Mark Di IonnoWhy would they all leave?

It’s the question to which I know the answer to, but still find it incomprehensible when I see the rugged beauty and enjoy the simple lifestyle of Southern Italy even for a too-short vacation. 

They left to find work. They left for the promise of America, and the belief that aspiration leads to ascension.

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In the earliest days of Southern Italian immigration, a trip back home meant five days in steerage and a two-day wagon ride, so many never returned. They put the family and countryside they left behind in a memory compartment called “the old country” and started over in the new country.

If those Southern Italians could have returned home on a seven-hour flight and with a rent-a-car, I wonder how many would have taken the entrepreneurial and democratic lessons learned in America and brought them to their villages in the eight Mezzogiorno regions.

So, what does this have to do with New Jersey? Well there’s a pretty good chance if you’re reading this you have Southern Italian blood pumping through your veins. 

A map of the Abruzzi, Basilicata, Calabria, etc., reads like a New Jersey phone book. Carbone … Corgiliano … Salerno … Sarecena and on and on. All surnames taken from villages in ancient times or at Ellis Island. My mother’s maiden name was Tricarico, her mother’s was Brienza and her mother’s was Caggiano, three villages in Basilicata.

People with Italian roots are the largest ethnic group in New Jersey, making up 18 percent of the population, easily outdistancing the Irish. There are 1.5 million Italian Americans in the state, a significant chunk of the 13 million Italians who left Italy and scattered around the world from the 1880s to 1970. Only New York has more.

You’d think with all the Little Italy tourism and New York-based mob movies, that NYC is the Godfather of Italian immigrants. Both Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, have more. In fact, there are so many Italians in Argentina, the population actually speaks Spanish with an Italian accent.

But here in New Jersey, Italians weren’t solely concentrated in the cities of Newark, Paterson and Jersey City, though in the Italian heavy towns of Belleville, Nutley, Verona, Cedar Grove, the Caldwells and East Hanover, most can trace their roots back to North Ward of Newark, just as the ancestors of the  people of Little Falls, Woodland Park and Totowa first worked in the silk mills of Paterson.

In terms if percentage, communities as varied as Fairfield in Essex, Wood-Ridge in Bergen and Ocean Gate and Lavallette Italian-Americans make up either more or almost half the population.

For sure, there was work in the suburbs and at the shore, just as there is today for the Mexicans and Central Americans.

My mother’s family came from Potenza, the capital of Basilicata, and landed in Spring Lake, of all places.

My father’s family was from a remote mountain village 90 kilometers northeast of Naples called San Bartolomeo and were part of a pipeline to East Summit, the Main Street side of Millburn, Springfield and the old Italian section of Orange.

My grandmother and grandfather immigrated from there in the 1910s. A half century later, they were still coming. As an example, in our little three-block East Summit neighborhood, there were four families who came from San Bartolomeo after World War II.

I returned to Potenza and San Bartolomeo last week with three of my kids on a frenetic trip of visiting family and sightseeing that began and ended in Rome, with stops in the gnome house town of Alberobello, the ancient cave city called Sassi Matera, and a drive-through of the Amalfi Coast.

In San Bartolomeo, a cousin, Frank Di Ionno, knows everybody. When we wanted to climb the bell tower that is the signature of the town, Frank knocked on a door. He knocked on another and took us through the ancient Palacio del Cattono, a ghostly and massive 17th Century wreck of dusty antiques and peeling frescos. 

With all that amazing scenery and history my favorite moment was watching my father’s 100-year-old cousin, Antonio Di Ionno, run, yes run, across a street as a car was approaching. The villages are filled with such old people, who stay reasonably fit by climbing the cobblestone streets that often soar up a mountain. This, despite eating cured meats like prosciutto, salami, capocollo and mortadella, and soft cheeses like mozzarella, ricotta and fontina.

But there is another reason for their longevity. It’s called “the Roseto effect.”

Almost 60 years ago, two cardiologists studied a community of Italian immigrants in a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania's slate country called Roseto, named for Italian hamlet in Puglia from which they came.

The people of Roseto, Pa., seemed to live forever and heart disease was non-existent. Not that they were health nuts. The men working in slate quarries, inhaling rock dust and toxic gases and smoked stubby anisette-soaked cigars. The town diet was same as in the old country. Meats and cheese and lots of pasta.

What those early Roseto immigrants did was recreate Italian hometown. They lived in close quarters on steep hills, and kept life simple, centered on home, family and community. Multiple generations of families lived in the same house.

It is a very un-American concept. The American Dream is to break away, find one’s own way, to do better than our parents, and acquire more and more and more. That’s why we have sprawling suburbs with big houses and three-car garages, usually filled with everything but cars. That’s why we gather only on holidays, not for one meal a day. That’s why we have an economy of diversion, and look for entertainment and ‘connectivity’ everywhere but where we live. And maybe that’s why we seem to be cracking from stress … drug addiction … street violence … political polarization. 

More and more, I realize the movement of people is in constant swirl globally. What looked so good to the Italian immigrants of 100 years ago may not look so good to their descendants now. Maybe it’s time to go back.

As my family walked through the plazas of small shops in San Bartolomeo and Potenza, I found myself window shopping for real estate. I’m also working on getting my dual citizenship.

I’m a proud American but these days it couldn’t hurt to have an escape hatch.  

And I’ll leave it at that for now.