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Italians in the Americas

Unlocking my Italian-American History. Reading Pietro Di Donato and Richard Gambino

Pour une révélation de mon histoire italo-américaine: lecture de Pietro Di Donato et Richard Gambino
Frances Gendimenico Kaufmann
p. 10-117


Weaving a memoir of her Italian American family through three generations with an analysis of Pietro Di Donato’s Christ in Concrete and Richard Gambino’s Blood of My Blood, the author studies the conflicting values of the old and new worlds experienced by the third generation. Attitudes about family, work and education are examined to show how they shaped the lives of Italian-American immigrants and the generations that followed.

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1It is a puzzle. I have been trying to put it together for almost half a century. I can see some parts of the picture clearly, but many pieces are missing. The puzzle portrays a story that unfolds over four generations. It is the story of my ancestors’ journey from Southern Italy to America in the great wave of immigrants who arrived at the turn of the century. It is the story of their sons and daughters, my parents and their siblings, born on American soil, raised in old world values, but striving for acceptance and success in their homeland. It is my story and the story of my five brothers and sisters, born to Italian-American parents and raised with the sometimes conflicting values of the old world and the new world. It is the yet to be told story of our children. Since I was a little girl, I have been intrigued by this sepia toned photograph of a woman in her early sixties, taken only months before she passed away in 1946. I never knew her.

2She has stared at me like Mona Lisa and I have stared back, hoping that somehow I could divine her story. She is my maternal grand-mother, Francesca De Luca Dorso. I was named after her.

3I have facts gleaned from official documents. From the yellowing, tattered Attesto di Matrimonia of Chiesa Cattolica Italiana Del Presiosissmo Sangue in Hazleton, Pennsylvania (The Italian Catholic Church of the Most Precious Blood, MPB in local parlance). I know that she was married there on August 5, 1906 to Michele Dorso. Both of them came from poverty stricken Southern Italy. She was from Palinuro, a seaside hamlet of Centola in the province of Salerno. He was from Brindisi di Montagna in Basilicata, a remote rugged mountainous area, historically one of the least developed and most destitute provinces.

4The ship manifest from my grand-mother’s journey to America tells me that she arrived at Ellis Island on Columbus Day 1905. She was 21 years old, could not read or write in Italian or English and had twelve dollars in her pocket. She had a certificate that attested to her good mental and physical health. She was not «a polygamist, an anarchist, deformed or crippled». I know even less about my grandfather. We have no pictures of him. He was born Michele Arcangelo Dores in 1869, arrived at Ellis Island as Michele Dore in 1892 and later changed his name to Michael Dorso. He was a coal miner, whose life was ended prematurely by pneumonia in 1925, leaving my grandmother with eight children: aged 17 years old to 9 months old.

5There are the stories and memories told and retold around the dinner table by my parents and aunts and uncles about their hardships and struggles: snatching coal from slag heaps after school to keep coal stoves stoked during bitter winters; cherishing the new pair of shoes that had to last for a year; reluctantly dropping out of school after eighth grade to work in the mines or garment factories to support the family. Wistful reminiscences about «good times when life was simple» made the rounds too: undeniable trust and reliance on family and lifelong friends; luscious meals created from the bounty of lovingly tended gardens, homemade macaroni, bread and wine.

6But the facts and the stories do not give a complete picture. Many questions remain unanswered. What were their lives really like? How did they survive? How do I find the other pieces of the puzzle and put them together to make the picture whole? Two books about the Italian-American immigrant experience, one a work of fiction based on the author’s life and the other a work of non-fiction that uses the author’s own personal experiences helped me to find the pieces I needed. Both books tell their stories by examining how the family and attitudes about work and education shaped the lives of Italian-American immigrants and the generations that followed. Both books added to my knowledge of Italian-American immigrants in their own unique ways. One told me the facts about people like my grandparents and the other transported me into their lives.

7Richard Gambino’s Blood of My Blood was published in 1974. The author considers himself both second and third generation Italian-American. He was born in Brooklyn in 1939 to an Italian born father and an American born mother. He is a scholar and writer, the founder of the Italian-American Studies program at Queens College. The book is still in print and has been critically acclaimed. Over the years it has appealed to general readers, as well as being admired by academics who use it in their college courses. The author’s reliance on personal experience distinguishes it from other non-fiction works of its type. In the preface, Gambino states:

  • 1 Richard Gambino. Blood of My Blood: the Dilemma of the Italian-Americans. Toronto: Guernica, 2000, (...)

Although it draws upon many historical, sociological, and other sources, it is a personal interpretation. The book represents my view of my people by wedding my experience to the written records. I have tried to be true both to the life of individuals I know and to the story of millions of others.1

  • 2 Richard Severo, «Pietro DiDonato is dead at 80», New York Times, January 21, 1992, p. B8.
  • 3 «The Best-Selling Books», New York Times, December 10, 1939, p. 124.

8Pietro Di Donato did not intend to become a writer. He was born in West Hoboken, New Jersey in 1911, the son of Italian-American immigrants from Abruzzi. The untimely, tragic death of his bricklayer father in a building collapse in 1923 compelled him to seek work in his father’s trade at the tender age of twelve. The burden of supporting his mother and seven brothers and sisters fell on him. During a strike in the building trades he wandered into a library where he found Zola, Balzac, and Turgenev and realized «This is where I belong. I can do this too.»2 In 1937 he published a short story in Esquire based on his father’s death. It became the basis of his novel Christ in Concrete. Published in 1939 the book was praised for its eloquent and powerful writing and for several months shared a place on the New York Times Best-Selling Books List with Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.3

  • 4 Leonard Covello. The Social Background of the Italo-American School Child: A Study of the Southern (...)
  • 5 Leonard Covello, ibid, p. 404.

9Solidarity within the family and against outsiders is defined as the basic code of family life by Leonard Covello in his groundbreaking study of the cultural background of Italian American students in New York, «[...] all social control was based on no other moral categories than those of the family […] and adhering to the family tradition as the main motif of their philosophy of life»4 Richard Gambino helped me to understand why family is so important to Italian-Americans. In Blood of My Blood, he illustrates that the core of Italian-American experience was rooted in a strong sense of tradition based on the solidarity of family, one’s blood relatives (blood of my blood). Members had to follow this strict unwritten code that governed relationships within and outside of la famiglia. La via vecchia (the old way) of behavior in the family was the key to survival through foreign invasions, rule by other nations, and centuries of exploitation by landowners. As rulers and governments came and went over the centuries, the true sovereign was always the family. The family defined gender roles, attitudes towards work and relationships with outsiders. Only the family could be trusted. The father, as the head of the family was supreme and made the important decisions. When he died, the oldest son took his place. The father decided when the sons (and sometimes daughters) would begin working. All earnings went to support the family. Covello explains how this Italian tradition of children sharing in the economic support of the family influenced the first generation’s attitudes towards formal education.5

  • 6 Ibid, p. 401.

10Covello also discusses the rigidity of family mores and describes how the dominant position of males in the family and subservience of the females made it extremely difficult for second generation Italian girls to achieve even the limited status of American women.6 When my grand-father died, my Uncle Jerry, the oldest son, became head of the household at 17. He had already been working in the coal mines with his father for three years. He was a kind and gentle man. But when he married and started a new home for his family, the second brother Johnnie ruled with an iron hand. He decided that my mother, Nancy the oldest girl should quit school after eighth grade to work as a presser in a shirt factory. My mother often spoke grudgingly about how my grandmother always listened to the boys, deferring to them in any disagreement. The boys were always right, they knew better. When my grandmother passed away, my mother was expected to prepare a full dinner every night for her two unmarried brothers after an exhausting day on her feet pressing fancy men’s dress shirts at the Publix Shirt Factory. When the youngest daughter, Carmella decided that she wanted to be a nurse, Johnnie decreed that part of my mother’s hard earned paycheck would finance her education. Carmella was ten years younger than my mother, Nancy, so while it took less than a generation for it to be acceptable for her to advance herself through education, the occupation she chose was traditionally open to females in American society in the 1940s. For years, I wondered how my mother tolerated this injustice. Now I understand how the code of la famiglia ruled her life.

  • 7 Richard Gambino , op. cit., p.17.
  • 8 Cinotto, Simone. «Leonard Covello, the Covello Papers, and the History of Eating Habits among Itali (...)

11The father was the head of the family, but the mother was the heart of the home and kept the culture of la famiglia alive, guiding her children in the ways of the code. She provided emotional and nutritional sustenance for the family. Gambino emphasizes the very emotional sense of connection he felt with his father and mother through food, a manifestation of their profound love for their family. Food is sacred, the «host of life.» It is the product of a father’s hard labor and is prepared with care and love by the mother.7 For Italian-Americans, warmth, loyalty, and a sense of belonging were and are associated with food and family meals. Simone Cinotto in analyzing Leonard Covello’s papers makes the argument that «immigrants drew heavily on symbols of food and conviviality as they forged collective self-representations of their being Italian in America.»8 Through the generations food traditions have endured while other customs have fallen by the wayside.

12Gambino’s discussion of the importance of food in the Italian-American family and description of his own experiences reflect the centrality of food in my own family. Dinner was a sacred ritual. My mother began preparing the food in mid-afternoon and put her heart and soul into it. After school I did my homework at the kitchen table to the music of bubbling pots and the rhythmic thud of the rolling pin as my mother turned homemade dough into ravioli and cavatelli or gavatel as she called it. My mother was not one for saying she loved us, but we all knew she did. She told us with the lovingly prepared meals she presented to us as we gathered around the table each evening. My mother never taught me how to cook. I learned by osmosis. I absorbed many lessons in that kitchen and I have carried on the tradition, never realizing how deeply it has been imbedded in me. When my children were small, they did their homework at our kitchen table in the same atmosphere. I hoped that they would learn from me and that they would continue this tradition. And they have – they often accompany me to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx to purchase Italian food and are accomplished home cooks of both Italian American and diverse foods.

13Pietro Di Donato immersed me in the Italian-American experience of la famiglia and made me feel it with all my senses. His language is real, heart wrenching and alive. He knows intimately the misery of losing a beloved father in a tragic accident. He has experienced hunger, despair, and the exhilaration of working with his hands. His story has an authenticity for me that builds upon the facts I know about my grandparents and the facts I learned from Gambino’s book.

  • 9 Pietro DiDonato. Christ in Concrete. New York: Signet, 1993, first published 1939, p. 9.
  • 10 Pietro Di Donato, ibid, p. 17.

14The book opens on a raw windy Good Friday in March during the «symphony of struggle» on the job. Geremino, the father and breadwinner endures because of the centrality of la famiglia. He is jubilant because his twenty years of hard labor have finally paid off. He has saved enough money to buy a house. «But am I not a man, to feed my own with these hands? Day will end and no boss in the world can then rob me the joy of my home!».9 When tragedy strikes and he is being buried alive in icy concrete, he struggles to breathe and survive thinking only of his family, a wife, six children and another on the way: «He cannot leave them like this! He didn’t want to die! This could not be the answer to life!»10 Could this be what my grandfather felt on his deathbed?

  • 11 Ibid, p. 51.

15Annunziata, his widow knows that she is the vital center of the home as she pleads with God for strength. She wonders how she will feed them, food being central to the strength and well-being of her family, «Two onions. Four potatoes, six large crumbs, eleven small crumbs. Paul Annina Lucia Girogio Joseph Adela Johnny Geremino two onions four potatoes».11 Could this be what my grandmother faced when my grandfather died and left her with eight mouths to feed?

  • 12 Ibid., p. 67‑69.

16After observing his mother’s desperate attempts to feed the family, Paul, the oldest son, knows that he must take his father’s place. As a skinny twelve year old, he struggles unsuccessfully to find food and help for his family from outsiders (the church and the government). Finally, he finds his father’s mason tools and realizes, «I must become a bricklayer!» When a family friend, Nazone takes Paul under his wing and finds work for him, Paul is ecstatic, «O God is it possible that I may work? That I may rebuild father’s hands and the home to last forever?» He revels in the feel of his father’s tools and his role as the family breadwinner, «the feel of flexible steel trowel in pliant warm plushy soon-to-be stone…the fleshy sense of Job, Job who would give living to mother Annunziata and the little ones.»12

  • 13 Leonard Covello, op. cit., p. 398.
  • 14 Richard Alba, Italian-Americans: Into the Twilight of Ethnicity. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Ha (...)
  • 15 Richard Gambino, op. cit., p. 87.

17Work had great influence on the success and progress out of the lowest rung of society for Italian-American immigrants. Covello asserts that because the new immigrants were property less peasants, they were illsuited for the industrial economy they found in America. He posits that this made economic adjustment difficult and was an obstacle to assimilation.13 Richard Alba confirms that Italian Americans arrived uneducated and compelled to take inferior jobs, but because of education and intermarriage have «risen from ragpickers and ditchdiggers to virtual parity within three generations.»14 Both Di Donato and Gambino emphasize the dignity of the common man and the importance of a strong work ethic that is pragmatic rather than puritanical. A person works for the well-being of the family. Gambino illustrates that work is evidence that a man or woman has become a full member of the family. In addition, there is the sense of pride in producing something concrete and in seeing the results of one’s work, be it a building, a road, a business or a fine meal.15

  • 16 Pietro DiDonato, op. cit., p. 78.

18Both authors describe their own experiences as bricklayers. Gambino spent two summers when he was fifteen and sixteen as a bricklayer’s helper. He remembers his blistered and calloused hands and the ache in his arms and back. Rationally I understand how Gambino performed his job, but emotionally Di Donato’s description of Paul’s first days as a bricklayer, struggling to prove himself beside the other men wrenches my heart: «there was a lightning–like splitting of his back right where it joined his hips… and the hot lime mortar ate into his hands».16

19Is this the kind of pain my grandfather, father, and uncles experienced in the Pennsylvania coal mines? My father and uncles never talked about their jobs, except to say that it was hard work. Sometimes on Sunday afternoons they would take us for rides to see the big «steam shovels» they worked on. They were proud of the work they did, and we understood it. Our homes were heated by coal furnaces, and the strip mines were within sight of our backyards. The shrill whistle signaling the change of shifts was part of our everyday life. When the men came home, their overalls were covered with fine coal dust. Their faces were blackened with soot, and even the most diligent scrubbing with strong soap and pumice could not erase the black stains that were embedded in their calloused hands. My Uncle Jerry lost all of the toes on one foot when the jagged jaws of a shovel took them. He hobbled slightly, but continued working for many years until the bleak October day in 1965 when he had a heart attack climbing the boom of a shovel and fell forty feet to his death. He was 57 years old. I will never forget receiving the phone call that damp cold morning as we were all rushing off to school. Everything stood still as we all wailed, «No, not Uncle Jerry.»

20My brothers and sisters and I knew that as much as we cherished our family and appreciated how hard our parents worked to provide for us, we did not want to live the same lives. We found out that the key to changing our destiny was education. Both authors’ approaches to the role of education have helped me to understand the conflict surrounding the place of education in Italian American immigrants’ lives. Education makes the crucial difference in the leap out of the working class. Gambino’s book focuses on identity problems faced by third and fourth generation Italian-Americans. His examination of attitudes about education hit home with me. He traces distrust for education to the code of la famiglia. He posits that this attitude is responsible for the dilemma of the third and fourth generations. Their parents feel compelled to pull their children to old world attitudes of distrust for education while pushing them to pursue the «American dream» through higher education. His stories of his own students’ experiences parallel mine. They are encouraged to get an education, but are cautioned not to change; to go out into the larger world, but not to become part of it. Covello discusses this conflict in his study of the assimilation of the second and third generation Italian-American through education:

  • 17 Leonard Covello, op. cit., p. 405.

In the school, however, his school performance and his behavior are evaluated on the basis of American norms and from the point of view of American tradition. The social world in which he received his training is condemned by the new world of which he is part, the child must live in two worlds, with few if any complementary elements, each world highly critical and suspicious of the other.17

21I was encouraged to do well in school, but when it came time for me to decide on my future plans after high school, I was pushed and pulled by conflicting advice from my parents, especially my mother. On one level she was telling me to go to college so that I wouldn’t spend my life behind a sewing machine in a shirt factory. At the same time she lamented that college was expensive, and that I could be earning a living and contributing to the family instead of sitting in a classroom for four years. If I did go to college, I should stay close to home. Because of these mixed messages and the encouragement of Sr. Mary Gratia at my high school, I took the SATs at the last minute and halfheartedly applied to the local campus of the state university. When the acceptance letter arrived, I decided to go. I thrived there, soon outgrew the local campus and made the transition to the big main campus. I completed my education, but not without a lot of confusion, conflict and heartache. My parents didn’t understand what I was studying, why I was majoring in French (of all things), or why I had chosen to complete my degree far away (2 hour drive) instead of at the campus close to home. I was the first person in my extended family to obtain a college degree, and my five brothers and sisters followed. Among the six of us several have Master’s degrees and one has a Ph.D. Our occupations cover a wide range of professions: academic librarian, paralegal, brand licensing executive, pharmacologist, civil rights investigator and digital media technologist. We reflect Richard Alba’s theory that:

  • 18 Richard Alba, «Our Horizons and Old Stereotypes.», i-Italy. 12 December 2007, accessed 27 Oct. 2011

Italian Americans have broken out of the peasant and working class molds that may have constrained their educational ambitions a half century ago. Indeed, Italians are a little more likely to go to college and they are overrepresented in the professions of law and medicine compared to other whites.18

22Di Donato helped me to understand my parents’ mixed messages, their own longing for knowledge, and their hope for a better life for their children. My father loved books and, according to my mother, was a bookworm until the demands of supporting and raising a large family left him no time to read. My mother hungrily read biographies of famous people and saints that I brought home from the school library, and encouraged us to tell her what we were learning so that she too might learn. Di Donato made me feel in my gut what it must have been like for my mother and father to quit school after eighth grade because their families needed the income. After Paul goes to work to support his family, he encounters his Jewish friend Louis on the front stoop of their tenement. He wants to know why Paul is not going to school anymore and pleads with Annunziata, Paul’s mother:

  • 19 Pietro DiDonato, op. cit., p. 141.

«Missus,» said Louis, «must Paul go to the buildings?
Missus he has a fine brain; he must study!»
Annunziata looked to Paul helplessly.
«Missus, we’ll study books together, I’ll help him.
Don’t you see?»
He took Paul’s hand and his voice was tears.
«Paul, the job is not freedom. Your wonderful brain is freedom…»
Paul shook his head. And the three wept.

23Like Annunziata, my parents understood the value of education, but the code of la famiglia and their strong ties to traditions and old ways made them want to keep us in their world. In the end, they knew that the better way was to let us go.

24And so the picture in the puzzle is almost complete. I can see my grandparents’ and parents’ lives more clearly and I am beginning to see how their pasts have influenced my life. One section of the puzzle remains to be completed. It is the one that shows the futures of our children and their children, and what they will take from their Italian American heritage.

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1 Richard Gambino. Blood of My Blood: the Dilemma of the Italian-Americans. Toronto: Guernica, 2000, first published 1974, preface.

2 Richard Severo, «Pietro DiDonato is dead at 80», New York Times, January 21, 1992, p. B8.

3 «The Best-Selling Books», New York Times, December 10, 1939, p. 124.

4 Leonard Covello. The Social Background of the Italo-American School Child: A Study of the Southern Italian Family Mores and their Effect on the School Situation in Italy and America. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1967, p. 280.

5 Leonard Covello, ibid, p. 404.

6 Ibid, p. 401.

7 Richard Gambino , op. cit., p.17.

8 Cinotto, Simone. «Leonard Covello, the Covello Papers, and the History of Eating Habits among Italian Immigrants in New York.» The Journal of American History 91.2 (September 2004): 497‑521, p. 498.

9 Pietro DiDonato. Christ in Concrete. New York: Signet, 1993, first published 1939, p. 9.

10 Pietro Di Donato, ibid, p. 17.

11 Ibid, p. 51.

12 Ibid., p. 67‑69.

13 Leonard Covello, op. cit., p. 398.

14 Richard Alba, Italian-Americans: Into the Twilight of Ethnicity. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall, 1985, p. 30.

15 Richard Gambino, op. cit., p. 87.

16 Pietro DiDonato, op. cit., p. 78.

17 Leonard Covello, op. cit., p. 405.

18 Richard Alba, «Our Horizons and Old Stereotypes.», i-Italy. 12 December 2007, accessed 27 Oct. 2011.

19 Pietro DiDonato, op. cit., p. 141.

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Bibliographical reference

Frances Gendimenico Kaufmann, Unlocking my Italian-American History. Reading Pietro Di Donato and Richard GambinoDiasporas, 19 | 2011, 10-117.

Electronic reference

Frances Gendimenico Kaufmann, Unlocking my Italian-American History. Reading Pietro Di Donato and Richard GambinoDiasporas [Online], 19 | 2011, Online since 01 January 2019, connection on 19 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Frances Gendimenico Kaufmann

Semi-retired academic librarian. Previously she was Assistant Director of Libraries at Union County College in New Jersey and served in administrative library positions at Seton Hall University, Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania. Her publications are 2010 Marion Thompson Wright Bibliography, Rutgers University, Newark (2010) and with Julie Still, Professional Organizations’ Recommendations Regarding Intellectual Honesty in Stop Plagiarism: A Guide to Understanding and Prevention, Edited by Vibiana Bowman & Katie Elson Anderson, Neal Schuman (2010).

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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