In 2000, at the age of 48, I made plans to travel to Italy for the first time. Why did I wait almost a half century to visit my family’s homeland? I was a dedicated French teacher and later professor who focused exclusively on France, Quebec and the Francophone world. I wanted to become the best I could be for my students, both linguistically and culturally.

I had never studied Italian formally, so in 1999 I bought the Living Language series for beginning and intermediate Italian. I pounded down the lessons with the same passion and drive that I exert in my workouts at the gym.

Now, at this advanced age, I desperately wanted to know more about Calabria and Cesare and Giuseppina’s hometown. Great goal, but I had no idea in what town or city they were born! I put my professorial research skills to work.

I started first with Ellis Island records which are rich in information and easy to access. There in the ship’s manifest, it stated “Cesare Sacco, Miglierina.” Miglierina? For more than 75 years my uncles thought that our family originated from Catanzaro, the largest city in Calabria and home to a medieval Norman castle.

Not true! The Saccos had originally come from Miglierina. The ship’s manifest said so. But, where the hell was Miglierina? It wasn’t even important enough to score a spot on the Michelin map for southern Italy.

More research was needed!

Finally, I discovered that Miglierina is a mountain village of 800 people with no hotel, no coffee bar, no restaurant, no Seven Eleven. Miglierina did boast two churches.

This was indeed confirmation that the Chicago Saccos were originally hillbillies, the ethnic slur Cesare used with just about everyone in our neighborhood–but us!

People who live in glass houses . . . !

The deception! More surprises were forthcoming.

First, let me backtrack and provide the reader with a little culture lesson as well as the discovery of key birth certificates.

I learned that Catanzaro is not only a city but also a provincia, one of three in Calabria. Italians identify their origins by first starting with their town, then the province, followed by the region. For example, I’m from Miglierina, Catanzaro province located in Calabria. It sounds better in Italian: Io sono di Miglierina, in provincia di Catanzaro, in Calabria.

My next step was to find birth certificates in Calabria. Fortunately, an Italian student from my Business French class offered to secure them for me. They came to me as an e-mail attachment.

Seeing Cesare and Giuseppina’s birth certificates and later their marriage certificate brought tears to my eyes. They’re still among the most important personal documents I possess. I proudly show copies of them to students in my Italian classes.

The final step was to research the history and origins of Italian last names.

I thought Sacco sounded majestically Roman like Varro or Crassus or Caesar. I envisioned an ancestor named Marcus Licinius Sacco or Caius Maximus Sacco. A centurion who helped the Romans drive Hannibal out of the Italian peninsula or a Praetorian guard who helped to get rid of Nero or at least a gladiator of some renown.

More disappointment! Sacco denotes a profession like many Italian last names. The name Sacco originated during the Middle Ages and given to people who sold water in bags, most likely in skins.

Next, I consulted the Dizionario dei cognomi italiani which stated that Sacco was once Sakkos, a Byzantine name. Byzantine soldiers helped to drive out the Normans from Calabria and Sicily during the late Middle Ages. A century later, the name Sakkos became Italianized to its current spelling Sacco.

Byzantines! There was nothing romantic about being a Byzantine! Gone was our dream of being direct descendants of the Spartans, of Leonidas and the 300. All that Spartan training for nothing!

As children, we told people that we were descendants of the ancient Spartans since they colonized much of southern Italy. Sicilians to us were descendants of the ancient Athenians whose major city was Siracusa.

As children, we weren’t totally aware of Calabria and Sicily’s history. What we didn’t know was that these two Italian regions were invaded and conquered by the Normans, Arabs, the Spanish, and the French.

Now that we were equipped with the truth, the Calabrese Clampetts started packing to head off to Calabria—and Miglierina!


About growingupcalabrese

Professor of French and Italian at San Diego State University
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