August 7, 2008
“Le Promesse Rotte.”
Historic Construction: Port Of Entry
Sicily is a place that many today go as a tourist destination. Vacationers are stunned by its beauty and say things like “if only I could live here, I would be happy.” I lived on a farm in rural Sicily and I did not share the popular idea that Sicily is a beautiful place. My father had passed away from disease and it was only myself, my mother, and younger sister. There was little hope in the face of devastation. The night before I boarded the ship, my mother said, “there are no guarantees, Nicola Valentino. Promises made are promises broken. But I may promise you this; there is a place where you are given a choice. America is a place where you may say no.” She knew this from hear say, for she had never been to the America’s. She knew this because she believed any where is better than Sicily. She believed I would do better there. This is what my mother told me the night before I boarded the ship to the America’s. This is what I learned at fifteen years old- I have no choice.
At fifteen, I was severely destitute. Looking back now, I suppose I came to America the same reason poor American boys join the military – it’s the only way out. But much like them, I did not get what I expected when I was promised security and prosperity. I left Sicily for the United States on April 4th, 1895 and arrived at Ellis Island on April 11th. I then had begun searching for a place to sleep. The city was like nothing I had ever seen. I ended up in a place now referred to as Five Points in Manhattan. It was not like Mother had described. This was not the land of the free I had hoped it would be. I had no money on me, and no plan to speak of. I went into a building and had a seat. To my surprise, there were not many women in the saloon and many men sat playing cards. I sat in the saloon for a bit, sitting to myself, until all of a sudden I heard yelling overcome the dim lit saloon. One of the white men had jumped from the table, threw his cards, and begun pushing the other men at the table. I did not understand what he was yelling about. I did not know English nor was I familiar with the card game being played. I saw a young man who looked like me; I knew he was from Italy as well. I stared for a bit but did not approach him. It was only later that I would learn his name, learn where he came from, learned why he was in America, and why he was in this saloon. He would later show me a place to sleep, a place I would live for a long time. However, we did not speak but only exchanged eye contact –this moment was not a fleeting exchange of understanding – this eye contact established my life in America. I would later discover his name was Celio Bonaventura and he found prosperity in gambling.
Celio introduced me to my home in America which became a little room no larger than a closet. My mattress had lain on the wooden floor. The sheets that covered the mattress were yellow with brown stains that had not washed away. I slept here for many years. I sent many letters home telling my mother of the wonderful life I had achieved. I told her that America was everything she said it to be and I had achieved our dreams. While I was used to living like this, in Sicily I had spent most of my time outside. In New York, I stayed mostly in my room. The allies were lined with carnage, victims, orphans and tramps gripping on to their American dream, believing that this is what they came here for. The children, not much younger than I walked aimlessly, speaking none, desperately searching. The children’s eyes skimmed the streets for the strangers who had birthed them. The strangers who were victims too -who had died in their closets of diseases I would never know the name of - of diseases no one bothered to treat. I sometimes found myself skimming the streets along with them – hoping to find what they were so desperately searching for. I often wondered why someone did not stop it and how I wish I could do something to end it. No one gave these children a place to sleep because there was no place to sleep. They wandered aimlessly into allies and were victims of silence.
My neighbors were from the same place I was. We all shared the same dreams of escaping the life we had known in Sicily. We all shared the same shame in lying to our families back home when we told them we had achieved the American dream.
When I left my family behind, I believed I would see them again. When I received my first job as a street vendor, I sent home what money I could – which was not much. I did not sell my bananas for much. I did not sell my apples for much. I did not ask for much because there was not much to be given. I took what I could and it wasn’t much. I had come to know many men who told me of their family. They told me they had brothers who went to work in coal mines and railroads owned by the leaders of this country; the ones who controlled this country. They had fathers who had become shoemakers and mothers who had done laundry. No one had told me how to be like the leaders of this country. They just told me how to stay alive. Many of them had died before I had a chance to ask more of them. Many them had gone back home to Italy. The glow their faces shown when their ship landed were now covered up by shame and dirt.
When I could not buy food, Celio introduced me to a man named Paulie. It was only then when I could stop selling fruit. It was only then when I could send more money home. It was only then that I stopped sleeping in yellow sheets. Paulie turned my stand into a grocery store. He turned the back of the store into a gambling den. I was a part of La Cosa Nostra, what would later be referred to as the Sicilian Mafia. Paulie taught me how to speak English and I was a quick learner. Paulie taught me how to dress and how to have the barber cut my hair to match the rest of the guys. He taught me how to kill the Irish and the Jews and how to have them on my side. Paulie showed me the men that came into five points wearing suits, going into allies and buildings to give away turkeys. These men would give us jobs and they’d buy up Fifth Avenue but they were our heroes because they did something. We found out there was money to be had in their campaigns where they bought the city up, so we gave them some of ours to get more back. We found boys to do our jobs for us and taught them how to take lives. We taught them how to kill because that’s how they would get what they wanted; what no one was willing to give them. We taught the young boys how to steal coins from another mans pocket. They felt they had no choice but to listen to us and we felt we had no choice but to teach them. We knew this was their only hope and our only hope. We never got caught because we knew the system. We paid the cops off and we paid Tammany Hall off. If there was ever a witness, they lost their memory.
There were always girls at the parties and always around. Paulie paid some of them to sleep with men and beat them if didn’t. There were always girls around but not the kind you want to marry. In one of my trips up town, I met a girl named Kathleen who had blonde hair and long legs. Her father was wealthy and I don’t know why she ended up with me, but when I asked her to marry me, she said yes. She taught me how to be an American, she taught me what to say in public and what not to say. But most of all she showed me that the stories my mother told me were true, but it just takes time to see it. She told me that no where in life could possibly be a dream and nothing is ever as good as it seems. She began houses that taught immigrants how to care for their children and how to be an American. She took care of them. She helped me leave Five Points and leave Paulie when her father gave me a job and gave us a house. We were married for ten years before I lost her. She became extremely sick and never became better. She died in 1918 and I have missed her ever since.
My mother was right not to promise me happiness because I am not sure she nor I could understand happiness. We have the right to pursuit happiness, but not the right to happiness, that cannot be promised. I never went home to Italy though I saw many go back home. I have since lost my wife and I am now an American. However, my struggle to survive in this country will never end. I strongly believe now that the American dream is not about riches and fortune but of survival.
Italian immigrant. It has been shown that during the period of 1880 and 1920, 4 million Italians migrated to America. No other ethnic group has sent so many immigrants at one time, (1). Most Italian immigrants of that time were male, (1). According to Alan Brinkley, most immigrants were young; the majority between fifteen and forty-five years old, (2). Therefore, I decided that my protagonist should be Italian and fifteen years old when he enters America.
“Nicola Valentino,” two popular Sicilian names, (3). I first chose to write my narrative on an Italian immigrant after I learned about Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti; to me, the represented the discrimination and fear that many American’s had towards immigrants. Nicola Sacco highly influenced the protagonist’s name. The narratives protagonist, Nicola, comes to America in order to have a choice and represents the dreams that all immigrants possess. I chose Nicola as his name because it means people’s victory. He overcomes harsh living conditions and discrimination and works harder than any one should have to. He does not accept defeat; for this reason, I chose his first name to be Nicola because it is a popular Sicilian name and it embodies what he represents. I chose his last name to be Valentino for several reasons. First, it is also a popular Sicilian name. Secondly, it means of hope and love; it represents the hope Nicola had when he emigrated to the United States – the reason many come to America, hope for better, for more; it represents the love that he possesses for his mother, Italy, and most of all, of himself. These two names are combined to define who Nicola is as a person, an immigrant, and later as an assimilated American.
o “Celio Bonaventura,” common Italian names.
I. Celio: Means “heaven.”
II. Bonaventura: Means good fortune in Italian. The 13th century saint Bonaventura was a Franciscan monk and a Doctor of the Church (4).
Nicola first settles in Five Points in Manhattan which was known as the worse slum in New York City. Five Points was an immigrant ghetto (2) home to many multiple family tenements where Nicola would live. It met at the intersection of five streets in Manhattan including: Anthony, Orange, Mulberry, Cross and Little Water.
Nicola talks of what he has heard of other people doing to survive in America. This is used to demonstrate the other choices made by immigrants to survive, including migrating west to work at railroads, (468).
Five Points was the original spawning place of the old time gangs such as “Five Points Gang,” (164). The gang was also called the “La Cosa Nostra,” or the Sicilian Mafia. This gang was prominent in American culture, breeding such gangsters as Al Capone. I felt it was important to relate Nicola to the Five Points Gang because of the situation he was in. I think it strongly indicates the choices he had to face: poverty or wealth. In this case, however illegal, he chose wealth. Although, he did ultimately leave the Five Points gang when he met Kathleen.
The protagonist, Nicola, was heavily influenced by Anthony Apacalo, the first major mafia don of New York City. Nicola was also influenced by Paolo Antonini Vaccarelli also known as Paul Kelly. He was also mildly influenced by Johnny Torrio, another Five Points gang boss.
Tammany Hall plays a minor part in my narrative but nevertheless an important one. “By threatening voters, falsifying voter lists and stuffing ballot boxes, the gang helped aid corrupt city officials in the infamous Tammany Hall.”
In the 1900’s, the three leading causes of death were pneumonia, tuberculosis, and diarrhea and were responsible for 1/3 of all American deaths, (9). Therefore, in the beginning of my narrative, Nicola describes the mass of people and children dying around him. This also describes the poor living conditions of New York City.
The 19th century shift in population from country to city that accompanied industrialization and immigration resulted in outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, influenza and malaria, (9).
Nicola’s wife, Kathleen, is killed in 1918 because of a influenza pandemic which caused 500,000 deaths in the United States and 20 million deaths total, (9).
v Brinkley, Alan. The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of The American People. Vol. II: From 1865. Focusing on:
Ø Chapter 17 –
§ “The Immigrant Workforce,” (468-469).
¨Used to describe how immigrants impacted the growth of the industry, why immigrants came to America to escape poverty, and the jobs they were subjected to.
Ø Chapter 18 –
§ “The New Urban Growth,” (479)
¨ Used to describe and understand the growth of immigration during the 1890’s.
¨ Descriptive explanations of “immigrant ghettoes,” and tenements.
¨ Descriptive explanations of the stride immigrants made to assimilate and become “true Americans.”
¨ Used to explain that the majority of immigrants were young – between 15-45 yrs old and male.
§ “The Urban Landscape,” (485)
¨ Used to gain a better understanding of the living conditions poor immigrants were subjected to such as tenements in comparison to the living conditions of the middle-class.
§ “Strains of Urban Life,” (489).
¨ Used to describe poor living conditions Nicola endured including pollution, poverty, crime, and violence.
¨ Describes existence of “gangs,” in the urban community. Inspired me to research further the existence of Italian gangs in New York City and therefore decided to make Nicola a part of a gang to demonstrate his living conditions and environment.
Ø Chapter 21 –
§ “The Settlement House Movement,” (557-560)
¨ Used to describe the supposed need for immigrant assimilation by the development of such settlement houses as “Hull House” created by sociologist Jane Addams.
§ “The Temperance Crusade” (573)
¨ Used to describe the effect temperance had on immigrants.
§ “Immigration Restriction,” (573-574)
¨ Used to describe the immigrant population’s effect on social problem’s and the effect it had on the immigrants themselves.
¨ Describes the “nativist” view.
Ø Chapter 23 –
§ “The Red Scare,” (621-622)
¨ Describes the effect radicalism and communism in the 20’s had within the United States and the measures taken to prevent it.
¨ Describes Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti; two Italians convicted of murdering to pay roll employees in 1920 mainly because of their affiliation with Anarchism. Therefore revealing the meaning behind the protagonist’s first name.
Ø Chapter 24 –
§ “A Conflict of Cultures,” (640-642)
¨ Describes the effect prohibition had on Catholic immigrants such as Italian’s experienced.
¨ Describes Nativism.
¨ Describes the Ku Klux Klan’s judgments and acts towards immigrants.
v Bibliobase: Primary Source Documents for History. Edited by Michael Bellesiles. 2000. References made to:
Ø How the Other Half Lives (1890) by Jacob Riis, (10-11)
¨ Used to describe tenement living conditions that many immigrants in poverty were forced to face.
v Taking Sides: Issues in American History, Vol. II, 9/e. Edited by Madaras-SoRelle. 2001. References made to:
Ø “The Failure of Progressivism” (1971) by Richard M. Abrams
¨ Used to describe progressivism’s effect on immigrants on the “ethnic movement.”
v World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime by Jay Robert Nash. Paragon House Publishers: 1992.
¨ Used to describe mob bosses of the Five Points gang.
The Italian Immigrant Experience in America (1870-1920) by Joan Rapczynski.
Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Curriculum for a lesson plan to teach eleventh graders of Italian immigration in to the United States. Very useful in that it uses valid statistics and describes why many Italians migrated to the US. I use this website for statistics on Italian immigration and to get a better understanding of what Italian immigrants experienced.
Tell Me Your Name: Sicily – The Meaning of Sicilian Names. A guide to the origins and meanings of Sicilian names, Accessed through a Google search on “Popular Sicilian names,” in order to add Sicilian authenticity to the protagonist of my narrative, Nicola Valentino.
Behind The Name: Italian Names. A collection of Italian names and meanings, accessed through a Google search on “Italian names,” to define a name for Nicola’s friend, Celio Bonaventure. I used a different website than I did for Nicola because it is never specified what region of Italy Celio is from. Therefore, I used a broader search engine.
An informative site in which depicts the Italians immigrants origin and history in the United States. This was very useful because it addresses every issue an Italian immigrant faced. Describes the hardships in Italy that would inspire an Italian to travel to America and what they experienced at Ellis Island. It was this site that showed me that many Italians never made it past New York and many settled in south Manhattan and Mulberry Street. I then discovered that Mulberry St. was apart of “Five Points,” which was the worse slum in New York City.
Federal Bureau of Investigations. Organized Crime. Overview of Italian Organized Crime. Describes the history and long standing legacy of the Italian Mafia in American society. Describes Charles “Lucky” Luciano, a Sicilian, as the person responsible for starting the American La Cosa Nostra. Website also describes the Sicilian mafia and its relations in America.
Builders & Titans: Lucky Luciano. By Edna Buchanan. Time Magazine. 1998.
Article describes personal biography of Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Used to gain a better understanding of organized crime in the early 1900’s.
Immigration: A Journey to America. “The Italians.” ThinkQuest. Describes the living conditions in which the Italians faced when they emigrated to the United States. Provides a prolific history of Italian immigration.
Broad informational website describing the living conditions at Five Points in Manhattan. Used to describe Nicola’s life in Five Points as well as the organized crime he was thus involved in.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Information from Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. (1900-1999). 1999. Vol. 48 No. 29. CDC study revealing living conditions in the 1900’s, leading cause of death, and life expectancy. I used this site to decide how Nicola would die and at what age. Also used to describe the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Wikipedia: Five Points Gang. Quote used concerning Five Points and Tammany Hall.
Harpers Weekly: Cartoon of The Day. “Hygiene of New York City.” 1865. Describes the ignorance of New York City health officials in 1865. Used to describe the unsanitary conditions of tenement housing as well as the epidemics in which accompanied it.