Sicilian and Slovakian Heritage

Nancy Cicirello interviewed by Niki Pantazis

Niki Pantazis: Hello, thank you for sitting down with me. The purpose of this interview, to tell you a little more about the background, is that it started with Linda Hunt. She wanted to go back to the country where her father was from. Based on that experience she found it to be a really rewarding experience where she connected back with her father’s heritage and found that a lot of other people really wanted to talk about this. So she asked students if anyone fit the criteria of a person who has parents from another country who immigrated her and then as the child of those people returned to their respective homelands. She wants to add other people’s stories to a general website and see where it goes. That is the general foundation.  I have some questions for you as a person that has gone back to your grandparent’s homeland. If you could state your name and what your ethnicity ancestry is?

Nancy Cicirello: Nancy Cicirello and I am Sicilian heritage on my paternal side and Slovak on the maternal side of my family.

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Q: What places have you been back to?

A: I have been to Slovakia, to the little village where my grandparents grew up [maternal] and I have been to the village in Sicily where my other grandparents grew up.

Q: And when did you go back there?

A: Well I have been to both several times. My most recent trip was to Sicily in the village of Militello just this past June. I was in Slovakia I think it was six years ago and then other times before that.

Q: Was there an exact purpose for why you wanted to go back?

A: Well the very first time it was to meet relatives and then subsequent times to go with either my mother or my father or both of them to those villages with them to see family.

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Q: So you got to back with your parents to see where their parents were from?

A: Yes.

Q: That is pretty remarkable to have that experience. How did that make you feel as an individual and also seeing your parents there?

A: I think what it is, is that you see the connection. All four grandparents… Well my Sicilian grandfather I never met because he was deceased before I was born. But the other 3 as I grew up my parents would speak in their native languages to their parents. But the 3 living grandparents all learned English and they communicated with me in English. But [going back] was an opportunity to see my parents in their parents’ villages where I just watched them interact with their first cousins. My parents had gone back as a couple to each of the places when I was in 8th grade. I was in college before I went, actually after college that I went to both places. I went to Sicily with my Dad, sister and a cousin. And to Slovakia I went without my Mother so she gave me a list of ‘this is so and so, this is your grandmother’s cousin and this is my cousin etc.…’ I had my list of paper to meet these people.

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Q: That is a pretty great way to meet them.

A: And just trying to understand who was related to who and how.

Q: When you went there when you were in college on your own, did you have a certain set of expectations or anything you were hoping to get from the experience?

A: Well I saw the house that each of my grandmother’s grew up in. And again this was after, number of years after college, and just getting a sense of the village, the family mannerisms was the most rewarding.

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Q: Is there anything you weren’t prepared for? Anything that shocked you or took you by surprise?

A: No. Probably because I heard stories from my parents’ recollection of their visits. 

Q: All kind of what you expected from stories or hearing about it, ok. When you saw your parents when you went back with them, did you see a different side of them in the village, or your grandparents, a different side of them that you hadn’t seen before?

A: That is an interesting question. {laughs} I do not know if I saw a different side of them, but I think what was neat was to see their faces light up when they saw and were talking with their cousins, their aunts and uncles, because they really didn’t have that many cousins here in the States. Because there weren’t as many relatives that immigrated to the United States.  That is something that as a child, I had the opportunity to get together with my first cousins and that is something that neither of my parents had. They had maybe one or two but they didn’t have the whole family, like I did.

Q: Everyone in one place where you are able to see that dynamic. Definitely. And when you went back did you speak the respective languages?

A: No.

Q: Is that something that you wished your parents would have taught you or did you feel like you were missing out on that?

A: I think so, but the reality is that Sicilian and Slovak, which are both dialects of the respective Czechoslovakian language and the Italian language, have nothing in common so my parents couldn’t relate. I know how to say ‘do you understand’ in both languages, Because my parents would use that, we would do something and they would say, ‘the respective do you understand’ and you could tell from the context of the sentence that is what it was. So I grew up knowing those. You know one or two words. I think, even thought I didn’t know the language, the rhythm of the langue was there. And there is quite a difference in my Sicilian side of the family, uses a lot of gestures; the Slovak side just isn’t as demonstrative. And you can see that in my parents and my siblings, and then it was like this is why they are this way. {Laughs}

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A: That makes sense to me. My father is Greek and my mother is Polish. I definitely have the demonstrative side and the Polish and a little more demure.

Q: Very similar to my family.

A: That makes sense to me to see my family that is who you are; therefore that is how I am.

Q: Yes.

Q: When you went there, did you feel like got any more insight about yourself, any things that you didn’t understand about who you were and seeing your culture answers them for you?

A I think probably, I would have to say both villages are rural, down to the earth, agrarian hard working, and I think for me it was ‘my gosh, what did each of my grandparents give up to come to the United States, the land of opportunity to leave everything behind that they have every known behind.’ And so there is a sense of awe in their determination, their individualism to strike out – not negatively, but positively to seek. I think in subsequent visits I look at the grandchildren of my grandparents, so not only myself and my siblings, but also my cousins, and what we have achieved as an entity. I don’t mean this to be demeaning to the relatives that stayed in the village but there is absolutely a difference. I look at my immediate family and I am the oldest of four daughters, and my sisters and I, for a group of women have accomplished quite a bit. Looking at our peers, there is no way we would have accomplished what we accomplished if my grandparents hadn’t come here.

On this last trip we stopped at one of my Dad’s cousin’s homes and the cousin has significant Alzheimer’s. Five years ago, when I was there they asked me you are not married? They just can’t understand how I cannot be married and still be happy. And I thought ok, I won’t hear it this time because the cousin has Alzheimer’s, but the husband within in 5 minutes came up to me and asked me if I am married. I just thought this is why I am in America and not back there. If I would have stayed there I would have been married, well I wouldn’t have been born. There is a definite sense, and not that the relative there, the young woman haven’t gone on and gotten college educations for the younger generations but I just think now that you are seeing more of that but back then they [women] weren’t. When my grandparents came here they didn’t speak a word of English.

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Q: It is amazing what they overcame just to have a chance to live in this country and provide. Is there a memory that really sticks out to you as that experience being really important or memorable?

A: When I went to the village in Slovakia, seeing women in the field with the hand sickle cutting the wheat and putting it on their back and carrying it. Thinking they are doing manual labor. My mother will be 90 in November and she doesn’t look anywhere near as old. My mother worked hard but she didn’t have the same physical labor demands that these older women had. I don’t see the younger women performing the manual labor as times have changed, and because I have gone back several times you see the change in the younger men and women. In Slovakia one can see the change of political governance, where it had been behind the iron curtain and now it isn’t, I think this probably influenced the speed of moving into the technology age as quickly. In Sicily, I think it was two trips ago, my Dad and I went with his three sisters and one of my other cousins and we stayed in the house that his mother grew up in. He asked if I would wash his socks and underwear for him and I said ‘no, wash them yourself,’ and then he asked his sisters and they said no. I told him ‘you know mother would make you wash them yourself.’ So he started washing them and one of his cousins came in, and I don’t know the exact words but the tone of voice and her gestures essentially said how could you ask this man to do his own clothes that is what you all should be doing. He went on to say, and he is humorous, ‘see that is how I am supposed to be treated, like a king.’ I looked at him and I said, ‘No.’ And that was joking, because he understood completely. {Laughs}

I am jumping around a bit, but the determination my grandparents had to leave their homeland and then for my parents, who grew up with the understanding that they would learn English of key importance. Their (my parents) parents wanted them to learn English and that was probably a disappointment for them that they couldn’t pass on the language to their children. That is probably the biggest loss in my immediate family. I have cousins who have never traveled to Europe, but my sisters and I have all been over there. I feel that my sisters and I are very fortunate to have done that with our parents and that the great grandchildren have been to the village too, to just see that link.

Recognizing the determination all my grandparents had in learning English after establishing themselves in America, was indicative of them understanding what they needed to change to experience success.  . So then the determination from my Mom and Dad, very strong work ethic, you don’t get anything for nothing, to do your darndest, pay your bills, and don’t extend your credit cards was taught to them by my grandparents. 

Q: I definitely felt for me that was a motivation growing up just knowing how much my Father gave up, or thinking back to the people in the other country. After you went back did that play a big role for you in motivation for the course of your life? In terms of seeing that perspective of going back to the country of origin, do you feel that changed the trajectory of your life or influenced it in any way?

A: Again another interesting question. You don’t know this about me, but I went into the Peace Corps , 7 years after I got my degree in physical therapy and I was there for 2 years. So I am struggling with is whether the Peace Corps had a greater influence than the trips to my grandparents/ birthplaces.  . I think it might have been more the Peace Corps, but the visits back there plus the Peace Corps experience, I think as a female really… I know I have internalized this to myself, as a female I am glad I grew up in the United States.

Q: I think that is a big take away from that perspective, of how different our roles could be, in a different country.

A: I enjoy sports. I think that being independent, engaged in athletics, some of the choices that I have been able to make, wouldn’t have happened if I was in a different country. Also, because of my age. So, I think if you were to ask someone that is 40 years younger than I was who did this trip it would be, they would be seeing different things. So one needs to tease out at what time in history any of this took place.  .

Q: I understand that. Did you feel that after you went back to your respective country or origin, did you feel a deeper connection to your parents, or your relationship with them evolve?

A: Well first of all I have a wonderful relationship with my parents. I think it deepened because we have memories of sharing those trips.

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Q: I could see that. Do you think they looked at you differently for having a desire to want to go back to the home country?

A: I think they are delighted, they are proud that their progeny could see the roots. That is something that they did and they encouraged their daughters to do and have certainly taken trips with us. I think they have great joy, knowing that they have shared that experience with each of their daughters.

Q: I could see that. Each time that you went back did you have different goals or different sets of purpose because you have had the opportunity to go multiple times?

A: Maybe because I have been so fortunate to have gone several times, for me it is more about being with family, my immediate family members and just experiencing the little villages. I don’t know if I had…well my goal this last trip, and the time before, was just to spend it with my immediate family. At the time it was a means to an end of more family time.

Q: I think that is a perfect goal, just to see the family. If someone were asking you advice about going to back to the home country what would you give them? Would you recommend it, what would you have to say to them about it?

A: Absolutely, yes. I think it is more challenging for someone who is fourth, fifth, sixth generation, and I have many people who have said ‘how fortunate for you that you have been able to go back.’ As I said earlier, I have been inside the house of both of my grandmother’s homes. While my grandmothers were still alive, they were in the states and they didn’t go with me, so when I came back and to say Baba and Nonnie‘bubby and nanni, I saw your house.’

Q: That makes me tear up. It is such an emotion provoking experience.

A: You know I remember Nonnie, my Sicilian grandmother, I came back and I kicked myself because I didn’t have a photograph, but there were 3 elderly woman and they said, ‘are you Maria Lo Re’s daughter’ and I said, ‘no she was my grandmother.’ Somebody came by who could speak some English and they remembered her and could explain to these elderly women that I was Maria’s granddaughter. That is when I wish I could speak Sicilain. My Spanish got me through a little bit. Evidently they were trying to tell me that they remembered when she, my grandmother,  was 16 and got in the donkey cart and went down to mountain on the coastline to a larger city to catch the boat to go across the Atlantic. I didn’t know their names. I wish I had been able to get their names. I think I did take a picture, but she [my grandmother] didn’t recognize them because they were old. They didn’t look anything like she would have remembered them.

Q: Just the fact that you were speaking to someone in the family and that she could have that memory that may not have heard about had you not gone to the village and encountered these women.

A: So, my first trip there were people that were her compatriots. In Slovakia there were peers to my grandmother but then subsequent trips they had passed away. So the connection was less.

Q: That sounds incredible just to have the opportunity to hear those stories. Do you think you will return again in your life?

A: This one is hard. I am not sure. It has been so special to do it with my Mom and my Dad. And in the village very few people speak English. I did think about it this last time, what would be the draw? When my parents are no longer around… that one is tough.

Q: That one can remain unanswered, that is ok.

A: I can see myself, if I am anywhere near those places, stopping there and saying let’s just go up and to the town. But I think I have other places on my bucket list. I have friends that ask how many times have I gone. But it is because I went with my family, my immediate family, to do those other trips, that is what was the important thing about it. I went to these tiny villages, there is not much to see and do, so that is what is special, sharing it with them. My Mom and Dad have 5 grandchildren and so now all 5 have been to Sicily, 2 have been to Slovakia and I don’t know if the other 3 will get to Slovakia, which is unfortunate. My younger sister, made a point that when she had some meetings in Prague, she said, ‘Mom and Dad meet us over there and we will go.’ So her two children, the youngest grandchildren, traveled to Porac Dolina in Slovakia with their maternal grandmother and grandfather.  My sister is wise and said she wanted her kids to also see the town in Sicily which we did this past June (2013). That may be my parents last international trip because Dad is 88 and Mom is 90.

Q: Yes, it gets harder to travel.

A: Those 2 grandchildren have been very fortunate.

Q: How old are they?

A: The 2 youngest are 14 and 12.

Q: Have you been able to see the grandchildren in the respective homelands?

A: Yes on both trips with them. That is another reason why I said, I am coming too on those trips because I want to see the grandchildren there. They would say to grandma, ‘This is where you Mommy grew up?’ and, ‘Granddad, this is where your Dad grew up?” That was very special for them too.

Q: Did you feel like you got to see a change in them? Or were they very interested in it?

A: Yes, I think so. For 2 days, then they were ready to do something else {laughs} They are good kids and were interested. My parents’ oldest oldest grandson went to Sicily on this 2013 trip and he knew his great grandmother (Nonnie), he remembered her. The other two young ones don’t, she passed away before they were born.

Q: That is quite a lineage to have there in one trip.

A: It was a phenomenal trip! We had the youngest who was 12 and the oldest who was 89 and ½ and everyone in between.

Q: That is a wonderful generation to have all together. I believe that is all the questions I had for you. Is there anything I missed or any words that you would like to share?

A: Well again if people could do it, I just think it is a phenomenal experience. When we talk about diversity, people often times think color and then there is this phrase that people who are white don’t have this culture. I think because my parents chose to make the initial visit when I was in 8th grade, and then we heard about and it intrigued us, following up on that and being able to do that with them, I am very clear that I am Sicilian not Italian. Although in a broad sense I am Italian. I am very clear that I am Slovak and not Czechoslovakian, which now is 2 different countries. But they are very different and each has their own dialects. It is because of my parents that I have that sense of that ethnic culture. Having that true understanding of the difference between ethnic and racial diversity. If anybody can do that with your parents, all the better.

Q: Did that shape your identity; having that distinction between ethnicity and race? Also understanding where your family came from?

A: Yes. I have been to the villages of my ethnic heritage. There is no long list of American born relatives; I am not a daughter of the American Republic, absolutely not. When I read various bodies of work and you talk about this group of immigrants or that group of immigrants, I can probably identify with it. Not because I was the one who immigrated but because I can think what my grandparents had to experience, what were the inequities, and then to acknowledge what has been afforded to me, my cousins, but in particular my younger sisters. Because those people, my grandparents all came here.

Q: Have you seen the same reaction of your sisters that you had to returning to the respective homelands, or were there big differences?

A: You know we have never talked about it. I have gone the most. That may be because I am single and don’t have kids. I am the oldest and therefore probably heard more of the native language and saw my parents interact with my grandparents more than my sisters did.

Q: You have had more time and exposure. I am curious because I am an only child and curious to see if I had a brother or sister if we would have the same interest or how we would react to it and how that maybe would have shaped us.

A: My younger sister has probably been, the two middle ones haven’t been that much. One sister’s son did an American Field Service (AFS) exchange in Italy so that Dad flew over when his family went over to visit. That sister, his mom, made sure Dad came because she wanted to take her sons to Millitello. She hasn’t had the opportunity to do that in Slovakia with her sons, though she has been. My younger sister and her husband really enjoy traveling and her kids have seen a lot. Our family as a whole enjoys traveling. For one family we have done a great deal of traveling. We had an exchange student from New Zealand and have all been a number of times.

Q: That is incredible to have that connection.

A: It is not part of this talk exactly, but it is part of our family’s love of travel. The woman’s father passed away and she got married for a second time and she invited my Dad to walk her down the aisle and that was 4 years ago. I think there is that part of it, that we all have an interest in doing some traveling.

You really get a sense of the personality of your parents have based on the families that they grew up in. I think the biggest part is from where they came and then what they were able to achieve. I am not sure if you could even say my grandparents had high school educations, but their kids had high school educations and quite a few had college degrees.

Q: Which is incredible thinking about having those degrees coming from a small village in a different country and having a US education. And your parents were born here?

A: Yes.

Q: How old were your grandparents when they immigrated?

A: My one grandmother was 16 and the other was 18.  I think my one grandfather was 20 years old and the other was born in the U.S., his parents took him back to Slovakia as a toddler, but he returned when he was 16 or 17 as he had U.S. citizenship having been born here. 

Q: Wow, very young. Your grandparents met each other here in the United States or they met in Europe?

A: My Sicilian grandfather was in the United States went back to marry my grandmother in Sicily then took her back to the US. The other side my grandmother was not married…I will have to check that. I think she came over and met my grandfather. The Slovak grandfather was born in the US, his family came but they didn’t stay even a year before they went back. He grew up in the village but he was born in the United States and had citizenship. When he was old enough he came back to the US. I always think of him being from there, because his childhood was there. He was a dairy farmer and my other grandfather was a shoe cobbler.

Q: Were your grandmothers working, or did they mostly raise family and stay in the home?

A: The home. My Sicilian grandmother was widowed young and so she did some housekeeping outside the home, but the kids were in high school by then.

Q: Was education encouraged from your grandparents to your parents?

A: Yes it was, on both sides. All my mother’s siblings and my father’s siblings had high school level educations. Then if I look at my mother’s siblings, as she is 1 of 8, 5 went on to college. My father had 4 siblings and they all went on to college.

Q: That is quite remarkable to me just seeing how the younger generation took their experiences and manifested it into an education.

A: You know, not a lot of people do that, percentage wise. I remember researching and writing on that topic about poverty’s influence and how people get out of poverty in my doctorate program. Then I was looking at my family, more on the female side, and saw that all the female cousins, including my three sisters have completed higher education, Masters and Doctorate degrees.

Q: That is impressive and for that time in our history for women to come up. That is a huge accomplishment to step out of those boundaries that have been defined by women for a long time.

A: Well my Mother was women’s liberator before I even think it was “kosher” to be women’s liber. She was number 3, 3rd daughter, 2 other sisters went to high school and got married. Mom went on to nursing school. She left the farm in Pennsylvania and was the one who wanted to drive the tractor on the farm, she did not want to sit inside and bake with her sisters. Upon completion of nursing school she took a train out to S. Dakota and worked on the Rosebud Indian reservation for 6 months.  She was the one who taught us all to drive the car and all those kinds of things. That is my Mother’s personality coming out. She is a strong woman.

Q: Do you feel like you learned a lot, took a lot from her?

A: Yes, definitely. We are all a combination of both our parents.

Q: That was wonderful, thank you for sitting down and speaking with me.

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