Preserving the culture and history of the Two Sicilies for Napolitan and Sicilian Americans today, envisioning a free and independent Naples and Sicily, ending 150 years of foreign oppression and occupation. by Dondiego Nunziata
‘A vacanzia e fernuta e me garbizza/ The vacation is over
sto chiarfo ca ‘ncarma/ this violent rainstorm that blesses
l’appecundria. E’ meglio stracqua/ melancholy. It’s better to stop,
‘e campiglie arreventano scaienze/ promises become the needs
‘e l’autunno ca ‘nzarda into culore/of Autumn pressing down
do vignale e s’aggranfeca zumpanno/ on the color of the vineyard
‘nzi’ lo core. Ca mmummera aggubbata/ clambering up your heart with my head down
selluzzo pe sbariamiento, forse/ I sob absentmindedly, maybe
pe cupia’ ‘o chiarfo, po piglia pe fesso./ to imitate the rainstorm, to make fun of it.
- Tomasso Pignatelli from Dialect* Poetry of Southern Italy
“This Is My Queen, and These Are My Two Princesses.”
So, my grandmother liked to talk a lot. So do I. I suppose it’s a family trait and it’s one I’m very glad we share. When I was a younger man, I would love to sit and listen to this amazing woman talk, and some of her stories will remain in my heart, and in the family, forever as I share them with my children.
One of the things that I always remember listening to my grandmother speak fondly of, was her time spent at Sodom by the Sea, Coney Island. Here, her father, Leonardo Dondiego, an immigrant from Basilicata, moved in 1911, and set up shop as a barber. Before moving to Coney, he was a partner with a man named Frank Petro, and together, they owned a barber shop at 550 2nd Avenue in Manhattan, but Leonardo had bigger plans.
“2202 Surf Avenue,” she rattled off, as if they were tomorrow’s winning lottery numbers. ”The shop was up front, and we lived behind it in a small house until he expanded and we moved a few blocks away.” The building still stands today and serves the community as a deli. It can be seen today on the left hand side of the street, at the far right of the photo below, all the way up the block.
Twice a year, once in the cold of winter, and at least once, under the summer sun I head back to that spot to pay homage to the birthplace of a family’s dream, my family’s dream. Today, July 7, 2012 was that day. So I lugged my wife, and two children into the car, and headed to Coney’s bright shores.
The neighborhood’s changed quite a bit over the years; from America’s Playground, when my great grandfather moved there to open up shop, to the devastating fires that relegated it to “Brooklyn’s Playground” and home for working class New Yorkers come summertime, in early post-War New York, through to it’s near death experience of the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s. But always, it remained, Coney. Today, with the excitement surrounding the Nathan’s hotdog eating contest, a beautiful newly revamped aquarium, and a wonderful minor league ballpark, some of the old time summer fun is back to the peninsula (its not an island after all, you know). But throughout everything, the good times and the bad, its remained not just alive, but full of life.
Back to the stories…
My grandmother remembers so many summers on the beach with her mother Carmela, sisters Rose, and Margaret, and brothers Vito, Joey, Frankie and Lenny. She remembers her brothers Frankie and Joey catching eels off the pier by their house, and she the time they tried to convince her that a Coney Island Whitefish was truly marine life (anyone know what it really is?). She remembers when her oldest brother Vito, would come home telling tales of great bravery and strength from his days as a police officer on Coney Island, before precincts received their cookie cutter number names. But every story that she told of her youth had one thing in common, family. It was important to her. How her mother taught her to cook meals for the family, how her brother Lenny helped guide her through Abraham Lincoln High School, where she graduated in 1936. And oh, how she always loved Sundays. Sundays were so wonderful because she would get to see her father, who was never really around the other days because he was working hard at the barber shop to feed his seven children. He would be out before they woke, and back after dinner, exhausted from working six long days a week, and one short one in his barber shop. Leonardo, the American small businessman, shared the hours many small business owners do today, until the day he died, July 6, 1927, while at work.
What impact this tragic event could have had on this young immigrant family (my grandmother Vivian was only eight years old) no one would ever know. Yet despite this horrible personal tragedy, the eight years that my grandmother spent with her father left such an impact on her, that you still heard the joy in her voice when she spoke of him, and the wonderous home he created for her and her brothers and sisters, seventy years after. You still saw the light in her eyes when she thought of her daddy.
One story in particular was a favorite of her’s and mine. It was the summer that she lost her father, and she remembers going to visit him at his shop at 2202 Surf Avenue. Business was booming for Leonardo, and his barber shop had, a few years earlier, taken over the entire premises at 2202 Surf Ave., so the family rented a new, bigger house, a few blocks away. She was visiting her dad with her two older sisters, Margaret, then ten years old, and Rose, seventeen. One of Leo’s regular customers, a very wealthy man, who always summered at Coney Island, remarked at the beauty of the three girls. ”My god Leo, what beautiful girls you have,” the man said. ”One beautiful brunette (Rose), one bright blonde (Margaret), and oh what a lovely red head (Vivian, my grandmother)! What would you like for them? Name your price, I’ll give you whatever you want!” the man exclaimed.
Apparently, during this time, it ws not an uncommon occurrence for immigrant families to sell, or give away their children, especially girls. After all, times were tough and mouths needed to be fed. These young women were not the ones who would be working to feed those mouths, that was a man’s responsibility. So often times, like was the case for Leonardo’s wife, Carmela, they would be sent away.
“Oh no, no, no,” Leo laughed, “these girls are not for sale at any price. Just look at them,” he said proudly pointing. ”This (indicating Rose) is my queen, and these (Margaret and Vivian) are my two princesses”.
The man who time made a stranger, took his shave, and left disappointed. Just a few days later, Leonardo collapsed amid the scorching temperatures of a massive summer heat wave. He died as he lived, shaving a customer in his barber shop to feed his children.
As tragic as losing their father may have been, what a wonderful last, and lasting, memory those words must have been. So memorable, that 70 years later, it still made the eyes of an old woman light up like a child’s again when she recalled them.
So as I walked past the corner on the Coney Island boardwalk at West 21st Street, on the way to the beach with my own family, and just one block from Leo’s shop, and my grandmother’s birthplace, I was taken aback by the sight that beheld me. A tiny kitten, no more than a few months old, eating from scraps someone had kindly left for it.
Then, I stood mouth agape in amazement at the next guest…
kitten number two, from underneath the boardwalk.
Finally, to complete the story that started on a steamy July day 90 years ago…
As I stood next to total strangers on the boardwalk and witnessed this touching tale of life in Coney Island take place, I couldn’t help but think it was Leonardo putting on a show for me. There they were, 90 years later, almost to the DAY, his queen and his princesses, feeding on the fruits of Coney Island’s labor. And then it really hit me. As I welled up, i couldn’t help but laugh, because of all the things my grandmother loved to talk about, one thing she detested were cats. That’s when I remembered that she also had one hell of a sense of humor.
Coney Island 1920’s (Vivian with the beach ball, Margaret behind to her left, and Rose to Margaret’s left). His Queen and his two Princesses.
Coney Island TODAY (literally). My Queen, My Prince, and My Princess.
The South’s Soldier, Carmine Crocco
Come divenni brigante, or ‘How I became a desperado’, by Carmine Donatelli Crocco.
It’s a great narrative. Crocco takes you by the hand and leads you through the valley of his childhood, where his parents worked as peasants on the land of a local nobleman. He shows you around the little hut where they lived, eight people in a single space, the roof and the walls blackened by the ashes of the fire. Theirs was a life of misery, but Crocco recalls it with nostalgia and with immeasurable love for his parents, who worked like mules to grant their family a bit of happiness.
Then came the day that his mother was irrevocably offended by a local signorino. She had thrown herself at his throat in the defence of her children, and she had been heavily wounded by the aggressor.
Crocco wouldn’t forget the scene, and he wouldn’t forgive.
Later on, the same little nobleman barely escaped an assassination attempt. Crocco’s father was arrested by the royal guards, together with many others, even though he had a valid alibi. He served months of prison, until the real offender turned himself in. During that time, Crocco’s mother lost her mind, and Carmine and his brothers and sisters were scattered to work as underpaid peasants for various little nobles.
His mind had been poisoned, Crocco would write almost fifty years later in prison. He admits that he committed cruelties of all types, he has brought mourning into thousands of families. He doesn’t ask for forgiveness, he simply mentions the reasons of his anger.
When he reached eighteen years he was conscripted into the army of Naples. He had no choice. Only if you had enough money you could pay to avoid military service. If not you had to pay with your obedience, your time and possibly your life.
He got drilled as a soldier, and the experience definitely came in useful.
One day he received a letter from his sister. Her honour had been blemished by a local townsman. Upon reading about it, Crocco immediately deserted. But before he fled the army he committed his first homicide by killing a fellow soldier who had offended him.
Back in town, he killed the townsman who had tried to ‘merchandise’ his sister’s honour, he took to the hills and he formed a gang of desperados.
Crocco wasn’t planning to live his life as a fugitive. When the south was annexed by the north, he adhered to the new regime, hoping to be able to start all over. Later on, when he conquered Aliano – the village where Carlo Levi would spend most of his exile - he admits that he would gladly and peacefully live in this town as the local lord.
His hopes were vain. Crocco, together with most of the southern people were deceived by the new king. Deceived, and once again offended. The Piemontese never failed to show their utmost contempt towards the locals of the south.
Changing sides is an old Italian tradition. Crocco did so as well, more than once. Not out of cowardice, but out of deception. After the Piemontese had shown that they weren’t any better than the old regime, Crocco headed the reactionary resistance, collecting all discontent peasants and nobles under the banner of the old kingdom of Naples.
In many places the villages opened their gates, and Crocco was hailed as a liberator. If they didn’t surrender, they were conquered, plundered and destroyed. For a brief while Carmine Donatelli Crocco ruled over these lands like Hannibal and Spartacus had done many centuries before.
The king of Italy sent an army to destroy the menace of the desperados. But the army was defeated. Crocco was more than a simple brigante. He was a valourous condottiero. And different from many of his ferocious generals, he was capable of acknowledging the valour of his opponent, and of being merciful.
During the height of his power, his name was on everybody’s lips. But some of the people who had adhered to the new kingdom spoke about him with contempt. The mayor of one of the villages near Crocco’s headquarters boasted that he could easily beat the desperados with the help of the local guard.
Crocco heard about it. He wrote a short letter to the mayor. ‘Dear mayor. I urge you to send me the flag, the portrait of the king, the portrait of Garibaldi and the village treasury. They are to be brought to me by the commander of the guard. If you don’t comply, I will come and get it myself. You have eight hours.’
Six hours later, the commander of the guard delivered all the requested goods and implored Crocco to spare the village.
In the long run it couldn’t last. The state kept sending down troops to the rebelious region, and many of the people who had supported the cause of the ancien regime switched sides again, depending on the how the wind was blowing.
Crocco was forced to keep fighting for his own survival and that of his two thousand men and women, without any political friends. He kept on plundering villages, he kept on committing cruelties, but slowly the balance slid to the other side.
During the last three years of his career as a desperado, he was limited to isolated attacks on coaches, travelers and farms. Many of his men got caught or gave themselves up, or got killed.
In the end, Crocco was betrayed by one of his generals. The Piemontese had offered this Judas life and liberty if he would lead them to his leader. He didn’t succeed, but the days of the desperados were at their end.
With twelve of his faithful men, Crocco continued to flee from justice, heading north to the Papal States, where he turned himself in to the pope.
The pope had him imprisoned, he didn’t extradite him to the Italian state, because that would mean he also had to extradite the small fortune that Crocco had on him when he reached Rome.
Six years he spent in a papal prison. Then Rome was turned over to Italy, and Crocco sent to trial.
He was sentenced to death, a sentence that was later changed into forced labour for life. In between, near the turn of the century, Carmine Crocco, the most legendary of desperados, found time to write his memories.
Those memories were handed to me in the form of a book by comrade Max. I had told him to look out for stories about the briganti in the towns we passed. Like I said, I had tried to speak to the elderly of Vaglio, but they didn’t tell me a thing. While reading Crocco’s autobiography I found out what might be the real reason why they didn’t want to remember the briganti…
“We attack Vaglio, a village at six miles from Potenza which resists with admireable valour. The menace of destruction in case they don’t surrender only strengthens the tenacity with which the inhabitants defend their village. Our messengers are received with bullets and fire. Various of our men die in the process. Divided into four columns, we attack from four different sides. We occupy the village while the heavily fortified monastery continues to resist. Our troops, enraged by the unexpected defense, slaughter anyone they come across, men and women, and they set fire to the monastery. The village is plundered. Anyone steals whatever he can. We leave the monastery burning. The 16th day of November .”
(from the autobiography of Carmine Crocco, pp. 117-18, translated)
They heyday of the desperados came to an end a few years later, after equally ferocious persecutions by the state. But it wasn’t the end of the phenomenon of brigantaggio.
Sporadic acts of guerilla continued all over the south throughout the 20th century. As late as the 1970s, the authorities in Calabria admitted that they couldn’t guarantee the safety of citizens in the wild mountains of the inland.
Up until this very day, so the story goes, if you venture far off into the forests of Calabria, you might encounter the last of the desperados, living in their caves, preying on remote farms and unsuspecting wanderers…