A Journey Home: Tracing My Family Roots Back to Sicily

The most captivating aspect of the Italian-American experience is the journey back to where our families began.

By: Felicia LaLomia, ISDA Contributor 

It was August 2018 when I made the journey to Enna, my grandfather’s hometown tucked deep within Sicily. Everything I had imagined was suddenly there before my eyes—cobblestone streets, vineyards along hillsides, centuries-old buildings and stone-carved churches.

The interior of the Enna Cathedral (Duomo di Enna) in Sicily. It’s the mother church of the city, as well as a national monument and a UNESCO site of peace.

Enna, with its 30,000 inhabitants, towered over the countryside with breathtaking views and winding roads that zig-zagged, leading me to the center of my heritage.

As my family and I headed for the coast, I felt like I was in another land. The vibrant blue sea crashing against white cliff sides. The coastal towns were full of colorful art and salt-of-the-earth people. The age-old architecture of places like Agrigento attracted thousands of tourists.

In 1914, my great-grandfather left this land for America. He traveled through Ellis Island and ended up in the Buffalo, N.Y. area. He, like millions of other immigrants, was in search of a better life. In Sicily, his family had a farm. In Buffalo, they had a farm–100 acres. He came with his mother, sister and brothers. His father was already here, having first emigrated to Argentina before deciding he didn’t like it. He ventured back to Sicily, and then traveled to Buffalo.

What’s left of my grandfather’s family is very far removed. It’s the children and grandchildren of the cousin of my great-grandfather (both the cousin and my great-grandfather have passed). But we couldn’t travel all the way to Sicily without seeing them. So we spent half our trip in Enna. They hosted us for dinner every night, setting up a table that extended into the outdoor seating area. It was a table of about 25 people, most of us only speaking one language. The few people that did speak both were constantly being used as translators, shifting between three different conversations at a time.

My dad got a little savvy and used a translating app, speaking English into his phone, and it would translate the words into Italian aloud. Needless to say, it was one noisy table, but language was never a barrier.

Then the food and the wine came. Crispy, fried arancini, marinated olives, layers of soft eggplant blanketed with rich, red sauce, crunchy bread smothered in vibrant, spicy olive oil, peppery cured meats, crumbly, sharp cheese. And the various 2-litre water bottles filled with red wine scattered across the table made the English speakers try to speak Italian, and vice versa. As the late setting sun went down under the cliffside, we were just getting started. Out came dessert, massive tubs of gelato. They certainly don’t call Sicily God’s Kitchen for nothing.

It was incredible to see this little island where so much of my culture stems from. It was amazing to connect and bond with my Italian family, and it’s an experience I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.

If you’re interested in tracing your roots, a great place to start is the Resource section of our website. You’ll be able to connect with other Italian-Americans in your area and search through immigration documents, and birth and death certificates. Start your journey here, and share what you uncover.

Open my heart and you will see, Graved inside of it, “Italy”.

-Robert Browning, poet and playwright


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