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April, 1997.
La migliore parola e quella che non si dice.
The best word is that which is not spoken.

For many Italian immigrants who came to this country, the English language was definitely an imposing barrier. It had a very alien sound, very different from the familiar dialects of the old country. Its sounds seemed harsh and did not flow melodiously but Instead, seemed staccato-like, different and unfriendly.
Learning this new language then was a difficult obstacle for the immigrants. Many, who worked with fellow Italians, did not care to, nor did they feel they needed to, learn more than the basics, and therefore, learned just enough to get by. Many of the immigrant women never bothered to adopt this foreign tongue at all. And many did not learn the language even after having resided In America for thirty and forty years. Used as a security blanket, they kept the dialects of their villages alive by speaking them in their homes.
By necessity, however, a smattering of English was acquired and was absorbed into the dialects of the newcomers. This new language was neither the original dialect nor was it English, but an amalgam of both. It was used for communicating with "the Americans", who called It "broken English". Gradually, this new patois was also commonly used to communicate with family and with others in the neighborhood.
English words were Italianized, transformed by adding vowels to the end of words: the "car", for example, became "lu carru", the "street" became "lu strittu", and the "job" became "la giobba". Some words took on a complete metamorphosis: the word "backhouse", which was used at the time to mean toilet, became "bacausu". Moreover, some of the English words that were Italianized had not even existed in the old country. For example, the word "basement" became "basciamento" this was a new word because back in the villages there were no cellars.
In "La Merica" then, the paesano, armed with his new language, put on his "giachetta", walked along "lu strittu", went into "la marchetta" and carried away a "boghisa" filled with "la bif stecca" for dinner and "cheicca" and "aisse crima" for dessert.
The following is a partial list of words that were absorbed and transformed into the immigrants' new language:
airplane--arioplanu
backhouse--bacausu
basement--basciamento
boss--bossu
box--boghisa
bricklayer--brickelaya
cake--cheicca
car--carru
coat--cottu
factory--fatoria
farm--farma
farmer--farmaiolo
grocery store--grosseria
ice cream--aisse crima
jacket--giachetta
job--giobba
market--marchetta
poker--pochero
shovel--sciabola
stamp--stampa
steak--stecca
store--storru
street--strittu
ticket--ticchetto
turkey--turchi
yard--yarda

Special thanks to Vic Rini for supplying this article.


May, 1997.
L'Isola delle Lacrime"
He started his long journey from where he was born and raised, in the small village of Chiusa Sclafani, in the province of Palermo. It was 1898 my grandfather was only sixteen years old when he left Sicily for "La Merica." He came with a cousin and two of his friends, all from the same village. The first lap of the journey, the trip from Chiusa to Palermo, a distance of about 40 miles, was made partially on foot and part of the way by donkey-drawn cart; it took a little more than two full days.
After arrival in Palermo, they waited on the dock where they finally boarded a small launch for their choppy trip up the coast to Naples. There they would board a large steamship, which would cross the turbulent Atlantic. Of coarse, they had very little money and traveled steerage class, as did almost all the Southern Italians who came to this country. On board they were assigned to double-decker bunks in very stifling and uncomfortably close quarters; many became terribly sick. The long hard voyage took a little more than 17 days. Conditions aboard ship, especially in steerage, were overcrowded, smelly and filthy; It was a great relief to get out from underneath and go up on deck for the ocean air, regardless of the weather. Crewmembers, however, sometimes took advantage of steerage passengers, ordering them about and pushing them aside.
Many of the immigrants, having brought their own food, hard mustazzoli cookies, chunks of salami and hard bread, had by now run out of provisions. Reluctantly, they ate the "boat bread" (soft white bread) and very bland watery soup the crew served on deck.
Finally, when they reached New York harbor they were rounded up on deck and given identification numbers. Curiously, those who were wealthier first and second-class passengers were given medical exams on board the ship but steerage passengers were taken off and put on barges headed for Ellis Island. At the Island, they were again handed tickets and were called on numerically to be lined up for their examinations in "JUDGMENT HALL". A chalk mark was placed on the coats of the unlucky ones who did not pass: they were to be detained. An "H" meant heart problems, A "K" meant hernia, a "C" meant conjunctivitis, etc. If the condition was serious enough, they were detained even longer and finally deported back to their village in Italy.
My grandfather waited patiently on various lines for what seemed days, first in the "GREAT HALL" with all the others, and then throughout his examination, until finally he and his comrades had successfully passed all the obstacles. The entire process was chaotic, degrading and frightening for many of them. Throughout, they harbored many fears about the Island, especially those with families who were afraid they might become separated. But all, however, were frightened the uniformed physicians would detect some physical or medical flaw and they would inevitably be sent back to their village in humiliation. Maybe that's why they called the place "L'Isola delle Lacrime" - the Island of Tears.
Finally, my grandfather and his comrades boarded the ferry to Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan and all that awaited him now were those streets that were paved with gold.

Special thanks to Vic Rini for supplying this article.


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