In Italian class last winter, learning about the history of the people who emigrated from Italy and about the conditions of their lives before they left, I learned the word “bracciante.” I was surprised to come across this word and happy to learn its meaning. The first (and previously only) time I had seen it was in an archives in Salerno, a city in the south of Italy near Naples. The researchers there had found the marriage certificate of my great-great-great grandfather, Santo. Excitedly scanning the document, I learned some of the details of his life for the first time, including his profession: bracciante.
In class I learned that the term comes from the word braccia (arms) and refers to a manual laborer. The braccianti worked in the fields by the day and didn’t have their own land. Such simple information, but history came alive and I understood the life of my ancestor a little better.
I appreciate any information I can get. When I started to develop more of an interest in my roots, my family was unable to give me many specifics. Maybe it was for lack of knowledge, since the ancestors in question had been dead for years, or because when I was younger I didn’t ask my relatives the right questions before they passed away.
Sure, I had heard plenty of family stories. Funny stories like how the kids used to giggle when my great-grandfather said “sauercrap” instead of “sauerkraut” and called his wife Marie “Muddy.” Sad stories like how my great-great grandmother couldn’t afford to keep all of her children after her husband died and sent one of the girls away when she was ten years old to earn her keep in a boardinghouse. Heck, even about what a great lover my great-grandfather had been before his untimely death in his forties.
The hard part was gathering concrete details. A great aunt, full of good intentions, told me that her grandmother’s name was Rosella Montecorvino. From other sources I discovered the name of the town near Salerno from which she had emigrated: Montecorvino Rovella. I realized she had made a mistake, and while it made me smile, it didn’t help my research. When I asked her how she had come about this information, she said, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s just something I had written down.”
Just one of my ancestors came from Northern Italy. The hometown of this great-great grandfather was the hardest to track down. The most specific detail I got from my family was that he came from “the North.”
I understand that here in Italy I have a valuable opportunity to not only fill in the blanks with places, names, and dates, but also to live the other side of the story and experience firsthand what I had only known from stories about this faraway place across the ocean.
This is why I get emotional when I find things out for real. In Salerno I read with fascination the names of Santo’s parents, my great-great-great-great grandparents. Because he was illiterate, Santo signed his marriage certificate with an X. Seeing the faded ink mark made by his own hand felt like proof that he really existed.
I like to imagine what my ancestors would have thought about my desire to live in Italy. It’s probable that they left the country because life was hard and they dreamed of better opportunities in America for themselves and for their children. Discovering that the streets weren’t paved with gold, perhaps they felt nostalgic for their own country. But would they ever have dreamed that a great-great granddaughter would leave the new world to return to the old?
The old experiences of my ancestors are my new experiences, and that makes me feel closer both to them and to my new home. Maybe they would be pleased to know that they have not been forgotten.