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A Grandson Rescues Women’s Immigrant Stories

by Diana Li | Dec 6, 2013 4:47 pm

(5) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Arts & Culture, Visual Arts, Immigrants

Anthony Riccio Photo Growing up in New Haven in the 1950s, Anthony Riccio never understood why his grandmother immigrated from Italy, the land of Bernini’s masterful sculptures and Giuseppe Verdi’s beautiful music. When he asked her why she moved to the United States, she simply said, “I don’t like.”

Ricco also didn’t understand her grandmother’s reaction when he and his father ran to tell her the news that the first man had landed on the moon. She could even see it on the television if she wanted, they told her. She was unimpressed: They certainly made up that story, she said. Then she went back to washing the dishes.

Decades later, Riccio sought to better understand his grandmother’s story and the stories of other 20th century Italian-American female immigrants to New Haven. In a talk titled “The Italian-American Experience in New Haven,” he previewed the results at the New Haven Museum this past Wednesday night, presenting some of the photos and stories he collected over the years while preparing a forthcoming book focused on women’s experiences.

“My grandma not answering the questions I asked her just made me more curious, and I wanted to explore my roots and go back to Italy,” said Riccio, who studied for a few summers in Italy and did a masters in Renaissance art history in Florence. “I began to explore my grandmother’s past with my camera, and photographing those areas where she came from. I went on this grand tour on my own and just traveled extensively, photographing the south.”

In addition to taking his own photos, Riccio has been collecting old photos of Italian families and neighborhoods in New Haven. At Wednesday’s talk, he showed photos of what areas like Long Wharf, Wooster Square, and Church Street South looked like decades ago. Audience members murmured in recognition when he showed an old photo of Libby’s Italian Pastry Shop on Wooster Street.

For people like Riccio’s grandmother, America represented a land of hope and freedom. Immigrants came from all different backgrounds: Some moved from farms in Italy to farms in the New Haven area, while others opened up their own shops or peddled their own goods. Riccio showed a portrait and told the story of an Italian-American who made bleach in his basement and walked door-to-door selling containers of bleach. For these people, the American dream was coming true.

Riccio also took the time to tell the darker side of the story: the obstacles that Italians, particularly women, faced upon immigrating to the United States. Those who moved to New Haven were eager to take on work to make money for their families, and many women started working in sweatshop factories.

Riccio described how New Haven started to become the epicenter of the garment industry in the early 1900s. The Chamber of Commerce in New Haven ignored poor labor conditions, which included brutal working hours, barely one bathroom for a whole factory of women, mistreatment from bosses, and no heating or air conditioning, he said.

“There was a whole generation of women that had just arrived that were eager to work because of the dire economic needs at home,” Riccio said. “These sweatshops became these horrible places where women were subject to all sorts of horrible abuses. … I’m a product of this, because my own mother worked in these horrible places.”

Riccio, who published a book in 2006 titled The Italian-American Experience in New Haven, said that as he continued interviewing and researching people, he realized that the Italian-American women immigrants had their own rarely-told story. He shifted his focus to their narratives. and Farms, Factories, and Families: Italian-American Women of Connecticut, his next book slated to come out next year, tells the story of these women.

“When these women got to America, they had a cash flow they never imagined from work, and with what little money they made, they saved for their children’s education, invested, bought houses… It’s a story that’s never been told,” Riccio said. “So my new book traces the trajectory of [the women] breaking away from the old culture to the new, and what the American dream gave to these women.”

For Riccio, transcribing all these oral histories ensures that the stories stay alive even after they pass away. While his upcoming book highlights Italian-American women’s experiences immigrating to New Haven, he emphasized the importance of capturing as many different stories as possible.

“This history isn’t really written anywhere, so I turned to the oral tradition and it’s a wonderful tradition that’s not only reserved for Italian-Americans: it runs through many cultures,” Riccio said at the beginning of his talk. “But the sad part is that if you don’t catch the histories – if you don’t capture these moments people had and record them – the culture eventually fades and ultimately passes away.”

Riccio said he is unaware of anyone else who is trying to transcribe these same histories. Though he has been doing this work for years, he has still been kept busy by continuous interviews and research.

“It’s like you can’t keep up with all the oral histories: you feel like you have this fever because you’re always trying to catch people’s stories before they pass away, because once they pass away, the stories are gone forever,” Riccio said. “You have to keep working. You have to keep getting the next story.”

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posted by: HewNaven on December 6, 2013  6:52pm

Riccio is a great guy. I appreciate his “fever”. Its just sad that the American dream died along time ago. Theonly way someone can come to New Haven and save enough to buy a house is if they’re lucky enough to land a job at Yale. As far as i know, they are the only local employer who offers a living wage, healthcare, and first-time homebuyer incentives. Everyone else thinks the American Dream is a cruel joke played on the poor.

posted by: OneCityManyDreams on December 6, 2013  7:13pm

This is an everlasting story for our children and their children. These women (and men)had passion and desire to improve the live’s for them and their families. The women worked not for an hourly wage, but, for ‘piece work’.  Getting a small amount of money ( as little as a penny) for every garment they were able to sew together.  Finally organized by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union there lives improved. This is an example of union organizing at its best. But the control of the industry was mostly with non Italian owners exacting every last once of energy every day out of their hands.  They walked to work. The walked home from work and then did the chores required to keep a family fed and happy.  My mother was one of them. Into the workforce in New Haven at 14 and never left her sewing machine.  She came home with the money she earned and she gave it all to the family. A tiny little portion was given to her. As she got older and married my father she was able to continue to earn for her new family.  They are heroines and heroes to me. In fact, they never went to school past 8th Grade. They didn’t take vacations and when they were finally able to buy houses they did so with years of savings and marraige behind them. It was very rare for the Italian Community in New Haven to have any extra money. But somehow they could turn a nickel in to a dime. And a dime into a dollar.  I miss this women in my life. It was not what they said that mattered but rather how they acted. They acted always in the best interest of their families.  New Haven in the 1950’s had the single largest concentration of Italians per capita in the whole of the USA.  Nearly 66% of the population was Italian and there were almost 160,000 people living here.  There dreams were destroyed by two singular but different event in the Garment industry; One the automation of the sewing machine, and two the demolition of their neighborhoods by Richard C Lee.  New Haven will never be the same.

posted by: Edward Francis on December 8, 2013  2:21pm

OneCityManyDreams is right on target with his comments, except for one.  My mother also left school in New Haven at age 14 and went to work to help her family of eight brothers and sisters and a mother and father. The New Haven Clock Company and the Echlin Mfg. Company was a starting place for many woman during that era right through WWII and beyond. Fortunately they were not sweatshops but required hard work and long hours. Her parents came to American from Denmark and Poland and like many they couldn’t speak the language but learned. Anthony Riccio is right on target with his comments and his book “The Italian American Experience in New Haven” graces my bookcase and is referred to many times.  The reference by OCMD about Richard C. Lee being responsible for demolishing the Wooster Square neighborhood is not true.  One must look with their eyes open on the history of Wooster Square long before Lee became the Mayor. Interstate 91, a state highway, took out a major portion of the community through demolition. Several factory fires in the heart of Wooster Square and many dreary and decayed buildings blighted the area.  There were many residents of Wooster Square who served on the Neighborhood Renewal Committee and worked closely with the New Haven Redevelopment Agency. A review of the past history will tell a different story then the continuation of blaming Richard C. Lee.

posted by: Josiah Brown on December 8, 2013  2:28pm

Thanks for this article on Anthony Riccio’s work and the New Haven Museum.

Regarding oral and urban history, one resource is UConn professor of history emeritus Bruce Stave:

Separately, a number of Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute seminars, and many individual curriculum units that New Haven Public School (NHPS) teachers have prepared as Institute Fellows, have addressed such matters as immigration, civil rights, and social history (including locally).

See, for example, a 1979 seminar that Yale historian Howard Lamar led on “Remarkable City: Industrial New Haven and the Nation, 1800-1900”:

Among the units there is one by Valerie Polino on “New Haven and the Nation…”:

The late Yale historian Cynthia Russett led a 1997 seminar, “American Maid: Growing Up Female in Life and Literature”:

Most recently, there is a volume of curriculum units that NHPS teachers developed as Fellows in a 2013 seminar (which included a field trip to the New Haven Museum’s Wooster Square exhibition) that Mary Lui—Professor of American Studies and History—led on “Immigration and Migration and the Making of a Modern American City.”

Additional immigration-related units are among the volumes at:

These curricular resources—in the sciences as well as the humanities—are available for non-commercial, educational purposes.

posted by: transplanteditalian on December 10, 2013  12:11pm

kudos to Anthony for taking on this enormous task. he not only writes about what happened but interviews people who lived through this time. have also enjoyed his story about the north end in boston. the plight of all immigrants was about the same. they came to America with nothing , expected nothing. through hard work they raised families. impressed upon their children the virtues of hard work and pursuing an education to get ahead. many of our prominent citizens are of Italian descent from these families. they faced hardship and predjudices. they also instilled the importance of family life.
he has spent countless hours of research preparing this latest book. thank you Anthony for preserving part of our history.

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