My grandmother Josephine Sacco has been an important person in my life even though I barely remember her. She died on June 13, a few months after I was born.

My mom told me many years ago that Grandma Josephine often babysat me during her last months of life. Being a pious and traditional Calabrese woman, I can imagine her talking to me in Calabrese, telling me stories, singing to me, and praying the rosary. I’ve always wished that I could retrieve those early memories of her stored somewhere in the depths of my fifty-nine-year-old memory.

She was born Giuseppa Cittadino on September 15, 1891 in Miglierina, but her husband always called her Giuseppina or Pina. On her certificato di nascita that I uncovered in the municipio of Miglierina, I discovered that her parents were Carmine Cittadino and Marianna Mazza.

What an incredible discovery for my family as none of us Chicago Saccos had known their names, not even Josephine’s daughter, my Aunt Mary who was also born in Miglierina. My first thought in discovering the identity of my great grandparents was the logic used by grandparents in naming their children. My father was named the English equivalent of Carmine, Carmen and my aunt was named Mary Ann. Their oldest child, the only one of my uncles and aunts born in Italy, was named Mary after my grandfather’s mother, Maria Esposito.

I read a history of Miglierina, authored by the same parish priest who refused me entry into church records to find more info on the Saccos dating back to 1464 when the town was founded. I had explained to the priest, Father Antonio Caccetta, that I was the Calabrese Alex Haley but I don’t think he saw Roots. I even offered him a tangente, the Italian word describing my offer of a 500 Euro gift to the church coffers, but he was undeterred.

My cousins Gennaro and Caterina from the nearby town of Amato were there pleading my case. Unfortunately, they did more harm than good as I sensed that they were not on good terms with the priest. Gennaro and Caterina were members of a rival parish.

Father Caccetta’s history of Miglierina, Miglierina, un paese due campanili, explained quite a lot about the Chicago Saccos. On the Mazza side of the family, I read about pious priests and bishops. Mixed in with clergy were other honorable and respected townspeople. One even served under Garibaldi, the George Washington of Italy. Those pious genes were passed down to my grandmother.

The Saccos, on the other hand, boasted a checkered past in Miglierina’s history. That explains a lot about my grandfather. One, Cesare Sacco, born in 1792, was listed as a brigand. His address in 1832 was the local jail, rooming with two other malfaiteurs. My grandfather’s name? Cesare Sacco. More about him later.

As a fifty-nine-year old college professor of Italian, Grandma Josephine is Giuseppina to me. We are now about the same age, she having died at the age of sixty. I have always sensed in my adult years that God had appointed Giuseppina as my guardian angel. I talk to Giuseppina often and share stories of her, especially with my daughter Rachel, who relishes her middle name Josephine at a time when young girls prefer names like Ashley, Jennifer or Nicole.

I pray the rosary in large part because I know she prayed it daily. I pray the rosary often in Italian because I want to hear the melodious and enchanting Ave Marias that she whispered while I slept on her lap. I think of her often and pray that I will see her in the white light of death as part of the Sacco welcoming committee.

Giuseppina’s saintly stature has had a morose impact on my dad and my uncles. My dad seldom spoke of her, except to praise her lovingkindness as briefly as possible. My surviving uncles, Chris and Tony, won’t speak of her despite constant prodding from their children, nephews and nieces. They didn’t talk about her even when I took them in 2001 to visit the church in Miglierina where she was baptized, where she received her first communion, and where she was married on April 13, 1913. The thought of her loss must pain my uncles too much to share their stories of Giuseppina.

Fortunately, my mom provided me with a glimpse of Giuseppina. My mom shared my love of Giuseppina for a multitude of reasons. Giuseppina was the only Sacco to accept her into the family.

My mom suffered from the three-strike rule. She was not Italian; she was Protestant; worst of all, she was a smoker. Many Italians of that era were shocked at the sight of women smoking. Puttana was an insidious label I heard often. “Cigarette woman” was the phrase repeated over and over.

I imagine Giuseppina sympathizing with my mom and she did indeed come to her rescue. “She is a good woman,” she scolded the Saccos. My grandfather, uncles and aunts came to love my mother and, ironically, took her side when my mom and dad divorced.

My favorite story about Giuseppina also came from my mom and later my Aunt Pat. One Sunday morning as the sugo, spaghetti sauce, simmered for several hours, one by one, my grandfather and my uncles closely examined the sauce, then criticized it, tasting it and adding more condiments and spices without proper authorization.

Giuseppina said nothing–for a while–but I can envision the disapproving glare she gave everyone, similar to the one my daughter Rachel gives me and her brothers. Suddenly, Giuseppina’s patience came to an abrupt end. To everyone’s shock and, my grandfather’s horror, Giuseppina launched a meat cleaver that imbedded itself in the wall–an inch from my grandfather’s head. My mom described the complete silence that ensued as if it were more notable that the launching of the meat cleaver. No one ever again messed with Giuseppina’s sauce.

Because of my uncles’ reticence to share stories of their mother, I’ve had to piece together my sketch biography of Giuseppina through research. In the Ellis Island records, I discovered that Giuseppina arrived by ship to America on June 22, 1920. She was accompanied by my Aunt Mary and several friends from Miglierina. My grandfather had come to America seven years earlier, rendering Giuseppina a de facto widow. In Calabria, these women are called vedove bianche (white widows).

Many Italian men left their wives to start a new life for themselves in America. Wives and children often remained in Calabria, armed only with memories of the men who left them behind.Their husbands established new families in places like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Chicago.

Another scenario was also prevalent. Many Italian families couldn’t afford to emigrate together. Most had to sell everything they owned or borrow heavily from remaining relatives to take the boat from Naples to New York or to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Like most southern Italian immigrants, Giuseppina and her seven-year-old daughter Maria, traveled by cart or wagon to Naples. Train travel was unavailable to most southern Italians. Giuseppina and my Aunt Mary traveled third class in steerage on a masted ship.

Titanic movie watchers saw Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet drinking, smoking, and dancing wildly to Irish music. Everyone seemed gleeful as they crossed the North Atlantic until, of course, the Titanic hit the iceberg. Movie viewers didn’t get to experience the smell of oil, vomit, sweat, body odor, bad breath, and the like. Traveling in the bowels of a sailing/steam ship made most seasick for the three-week trip across rough seas.

Steerage passengers got an hour to spend on deck daily and they were permitted on deck to see the Statue of Liberty as they entered New York harbor.  Food and drink were slightly less glamorous than mine on my Carnival cruise to the Caribbean. I imagine Giuseppina helping my Aunt Mary and her friends while battling sea sickness herself and the threat of disease. I see Giuseppina consoling her friends throughout the trip as they discussed the uncertainties of life in a country whose language they did not speak.

I may never find out what happened to Giuseppina’s brother and sister. I know that her younger brother Francesco, known by the Calabrese nickname Cicuzz, immigrated to Argentina. I wish I knew why he didn’t go to America. I wish I knew what happened to her older sister Antonia or her parents. Church records will reveal some of the answers but I’ve got to get past the priest.

Church records, known as lo stato delle anime (in English, the Book of Souls), list all major church activities (births, baptisms, first communions, confirmations, marriages, and deaths). Our friends at or the Mormon Church don’t have access to church records in little Calabrian towns. All municipal records in Miglierina date back only to 1875 when a fire destroyed the tiny city hall.

I’ve used Facebook to locate family members in Italy and Argentina to help me fill my sketchy knowledge of Giuseppina’s early life in Calabria. No one in Argentina among my Cittadino Facebook friends claim Cicuzz as their relative. My Cittadino Facebook friends in neighboring Calabrian villages have no knowledge of Giuseppina or her brother and sister.

There is so much to ask Giuseppina when I see her next.


About growingupcalabrese

Professor of French and Italian at San Diego State University
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