Termini Imerese Stories

Why I am researching my family tree

Submitted by Phil Purpura

When I began the research into my Sicilian ancestry I was curious; curious to know if others of my ilk existed, I was curious to know what and who I was, curious to know who my ancestors were, curious to know why, if we were Sicilian, didn't we live like Mafiosos in the movies, curious to know if my ancestors left records of themselves in the old country. I quickly realized that I had to establish a point of origin for my immigrant ancestors or it would be like trying to find the proverbial ham in a hamburger.

Our family is very scattered and not concerned about these origins, we are not even ethnically oriented; we're Americans with a funny sounding Sicilian name living in the mainstream of American Twinky eating culture. The fact that I grew up in a multilingual family seemed as American as pizza pie. I didn't even know any Sicilians nor did I like Anchovies on my pizza. We didn't live in an ethnic neighborhood and my grandparents had no pleasant memories about Sicily. No one had nicknames, except for descriptive and derogatory expletives. I couldn't understand why my father insisted that we were not Italian: we were Sicilian, even if we never made anyone an offer they couldn't refuse.

At this point it's necessary to understand my nature, I won't, even under threat of pending disaster, ask for directions or refer to a map when lost. Nor have I ever remembered to lower the toilet seat, or so I'm told. Therefore it was natural for me to wait until everybody was dead that had the ancestral information, to start my genealogical quest.

The only recourse was to read about Sicily; I found the history was incredibly depressing. No wonder those people left! There is hearsay indicating that the present residents of Sicily have no interest in the past and consider an ancestry search to be worthless and frivolous. The attitude seems to follow the sentiments of, "We're here, they're dead, let's get on with our present lives". I found that sentiment disturbing, if it really reflects their feelings. I just can't, and don't understand, why they don't care who those immigrants where, why they left, where they went, what became of them, and what effect their exodus had on America and Sicily.

I needed more information relevant to our immigrating ancestors and the effect they had on conditions in both America and Sicily. I uncovered these statistics in a book by Finley, Smith, and Duggan, titled "A History of Sicily". The population of Sicily was approximately a little over 1,000,000 in 1700. It rose to about 1,500,000 by 1800. It grew to approximately 3,5000,000 by the mid 1880s. Through the depletions caused by immigrations, the ravages of poverty, diseases, wars, and on into 1984, the population fell and then crept up to approximately 1,627,000. It's considerably greater than that today at over 5,000,000. Apparently Viagra is quite popular there.

Where these figures, (if accurate), become highly significant, is that between 1900 and the start of WWI, 1,500,000 Sicilians immigrated from the island. I found no figures for immigration prior to 1900, but that is when most of my family left; the numbers have to be just as significant. The authors claim that some villages were losing up to 20% of their employable male population in a single year. The exodus didn't end there, between 1951 and 1975, over 1,000,000 more Sicilians immigrated; holy canolli! The point of these statistics is to show that our immigrating ancestors created a labor shortage which in turn caused the wages for the remaining Sicilians to increase 30% by the 1890s. By 1906, employers were out soliciting laborers with promises of higher wages and better benefits. By the end of WWII the wages and living standard had increased as much as fivefold.

This data points to the conclusion that our immigrating ancestors actually created the conditions for the remaining Sicilians to have a better chance of surviving. Therefore I contend that many of the living Sicilians today, just as we, are indebted to these immigrants. Oops!, my soapbox just collapsed, they don't make um like they used to!

I, by no means am trying to infer that our ancestors had altruistic intentions by immigrating, they just needed desperately to escape the dreadfully unbearable living conditions so to have a chance to survive. They wanted a better life for themselves and their progeny. They asked for no handouts, special privileges, or guarantees, they just wanted a crack at the American dream, or any dream, for that matter. They were exceptionally entrepreneurial, probably because they had few other opportunities, and did what ever enabled them to feed their families. They filled any labor and economic void that they found in a new energetic county. Even the Mafia played a part in America's destiny; without them, Mario Puzzo would have probably ended up writing adds for produce markets, Hollywood would have made nothing but Star Trek and Rocky movies, Marlin Brando would have eaten himself into obscurity, a lot of civil servants would not have had a source of extra income, and Las Vegas would be but a heap of dusty rattlesnake and jackrabbit excrement! Sicilian immigrants survived, no, they more than survived, they flourished!

I started with curiosity, who was I, what was I? The answer has become blatantly apparent; I am indisputably the fulfillment of my immigrant Sicilian grandparent's dreams! I am living the life they pursued. With the slight exceptions of not becoming president of the United States or Pope, I am the embodiment of all their wildest aspirations. They made it possible for me to be and accomplish what ever I wanted. That's more important than being rich and famous. (Try justifying that concept to a wife who wants new carpeting and her kitchen remodeled!)

Therefore, since I am the fulfillment of those peoples dreams, the culmination of their struggles, hopes, the desire to live free, and the continuation of their dream, I'm inescapably joined to the story of their destiny. Therefore I want to know precisely who's dream I'm a part of, I want know names, I want to know places, I want to know dates, I want to know events, and finally, I want my children and their children to know; maybe one them will find the time between taking out the garbage, surfing the net, and mowing the lawn, to become President of the United States.

Back to Main Page of Stories