Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Albert Melone Presents Mezzogiorno in Chicago - Historical Tale of Italian Immigrants in early 1900s...

On the Near West Side of Chicago in 1907, Italian migrant workers were quietly sitting on the floor after their boarding house evening meal. Frankie Andolini suddenly snatched from Dominic Russo's hand a photograph of a young woman. Dominic angrily complained, "What the hell are you doing. Give me back my fotografia! You want me to break your naso?"
"Keep your pants on Dominic. I am just taking a look. She is bella. Is this the woman you will be marrying back home? You are a lucky man, I say."

"No, no Frankie. It is a picture of my sister Rachela. She is at home in Pizzoli in the Abruzzo, where she lives with my mother and brother Anthony. Now give it back to me unless you want me to work you over--you little napolitano stronzo shit."
The other nine or ten men sitting there in the dimly lit room listening to the developing ruckus apprehensively turned their heads toward Dominic and Frankie. They had never before seen Dominic Russo visibly angry...
Frankie said, "Here take the picture. I did not mean to offend you or to insult your family, Dominic. I just saw you holding the photograph and she looked like an angel to me. I could not resist."
At this time, Dominic was in the prime of his life at twenty-three years of age...Not particularly well read himself, Dominic nevertheless was a good listener and capable of using his head to solve problems, and occasionally he displayed a quick wit with a sharp tongue. With Frankie's apology and the palpable group pressure imposed by the other men, Dominic's demeanor returned to his even-tempered normal self. He said to Frankie, "Well, I can understand your excitement about seeing a pretty woman, especially because few good looking women would want to look at your faccia bruta." With the uncomplimentary remark that Frankie had an ugly face, the men sitting there howled with laughter. Dominic's exaggeration released the remaining tension in the air, and even Frankie chuckled at the humiliating joke aimed at his expense. Dominic then said, "As long as you are respectful, it is fine with me to ask about my sister and family..."

Mezzogiorno in Chicago:
Love and Trouble on Ogden Avenue

By Albert P. Melone
Washington and Ogden

After working hard all day at back-breaking jobs, the Italian immigrants crowded into their living quarters where lack of space forced a togetherness that they might have preferred not to have... So when Dominic was feeling a bit lonely and pulled out the picture of his sister Rachela, it was bound to draw attention of the, perhaps, ten men who sat of the floor after dinner. One of them was close enough to see Rachela's beauty and grabbed and took the picture to get a closer look.

Dominic became angry and the two men almost came to blows until  Frankie apologized and returned the photo. As simple as that interaction was, nobody would have known what it would bring about...

He approached the little stone house and knocked
gently on the wooden front door. His mother opened
the door and yelled to the others, "Oh, Dio, che
gioia! God blessing, Dominic is home." She grabbed
Dominic, hugging and kissing him on both cheeks;
her lips smacked loudly, the smell of garlic emitting
from her finger tips as she was in the middle of
preparing the evening meal. She said excitedly,
"My son, sit down! Here, sit next to the fire.
Vi sentite bene? Are feeling good, my son? You
seem to be cold freddo."
"Sure, sure, it is cold outside; I have been traveling
a long time. ..Then Dominic's brother and sister
came into the room where they embraced him
warmly with big hugs and kisses on both cheeks
of his unshaven and heavily whiskered face....
Dominic had declared that he did not mind talking about his family as long as it was respectfully done. And so Frankie asked more and more about Rachela, finally after time had passed, asking Dominic about the possibility of Rachela joining with Frankie in marriage!

As Frankie became persistent, they talked about the money necessary to make that happen and Frankie agreed, finally, to pay for passage of Rachela and her mother to come to America...and also to not expect the normal dowry, which the family could not provide.

So it was that Dominic would go back home to talk about Frankie's proposal. Pleasantly surprised by those who lived in his village at their recognition and welcome home, he realized how wonderful it was to be around so many people he knew and cared about...

After they had all caught each other up with news, Dominic explained what he had to present to Rachela. It happened at a time when she was willing to listen--the boy she was in love with had become a priest! His love for God had come first, leaving Rachela confused and in turmoil. So, after much discussion, it was agreed that Anthony would stay at the farm and Rachela and their mother would travel back to Chicago with Dominic...

If only this arranged marriage would have gone as so many others had...

First when they arrived, Frankie was back it Italy because his mother was seriously ill and not there to greet his intended wife. Months went by and Rachela had gotten a job at a local story where the owners were kind to her and she was able to help financially. Both she and her mother was staying with Dominic and space was limited. Still, her mother was there to fix meals and work to adjust to their new home, learning as much as she was able. They quickly started to the Holy Guardian Angel Church, meeting Father Pasquale Turano and warmly being welcomed there. This was so important because he was there later when all the trouble started!

Rachela jumped to her feet
shouting, "You don't scare me
you ruffiano. This family does
not believe in violence, and we
do not break bread with the
likes of you. I do not want to
see you ever again!"
"Remember Rachela you are
promised to me..."

Rachela had started taking a class and met a young personable man. Nothing about the return of Frankie had been available and these two young people soon grew close and fell in love. Soon things became complicated because Frankie had come back and was ready to wed Rachela... This might have happened no matter about Rachela now loving Pietro Violini, but they discovered that Frankie, although now much more wealthy, was a member of the mafia who "provided protection" to neighborhood businesses. None of the Russos was willing to have her marry into this situation!

But Frankie was not willing to take this as the final answer... and it would not end until blood was shed...

This Historical novel is an excellent look at the immigrants who were coming to America seeking a better living. The work was, for many, harder than what they may have done back home, but the pay provided was able to keep them living and even, often, sending some back to Italy. There is much geographical, cultural and political information as merged and presented from the perspective of the Russo family. Readers are able to experience what it was like during early years into the 50s...

It is not giving anything away that happens, so I wanted to include the last paragraph of this book, which, to me, told much about why the book was written.
Italian-Americans roam the country and the world looking for a state of mind they seek, but nonetheless experience profound difficulty attaining. Perhaps, home is not a place; it is an ambiguity. It is neither a parcel of land nor simply a state of mind. It may be that something vital is missing in their understanding of who they are and where they come from. Rediscovering Rachela's America by tracing her steps is one mode to locate the moral compass they need to find their way home. Once they arrive, one might proclaim with justification that a new beginning is imaginable. The lessons of which may be instructive to the diverse peoples of the entire country badly in need of a new understanding of the meaning and practices of authentic community.
Historians--those interested in the time period, immigration activities, and/or those interested in the Chicago early development or Italian immigrants, Italian Americans, are just the major groups who will find this a valuable and impressive novel. For myself, the life of Rachela proved to be the dominant draw as we think about those times when marriages were arranged by families. And love sometimes just didn't happen. The intrigue of criminal actions and family ties is certainly a drawing point. I wish I could say that it was an easy life, but that was not the case. And I wondered, was part of that due to the issue of not "understanding who we are together with the ability to develop an authentic community," no matter where we are and our background. There is much to ponder because, after all, we still have the challenges of prejudice, criminal corruption, economic depression, etc., to pressure the lives we now live daily... Highly recommended.


Albert P. Melone is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC). A third generation Italian American, the author was born in Chicago, Illinois, and was educated in the public schools of Chicago and Southern California. He first matriculated at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut California. He received his B.A. and M.A. degrees in political science from California State University, Los Angeles, and studied law for a year at Loyola University, Los Angeles. After teaching at Idaho State University, he went on to receive the Ph.D. degree at the University of Iowa. He was a member and chair of the Department of Political Science at North Dakota State University during the 1970s, and became a member of the SIUC faculty in 1979, where he taught undergraduate and graduate courses in judicial process and behavior, constitutional law, comparative judicial politics, and American government and politics. He directed graduate students in the completion of their M.A. and Ph.D. degrees. He is the recipient in 1991 of the Outstanding Teaching Award, College of Liberal Arts, and was active in university affairs, serving as President of the Faculty and President of the Faculty Senate. He has lectured and held seminars abroad including Oxford University, and at Chinese and Bulgarian institutions of higher learning. After his retirement in 2005, he taught two blocs at Colorado College in consecutive years as a Visiting Professor. Melone is the author of numerous scholarly articles, book chapters, encyclopedia pieces, and book reviews. He has authored or co-authored ten book titles and well over a dozen volumes including second editions and reprints. In 2012, SIUC honored him for his academic contributions as a campus author. He presently resides in Shiloh, Illinois, located in the metro-east area across from the Mississippi River and the City of St. Louis. Mezzogiorno in Chicago: Love and Trouble on Ogden Avenue is his first work of fiction. Melone writes in the Acknowledgments,"After a lifetime of university teaching, research, and writing many scholarly tomes . . . it took considerable effort for me to screw up the courage necessary to wander from the confines of my familiar intellectual reservation to employ fiction as a teaching tool." In the end, Mezzogiorno in Chicago has much to teach Italian Americans and the country at large.

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