Between 1880-1920, 34 million immigrants huddled on the decks of ships, watching the Statue of Liberty usher them into New York harbor. They had carried their few possessions, traveled across the ocean, and began a new chapter in the New World. The Lower East Side of Manhattan Island was the first homestead on American soil for most of these people. Their goal was to forge a hopeful life.
My family’s paternal and maternal sides arrived in America between 1904 and 1910-ish, from Sicily and the shores of Naples. Italy had unified their regions and kingdoms some 40 years before. The reorganization of power had exasperated the disparities between peoples. Southern Italians and Sicilians were considered less desirable. Crippling laws, an antiquated feudal system, and oppression stifled their prospects. The lack of education and landownership, and blatant inequalities offered bleak futures.
America held out a hand, promising freedom, liberty, and hope. Many Sicilians did not leave home all at once. They were not driven from their villages or violently persecuted as the Jews were in pogrom campaigns. Instead, the men went first. They contacted relations or acquaintances claiming to be a relative to secure their place in the American dream. Most of my family were farmers and fishermen along the seaside coasts. They adapted their strength and drive to succeed by working the docks loading and unloading goods. The men bordered in crowded tenements, slept in shifts, and worked where they could. They scrambled to make a living in a claustrophobic industrial city, sent money to their families, and saved money to bring them all to America. It was a hard life, but the opportunities were better in America than in their homeland. They learned to speak English, read newspapers, and cultivated friendships.
My maternal great-grandfather, Stefano Di Aguanno, had kept his mother’s name (there’s a fantastic story to that) but had stepbrothers who loved him and sponsored his passage. Stefano married my great-grandmother, Francesca, two days after meeting her (from an arrangement—not passionate love). Within a year, he left his wife and baby girl, my grandmother, to lay the foundation for life in America. Stefano was a vineyard farmer, but several years of blight and famine threatened sustainability. He had to leave.
Francesca was never keen on leaving, even though she had to live with her mother-in-law (another great story). She was deeply devoted to her mama and sister and held a passion for the earth, coming from a tenant farm family. Stefano sent money home and wrote letters longing for his family to join him. The family would be better off in the bowels of the city, working towards a brighter life. Francesca never learned to read (are you imagining the stories piling up?), so her mother-in-law read the letters and finally advised her to go to America with the baby before he found another woman. Stefano was a handsome catch—tall (over 6 feet), auburn hair, sea-blue eyes, powerful hands and back, and a playful heart. Francesca, dark, plain, and sour, had no other prospects for support. Her father would not take her back. She packed her few possessions, carried her two-year-old child aboard a ship, and staked out her space in steerage. She brought her bread, intending to eat nothing else on the two-week voyage. The sea was relentlessly rough, as it usually is in late February. Just about everyone was sick from the motions, rancid food, and contaminated water, except Francesca, who nibbled on her bread, sipped the rainwater she collected and nursed her daughter. When she arrived and settled in a Mott Street tenement in the Little Italy section of Lower East Side, she made sure her husband understood that someday she would return home.
Back then, I think men held a realistic view and looked for solutions to their dire situations. Pioneering across an ocean to America was their answer. It took incredible grit to make it happen. The women had to have just as much courage to follow—like it or not and make it work. My great grandmother made the new world fit by forcing old world traditions into her adopted homes. She kept to people with familiar tongues, cooked to her palate, and fashioned apartments and houses to resemble her version of home. During those first years in America, she kept boxes of soil to grow herbs in front of a sunny tenement window, so the food tasted right, and the flat smelled like home.
I knew my great-grandmother when she lived in Brooklyn. She had a small garden plot outside her back door. A prolific fig tree and stakes of tomatoes and peppers crammed into that tiny space. I think the smell of the earth, the taste of the harvest, and the feel of the dirt on her hands and knees brought her home. She lived in America for almost 75 years but never returned to her mama and sister.
Daily Bread, extrapolates my great-grandmother’s core and experiences as the mama in the story. I took the stories my grandmother and her sisters told and my mother’s memories of Stefano to fashion the papa character. Although fictionalized, I think I captured their courage and essence in becoming part of the American story.
Daily Bread is my middle-grade historical novel set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, 1911. The story follows eight-year-old Lily, an American-born child of Sicilian immigrants, who loves to sing out her artist heart and prove she is not a little kid. She learns that it is not easy to be a big kid in the crowded tenement neighborhood, skirting old-world traditions, tackling bigotry, disasters, and screwy bakers, and learning to cross the street by herself.
Daily Bread was inspired by one of my grandmother’s stories. As I bring Daily Bread to publication, I will share the story’s character and plot developments, the fun research adventures, and my writing process. Get comfortable and join me on the journey. You may need to get something to eat. Share your impressions and your stories.
Antoinette Truglio Martin is the author of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer. The memoir is a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year of breast cancer treatment.