Saturday, August 25, 2012

American Emigrants from the Isle of Capri


By Bertha Poole

In a Capri town
The cathedral bell tolled eleven. Market was over in the Italian village square, and the women, grumbling over their scanty sales, packed away their vegetables, waiting a more propitious morrow. From under the medieval arch that led to the quay a long file of heavily laden figures, their bare feet firm on the smooth stones, slowly wound their way. It was an ill-assorted line. The young and strong moved swiftly with rhythmic step, great barrels of wine balanced with ease on bright-kerchiefed heads; others, older, more sedate, walked with slower, longer stride, their muscles trained by long years to the heavy weight; last of all, staff in hand, came the aged, tottering, staggering under crushing hempen sacks of charcoal, their bent figures hardly dis­tinguishable from those of the stooping, panting children moving by their side. Women all, these beasts of burden.

"Where are the men of the village?" I asked, as the hand-organ ceased its creaking two step and the musician, cap in hand, stood by my table at the corner cafe.

"I am they, Signora," he replied, pocketing my coin and replacing his tattered cap on his sable, silvered hair. "The men are in America. The land of the illustrious lady perhaps? Yes? That one can see with closed eyes. Ah, Signora, I should like to go to America. Those who go have it good. Only for the women left behind is it hard. Work and trouble, work and trouble, that's the song here."

"But surely," I questioned, "women cannot do their own work as well as that of men?"



On a Capri hillside
"And yet they do," he answered, with an Italian shrug of the shoulders. "Both in fields and vineyards. I, of course, give advice, I and the padre; yet the women do the work. If the men send home the money, the women go to Amer­ica. If they send not home the money, then harder must the women work. And why not? They are strong, with arms like a man. Have they not always worked?"

So asks the South Italian; so he has asked for hundreds of years. Yet to­day his words have a deeper significance, for a new and heavier burden has fallen upon women as a result of the present excessive emigration.

Last year from one province alone in the south of Italy almost one hundred thousand able-bodied men sailed for the Americas. These emigrants, workers in the fields for generations, discouraged by hard, fruitless labor and the growing needs of growing families, had left, not unwillingly, for the new lands. Here, where dollars are more plentiful than lire in Italy, a man after three or four years might save enough to send for his family; or, better still, come himself.

But meanwhile, during these inter­minable years of waiting, there are chil­dren to be clothed and fed, rents to be paid, fields to be cultivated. No dreams of future opulence can solve the increas­ing problem of providing bread and macaroni for growing young mouths.

People of Capri
To the woman is left the solution of this problem. Everywhere we see her toiling, in fields, in streets, in workshops. We see her competing with donkeys for the poor privilege of carrying barrels of wine and oil, great bundles of wood, bulky sacks of charcoal. We see her on the quay, eagerly awaiting the incoming steamer, her shrill clamor proclaiming ability to carry the stranger's valise, his heavy trunk, or anything unto him belonging. In the gray silence of the cold winter dawn we hear a sound like the muffled beat of a drum. It is the clatter of wooden shoes on the stone pavements. Grimly the shawled, shivering figures pass, stopping an instant in the dim light to pray at the shrine of a sleeping Madonna. Then on, on to the fields, where a man's work must be finished by sunset. Even then the day is not over. Late in the night we catch the faint gleam of her candle. She is working again, bending, with arms bare to the shoulder, over great vats of water, cleansing the linen of the village. For seven days each week this labor goes on. A rest on the seventh may be possible in heaven, thinks Lucia, but not in South Italy for the mother of an emigrant's children. Seven days must she work, toiling at tasks beyond the strength of men, bending, breaking under the burden, aging, dying under the strain.

A vendor of mineral waters
Nor does age exempt from the growing burden of labor. In Amalfi, bowed white-haired women act as portresses for the great hotel. For a few cents they stagger daily up the steep, rocky path, carrying on their heads brown sacks of charcoal greater than their wasted bodies. In factories, also, we find the old. Here they toil at the least skilled tasks, thankful for the few cents, their recompense for ten and twelve hours' labor. In the attic of a paper factory, where the dampness stood in great drops on the stone walls and ceiling, I found these mothers of mothers, sorting rags. 'The dim light from small barred win­dows just rendered visible the great piles of rags heaped to the ceiling. At a long wooden table stood tattered old women, their faces gray with the dust which rose in clouds under the trem­bling stir of their hands. One, who had seen her threescore years and ten, crippled by a life of servitude, surrep­titiously held out her hand. "A penny, Signora," she whispered, "a penny. My sons are all in your country. For the love of our blessed Madonna, one little soldo."

Later I learned her story. As her life began so it must end, in two win­dowless stone rooms hardly larger than closets. Three sons had been born here. "Fine boys," she told me, "with arms good for the work." But they had grown dissatisfied with the dullness of the life, the long hours and little pay, and years ago they had left for America. At first they had sent her money. She had learned to depend upon the monthly stipend. Then there were weddings in the new land, and the post-office order came on festas only. In those days she was strong and able to earn her six­teen cents with the best of them, but her muscles had stiffened since, the rheu­matism had crippled her fingers. Yes, she was glad of any work—even sorting rags, and the wage of fourteen cents a day. Annetta, her daughter, helped her. If she married—well, at seventy, one cannot live much longer.

I met Annetta, a strong, buxom girl, as I was crossing the wooden bridge that connected the little village with the out­side world. She was rubbing the hotel's heavy sheets against the smooth surface of a rock, rinsing them out in the moun­tain stream, hanging them to dry on the low gnarled branches of an olive tree stretched like arms for the purpose.

A Neapolitan water carrier
"Your brothers are in America?" I asked, seeing her face sadden as she watched the receding steamer.

"Ah, Signora, yes! Men are all in America. In this village there are twenty fine girls, with arms strong for the work, yet of what good is it all? The few men who remain in the village ask forty, even eighty dollars before they will marry. Eighty dollars! Can a girl earning twenty cents a day save such a fortune? Pray to the Madonna of the Rock, says my mother. Talking is easy. Of what use are prayers when you have not a penny to pay for a candle? I have twenty-four years, since the third of last May. If my lottery ticket wins not a prize I must stay single."

Giuseppina, the sister of Antonio, my coachman, was one of the fortunate. She had always worked in the village bakery, lifting, turning, and kneading the great clods of dough. Her face had lined, her figure stooped, still she had worked on, good, patient, uncomplaining, the drudge of the family. In a night all was changed. Cinderella of yore was not more bewildered by the suddenness of her fortune than Giuseppina when the numbers on her lottery ticket, carefully chosen from the Book of Dreams, won the first prize of two thousand lire ($400). The news spread through the country, and for miles around men sought the hand of the heiress. But Giuseppina had her prince. On Pasquale, lame, poor, despised, who daily carried her fresh loaves to the hotel on the cliff; on Pasquale the maternal longings of her hungry heart had centered. When the next steamer sailed for America, Pasquale, with two thousand lire carefully con­cealed in one of Giuseppina's long stock­ings, sailed also. The village, first out­raged, then amused, laughed roundly when Giuseppina, placid, contented, returned to her baking. But Giuseppina smiled quietly. Two years passed; then Pasquale, successful proprietor of "The Manhattan Italian Bakery," returned to the village. Giuseppina, arrayed in a new gown of black shiny silk, went proudly to the padre, and brother Antonio himself drove the smiling pair to the nearest railway station. The banco at the corner of the piazza doubled its business.

But the lottery ticket is not the only solace for the heirs of the emigrant. Letters from America break the monot­ony of the long, dull months. In the village wine-shop a professional letter-writer will, for a few cents, send word of the home ones to those beyond the great sea. He will read, too, the mysterious envelope which the old carrier brings in his bag up the steep mountain path. Wondrous strange are the tales which the brown bag carries, tales told over and over in the little stone homes, tales not to be credited, did not the padre indorse them. "It is a land," writes Pasquale, "where all wear shoes, a land where trains shoot through the air, and trains shoot through the ground. Even the poor ride. No one needs an um­brella, for cars pass everywhere."

And then there are homecomings to which to look forward. With cold weather the sun-loving Italians frequently return to their own land, if not to remain, at least to escape our American winter. With them are American trunks full of strange American wonders, luxuries un­dreamed of in the little Italian village. American caps, shoes, and shirts are shown to admiring friends, and yards upon yards of cheap cotton are unrolled before wondering eyes. There is also a black oilcloth table-cover with a gold Brooklyn Bridge in a crooked center, and last but not legist are the Sunday supplement pictures and the flaunting American advertisements.

A water carrier of Bivona
This influx of wealth has its effect on the village. The linen table-cover with its edging of hand lace, stained by long service to a wonderful ecru, no longer satisfies the heart of Maria. She covets the black oilcloth with bridge of bright gold. For her bambini, too, she has now aspirations. In Marino the children always went barefoot, or at most their sturdy young feet were protected by the rope-soled or wooden shoes of the vil­lage; but if Vanna's boy and girl walk past her window in creaking leather, is it strange that Maria, too, covets for her bambini the new footwear? She must work harder, or, that being impossible, demand higher wages. So the price of labor goes up. Landlords grumble, housewives threaten, but Maria, fortified by a consuming desire, stands firm, and the women of Marino receive twenty cents per day in place of sixteen. And so the burden is lightened.

Yet it falls heavily enough. All through South Italy one meets the young impo­tently rebelling against a lonely, joyless future, giving their youth that a few cents may be added to the family in­come; one meets girl wives, un-resigned to the years of separation forced upon them by poverty and emigration; girl mothers deserted, bitterly taking upon themselves the burden left by the emi­grant. Wives fill the place of absent, breadwinners, and the old strive with senile courage to earn the pittance that keeps alive the feeble spark. It is the heritage of the emigrant!


From The Outlook Magazine, 1908.