I thought about my great-grandfather, Domenico DiCesare, as a new immigrant the other day. He is the one who came to the U.S. from Italy and passed Italian citizenship down the line. It went to my grandfather, my father, then to me and Dan who then passed it to our kids.
What was it like living as a new immigrant in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century? Without speaking the language, was it hard to fit in? Find a job? Make friends?
I wondered about that because that will soon be our lives.
Going to America
From what we have been able to gather, Domenico came to the U.S. in 1899 and landed at Ellis Island. It turns out that it was only his first trip here. At some point prior to 1904, he returned to Italy. We aren’t sure why he returned though. All that we do know is in December 1904, he married his first wife in Pratola Peligna.
We don’t know what happened to her because she didn’t die in their hometown. There is no record of her death in Pratola Peligna. Perhaps she died somewhere on the way to America. Was it between Pratola Peligna and Naples, where the ship left for the journey across the Atlantic? Was in on the ship? Or was it someplace else entirely?
In West Virginia as a New Immigrant
All we know is that Domenico returned to the U.S. and settled in West Virginia. We think he became a coal miner simply based on the town he settled in, Coketon. Coke is a type of fuel produced from coal used mostly for iron ore smelting.
We believe it was there that Domenico met our great-grandmother, Maddalena. They started having children in 1907, the first of ten kids. Our grandfather, Anthony, was the third child, born in 1910. Domenico and Maddalena married after their fifth child in 1915.
Dan and I believe that at least one of Domenico’s brothers came with him. In researching the family tree, I found a branch that still lives in West Virginia. There is another branch in the upper midwest of the U.S. Perhaps there were other Italians in Coketon, WV, for the brothers to interact with.
For Italians, the family is a big deal. Whether or not there were other new Italian immigrants in Coketon, it’s important that Domenico had at least one brother there. Plus, his family was growing.
Finding a New Community in Connecticut
Domenico and Maddalena eventually found their way to New Britain, CT. Other family members were there. Whether or not they started out in WV, several family members wound up living in the same house. I know it was a fairly large house even though I’ve never been there, as far as I recall. It would have been similar to Mark Twain’s house, seen below, without the walkway overhang.
It turns out that the house my great-grandparents lived in was just a few doors down from the house my maternal grandmother lived in at one point. My grandmother lived in the second-floor apartment of a three-story Victorian. None of the other houses on that street were much different.
To this day, I know there is a decent-sized community of Italians in New Britain. Back in the early- to mid-1900s, I presume the Italians tended to live in a separate community than the Polish immigrants who lived separately from the Puerto Ricans. Everyone pretty much stayed to their “own kind,” not integrating much with the other communities.
Integration of New Immigrants in Portugal
As I’ve mentioned before, I follow several Facebook groups of ex-pats in Portugal from all over the world. Surprisingly, there aren’t as many Americans as I thought there would have been, but I understand this number is growing.
As an aside, I don’t understand why people call themselves ex-pats as opposed to what they really are – immigrants. In fact, I started out deciding I was going to be an ex-pat. It’s in our blog’s name, for goodness sake. But the more I think about it, the more I’m thinking of calling myself an immigrant rather than an ex-pat.
To me, being an ex-pat sounds a lot different than being an immigrant, new or not. It sounds aloof, like being an ex-pat is more important with more of an upper-class sound to it. Which, to my mind, means being above “the others.” I haven’t decided yet if “others” means other immigrants or the Portuguese people themselves. One thing I’m certain of is I am definitely not above anybody else.
Dan and I really want to integrate ourselves into Portuguese society as new immigrants. We want to be part of the culture. Not to take over the culture and Americanize it. No, never. That would be criminal, in my mind. The Portuguese have a beautiful culture.
We want to have Portuguese friends. We want to learn and adopt Portuguese customs. Celebrate Portuguese holidays. Adopt the laid-back Portuguese way of life.
Ha! That last one will be easy.
A Beautiful Story
The Portuguese people are very accepting of others and are very friendly people. I’ve heard stories in my Facebook groups.
In one story, a lady went to a restaurant about 30 minutes from where she lived in the Algarve (southern coast). All she wanted to drink was orange juice, but not knowing how to ask for it in Portuguese (suco de laranja), and with the owner/waiter/cook not knowing English, she tried to use hand signals to try to get him to understand. It didn’t work. She wound up with orange soda.
The owner/waiter/cook, after making her dinner, finally figured out what she wanted. Since the restaurant didn’t have orange juice, he disappeared for a few minutes. Apparently, he went home and squeezed her some fresh orange juice then brought it back to her at the restaurant. He never even charged her for it!
This lady said on Facebook that all of the Portuguese she met are like that. They go out of the way to help. She also said that was her new favorite restaurant. I’m going to have to go back through about a bazillion posts in several groups to find the name of that restaurant. I want to go there.
New Immigrants Should Learn the Language
Many people in the various social groups I follow have all said the same thing. The best way to fit in as a new immigrant is to learn how to speak Portuguese. If all you can manage at first are a few words, then use them. The people will see that you are trying and will be even more eager to help, they say.
I mentioned that to my friend, Manuel. He agrees totally. He is able to speak a few languages and says most of the younger Portuguese do as well. They learn English beginning in the third grade, as I mentioned before, and they pick up another language, usually French or German, beginning in the fifth grade. But, he says, the Portuguese truly appreciate people attempting to speak their language.
I don’t understand Americans who go to different countries and expect the people there to speak English. If they don’t speak English, many Americans talk louder and slower thinking that will help. No, it’s their country. You shouldn’t expect them to speak anything other than their own language.
It’s great if they do speak English, but Americans should try to learn at least a few phrases in the language of the country they travel to. For instance, I always tried to know “hello,” “please,” “thank you,” and the all-important “where’s the bathroom?”
Learning the Portuguese Language
I’ve been studying Portuguese on Duolingo for nearly four months. For most words, it’s an okay resource. But it teaches Brazillian Portuguese, not the type spoken in Portugal.
With Duolingo, I’ve learned quite a few words, almost 300 so far. There isn’t much of an opportunity to hear the language spoken except for the single word being taught. I decided to add another Portuguese language app to my repertoire.
I signed up for a year of Memrise because that one teaches the Portuguese language spoken in Portugal. Plus, it has real people speaking phrases and words so I can actually hear how it sounds. What I can tell you right now is that it’s going to be difficult.
I’m used to enunciating my words, making the words sound crisp and precise. In Portuguese, words kind of slur together. I’ve heard it described as, “When you speak Portuguese, you swallow half the words and slur the other half.” I have no idea what that means.
For now, though, I’ll be happy just learning enough words to get by. There’s not a huge Portuguese population in the Glens Falls, NY, area (like, none that I know of), so it will be difficult to practice speaking.
I’m definitely looking forward to being a new immigrant and immersing myself in the language. At first, it’ll be rather frustrating, I’m sure. But I will do this. I am determined to become part of Portuguese society.
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