I once bought a tee shirt at the feast of San Genaro, in Little Italy in
New York City,
It read ďAmerica Ė We Discovered It Ė We Built It Ė And We Feed It ď That statement is so true.
I was born in a town atop the foot hills of the Apennine Mountains, named
Fossato Serralta, in the Region of Calabria. It is a small town, surrounded
by olive and chestnut trees. Like in many of these small Southern Italian
towns, the people farmed the steep mountain sides, and tended goats. It
is because of one of these goats, that I was born a month early. My mother
was out tending the goats, when one decided to run away. While chasing
it my mother went into labor, and shortly after I was born. It is a funny
story, but true. My name is Luigi Cubello. This is the story I was told,
and it makes me smile every time I think of it. This story, and many others
like it, gave me a sense of my homeland that I was too young to remember.
When I think of these memories, it is difficult for me not to feel moved,
happy and sad, all in one. This is the story of my Italian heritage, as
told to me by my family. It has made me into the person I am today.
When I was a child, my family and I would sit around the kitchen table. My father would sit at his place in the corner by the window and listen to opera on the radio. While dinner cooked on the stove, and steamed up the only window in the room, my mother would impart to my sister and me, stories of what life was like in Fossato. My sister and I would listen attentively soaking it all in. My sister, being older would have memories of her own. My father would joke around and, and attract a harmless frown from my mother, that quickly turned into a smile. I had all the questions. Here, while eating dinner, I learned about my town, my grandparents, and the joys and the hardships of growing up poor in Southern Italy.
We heard about the earthquakes, the tempests, and the floods. We were taught to love our patron saint, Saint Francis of Paola. And we heard about the mysterious superstitions. There was a delicate blend of good and evil. But Saint Francis would surely protect us. My mother used to tell me how on cold winter nights, she used to sit with a plate on her lap in front of the fireplace with her mother and father, sister and brother and eat cheese, suppresatta, and bread, that my grandfather would cut with a knife, and pass around to the others.
I learned about how my father fell in love with my mother. How he respectfully asked her parents for her hand in marriage, and then told her that she was going to be his forever. It was a poor land yet no one ever went hungry. These images filled my heart with warmth, and my head with images so different from what I was accustomed to in my home in New York City. And yet they were so real and so familiar. It was my home, my land, my culture. I was born poor, but I felt so rich with tradition. My family came to this country, penniless, but filled with ambition and hope for a better life. There was my mother Vilma, my father Giuseppe, my sister Dora and me. I was two years old, my sister was seven.
I remember all the friends my mother and father had. They would visit us and we would visit them. My family and their friends would gather every summer weekend at Orchard Beach in the Bronx. And we transformed that place into an Italian oasis. We would stay until the sun went down. We were all from the same town and we shared similar experiences. I could write a book about the summers at Orchard Beach.
My great grandfather, Luigi Calogero and my great uncle Giuseppe Cubello both from my fatherís side of the family were the first to leave their families and their homeland and come to America. That was in 1910. Luigi was 27 and Giuseppe was 18. I am not sure if they knew each other at that time. My great grandfather came to New York, with $25 in his pocket. It was said that he worked on building part of New York Cityís water supply system, the Kensico Dam in Westchester County. One by one he brought over his children, with the exception of my grandmother. Like many other Italians, eventually he went back to Calabria and lived out his life. His children remained and built a comfortable life here in America. So I guess Luigi Calogeroís, dreams of a better life for his children, was for filled. It was Luigiís children, specifically my fatherís aunt and uncle that paved the way for my family to come to America. Giuseppe went to Niagara Falls, New York. He served this country in World War I. Eventually he too returned to Italy. He married, started a family and eventually returned to America and settled in Albany New York. We visited them practically ever summer.
The Calogeroís assimilated very well into the American culture. There were four families, and lots of cousins. They were all born here with the exception of one. Most of them were older than my parents, with children of their own. We would visit each aunt and uncle for every holiday. They all were our extended family. Every one of them gave us a glimpse of what American life could be.
The Cubelloís on the other hand were true Calabrese. And they still are today, making their own wine, cheese and suppresatta. Whenever we visited, the food, the wine, the tambourines and the accordions would be brought out and we would have a real Southern Italian ho-down. These people would give you the shirt off their back and the shoes on their feet. My great uncle Giuseppe and I would tend to the garden, which covered every square inch of the backyard. With the family dog Lola, we would go out looking for grass to feed to the rabbits. I made him my surrogate grandfather, and he gave me another piece of my Italian heritage. My great uncle Johnny (Eugenio Calogero), and my great uncle Giuseppe Cubello, were the greatest source of information about my familyís migration to America.
My father and mother were married when they were twenty years old. A year later my sister was born. Finding work in Calabria was never easy. Day labor was the rule. You lived on what you could grow on the hillsides, and the few livestock you owned provided for the rest. It always amazed me how primitive life was for my parents and grandparents. They didnít own much. But they had family and that meant so much. And I never knew how little we had or how hard life must have been. They all seemed so happy. Maybe itís because they had each other.
Shortly after my sister was born, my father fell ill with rheumatic fever. He nearly died. It crippled him so badly that he was unable to bend to tie his own shoes. But the illness didnít take away from his devotion to his family. It didnít take away his aspiration of making a better life for his wife and children. One of the most heart warming stories my mother ever told me was how my father used to get into bed with me to warm my feet on cold winter nights in Calabria. With only a fourth grade education, and a debilitating illness, there was not much hope for the future in Calabria. My parents made the hard decision to leave their poor little town and their families and come to the land that welcomed so many of our people. My fatherís family here in New York City sponsored us and in April of 1956 we found ourselves in a three room apartment in The Bronx, New York. Three days later my mother started work in a factory that made very expensive shoes.
My mother supported the family, while my father fought to regain his health. I could see the frustration in my fatherís eyes, because he couldnít support his family, but I never saw anger. Instead I saw a man with ambition. I saw a man with a sense of humor. He would make things with his hands, small wooden chairs, for my sisterís dolls, little wooden wagons for me, and little cardboard houses, for the Christmas village. We had the smallest Christmas tree, but he made it look so big. He was gentle and kind, funny and strong. He never told me to get off his lap, even though my weight hurt his legs.
Once he started to feel better, my father began to go to school to learn English. He was determined to lessen the burden on my mother. My mother made cloths to make ends meet. My father cooked dinner and took care of me and my sister. Everything we did, we did as a family. Family, it was what made our people strong and prosperous in a foreign land. We didnít have much, but we were happy. We had enough to offer a meal on the holidays to the janitor in our building. The man lived alone and in the basement. We were taught to share and to be charitable to those who had less than us. We were taught that we would be rewarded in knowing that we had helped somebody else. We were taught to respect people for who they were.
Eventually my father felt well enough and found a job. I can remember the family sitting at the kitchen table, my father talking a mile a minute about how much better things were going to be. That Christmas Papa Natale came, and left so many toys for my sister and me. I can still see the gleam in my parentís eyes, for they gave us the best Christmas I can ever remember. Four months later, my father died, five years and two days after, he first set foot on American soil. I was seven. My sister was twelve. I hope he realized how much he did give us. Itís a sad story, but it has a happy ending. You see, Italians never quit.
Although my familyís dynamics changed, my mother never gave up. With the help of family and friends my mother was back on her feet, and she pushed on. She didnít run back to Italy. She didnít seek welfare. She became an American citizen. She worked hard. She devoted her life to her family. I have to believe that her Italian heritage had a lot to do with her strength and courage. She did it on her own. She did it for us. She did it with respect for my father.
When I was fourteen years old, I finally saw my homeland with my own eyes, we returned to our little town in Calabria. We were greeted with open arms. And although I was too young to remember it when I left, the place was so familiar. The people were so kind. My grandmothers were so loving. The air was so fresh and fragrant. The sky was a deep blue that I had never seen before. And the canopy of stars at night was like what I image heaven to be. This was my land, my country, my beginning. It is part of who I am. I didnít feel like a stranger. Everything was exactly as my mother had described. All the pieces of her stories came together. For me America is the place where I live, and it has given me every opportunity it can afford. But Italy is the place where I was born. ďThe blood of my bloodĒ
My great grandfather and his children and the many Italians like him helped make the America I found when I came many years later. They helped build the foundation for the dreams my parents envisioned for their children. They planted the seeds of hope, and the seeds of happiness, that my father felt in the last few months of his life. They came with courage. They gave with their blood, their sweat and their tears. Their contributions helped make this country the beacon of hope for all humanity.
My sister and I have done well for ourselves. We both went to college. She is a teacher and has given back tenfold what America has given to her. My mother is not out chasing too many goats lately. But she does feed the slot machines in Atlantic City from time to time. She speaks her own brand of English that only we can understand, and she is finally enjoying the fruit of her labor. I work as a civil servant. We have followed in the foot steps of many first and second generation Italian Americans, in spite of all the twists and turns life put before us. I know my father is proud of us all. We have lived through our hardships and we are humble and proud of our achievements. It is the lesson our parents taught to us. It is the integrity and family values Italy gave to them.
For my mother and father, thank you for your courage, your vision and your
strength. Thank you for all you have given me.
(left) Christmas 1960 - My father Giuseppe, my mother Vilma, me Luigi,
my sister Dora to the right of my sister is Rex.
(right) Easter 1960 My father, mother, Dora, me and my father's sister Francesca who lived with us.
(left) Crotona 1958 - (right) Left to right: Dora Cubello, Mother and Luigi Cubello arrive USA 1956
If you would like to write to Lou Cubello: email@example.com