them.
And their hope of living in equality and freedom would soon fade away.