41. My mother’s side

My mother’s family story is the classic story of Italian immigration.

According to my cousin Joan O’Reilly, our grandparents both came as children from the mountain village of Trivigno, Basilicata, searching for economic opportunity and a better life.

My grandfather Anthony Casella, an orphan, came with his older sister when he was ten, and was apprenticed to a barber in New York City. He hated the work, so he and a cousin hopped a freight train to the Midwest, landing in Dubuque, where they were apprehended by the police. The cousin was sent back to his family in New York, but because he was an orphan, my grandfather was taken in by a Trappist monastery. Eventually, he made his way to Chicago, where he worked as a piano refinisher.

My grandmother, Carmella “Milly” Rago (pictured on the right, circa 1890) came to Chicago as a toddler when her father, a stonecutter, was looking for work rebuilding the city after the Great Fire.


Ben and I made a pilgrimage there in 2015. It is one of those charming towns one sees in the distance, clinging to a hilltop, filled with old people sitting on benches staring at the strangers who occasionally pass through. In my terrible Italian, I tried to ask if there were any Ragos or Casellas around, but no luck, although I did find some gravestones with the names. As my mother had always said, there was not much there. It was hard to imagine where people would find work, or even groceries.

Our hotel was filled with others, all from Chicago, doing the same thing. I imagine that the first brave Trivignese somehow landed there, and then sent word back that it was a good place to be, igniting a Trivigno-Chicago “chain migration.”

Anthony and Milly married and went on to have 12 children, 11 girls and one boy, all but one living to adulthood.

My mother, Margaret Simeone, and her little sister Gloria Casella, circa 1920

They went on to be artists, teachers, nurses, civil servants, and among the first “Italian girls” to work in the offices of the fancy, white shoe banks in downtown Chicago. I can still picture them heading to catch the bus to work in the morning, impeccably dressed in their sweater sets, high heels, and fur coats.

My aunts Virginia and Lucille Casella, touring Rome in 1961

And the next generations continue to thrive.

I am reminded of this when I hear all the ugly rhetoric about immigrants. I am certain that my Italian forebears would have been the subject of such talk that labeled them and their neighbors as dirty, criminal and unable or unwilling to assimilate. Yet what a loss if they, and others like them, had been turned away.

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