You should make the trip, he said, you’re already in Italy and if you put it off for another year you’ll never go—and he was right, so many times I’ve caught myself imagining a particular journey I was going to make one day, suspended in a kind of shining bubble in which everything goes according to plan and I am a different person. A woman named Rita, whom I met on Facebook and who is quite likely the only Greci resident to speak English, offered to put me up, because there is nowhere to stay and it’s nearly impossible to reach with public transportation, and so I opened the Trenitalia website and booked the trip to the village my grandfather Luigi emigrated from nearly 120 years ago. Florence to Bologna, Bologna to Foggia, Foggia to Ariano Irpino, I am going to do it, I thought, I’m going to get on a train and go to the village Luigi never returned to; that his mother, Maria Luisa, never returned to; that none of his nine Bronx-born children, including my father, had ever seen; none of their children had ever seen. Waiting in the station for the Frecciaargento from Milan, which was half an hour late, I watched as a Roma woman inserted a copper cent into the vending machine I’d just lost a Euro in, trying to purchase a bottle of water. She slid the lever across the coin slot, looking over her shoulder to make sure that no one was watching; I was wondering if she had a plan to retrieve my trapped Euro, but then an announcement came over the loudspeaker: the track had been changed, the little Italian I’d retained was enough to recognize the train number, otto otto zero sette, binario numero sei. After boarding and settling into my seat and checking the itinerary, I saw that there were only twenty-five minutes between the original arrival time and the Intercity I needed to make, but the train had four and a half hours to catch up and surely Trenitalia wouldn’t let its passengers miss the last connection to Ariano Irpino, and so I relaxed and opened the laptop and corrected a text I’d been translating and logged into the wifi and sent it off. Outside, I caught a glimpse of what I knew must be the sea in the distance, between buildings, too brief for the eye to perceive anything more than a flash of faraway blue. And then the coastal cities came into view, Rimini, Pesaro, Ancona, miles and miles of seaside towns, of stabilimenti, a hardcore tourist industry lying dormant in the late February sun. It was the first time I was seeing the Adriatic, and I tried to imagine hundreds of thousands of sunburnt vacationers in row after row of beach chairs, sweaty flesh in flipflops and swimsuits, skin greasy with sunscreen, Italian pop music blaring, lying prone beneath umbrellas stretching off to the horizon. After we’d left Pescara behind, I noticed my neighbor pacing up and down the aisle, talking on his cell phone. He’d been speaking to the conductor, I heard the words “Ariano Irpino,” and I realized that he was asking if we’d make the connection. I pointed to my cell phone and inquired via Google Translate; it was still in the cards, he said, but he was optimistic. A half hour later, when it became clear that we weren’t going to make it after all, I opened the laptop and found the bus we’d need to catch. We arrived in Foggia in the middle of a thunderstorm; there were no signs anywhere, you had to simply know what to do and where to go, know to walk down the block to purchase the ticket at the Kiwi Bar, know that the bus would come from one direction but would make a U-turn and leave from another spot altogether, there were no bus stops and no one to ask, only a lonely figure huddled here and there under one of the tiny shelters in the driving rain, but I’d had the good fortune of sitting next to Fabio, the only other passenger on the train going in the same direction.
In Florence, I’d been texting with my cousin; she’d been feeding me little slivers of information, and as my hosts picked me up in Savignano and we drove up the hill, to Greci, I wondered if it wouldn’t have been better not to have come, if I didn’t perhaps prefer not knowing, if it wasn’t enough to wonder, to speculate, Greci and the Arbëresh and the lost Italian-Albanian diaspora in the Bronx—was it the internet search I was after, the detective work? Was I even interested in the reality of it? There was something about the error, the mistaken and the fragmentary that felt closer to the truth.
I’d only ever heard Arbërisht spoken in YouTube videos. It’s likely that my father didn’t know that his father’s dialect wasn’t Italian, but he’d heard it, surely he’d heard his father talking to his cousins and cousins’ cousins and everyone else he knew that had emigrated from Greci, and now here I was, the guest of strangers, or rather relations, because everyone is related to everyone else in Greci if you go back far enough, hearing these sounds interspersed with Italian, spoken and often shouted by people kind enough to offer their daughter’s room to a foreigner. Rita was tired, she’d done this so many times before, taken in all the lost American lambs and brought them to see the Greci sights: the white stone bust of Skanderbeg on Piazza Umberto; the fountain where the villagers once fetched their water, its stone surfaces worn smooth by generations of women scrubbing clothes; the graveyard and its many Meolas and Gliattas and Panellas and Sassos and a repertoire of first names repeated over and over again: Carosena, Nicola, Filomena, Pasquale—families had to give themselves nicknames to keep track. How many times had Rita heard the Americans ask the same questions, take the same pictures, the obligatory photograph in front of the sign leading into town, the obligatory photograph of the houses clustered atop the hill, surely she must be weary of it by now, and what do the foreigners care about the realities of Greci, its dwindling population, the lack of opportunities for its young people, the fact that Arbërisht is dying out because the children no longer learn it—what use is it that the language is protected by Italian law if the government doesn’t undertake anything to save it? This small village, founded in 535 when Justinian commissioned an expedition to battle the Goths, was reduced to rubble by the Saracens in 908 and rebuilt in 1039 by decree of the Prince of Benevento. Fifty years ago, it was still a thriving town with a population of 3,000; today, it counts a little over 600 inhabitants. Now and again, starry-eyed Americans come for the day wanting to see the church their ancestors prayed in, wanting to see the stupendous view of the hills and the Apennines in the distance, wanting to feel the mountain wind and the wide expanse of space; they take pictures and dream of retiring here and leave again in the late afternoon in their rented cars. How could Rita stand us?
She picked up the landline and began dialing. Let’s see if they’ll open the church for us, and half an hour later a woman arrived with a key and unlocked the door to San Bartolomeo and let us in. It was a miracle that it was still standing; so many houses had been destroyed in the 1980 earthquake, and although the frescoes that once adorned the ceiling had been ruined, the church itself had survived. There he was, San Bartolomeo, a brightly painted statue carrying the cloak of his skin, and there she was, the Madonna del Caroseno, protectress of Greci, wearing her lace gown. I tried to imagine my ancestors praying in this church for hundreds of years, but felt nothing. I walked around, took a few pictures. The woman who’d let us in was in a hurry; she had to be back home soon to cook for her visiting son. Later, at the dinner table, Rita called her “la principessa,” one of the Italian words mixed in with Arbërisht that I understood. She was making herself seem important, Rita said; ten o’clock in the morning is more than enough time to prepare a midday meal, she could have let you stay a little longer.
I’d kept telling myself that I wasn’t interested in pursuing my family’s genealogy, that this was about something else entirely—similarities in the stark realities of immigration, about people stuck in camps on Europe’s and America’s borders, about demoting refugees to the status of “economic migrant” and what people do when they’re desperate, when they’re forced to make decisions to survive—but then I’d stumbled over a website listing the birth and death dates, going back to the early 1600s, of everyone in the village my grandfather Luigi came from in Campania. Distant cousins had compiled the information over years of research in the municipal archives in Naples and in the christening and baptism records of the village church. I have a great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother named Siblia Scrima, I know her birth and death dates, but what do I do with this information? And after a full day of typing names and numbers, I have a family tree, as far as the official records go. They’re astonishingly complete: the small Arbëreshë community he came from had intermarried within the circle of its own and nearby Arbëreshë villages—all the Poppas, Gliattas, Varas, Stradas, Panellas, Sassos, and Meolas—for centuries. I knew that Luigi had spoken an Albanian dialect, but I didn’t know that his family went back 570 years in Greci di Puglia, now a province of Avellino, or that they called it by its Arbëreshëname, Katundi.
At the age of 23, hoping to escape the poverty that had been strangling southern Italy in the wake of Unification, Luigi boarded the S.S. Bolivia from the Port of Naples together with eight other young men from Greci. His passenger ID number was 102736150560; his ticket number 419. The trip across the Atlantic took three weeks. When he arrived at Ellis Island on March 14, 1902, he gave his occupation as “shoemaker.” He had ten dollars cash in his pocket, as did most of those arriving; word had evidently spread about what to do and say to the immigration authorities. After having been judged by both the captain and the ship’s surgeon not to be “an idiot or insane person, or a pauper or likely to become a public charge, or suffering from a loathsome or dangerous, contagious disease, or a person who has been convicted of a felony or other infamous crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude or a polygamist,” he went to stay with his mother’s brother Leonardo, who resided at 529 East 149th Street in the Bronx, two doors down from where he would eventually occupy a two-room apartment after marrying my grandmother.
Luigi was the product of his father’s second marriage. Alessandro Scrima’s first wife Lucia Panella died at the age of 32 while giving birth to her sixth child. Alessandro had given his father’s second name, Leonardo, to his first- and fifth-born, both of whom died in their first year; there was a Bellarmina who died at one and a half, and a second Bellarmina who died at the age of five. A son named Luigi made it as far as sixteen; Filomena was the only one to survive. When Alessandro took a second wife, it was my great-grandmother Maria Luisa, who was twenty years younger. After fathering another six children of whom only my grandfather survived, he died a few months shy of his son’s fifth birthday. Maria Luisa married again, a man sixteen years her senior; she was 53 when Luigi Bartolomeo Pucci made her a widow for the second time. Presumably, this left Maria Luisa and Luigi destitute. Luigi set sail four years later, and it’s likely that his mother’s brother Leonardo, who’d already emigrated with his wife and two surviving children a decade previously, had wired them the price of the ticket.
Maria Luisa traveled on the S.S. Trojan Prince and arrived on March 11, 1903, one year after her son; on the Ellis Island manifest, she is listed, as is Greci custom, under her maiden name, Morena. Many of her nieces and nephews were emigrating; they were part of a growing wave of younger people to leave the village, and the ship manifests are filled with them: Greci was being abandoned by the droves, and it’s all I can do to resist the temptation to look up the Ellis Island records of all of Luigi’s cousins and all of Maria Luisa’s siblings’ children’s cousins—because I am beginning to suspect that half of Greci relocated to East 149th Street in the Bronx, and that everyone was, in one way or another, related.
Until the Emergency Quota Act was passed in 1921, the year my father was born, 4,000 to 5,000 individuals passed through Ellis Island each day. Immigration officials complained that they were being inundated, and that it was virtually impossible to adequately question or inspect each passenger; registry clerks were poorly paid and trained and frequently didn’t speak the languages of the people they were hired to assess. Inspectors boarded the ships to perform a preliminary inspection of first- and second-class passengers, but steerage or third-class passengers were herded onto barges and brought to a separate station, where they filed past the scrutinizing gaze of Public Health Service officers. There was an abundance of trachoma and flavus among Italian immigrants, infectious diseases of the eye and scalp, and these were grounds for immediate deportation; inspectors used buttonhooks to turn back the eyelids of anyone with visible symptoms. Eugenicists of the time argued vehemently for stricter controls as a form of patriotic duty; among the conditions screened for, apart from visible infirmity, were epilepsy, mental illness, and “moral degeneracy,” including homosexuality. For each passenger, uniformed military surgeons had six seconds to perform a brief inspection and marked, in chalk, the coats of those in question for a more thorough medical examination.
The Emergency Quota Act was put in place to reduce the number of “undesirables” entering the country, but it was the Immigration Act of 1924 that essentially throttled immigration from Asia and from countries with a large Jewish population, particularly Russia. It also greatly restricted the influx from southern Europe. The number of immigrants admitted annually was now limited to two percent of a nationality’s population residing in the U.S. as established by the census of 1890, thirty-four years previously. But because the greater wave of Italian immigration had occurred later, at the turn of the century, the number of new arrivals plummeted from an average of 210,000 per year to 4,000. Public sentiment toward the “dagoes,” “wops,” “goombahs,” and “guineas” had been growing increasingly hostile; they were Catholics in a country that saw itself as essentially Protestant, and as some of them were skilled at organizing for better working conditions and staged strikes to protect laborers’ rights, they were decried as agitators and suspected of being anarchists. The case of Sacco and Vanzetti only served to underscore the stereotype.
My father told us so little; he told us nothing, really. As I search for clues, in some vague way I feel as though I were stealing something. My research is clandestine, squint; I am doing something I somehow sense he wouldn’t have approved of. His was the task of being an American—this was the imperative—and not the son of an Albanian-Italian immigrant shouting out the names of frutta e verdura as he pushed his cart through the streets of the neighborhood. Or would he have shouted out the words in Arbërisht? Would my father have recognized the words “tata” and “mëmë,” father and mother? Wikipedia has an entire article on the language, which derived from medieval Albanian; I find a random sentence—“Ghajdhuri isht ghrishur ndë horën” (The donkey is invited into the village)—and realize that all of Luigi’s children must have heard him talking to his cousins in Arbërisht, must have been familiar with the sounds. “Lluai” means brother; there were seven of them, seven young men who never learned their father’s native tongue. Lyp ndjesë se zgarrarta shumë, Tata: I’m sorry that I’ve made so many errors, Father.
A friend of mine told me recently that she’d traveled to the village in Poland her father’s ancestors came from. They found a cemetery in town, but were unable to locate a single grave with a German surname; they searched the environs for an older burial ground, but in vain. At the local church, the pastor was friendly and willing to help, but a consultation of the clerical records proved fruitless. Yet although their traces might have been eradicated, she told herself, surely her grandparents and great-grandparents and who knows how many generations before them had all been christened there, right where she was standing, in all likelihood attended mass in this church on a regular basis. Weeks later, back in Berlin, she and her husband, an artist, met with a Polish colleague to have a work of her husband’s cast in bronze. She told him about their expedition and the absence of German graves. He smiled, she said, and asked them if they hadn’t noticed how thin Polish headstones were. The reason for this was that the German headstones had been ground down after the war to allow new inscriptions for the Polish deceased to be chiseled into the stone. It turned out that they’d been at the correct cemetery after all, but that the gravestones had been recycled, and that it was likely that her great-grandparents still lay buried in the ground.
Later in the afternoon, Rita made another phone call and soon a man named Aldo was showing us around Greci Town Hall. There was an interactive screen with an Italian–Arbërisht dictionary and an audio function that provided the correct pronunciation; a tiny library that included an extensive grammar book on the Greci dialect compiled by Rita’s daughter Laura, who had become an expert on Arbërisht, but had been paid so little for her efforts that she finally gave up and moved away. Aldo took us next door, to the town’s small museum, where he treated us to a cursory tour of its ancient artifacts—pottery, a female bust, stone weights used on looms to hold the warp yarns in place—that had been excavated behind the soccer field and a motley collection of odds and ends from the travels of a distinguished citizen who’d bequeathed his modest palazzo to the town, and then he led us back upstairs to his office and pulled down the birth registration books. I had Luigi’s birth date; I had the birth and death dates for the seven generations preceding him. In my limited Italian I tried to explain this to Aldo, but his mind was already elsewhere, and as his index finger traced the columns and rows in the large tome, he announced a brother and sister, and then another brother, and then another, and as I tried to explain that no, these were children who had died in infancy or early childhood, I’d already done this part of the research, I reached for my laptop to show him, hastily jotting down the names and dates he was calling out: Lucia, July something, 1873; Nicola, March 22, 1883; Nicola Maria, something something, 1876; and another name and date I didn’t catch, because I was already beginning to grow nervous. I opened the file on my laptop, but the family tree I’d drawn up didn’t include Luigi’s dead siblings, and as Aldo went on and on in an Italian I understood perhaps twenty percent of, in other words, not enough to carry on an actual conversation, I thought I’d log onto the online data base my distant relatives had compiled and call up his father, Alessandro Scrima, because all of a sudden I felt a dread rise up inside me: what if I had the wrong Luigi? What if everything I’d found until now was useless? And then I realized that I’d have to interrupt him and ask for a wifi password, and I grew flustered because I didn’t know how much time Aldo was willing to give me, this American who’d already done her research, who came to Greci to contradict him, and then it occurred to me that I could make a wifi hotspot with my cell phone, and soon I had it on the screen and quickly checked the dates—Nicola, Nicola Maria, Lucia, the years matched up, the dates I’d jotted down matched up—Look, I said to him, these are Luigi’s siblings, but look when they died, they were all children, I have the death dates for each, there was also a Leonardo that was barely two months old and a Maria Lucia that had died two months before her second birthday—and I finally got Aldo’s attention and we were able to agree that yes, this was Luigi, and yes, he’d been the only one to survive. Alessandro had been married before, I wanted to tell Aldo, they had six children as well and only one survived—Luigi had one living half-sibling nineteen years his senior, a Filomena whom my great-grandmother Maria Luisa must have taken care of until she married in the neighboring village of Savignano—but Aldo was already fetching another book, and all at once there it was, Luigi’s birth certificate, and there they were, his parents, recorded in lines of elaborate script I never would have been able to decipher, because Aldo could barely decipher them himself, but then he made out the address of the parents: Corso Caroseno 21, the house my grandfather was born in, which, as it happened, was only a block away.
Some months previous to this I’d done a YouTube search on the word “Arbëresh” and happened upon Greci locals interviewing a New York politician of Arbëreshë descent who’d visited the village to foster intercultural understanding between the Bronx congressional district he represented and the sizeable Albanian influx that had settled there in the 1990s, in large part from Kosovo. The man was in his eighties, but his New York accent was younger than the throaty intonations my father and his siblings spoke in, sounds that made my heart sing and that belonged to a vanished past. Describing his childhood, throughout which he’d always—as most of us, bafflingly, did—assumed that his parents were speaking an Italian dialect, the congressman recalled that farther north, along Gun Hill Road, people from the Arbëreshëcommunity kept small makeshift farms with sheep and goats amid the scrap metal and piles of used lumber and sold goat’s milk and homemade kashkaval, and that his father had taken him there to taste the tastes of his childhood. I searched the archives of the New York City Department of Records and Information Services, which had recently digitized an entire collection of photographs taken eighty years previously, for taxation purposes, of every existing structure in all five boroughs of New York City and made them available online, but the photographs of Gun Hill Road were of brick buildings and the older clapboard houses that had preceded them, and not makeshift huts or small plots of land with animals. With the Bronx’s rural origins still relatively recent, the absences in the numerical progression of house numbers at various intervals indicated that in the late 1930s and early 1940s, although they’d already been subdivided into lots, large stretches of Gun Hill Road continued to consist of trees and open space. There was a single ramshackle shack that looked to be made from nailed-together doors and tarpaper, and in the foreground something that might have been a chicken coop; hidden behind a thickening of underbrush were the dark contours of a man in a hat. Immaculate Conception Church, which still stands today, occupied the corner lot at Holland Avenue; moving east, multiple-story buildings, for the most part built in the 1920s, were separated by plots of fallow land. “Pop’s” tiny ice cream hut with a man-sized ice cream cone on top appeared at the corner of Bronxwood Avenue; it was actually smaller than a hut, more of a booth, yet evidently nonetheless taxable: the Arbëreshëgoat and sheep farms must have done without actual structures, or else they’d have been assessed as well. “See us make your ice cream,” the sign announced; the prices for frozen custard and malteds, fruit ice, and ice cream cones ranged between two and five cents. Behind the hut was a stretch of undeveloped land; I was looking for a sheep or goat, even the backside of an animal caught by chance just outside the camera’s frame—a tail or horn, anything testifying to the small farms that were surely still there somewhere—but all I found were empty lots with overgrown underbrush to the side of the respective building, and here and there a billboard, usually for beer: Rheingold Extra Dry, with a beaming woman in a bathing suit; Pabst Blue Ribbon (“Sure Makes One Great Beer!”) and a man’s confiding, chummy face—a feature, endemic to American advertising, that seemed to express the quintessence of something, a kind of violence of optimism that’s difficult to capture in words. Further east was a succession of lumberyards, automotive shops, auto wreckers, and used parts stores along the north side of the street, with the early-morning shadows of the photographer in coat and hat, holding his clipboard, angling in from the right and stretching diagonally across the pavement.
Every once in a while, when we were kids, my father bundled us into the car and drove us up over the Kosciuszko and Triborough Bridges and onto the Major Deegan Expressway to the old neighborhood. By the sixties, it had turned into a slum; in the seventies, the Bronx was literally burning. Nearly none of the buildings in Mott Haven, the area surrounding St. Mary’s Park and stretching to the west, had survived. Bewildered and afraid, we gazed out the car window at block after block of ruins. It looked like a war zone: blind-eyed, gutted building skeletons as far as the eye could see; a wasteland of abandoned cars, brick rubble, and trash. Between 1970 and 1980, out of the borough’s 289 census tracts, seven lost nearly all of their building stock, and another 44 lost more than half. These were solid four- and five-story structures built to last hundreds of years; the infamous “redlining” practices that had sapped the South Bronx of the investment it would have needed to maintain these buildings had been contributing to its steady deterioration for more than thirty years. Much of what took place was arson: slumlords cashing in on government-subsidized insurance policies in fire-prone neighborhoods, tenants taking advantage of the sizeable bonus awarded to those burned out of house and home. Firefighters spoke openly about the plundering that occurred: copper pipes, sinks, bathtubs, radiators—anything that could be hauled away in a pickup truck—were gone by the next morning. But there were other reasons the Bronx burned. Looking to close a budget deficit, New York City had commissioned a think tank to streamline the Fire Department’s response throughout the city; in spite of the high rate of fires breaking out all over the South Bronx, they nonetheless recommended closing thirteen companies servicing what were by now largely Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods. On June 2, 1975, more than forty fires broke out between East 138th and 149th Streets and Third Avenue and Bruckner Boulevard; the world of my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had effectively disappeared, leaving behind it a living hell for the people who’d replaced them, who were now in dire need. But in the photographs of the New York City Department of Records and Information Services, the immigrant neighborhoods of the South Bronx are still growing and thriving: there are garages for rent at 119 Brook Avenue (Inq. A. Johnson · 673 East 40 St. 4 & 5 B) and a storefront is still available next door to Jack’s 5 & 10 (Stop and Shop · Come In · Look Around) on East 149th Street, while farther north, in Williamsbridge, Venickoff’s Prescription Pharmacy promptly delivers cut-rate drugs and cosmetics and can be reached at Olinville 5-9579; Rubin Moving offers carpet and rug cleaning; and a woman pushing a perambulator with a harried expression and a toddler in tow is forever crossing the road, with a man loping across the street in the opposite direction, a bundle of something wedged under his arm, arrested in time in perpetual communion with his Y-shaped shadow.
The “redlining” practices that helped bring about the demise of the Bronx began in the mid-1930s. The U.S. government-sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation drew up maps that color-coded city districts across the U.S.; although it was a thriving mix of Jewish, German, Italian, and Irish immigrants, the South Bronx had been deemed a “hazardous” place to underwrite mortgages and given the classification “D,” the worst grade possible. The lines had been drawn based on the belief that the influx of Blacks and other minorities was a sign of impending decay; as the “redlined” neighborhoods were starved of investment, and more and more whites abandoned them for the suburbs, the value of the properties plummeted. I’m not sure what Luigi’s views on institutionalized racism or on inner-city racial segregation were; it’s unlikely that he understood the forces contributing to the rapid decline of the Bronx. Perhaps he believed, as many European immigrants did, that the stark increase in the Black population following the Great Migration from Jim Crow and the rural South was the culprit, but somehow I don’t think so. He might have been poor, but surely he had an instinct for business shenanigans, plenty of which were and had always been afoot in the Bronx. It seems more likely to me that he’d have sided with anyone who’d wound up, as he had, with the short end of the stick.
As an immigrant, Luigi knew that the category of Blackness in the U.S. was malleable and that it had long extended to southern Europeans. Italians had begun arriving soon after the end of the Civil War, and they quickly formed a new pool of cheap labor on the southern plantations that replaced freshly emancipated Black slaves who’d decided to try their luck up north. The Italians’ agitation for better working conditions made them suspect, but it was their natural ease with African Americans—they did business with one another, they befriended one another, and they intermarried, an unthinkable taboo—that called their “whiteness” into question. Soon, they were referred to in the press as “racially inferior,” “low and ignorant,” “sneaking and cowardly,” and “born criminals.” In 1891, a New Orleans mob lynched eleven Italian immigrants, and it wasn’t until the Italian government demanded reparations and President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed Columbus Day as a one-time national holiday that Italians began the slow process toward becoming “white.”
It’s difficult to know what Luigi thought about all this; it’s difficult, for that matter, to guess how much he knew about the history of his native country. The first Arbëreshë communities in southern Italy had been founded in 1460, after the Albanian national hero Skanderbeg, who had led the Christian rebellion against Turkish expansion in the Balkans, came to the aid of the Kingdom of Naples to fight the uprising of the Angevins. Skanderbeg sent a cavalry of 500 men to the Italian peninsula, and when the situation escalated in the summer of 1461, he arrived in Apulia in person with an army of 1,000 cavalry and 2,000 infantry and succeeded in securing the throne of King Ferdinand of Aragon. In gratitude, the King awarded the victorious soldiers enough land in eastern Apulia to establish fifteen villages. After Skanderbeg died in 1468, Albania quickly succumbed to Ottoman rule, setting off a large influx of Albanian Christians, one that continued sporadically over the following centuries. Greci records begin in the early seventeenth century, and it’s impossible to know if Siblia Scrima, born in my grandfather’s village in 1664, was from one of these subsequent waves of immigration, or if her family dates back to Skanderbeg’s soldiers who had settled there two hundred years previously. Either way, while the earlier Greek Orthodox records dating back to the early 1300s were presumably destroyed, the birth, baptism, marriage, and death records of the Chiesa di Santo Bartolomeo Apostolo from the early seventeenth century on survived, as did the elaborate reenactment of a religious play performed there each year in August featuring kings in togas and the eponymous saint who was skinned alive and beheaded and whose martyrdom I happened upon yesterday at the Palazzo Pitti in a painting by Jusepe di Ribera, known as Lo Spagnoletto, created in Naples in 1630, long after the kingdom had fallen under Spanish rule—limbs flailing, the pallor of doomed flesh exposed and waiting, set starkly against an ominous background invoking all the darkness and violence of the Inquisition, from which little more than the grinning faces of Bartholomew’s tormentors emerge—a play that was performed faithfully and in customary transcultural mutation by at least two generations of Greci immigrants in their American diaspora.
A cousin of mine, older than me by at least a decade, recently told me that Luigi wanted to be sure they put sixteen cents in his coffin when he died so that he would be able to cross the River Jordan. Sixteen cents? She wasn’t sure if this was the precise amount, but it was what she remembered. Placing coins on the eyelids of the dead comes to mind, but “Charon’s obol”—the ancient custom of laying a coin in the mouth as a toll for ferrying the soul of the deceased across Acheron or Styx to the underworld—seems more closely related. Apuleius wrote that “a poor man on the point of death must make provision for his journey (viaticum); if by chance he does not have a coin (aes) at hand no one will allow him to pass on.” The point is not that the poor are so destitute that they cannot even afford the price of admission to Hades, but the negligible monetary value of the required coin and the overriding poverty of death, in which rich and poor are finally equal: even the wealthy possess no more than the price of the ticket to the afterworld. The Latin word “viaticum” denotes the provisions required for travel; here, it refers to the symbolic preparation a person undertakes for the soul’s journey to the hereafter and is presumably related to the later Christian deathbed rite of the communio Dei, the eucharist placed in the mouth of the deceased to aid the soul in its passage to eternal life.
But what about a person’s mortal remains? Luigi’s father Alessandro must have been buried in the cemetery in Greci; presumably his first wife and the five children that hadn’t survived were buried there as well, along with the children he and Maria Luisa had lost. Less than a year after Alessandro died, Luigi’s half-sister Filomena married and moved to the neighboring village. I imagine her years later, after Maria Luisa and Luigi emigrated, climbing the hill to Greci to tend to the family graves; I wonder when her children or grandchildren finally abandoned them; when they were replaced with the more recently deceased. When is it time to leave the dead behind? A photograph printed in the New York Times during the wars in the former Yugoslavia depicted Bosnian Serbs digging up the coffins of their loved ones as they fled, heaving them out of the ground with heavy ropes and tying them to the roofs of their cars, because they knew their enemy—who weren’t, in spite of the rampant tribalist frenzy, all that different from themselves—and knew that they would desecrate the ancestral graves.
Now and again, refugees who attempted to flee the African continent and perished in the Mediterranean are washed ashore on the beaches of Libya, Tunisia, and Italy, where provisions for headstones or a DNA bank or even numbered graves are rare. Compassion has led some individuals to do what they can to identify the victims, contact relatives, and give the bodies a proper burial. But when the sea itself has become a graveyard, what does it mean to be buried in foreign soil?
When he left Greci with little more than the clothes he was wearing, Luigi still had his life ahead of him; on the other hand, Maria Luisa Morena, my great-grandmother, was already fifty-eight years of age and presumably penniless when she boarded a ship that left the port of Naples. There is no way of knowing how much English she learned in her new home; she never saw her native country again. My father and his brothers, all of them born in the Bronx, never once stepped foot in the “old country,” and I’m not even sure they were curious. I am the fourth generation; I am one year older than Maria Luisa was the day she arrived at Ellis Island. I try to imagine the three-week voyage with a back that aches in the damp and cold, the cheap cardboard luggage, the provisions she brought with her, the anxiety she must have felt upon arrival, no longer young or agile enough to adapt to this bewildering new world—and despite all the planes and trains at my disposal, despite the laptop I am writing this on and the cell phone that keep me in constant contact with worlds I can leave and return to at will, it feels as though I were reenacting a turmoil that is older than me, because the truth is, I don’t travel easily. I have a hard time staying calm, focusing on the challenge at hand, noting landmarks to avoid getting lost, remembering place names. I panic easily: I’m afraid I won’t make it to my next destination, won’t make the train, the plane, the ship. Afraid my suitcase will burst open, or I will lose my wallet, my passport, will forget the number of the bus I have to catch, but worst of all, I am afraid I will lose the life I left behind, that I will be punished for leaving and it will all be taken away from me.
I spend an evening searching for any traces of Maria Luisa I can find. She appears only twice: on the list of passengers on the Trojan Prince, and at her son’s marriage to my grandmother Francesca. I have only found these things after trying dozens of misspellings of surnames and incorrect birth dates in different combinations; after entering “Greci,” then “Italy,” and then nothing at all in the space reserved for the birthplace, because the results—regardless of whether the mistakes were made by a clerk entering the unfamiliar-sounding names into the original documents, or later, when the data bases were digitized—often cannot be obtained with the correct information. Phonetic spellings that subsequently entered into the official record, in all likelihood impatient guesses by officials who didn’t care much one way or the other; moray patterns of erroneous transcription. I can verify that it’s Maria Luisa in the New York City Municipal Records of my grandparents’ marriage, although she is listed only as Luisa Morena, my grandfather’s name is spelled “Scrinna,” and my grandmother Francesca’s not “Moccio,” her maiden name, but “Mucci”: her parents’ first names and her mother’s maiden name, together with Maria Luisa’s late husband’s name, confirm that it is indeed my grandmother and great-grandmother, although she is only barely more identifiable than the faceless statues in the museum of the Orsanmichele that stood outside, eroding slowly in the Florentine wind and rain, for centuries.
I spend the better part of the next day continuing to search every online source I can find. Surely she’d have to appear on a census somewhere; surely there must be a death certificate. I enter Leonardo’s name in various iterations, hoping that his sister might turn up as a temporary member of his household on one of the New York City censuses, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, I happen upon a site containing thousands of photographs of graves in American cemeteries, and all at once there he is, there’s Leonardo in an oval portrait printed in sepia on porcelain, with his lips parted and his eyes slightly widened in what appears to be cautious surprise. His crisp white collar is turned up, his cravat is neatly tied, and war decorations are pinned to his suit. He’s buried with his wife, three of his sons, and a daughter-in-law in Section 11 of Old St. Raymond’s Cemetery. I have a hobby genealogist going by the name of “Bronx Cop” to thank for the photograph, and it feels as though it’s brought me a tiny bit closer to Maria Luisa.
This is what I know: that she sailed with the Trojan Prince; that she arrived with ten dollars. There is far more information to be found online about the ship than my great-grandmother: it was built in South Shields, England in 1896, weighed 3,273 gross tons, and measured 351 by 44 feet; it carried 1,300 passengers, 1,260 of them third class, and was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine off the coast of Scotland in 1917. Maria Luisa’s invisibility leads me to intensify my efforts to find traces of her relatives. My search begins systematically, but grows increasingly haphazard: I try one combination of spellings, and then another, and as I attempt to retrace my steps and enter information identical to a previous search, only to get different results each time, I have to conclude that the data bases on the genealogy websites do not function in fully rational ways. I intersperse my searches with other names to “distract” the spirit of the algorithm. Hours pass; slowly, in a kind of trance, my intuition leads me to a particular combination of misspellings, and then I finally find her, I find Leonardo’s wife Carosena under “Caropinna Di Minno”: two years after her husband, on September 24, 1890, she sailed from the port of Naples accompanied by her eleven-year-old son, who is listed as “Antonio Morenno.”
I’ve found them, but it’s not enough, I want their daughter too, I’m under a spell and can’t help myself,and Ieventually find the entire data base of “New York Passengers 1820–1891” online, all 686 microfilmed pages of it, yet although I can study the passenger list Carosena and Antonio appear on in the context of the ship’s overall passenger load, there’s still not a single trace of Iconovetra, their daughter. In addition to the usual information (name, age, profession, citizenship, etc.), I notice a right-hand column reserved for deaths aboard the ship, a column that no longer appears on later manifests, and grow agitated. I flip back several pages to the Port of New York cover sheet, to a sworn statement signed by the captain confirming that the “age, sex, and set calling for each said passenger” was correct, as was the “location of the compartment or space occupied by each during the passage” and the “destination or location intended by each,” and that “said List or Manifest truly sets forth the number of said Passengers who have died on said voyage, and the dates and causes of death, and the names and ages of those who died […], So help me God.” At first, based on entries appearing in this column, there seem to have been two deaths on the ship they sailed with, a 58-year-old merchant named J. Chiselli and the 35-year-old Michele Patrizze, no profession named, but when I see that the elaborately penned word in each case is “Citizen,” and that both are also identified as such in Column Five, it becomes clear that, in the absence of fatalities on that particular voyage, the right-hand column was repurposed to more easily identify the American nationals on board and to expedite their arrival.
There are now at least twenty tabs open in my browser; one by one I close them and try again, and then, at last, I find her, I find my great-grandmother Maria Luisa on page 24 of the Enumeration of the Inhabitants of the 3rd Election District, Block C, in the 35th Assembly District in the Borough of the Bronx, County of New York of the 1905 Census, registered as the head of a household at 551 East 149th Street, the address she gave as Luigi’s upon her arrival in the U.S. She is listed under her first husband’s name Scrima, which she presumably assumed to share a surname with her only son. She is now sixty years old, Luigi twenty-five, they’ve been two and three years in the country respectively, and neither has yet been naturalized. Luigi’s profession is given as “fruit vendor”; also listed is a boarder named Antonio Grasso, a laborer the same age as Luigi, while the occupation entered next to Maria Luisa’s name is “housework,” which is to say that her son and his friend provided their meager income. Luigi married my grandmother two years later, on May 5, 1907; Maria Luisa was a witness at the wedding, but there are no subsequent traces of her to be found.
I wonder if she adapted to the New World, or if she grew tired of being alive. In any case, the prosperity they dreamed of didn’t materialize. My grandfather sold vegetables and fruit from a cart that he pushed through the streets of the Bronx; he, his wife, and his nine children lived in a two-room apartment, and by the time he was in his late fifties he was worn out. The Italian philosopher Ernesto De Martino writes about a “crisis of presence” that afflicts ethnic minorities in diaspora and observes that among southern Italian peasants, emigration was regarded as a form of death. I try to imagine leaving a village like Greci, situated on a hill in the upper Cervaro Valley flanking the Apennines and surrounded by a panorama of plains stretching out to a distant horizon, and relocating to the stifling tenements of the Bronx. The Arbërisht word “hora” means more than just “country”; it implies a link to community and everything that is familiar and loved and known, and is untranslatable. How did they cope with the loss?
The majority of Greci’s immigrants moved to the same boroughs and the same neighborhoods to remain together; often they moved to the same street and even the same building. From the 1890s on, for at least fifty years, the St. Bartolomeo play was reenacted in the Bronx and other Greci communities in New Jersey and Ohio. When I think of his intimidating figure in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, riding a cloud to the right of Jesus Christ, when I think of my son and I gazing at the back wall of the Sistine Chapel and at San Bartolomeo gripping the full cloak of his flayed skin with his left hand and the instrument of his martyrdom, the knife, in his right, it strikes me that the loss of one’s skin—nakedness taken to the extreme, a body stripped down to its very flesh—is an apt metaphor for the immigrant’s vulnerability in an alien and hostile environment.
© Andrea Scrima 2020
All rights reserved