This is the second installment of the story of my grandfather, Nicola, pictured below, and his brother, Dominick, and their struggle to build a life in America in the early part of the nineteenth century. If you missed the first two chapters, you may want to go here.
This is the story as it was told to my cousin Billy by Dominick, my grandfather Nicola’s brother. I hope you enjoy!
Work started early for the Sorgente children. At six years old, they worked in the morning for the rich land owner of the village on his grape, olive, and almond farm, which their father, my great grandfather Joseph, was foreman, and in the afternoons the two oldest children, Carmen and Nicola, my grandfather, would work on the family farm while the more fortunate younger ones, Dominick and Antoinette, attended school. But education was a luxury of the rich, and at eight years old, they would be sent out to work on the farms full-time. Dominick did, however, learn just enough to write a letter and read a little by going to night school at the age of fourteen. Madeline, their mother, my great grandmother, gave birth to nineteen children but only four reached adulthood.
The people of the village of Bitonto, near the city of Bari, Italy, were simple, almost child-like in their innocence of the ever changing world around them. A simple thing like electric street lights, that we today take for granted, was a strange, confusing occurrence to them. While the Sorgente children were still young, this phenomenon came to the village. On the day that the lights were to be turned on amid much official ceremony with the mayor and councilmen of the town ready to give a speech from the top of a wooden platform made just for this occasion, the children gathered, along with the rest of the village, to see the miracle of electricity. They expected something totally different than what happened next. When the switch was thrown by the distinguished mayor, and I might add, after a long winded speech about progress, Nicola and Dominick looked up expecting the wires to light up. But, as we all know, the wires that run from pole to pole only carry the electrical current to the light bulbs which light up instead. Needless to say, they were quite disappointed when the wires did not set the town aglow with laser like effect. They turned and went back to their home quite disappointed.
Nicola was the first of the two brothers to get bitten by the adventurous bug. At the age of eighteen, he ventured out into the unknown half-way around the world to South America. With Carmen’s husband, Jimmy Parzinza (his brother-in-law), he sojourned to Buenos Aires, Argentina. The year was 1908. Little is known of their stay in South America other than that Nicola contracted a venereal disease and returned a year after his arrival.
Upon his return home, Nicola checked into a hospital in Bari to receive treatment for V.D. The treatment was long and painful with one procedure being that his penis was cut open, and I imagine having his blood or other bodily fluids drained. This sounds much like the bloodletting techniques of the Middle Ages. I’m glad modern medicine has come a long way since then. While in the hospital, Dominick was the only one who visited him. Nicola’s stay in Bari and the nature of his illness was kept a secret between the two brothers until long after Nicola’s death and when Dominick was nearing his. In truth, he told me during our talks that weekend, and swore me to secrecy not to expose this until after his death.
But Nicola was a restless youth and Bitonto was too small to hold him for long. After a year from returning from South America, he set out to the United States, the “Promised Land where the streets are paved with gold”.
The general idea was to come over to America for “a change”, which the narrator never found out from what, but one could imagine Nicola’s desire to better himself and his family was of utmost importance. Also another motive was to have a good time and to see what America was all about, what was here, and of course, to make money. The plan was for Nicola to work for one year and then to send enough money home so that Dominick could join him in America. The total stay was to be for five years and then return home wealthy men. As it turned out, neither brother ever imagined that the future would be quite different than what they dreamed.
In 1910, therefore, Nicola set out on a steamer for America. His spirits were high, and his will was strong. The Port of Entry for the United States was New York City, and Nicola was processed on Ellis Island. Here is where the Immigrations Officer would first ask your name. Nicola told him. The officer then wrote down the name in script and handed the papers to Nicola with the “o” in Sorgente looking like it could be an “o” or an “a”. This simple procedure would later be a point of disagreement throughout the Sorgente/Sargente family. Dominick and his family would spell their last name as Sorgente, and Nicola and his family would spell it Sargente. A minor difference of an “o” and an “a”, but it was still a difference that the two families of Nicola and Dominick would playfully argue for over a hundred years. Many years later while researching and gathering documents for my dual citizenship application to become an Italian citizen, the National Archives and Records Administration sent me a copy of the original “Manifest” of passengers on the boat from Italy to America when my grandparents arrived in 1920. The list was typed, and the last name was spelled SORGENTE. Over the years, birth records and school papers were handwritten, and the “o” looked like an “a”, hence the difference. My mother and her siblings all spelled their names Sargente. But it really is Sorgente – so much for history.
But back to 1910, and once here in NYC, Nicola found work on the docks. He moved in with three other men on Mott Street which was in a section of Manhattan called “Little Italy”. The accommodations were far from princely, for all four men slept in this one room apartment where the kitchen was tucked in one corner, the beds in another, and the “living area” in a third. The bathroom was down the hall to be shared by all the other apartments on that floor. Not quite what young Nicola expected, but when you’re nineteen, the romance of it all made things seem better than what it really was.
Dominick did not come over after a year. Nor did he make it the following year. Not until the third year, 1913, did Dominick join his brother in America. One reason for the delay was that Dominick wanted to join the Italian Army but was found to be an inch and a half too short. He tried several times, appealing each rejection, and even wearing lifts the last time, but to no avail. Finally he set out for America with the money Nicola sent him.
The boat was crowded. They slept one on top of another like sardines in third class in the bottom of the boat. There were no separate cabins, no walls or doors to separate the passengers while they slept or changed. This narrator isn’t even sure if they bathed, and if they did they probably did it behind a screen; just one open space where they all lived together for the fifteen days it took to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The passage fee was 250 lira. A lot of money in 1913 for horrible conditions, but Dominick was only twenty years old, away from home for the first time, and most importantly, on his way to join his brother in America. Time was spent on the boat singing and dancing and drinking. There was no swimming pool, no night club, no Activities Director to make the voyage on the Italian steamer more pleasant. his was not a luxury ocean cruise, and the occupants were not on a holiday. They were poor immigrants from Italy coming with all their worldly possessions to the New World to find a better way of life. Their hearts and souls were filled with the dream-The American Dream-and they were willing to sacrifice everything, leaving their homeland, their families, and their old lives behind, to obtain this dream.
The passage was rough, but Dominick forgot it all when the ship came into New York Harbour and his eyes gazed for the first time upon that wondrous lady who lights the way to the New World. Dominick stood on the deck of the ship with tears in his eyes and instantly fell in love with her magical charm and all that she stood for including his new adopted country. He also knew at an instant, while gazing with awe at the tall and majestic buildings that lined Manhattan Island, that he had found a new home.
Dominick was processed at Ellis Island the same way Nicola had been processed three years earlier. Here again an Immigrations Officer asked a Sorgente brother his name, wrote it down, and handed the papers to Dominick. Written on the papers was his last name – Sorgente. He had arrived in America.
To be continued…
If you would like to read the third installment in this series, please click here, and thank you for reading!