I have spent the last week in a 19th century farm, high in the hills above the town of Corleone in Sicily. The landscape is incredible: rolling fields of wheat and barley, olive groves and vineyards; a lush and fertile land dotted with spectacular bare rocks that jut out of the green fields like the menacing jaws and broken teeth of some mythical beast. Just like when I discovered the forty shades of green that have become my home, my first thought was: Why would anyone want to leave such a beautiful place? And yet, like the Irish before them, the Sicilians left in droves, hoping for a better life in America. Between the 1880s and 1906, 100,000 Sicilians immigrated to the United States.
One of those was my grandfather Francesco Pisco. He arrived in Ellis Island on October 12, 1905. He was 18-years-old, and was accompanied by his 16-year-old brother Vito. He was lucky to have left when he did. The 1924 Immigration Act, ended immigration from Southern Europe, but by that time, Francesco and his brother Vito had managed to bring over their family, including their mother and father. Like the Fords of Ballinascarty (who left in 1847), the entire family left everything behind to start a new life in a very different country. There are no Piscos left in Sicily.
I had found the ship manifest that listed Francesco and Vito, but was still unsure if they had really come from Corleone. It was a bit of a family joke. The movie ‘The Godfather’ has made Corleone infamous around the world. When my father asked me to accompany him on a trip to search for his father, it was an offer I could not refuse.
Once we got into the town hall archives, the search only took about thirty seconds. The birth registry for 1887 list child #45 as Francesco Pisco; born on the 15th of January; son of Antonio Pisco and Margerita Lecata, who lived in the quarter of town still known as La Grazia.
Immigration is often analysed as being a combination of Push and Pull forces. Some events like famine or war, or few prospects for making a living locally are described as a push. The lure of a new world filled with opportunities in modern cities where the streets are paved with gold is the pull. The recent immigration crisis has sharpened these two forces, giving them a different moral value. We welcome refugees who have been pushed out of their homeland, but feel that those who leave because of the pull of a better life are somehow less worthy. Life is never that simple. What was it that made Francesco leave? Was there a push? Perhaps, though he most certainly was not running away – leaving his family behind would have been too dangerous. We often think of immigrants as impoverished and starving, but that is rarely the case. The poor and starving have no way out. They stay and often die. Those who leave have the means to do so. Francesco had the money to buy a passage and $12 in his pocket, a trade (he was a barber), and a plan to unite his family once he had settled in the new country. He may have had a push, but certainly felt the pull of America.
The history of the human race is one of departures and arrivals, of push and pull. I myself uprooted my family twenty-five years ago to settle in West Cork. The push was disaffection with city life in the fast lane. The pull was the beauty and slower pace of the countryside. The hope was to make a better life for me and my daughters. Like my grandfather before me, I was lucky to have the option to leave, and was welcomed in my new home which offered new opportunities and a better lifestyle. I like to think that our family, spread out as it is on both sides of the Atlantic have contributed to the communities where we settled. ..
If you get a chance , go and see the new exhibition at the Glucksman in UCC, hosted by the Clonakilty Friends of Asylum Seekers: MARKING TIME: The Glucksman UCC June 2 – June 12.
Marking Time is an exhibition of textile, tattoo and photography by and with women currently residing in a Direct Provision centre in Clonakilty. There will be an open reception on Wednesday June 7 at 11am. All welcome.