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The Francesco and Elizabeth Cirullo family of North Adams, c. 1933. My mother, Frances, is the little girl standing in the middle. (Rondeau family collection)

The Second Generation Grows Up

Italian immigrants had a great positive influence on their American-born children.

“The Italian families were big, extremely close, and very respectful of father and mother. Parents always emphasized to their children that proper behavior was very important. Sometimes the mother would do most of the disciplining if the father was out at work all day; but father always had the ultimate, absolute authority,” according to Italians*. “When he told his children to do something or not do something, they did it immediately, although usually just his ‘look’ was enough to command. And the children always held their parents in greatest respect.”

The authors of Italians, writing in 1972, note a tradition that continues to this day: The parishioners of St. Anthony Church are the only people in North Adams to kneel and pray for their parents after every Mass.

Tony Talarico said that his father, Felice, was in many plays that St. Anthony parishioners presented. He remembered him studying his lines in bed by candlelight.

“Once Pasquale Torchia played the part of Columbus. My father...was his brother, and I was Columbus' nephew. I must have been about five or six years old. In one scene in the play, after a long trying day, they stopped at a tavern. When they served me a meal it was a few slices of pepperoni and a few pieces of dry bread. I ate it with such relish that the audience went hysterical with laughter.”

Felice Talarico was in the St. Anthony Band from about 1914 to the mid-1930s. He played the clarinet, Tony played the trumpet, and brother Eugene played the French horn. The band played for various events and also marched and played in funeral processions.

“Oh, what a wonderful band,” said Venice Partenope. “Every Columbus Day there was a parade, and the Italians, of course, would arrange this parade and the band played.”

She remembered another musical group, too. “At Christmas time...I think there were two or three men...one played the banjo and the other played a violin, and they used to go around to all the houses...and play music to the Italian houses, these three musicians,” Venice said.

Mary Rosasco said music was definitely a part of growing up in her family’s home. “On weekends, my mother used to play the mandolin, not very well, but she plucked at it and my uncle...used to play the accordion and we sat around and sang Italian songs all the time,” she said. “I’m sorry I forgot all the lyrics.”

Tony Talarico said that in those days children became very close to their godparents. “My godparents were the Marinos. We were very close,” he said. “In fact, when you were growing up you thought they [godparents] were a relative of yours.”

A common activity of the Italian American families of the era was to go out visiting: “They worked hard all week — on Sundays they would visit each other.

“We went to the different friends. We spent a lot of time with them, on Sundays only,” Tony said. “You didn't have to make a reservation or call them up.”

The authors of Italians note that on these Sunday afternoon visits after Mass in the morning, or on picnics, people had their only real rest from a week of hard work. In the earlier years particularly, Italian Americans often played three games when they got together. Bocce, the most familiar to people today, was a game from the north of Italy. It was played in an alley made of limestone, 40-to-50 feet long, bounded on the sides by railroad ties. Using different sized balls, the object is similar to the throwing of horse shoes.

“Briscola was played with two partners on a side. In a card deck the assigned values of the different cards totaled 120 points, and collecting 61 points or more won the game. Each player was dealt three cards, and the trump card was turned up on the table next to the deck. Players would play a card and then draw one from the deck; after the first round the players were allowed to talk strategy or give signals to each other. For example, if one had no trump in his hand, he might have prearranged to open his mouth to signal his partner. The trick was not to let one's opponents discover the correct meaning of his signals,” they write. “Mura was a game played by northerners. On signal, the two players would throw out a certain number of fingers and try to call the total number thrown out. To increase their winnings players attempted to deduce what number of fingers the other would throw out most often over a long period of play.”

Venice Partenope, too, said the Italian families in North Adams frequently visited one another on Sundays. “It was nothing for my mother to have, on Sunday night...10 or 12 people come to visit,” she said. “And my mother would serve them supper.”

One of Tony Talarico's earliest memories was a Sunday visit to the Cirullo family, also immigrants from the Calabria region of Italy. The visit “one Sunday must have been in the fall. Everybody planned for the winter — buying coal and wood, canning vegetables, buying bags of flour for baking, etc.,” he remembered. “Well anyway we walked up Veazie Street to Myers Avenue, where the Cirullos lived. It was a long walk for us. When we arrived we saw a big hog hung up by the hind legs from the top of the barn. It had just been slaughtered and they were beginning to cut it up.”

Tony Sacco remembered the Italian known as the “Banana Man” who had all types of fruit on his horse-drawn wagon. Then there was another immigrant who carried fish on his wagon — the “Fish Man.”

“And there was another Italian man [who] used to go around walking up and down the street, every street in town,” he said. “And he had this thing stuck to his back, a grinder, and he would sharpen knives and scissors.”

More than one observer has noted that Italian American immigrant mothers saw it as their duty to stay in the house or tenement all day and take care of their families. Often the result was that she spoke English less well than her husband — or not at all.

The mother would “wash and scrub, sew, and spend a long time preparing meals,” according to Italians. “At meals the mother would always serve the children and the males first, and then eat later. Some were paid for making dinners and sending them out to the men in the mills. All would have to be very clever at improvising and making their own foods. They might buy a 24-pound bag of flour every three or four days to make their bread, and make their own sausage, and can their own vegetables with the children helping.

“In the afternoons some women might visit their neighbors and drink a cup of coffee or wine with them, or else help them with their work. Often the Italian priest (Father Lattanzi and later Father Mongiello) and the doctor (Dr. Gangemi) would stop by the houses on Ryan's Lane during the day, sometimes to eat.”

Tony Talarico remembered the food preparations that went on in Italian American homes before Christmas: “The woman would work two or three weeks before Christmas just to make all the goodies and food. I regret that I didn’t write down my mother's recipes. Everybody's mother cooked great.”

Mary Rosasco said that Italian food was not a big deal to her as a girl. “Before it was just food to live on. Now it has become so popular. Just look at polenta, it's all over now. Major restaurants in New York are serving polenta in all sorts of ways,” she said. “In Italy it was only something to survive on because it was one of the cheaper meals they could make and survive. They didn’t have anything else to live on.”

Mary said her family had polenta at least once a week. Her family also used to eat a great deal of poultry and rabbits, too.

Tony Sacco remembered a type of feast less in style today.

“They used to have goat,” he said. “A lot of the Italian families, that was what they ate, a lot of goat, because that was the thing that they ate in Italy.”

“They would take the male goat and open him up, just like a book, and they would roast him like that and when you wanted something to eat you would cut a piece off.”

Tony remembered other treats of his parents' generation.

“I remember the Italians used to love dandelions,” he said. “My mother used to boil them. Then she would open them up and get some scrambled eggs and cheese, and then she would fry them. They were delicious.

“My father knew the different things in the woods. There is a plant called milkweed. Everybody used to laugh at it, but at the end of the milkweed plant, the top part of it...before it started to flower...was very tender and you would boil those and that was good.

“He would go into the woods and he would know which plants to dig up for roots, and we would eat it,” Tony said. “We never had any medicine in the house other than this plant, herb, that we used to call 'the marva.' And my mother would take it and we would boil it and make it just like tea, and she would put a lot of sugar in it. And when we had a cold, that’s what you had, that 'marva.' ”

Tony went to Johnson School, in a more affluent area than that in which he lived.

“I remember this particular guy...he used to always tell us that he would have bacon and eggs for breakfast and stuff like that. We never knew what bacon was. So when we got up in the morning we had coffee and a piece of toast, and that was our breakfast,” Tony said. “I remember in the summertime we would go out and pick blueberries and my mother would jar them. And when we would come home at recess time we had blueberries. Everybody would know what we had because our tongue would be all blue.”

Most Italian American families made their own wine in the first decades of the 20th century.

“We lived on Holden Lane, and everybody in Holden Lane made wine,” Tony Sacco remembered. "When we were kids, my father would make five barrels of wine. [That] was a lot of wine, but we drank it all. Every night we used to get a jelly glass...and we would go down in the cellar and fill up the jug, and we would have a jelly glass of wine. No one ever got to be winos or anything. It was part of the food, you know.”

Mary Rosasco said her family, too, made wine from grapes. “We didn’t do it with our feet, though,” she said. “We had a machine that cranked...We had a big apple orchard, so we would also make sweet cider and let that turn into wine.”

Mary, the child of immigrants from northern Italy, said they felt education was important for their children because they were deprived of an education in Italy.

“Most of them were deprived. They lived far away from school,” she said. “They only had grammar school, and for high school they had to travel maybe 30, 40, 50 miles to get to school, and there was no transportation, so they couldn’t get to the high school.”

Tony Talarico spoke of, but was not bitter about, instances of anti-Italian discrimination he encountered in North Adams and in New York City.

“When I went to work at the Arnold Print Works, there was one Irishman who used to call me ‘dago’ a lot — or something or other...it bothered me,” Tony said. “But when I found out he was half-and-half, I used to call him ‘half breed’ or something.”

He laughed after telling that story, but he did not after the following.

“I went to Bryant College. I came out and tried to get a job but couldn’t — it was still the Depression,” said Tony. “I went to New York City and was down there a week. Finally one guy tells me, ‘I don’t know who is hiring vagrants, but we're not.’ He was honest, you know. Of course, the Italians didn’t fight back at all, you know. We should have been yelling and screaming.”

In North Adams there's no record of outright violence between the ethnic groups. There also is much evidence of general harmony between all groups in North Adams in the first decades of the 20th century. In many ways the immigrant Catholic ethnic groups went through similar experiences here — just at different times. As Tony Sacco said, “The Irish took an awful beating. I think each nationality kind of took its own beating. But they never fought with each other.”

However, the American-born children of the immigrants had some hesitations in completely embracing the language and culture of their parents' homeland.

“I knew Italian fairly well, but being the first generation [born in America], you tried to divorce yourself from Italy and Italian, because you wanted to be an American,” Tony Talarico said. “That was a big disadvantage in a lot of ways because we didn't bring up our heritage.”

Tony said he spoke Italian when in Naples with the U.S. Army during World War II — “But when I got on the boat I never spoke it again.”

Mary Rosasco said she felt a little bit of discrimination when she was a young student.

“Coming out of the school grounds, if your parents were there, and you are conversing in your Italian language, the others would sort of look at you and say, ‘What are you doing as a foreigner being here?’"

This improved in higher grades, as the children would have more confidence in themselves and be able to speak English a little better. In fact, especially when their children started school, Mary’s parents didn’t want to speak Italian in the home anymore.

“They wanted to learn, they wanted us to be Americans and speak English,” she said. “The sad part of it is [that] then I lost my Italian because they wanted to learn the American [language]. They wanted to be good American citizens.”

Fitting in could have more than just linguistic ramifications. Tony Talarico once said, “I regret not hugging my father when I was a kid. He was a loving man. We wanted to be tough like Americans. Now, I need at least three hugs a day.”

-From a People of Faith, Hope & Love, pp. 41-46

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* In 1972, two Williams College students, Richard C. Tavelli, ’73, and John W. Hauck, ’74, researched and wrote an extremely valuable report: The Italians in North Adams.

Book: A People of Faith, Hope & Love

The Life of a Laborer and a Housewife



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Venice Partenope, 100 years old, says a few words at the St. Anthony 100th Anniversary banquet, June 14, 2003. Photo Mark E. Rondeau

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Terri Kaiser and Jean Talarico, daughters of Tony Talarico, with a poster holding photos of their family. An extensive photo exhibition was part of the St. Anthony Church 100th Anniversary celebration. Tony Talarico, one of the finest people I have ever known, died in 2001. He was a major inspiration for the book and was the first person I interviewed for it. Photo Mark E. Rondeau

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