Close to Home: Retracing an immigrant family’s path

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In late June, while U.S. immigration officers were arresting desperate Central American refugees at our border with Mexico and forcibly separating parents and children, I was traveling to Italy with my daughter to explore my grandfather’s ancestral village.

My great-grandparents, Domenico and Maddalena Adduchio, were among the millions of Italians who immigrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Illiterate and impoverished, my great-grandparents left their homeland in the hope that America would offer better opportunities for themselves and their children.

Searching online, I found their names on the handwritten passenger list for the SS Lombardia, which departed from Naples on June 12, 1901, arriving in New York harbor on June 27. Traveling with them were their four children, ages 5, 4, 3 and 1. Domenico and Maddalena arrived with $10 in their pockets. They set down stakes in Jersey City and had nine more children. They never returned to Italy.

It was my daughter’s idea to travel to my grandfather’s ancestral village. At 23, Julia is curious about the people who paved a smoother way for future generations of our family. From Rome, we took a train to the remote mountainous region of Molise, where the village of Duronia is located. Naturally pristine and spectacularly beautiful, Molise is the least touristed area of Italy.

Perched on a mountain peak, Duronia has persevered through the centuries. Its population, however, has dwindled to a mere 410 residents. The village has no school for its handful of children. Nor does it have a hotel or restaurant.

It was thrilling to stroll down the same winding cobblestone streets that my ancestors walked. Duronia is so tranquil and the people so warm — it must have been difficult for my great-grandparents to decide to leave. But once they made the decision, immigrating to the U.S. was relatively easy. In 1901, they faced none of the barriers encountered by today’s refugees.

When my great-grandparents left Italy, all they needed was the money for their ocean passage. They didn’t even need a visa to enter the United States. At that time, our country took seriously Emma Lazarus’ verse to take in “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Back then, we accepted all immigrants except, to our discredit, Chinese people and some Japanese who were barred by congressional decrees. The rest of humanity was free to enter through one of our ports of entry. The only people sent back were those suffering from psychological or contagious illnesses, convicted criminals, polygamists and anyone considered unlikely to support themselves.

Until 1920, when the first immigration quotas were imposed, most foreigners were free to move here, to seek work and a place to live and to try to make their way in their adopted home. Those who stayed five years could even apply for citizenship. Millions of these immigrants and their descendants contributed valuably to our nation.

As I flew home to California on the Fourth of July, I thought of today’s refugees, escaping not just crushing poverty like my ancestors but murderous gangs and never-ending war. I feel fortunate that my great-grandparents had the spunk and courage to plunge into the unknown and create a better life for our family in America.

But even more important than spunk and courage, they benefited from lucky timing. Today’s refugees are no different from my ancestors and no less deserving of a safe haven. The only difference is that now the welcome mat in our land of promise has been withdrawn and the drawbridge lifted. For today’s refugees, the timing could not be worse.

Susan Milstein is co-owner of Personal History Productions LLC, which helps individuals, families, businesses and organizations record their histories in custom-designed books. She has lived in Santa Rosa since 1991.

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