How a Dream Drove 500,000 Italians to Write a New American Story

The Abruzzese turned a gutsy dream into a storied reality.

By: Pamela Dorazio Dean

My grandparents emigrated to Western Pennsylvania from the province of Chieti, in the Abruzzo region, in 1910. I never had the opportunity to ask them why they left, or why they chose PA. But research and histories have revealed some answers.

According to a number of studies, Western Pennsylvania coal companies were booming in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and, as such, needed lots of workers. They went overseas and recruited Italians and other Europeans for the jobs. My grandfather was employed at the coal mine in Ellsworth, so this is a plausible explanation of why he settled in that region of the U.S.

As to why they left Italy, historians have identified a number of general push factors, which initiated the mass migration of Italians, including my grandparents, to the United States. The major factors that prompted Italians to leave their homeland included extreme poverty, starvation, and a lack of opportunity for economic and social mobility. Farmers, who made up the majority of southern Italians, faced difficulties in succeeding or even just getting by because of high taxes and a lack of arable land on which to grow crops.

America’s pull factors, or those that attracted immigrants, included abundant opportunities for work and hope for a better life. They learned of the opportunity from letters from family, friends, and neighbors who had already come to America. The majority chose to remain in the U.S. and take advantage of the opportunities as citizens; a few capitalized only temporarily and returned to family in the paese with the money they made to improve their situation at home.

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These generalizations helped to establish a basic, if not cursory, understanding behind the reasons of the exodus of millions of Italians. Those familiar with the history of Italy, however, know that each region and town is unique in its history and culture. A good example of the differences is the variety of dialects spoken across Italy.

The historical and cultural variances extend to the development of push factors for emigration. Therefore, in order to gain a deeper understanding of my grandparents’ motivation for leaving their home country, an investigation into the history of the Abruzzo is necessary.

The situation that set the stage from the mass emigration from the Abruzzo region is rooted in and developed over thousands of years of history. According to writer Marco Maccaroni, and his article The Phenomenon of Emigration in Abruzzo, “the key to understanding emigration is found only in a thorough evaluation of what Abruzzo had become through thousands of years of an almost isolated territory, self-sufficient economy and independent local administrative systems.”

Abruzzo is an ancient settlement, with the first humans making a home there between 2,000 to 1,000 B.C. By 90 A.D. the Abruzzese fell under Roman rule. Maccaroni asserts that because the area offered nothing economically or militarily, Rome ignored it for the most part and therefore formed the foundation for a weak, troubled economy and an unorganized, ineffectual government that would last for centuries.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, a number of other groups fought over and ruled the Abruzzo. When the Lombards came to power, they actually divided it into two areas, referring to it in the plural as the Abruzzi. The Normans reunified the Abruzzi in 1150 A.D., and it became part of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. In the 13thcentury, the Angevins, Aragonese, and Bourbons all attempted to reorganize the Abruzzese government without success.

The unification of Italy in 1861 initially offered hope of improvement. Farmers under the federal system were freed, and the government granted land for them to develop on their own. However, according to the article Emigration: The Abruzzo Story, “No systems were put into place to enable these farmers and artisans to thrive in their new free lives.”

The newly freed farmers were without adequate tools to work the land and received no financial support from the government. The wealthy inserted themselves into the situation for their own personal gain, and created a system whereby farmers became poorer and their station in life set in stone.

Successful farming in Italy was further hampered by the importation of grains grown in the U.S. and South America. Emigration: The Abruzzi Story states, “This huge influx of new competition pushed down the local grain prices by over 30%. Interest rates soared and the life of the Abruzzese farmer was no longer sustainable.”

According to Maccaroni, by 1915, 500,000 Abruzzese were living abroad. While at first, the reduction in the labor force in the Abruzzi region appeared that it would improve the economy, the opposite proved to be true. Those who left were the young and able-bodied, with the majority of those who remained being elderly. With this significant workforce reduction, the already-debilitated economy continued its decline.

The Abruzzese immigrants settled in cities with other Italains throughout the United States, including New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, etc. Some, like my grandparents, settled in smaller cities. Basically, they ended up wherever they could find work.

Much success has been found by the Abruzzese in their new countries, whether first, second, or third generations.

It is important to note that there are plenty of people from Abruzzo who, although not “famous,” were successful in simpler ways. With practically nothing in their pockets upon their arrival in America, my grandparents made a home and life for themselves. They supported and raised a family of four boys on their own through the Great Depression and lean years of WWII. Through example and love, my grandparents instilled in their offspring the values of a strong work ethic, faith, protection of family, and doing service for friends and community that helped them and future generations continue on the path of success.

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