For many people, just to hear the voice of a loved one again is worth more than gold itself.
When historian and author Anthony V. Riccio set out to record Italian immigrant stories in Boston’s North End nearly 40 years ago, he did not know that these voices would one day prove to be that gold not just for the immigrants’ families, but for all those seeking to better understand the Italian American experience. Now, thanks to his partnership with Bob Sorrentino of the Italian Genealogy Podcast, these stories are accessible to the public for the first time via the Italian Genealogy Podcast’s “Voices from the Past” series.
“We are hoping that the Voices from the Past series will be a digital history of Italian ancestry and, in particular, the Italian-American experience,” Sorrentino said. “While people like Anthony and I grew up with Italian grandparents speaking their dialect and/or English punctuated with Italian phrases, that is lost to the next generations.”
“One of the most gratifying things about this project was a comment made on one of the episodes by the granddaughter of one of the women speaking, who had never heard her voice,” he continued. “I know when I find a signature of an ancestor, I’m over the moon, so imagine hearing a voice for the first time.”
While Voices from the Past seeks to tell the stories of as many Italian immigrants as possible, it has a particular focus on the Province of Avellino. According to Anthony V. Riccio, many of the storytellers from Boston’s North End were from small villages in Irpinia, including Atripalda, Chiusano di San Domenico, Flumeri, Guardia Lombardi, Montefalcione, and San Nicola Baronia.
“The story of these interviews begins in 1978 when I became the director of the North End Senior Citizen Center,” Riccio said. “My job was to advocate for elderly Italian Americans, many of whom had been left behind and were still living without central heat in antiquated cold-water flats. We organized a center for these elders, many of whom did not speak English, where they could get help. After a few months on the job, word got out through the grapevine: ‘If you’re in trouble go see Anthony, he speaks Italian and can help you.’ Our center became a place where many elders came and participated in programs for their special needs.”
It is precisely through his close work with these immigrant elders that Riccio came to learn their stories, partly because he speaks both Italian and several regional languages. As he became more intrigued by their stories, he decided to record them.
“Carrying my tape recorder and camera around the neighborhood on daily walks, and during home visits, I captured these very human stories that reconstruct life in Southern Italy at the turn the century and end with the era of gentrification in the 1980s,” he said. “I think the reason these stories are so compelling is because I understood more than just the language, I also knew the Southern code of behavior having grown up with both sets of immigrant grandparents who lived downstairs and next to me.”
Riccio spent two years converting the cassette tapes into digital form, carefully indexing them by subject matter. When he was invited to appear on Sorrentino’s podcast, a partnership was born.
“As an Italian American, I think it is very important to have people tell their stories to preserve our culture and history from both Italy and America,” Sorrentino said. “Many of the current generation of Italian Americans do not know their ancestors, and I hope to help them connect.”
An expert genealogist himself, Sorrentino said that one of the most interesting discoveries he made while researching his own family history had to do with Avellino’s early history.
“It was compelling to find out that my 11th great grandfather Marino Caracciolo was the first Prince of Avellino,” he said. “In fact, I am a direct descendant of the first five Princes of Avellino, four of them were Knights of the Golden Fleece. My 7th great grandfather, Marino Francesco, was the 7th Prince, and he owned much of present-day Campania.”
It’s these discoveries that keep Sorrentino and Riccio going as they seek to make ancestral history available to whoever wants to discover it.
“It seems like my life’s work has been more than just photographing and writing books about Italian Americans, but also keeping the flame alive for future generations who will want to know where they came from,” Riccio said. “In my lectures and book talks, I never hesitate to remind the audience that the affluence we enjoy today rests on the shoulders of our ancestors who sacrificed and did without, so that future generations could have what they only dreamed of.”
Sorrentino and Riccio are now seeking to make “Voices from the Past” into a documentary for future release. Riccio’s interviews will also be available in a forthcoming book published by SUNY Press in Fall 2022, “Stories, Streets And Saints : The North End Of Boston.”
See below to listen to an episode from “Voices from the Past” focusing on immigrants from the Province of Avellino. Click here to read Nunzio Di Marino’s interview transcript. Click here to read Mary Pagliuca’s interview transcript.
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This post is dedicated in memory of Anthony V. Riccio, who passed away in early 2022, shortly after its publication.