I was now twelve. My name is Francesco Muraro. I lived in Palermo, a city in the north of Sicily. I woke up and my mother just told me that my father died because of the blood cancer and that we didn’t have any more money. We only had one solution: To go to America. I had one little brother named Antonio and my mother Maria. Antonio was five. He was a little cry baby but I liked him. Because my mother worked a lot, I had to care for him and it wasn’t always pleasant. My mother was a girl that knew life as a widow. Even if my dad had not died, he was never home, and that is why my mother was capable of doing a lot of things on her own. My mom packed our bags and said we have to leave. We took a train to go to Naples. The train was full of people, all sad to leave their cities to go to the same place as we were. I was suffocating and the cabin did not have air conditioning. The lights were off, we didn’t have much food in the train and it was a long trip, more than one day. We had to save up for the boat tickets. Antonio was sleeping in my mother’s arms. She couldn’t sleep fearing that someone might rob her.I was really tired also, but like my mother I was too afraid that something might happen to my beloved family. When we arrived in Naples we had to take a steamboat named The Roma to go to New York. In the same boat was Angelo Siciliano, who was the bodybuilder named Charles Atlas.
Tuesday 5 August 1899
It was 5 in the morning and we were having breakfast in the streets of Naples. We ate bread and drank milk. My mother told me to stay with my little brother for about an hour so she could go buy three tickets to go in the boat that would take us to the United Sates. The tickets cost 30 each. I took a little walk with Antonio; I had to move my legs. The two of us went to the city square or piazza. It was named Piazza del Plebiscito. It was beautiful and enormous. When we saw this we felt like ants. It was the first time that Antonio and I saw something like this. There were trees and a lot of people. We sat on the steps of the RoyalPalace next to the column where we had a great view of the Piazza. Three hours later I was in the boat with all my family. It was horrible; there were ten times more people than seats. One of the workers on the boat checked our tickets. The captain spoke on the speakers because no one could hear him. He said that our trip would last 2 months and that he wasn’t responsible for people who became sick. I was really afraid; I hoped that nothing would happen to us. I looked at my mother. She was all white because she had seasickness. It was time to sleep but there were no beds for us, and we had to sleep on the floor. We were really cold and the floor was wet because of the sea. My mother, when we were still in Palermo had the idea to bring a blanket. I think that this blanket saved us from freezing. My mom also packed some clothes and nothing else, and I took a knife that my father gave me.
Friday 11 September 1899
It had been 1 month, 1 month after the departure, 1 month of hell. It was horrible: my mother had to fight for food, Antonio couldn’t stop crying because of his teeth and we were always wet. I had caught fever. A lot of people had it but fortunately not my mother and my brother. I loved them so much. They cared about me all day and Antonio always asked me if I was okay and kissed me on the cheek even if I told him not to. My mother had a leather purse; in it was a metal container. Every day, she said that when she would do her first steps in New York, she would put a little of earth in the container. The container had two initials: M.A.
It meant Alvise Muraro, our father. He was a brave man, strong and tall with brown hair and blue eyes, a little like me. He didn’t want to be a soldier but he had a debt to pay to the country and didn’t have enough money so he had to go to the army where he had his blood cancer. His first job was being in a bakery. He taught my brother and me how to make bread. He was the best. I miss him so much I cried every night in the boat thinking of him, Antonio too. My mom sang to Antonio a little song so he could sleep. Then she started talking to me and told me that she was really sad too but I had to cheer up and think about our future. This night, I was happy, happy that my mother told me everything, and I thought about my new life, New York.
Tuesday 5 October 1899
FINALLY! FINALLY! We were in Ellis Island, yes, New York. The boat just docked. Everyone was ecstatic. My mother jumped in my arms and cried; everyone cried of happiness! We exited off the boat thanks to a wooden plank. The policemen put us in lines to wait for documents and paper work. Then, three hours in the line to be inspected by a doctor. It was my turn; the doctor was a white tall man with a black mustache. He told me to take off my clothes and watched me in the eyes. He opened my mouth with a wooden stick and looked behind my tongue. He checked my reflexes and then told me to dress myself after looking everywhere. He put on me a little machine to check my heart I think, but I wasn’t sure since it was the first time I saw a doctor. It was cold. I sat down and he asked me some questions: Have you ever worked? Are you sick? Did you ever have a contagious disease? How old are you? Where did you live? Are you poorer than the rest of the Italians? Etc…
I said “no” to every question he asked me. I was terrified. At the end he showed me the exit door and said, “You are healthy, goodbye.” Of course there was a translator. I exited and waited in a big room; 30 minutes later my mother had passed with Antonio who was constantly crying because he was cold. My mother told me that we had to go to the little stand in front of us to change our European money to dollars. The man behind the stand seemed sleepy and asked us how much money we had so he could convert it. An hour later, everyone was in the giant room. A man walked on a balcony, he told us to “shut up”, and silence ruled the room. Then he just told us to wait.
Wednesday 6 October 1899
Nobody came to get us so we spent the night in the room just waiting. Morning arrived. After the constant crying of women and children ceased and the corpses of the tired elderly were carried out, my younger brother and I were terrified. We were cold and hungry. Our legs were shaking. Our dirty and wet clothes from the trip were now one of the biggest problems we had. We had no spare clothes and we had almost no money to buy food. Coming to the great America brought us great joy and amusement. We spent nights waiting in the boat, picturing a place where light would craft the shadows of the buildings and we had no fears. We set sail on the Atlantic Ocean with dreams of streets that smelled of honey, sausages and bread. But those were distant images. The voyage was comparable to going to hell. The trip was the roughest part, but now we are here and filled with ecstasy. The weather was miserable. The wind would carry the smells of the streets of New York. The fog would limit our view of the future, or at least what was supposed to be our future. We sat there waiting in the darkness and the shivering with cold on the docks, looking at the endless waves crashing on the docks. It seemed as if more and more people were entering the compounds. Our legs shook on the hard floor like a clock.
Me and my brother would share what we had. We had a great brotherly affection and often played foolish games that would make the time pass, pretending to be police officers or firemen. We would stay close at night because we were both scared. Our weeping would echo in the darkness and solemnity of Ellis Island.
Thursday 7 October 1899
After a night of noise and the crashing of the waves on the docks of Ellis Island, the second morning was cold. One by one each family would get up and look around. We were still exhausted from the night that we had spent listening to babies cry and mothers weep for their loved ones that were far away. Many of the families were torn apart by accidents. The smell of the docks was that of a child’s worst nightmare. Belongings of families were spread out on the floor and some belongings were abandoned and were destined to always be there. The docks were very dark and solemn. The morning light passed through the windows and illuminated the families that were awaiting their destiny. But finally good news came to us, as if the suffering was worth it. The long restless nights and long gloomy days were now soon over. As the boats came and docked on Ellis Island men that worked at Ellis Island and translators transported us to the immigration checkpoint. The smoke curled up in the foggy sky. But as I was looking at the waves glistening slowly, I took a glimpse of Manhattan, the place where dreams are made true. The great American dream was soon to be ours. Our despair on the trip was worth it. As if sweet like honey we had overcome our greatest enemy.. We had done it. We had arrived in the city were it all begins: the endless nights of dreamlike images of streets filled of people from all cultures. Smells of fruit, meats and clothes would feel closer to reality than a dream. We all felt a doubt. An inner feeling full of fear because we didn’t know where to go and why. We were extremely anxious.
Friday 8 October 1899
After the slow steam boat ceased moving, we arrived at a busy center of noise, pushing and crowds. We had arrived at the Bronx in Hoffman Street, an industrious and energetic zone of nonstop hustle and shoving. It was the first step to living in New York. For the Ellis Island shipping companies it was the closest port. My mother took the small metal container from her leather satchel. She took hold of the cold case and set it in her palm. Staring at it, a tear glistened down her cheek. The engraved initials of our father lingered there. As if restless my mother slowly put some American earth in it to always remember her arrival in New York, as if symbolizing the rigorous trip that she had endured. Around her the hectic running of people made her realize she had no time to spare. We had to walk for a while, but we finally arrived at our destination. Many men and women were cramped in shuttles that would transport us to different neighborhoods. The smell would cling on and it was very noticeable. Kids would stand up in the trucks as if it was a strain. The parents could not believe they had survived the rugged trip. Some would cry from the memories of dear Italy: the days of sun and beach, eating fresh fruit by the sea; swimming in the cool water as it shone endlessly. The little ones would splashin the water enjoying their long summer days. But these dear memories were now in the past. Me and my family were now in Little Italy.
Saturday 9 October 1899
After the lengthy ride, we arrived in Little Italy. The streets were filled with happy immigrants. Little Italy was beautiful. Each building was covered by a colored awning that gleamed with the sun. Around the streets vendors sold and bought products. The streets were made out of cobble stones. Dark squares covered the roads as people walked and ran around. The buildings were often red and brown and there was a beautiful contrast with the orange leaves in the trees. Spots of color appeared and disappeared through the alleys. Shadows were crafted by the buildings that stood tall as if proud. Orange leaves floated in the incandescent trees. Brown, red and light yellow leaves spread across the streets falling in the air. The smell of autumn was refreshing. The sun would hit our faces and shine, illuminating the roads. The ones that greeted us were used to the busyness. All around smells floated and slipped through the air. Our shared dreams were now real. The American dream was now ours. The sky was full of birds that chirped to our arrival. Flags of Italy were being waved by windows. Children ran in the streets playing soccer and enjoying candy Famillies would appear and enjoy their new apartments. And in a moment everybody had disappeared and gone to their apartments. The slightest of comfort was very reassuring. The sun shined on top of us and somewhere inside of me I knew my father was looking down on me in a proud manor. We were very glad of our arrival. We were ready to experience a new life. Forget the trip and start fresh. But my impressions were short lasted. Very quickly families settled into small and cramped apartments as if ensconcing themselves from the world. Conditions were contaminated and foul. There was no going back. We started looking for a place to stay.
Friday October 15 1899
After hours of apartment hunting in Little Italy in the Bronx, we finally found one that was convenient for the three of us and that wasn’t too expensive. And anyway, we had a lot of money compared to the rest of the immigrants because, when my dad died, we received inheritance which helped us survive during the war and famine by using it to buy rotten food back in Italy. The other thing that made us have enough money was the mistake of the person that changed our money at Ellis Island. We had just realized that he gave us more than we should have gotten since he gave us almost the double in dollars that we had in lire. That is why we were able to afford a place for the three of us only. It is 2406 Hoffman Street, between 187th Street and 188th Street. The American man that sold it to us described it as “just for people like you”. Even though we hadn’t seen it yet because it we couldn’t visit it, we were confident that it was going to be better than where we slept in the boat. My mom seemed really happy to have found this place to stay. I knew she was scared for us and she didn’t want her children to sleep outside in the cold.
We had just arrived at our new apartment. It was not as great as we had expected… The hallway was dark, the grey paint was peeling off the thin walls and spider webs were all over the place. At the far end of this hallway was our apartment. It was not really big, but it was sufficient and better than the boat. The ceiling was not very high and there was only one main room, a very small room next to it, which was almost the size of a rich person’s dressing room, and a closet (a real, normal-sized closet). When you came in the main room, the kitchen, which was just a stove, a table, four chairs and a small shelf for the food, was on the right. Then, on the left was the closet for all the family’s clothes and right in front was a sofa bed with broken springs where my little brother Antonio and I slept because our mother was nice enough to give us the more comfortable bed. Finally, our mother slept in the very small bedroom on a thick mattress. The bathroom was shared with the rest of the building and was on the first floor. We were lucky not only because we were close to the bathroom so we got to use it first in the morning, but also because there were only five other apartments occupied (14 being the maximum). Most of the families were also Italian but we only knew that because the man who sold the apartment to us told us so, but we didn’t really get to know them. We were, after all, in Little Italy. Also, the reason why the bathroom was on the first floor was because warm water only went up to the second floor so we got to have warm water because we were next to the bathroom on the first floor!
Even though it was an exhausting day, I was thrilled because the apartment that we were able to have was amazing for us as immigrants. We were so lucky!
Sunday, October 17, 1899
My mom was out looking for a job so I was taking care of my little brother Antonio. My mother had promised to be back home at 9:00pm or even earlier if she could. That day, my brother and I took our first shower since we had left Italy. It was warm water like I didn’t remember ever showering in. After that I dressed my little brother and myself and we got ready to go outside as we put on our hats and vest. We took the money that our mom had left us to buy food for lunch and dinner and we left. Arthur Avenue, even this early, was filled with men, women and children trying to sell whatever they were able to have or make. My brother grabbed my vest as tight as he could. I understood that he was amazed by this city full of life but at the same time scared and he didn’t want to let go so he didn’t end up alone. But my attention was already on the children, most of them our age, selling fruits, so I didn’t mind my brother. I thought of an idea I would later share with my brother and my mom. I stopped day dreaming to realize that it was freezing and I had been watching the street for ten minutes. I told my brother to hold on tight to me and we started buying the food we needed. We bought three apples, some bread, and five potatoes. What a meal we were going to have! We also bought a cheap container and we went to the fountain on the main place and filled the container with clean drinking water. What a delight! Then we went home and gathered all the laundry we needed to do, which was a lot since we couldn’t do any during two months since we were on the boat.
We had started the laundry at 9:45am we had just finished. We did it in the fountain on the main place because you don’t have to pay for the water. Then, we ate an apple and a bit of the bread we had bought for lunch. It had cost only $2.35, which I thought wasn’t too expensive. While we waited for our mom to come back, we unpacked our stuff.
Our mom had just arrived and we were all around her explaining to her our wonderful day. She said she was thrilled with everything we had done: buying food, doing the laundry, unpacking… She said that to thank us she was going to actually cook the potatoes! Then, she told us that she had found a job. An actual paying job! She worked in a shop on Valentine Avenue and she sold the pastas she made and the vegetables that were planted at the back of the building where she was located. But the best thing was that it was a well-known shop so there were lots of clients!Then, after she explained her job to us, I finally decided to tell them about my idea. I said that I thought me and my brother should sell bread in the morning while our mom was at work. This way, our dad would kind of be with us since he was the one that taught me how to make bread. Then, in the afternoon, we would buy food with the money we got and would do the laundry. My mom said she thought it was a wonderful idea and we could go buy whatever we needed the next morning. This was the best day ever!
Saturday October 16 1899
We woke up really early today because, if we wanted to sell anything, we had to get on the streets early. My mom had left for work and my little brother and I were alone again. We quickly got dressed and we went outside to buy everything we needed to make bread and some food to eat at lunch and at dinner. Then, we spent about two hours making a dozen loaves of bread on top of the dining room. I knew that this wasn’t going to be that bad of a business day because, the day before, I had only seen one other person selling bread and it was an adult. I had also noticed that, when a kid and an adult were selling the same thing, the customer would usually buy from the kid, probably out of pity. So my brother and I had good chances.
We went outside but there weren’t as many people as there had been the day before, probably because it was later than yesterday, so we didn’t sell much. That is when I realized that we actually needed to make the bread the day before. We went back home and we ate a small lunch.
I told my brother that we still had a lot to do because we needed to make more bread after having bought the ingredients, do the laundry, clean the apartment a little and preferably cook dinner because our mom was going to come back late. We went out and bought, from the very small number of people remaining, the ingredients to make more bread, which are flour, eggs, salt and water. We then did the laundry to get it over with and we went back home to bake the bread.
We had worked really hard that day and we had made a total of 25 pane which we decided we would sell fro four dollars each. We started cleaning the apartment a little bit to get rid of the layer of dust on the floor and all the furniture. And we waited for our mom to come home.
Our mom arrived and we ate the dinner we prepared which was some vegetable soup and a piece of bread.
Monday 8 January 1917 18 Years Later
When I awoke, a thick blanket of snow had concealed Little Italy. The leaves had fallen and the trees pointed their skinny fingers at the grey sky. From time to time, a sound would appear and disappear and through the everlasting peace Antonio would awake as well and peer through the glass window. The streets were asleep as if of grave danger. Walking through the snow I was alone, as I remembered the first days I was at that spot.It was all gone and now it was winter. A peaceful breeze blew my hair as I walked to the corner store for a newspaper. The store was empty besides a couple of kids huddled around the newspaper. They gasped and I approached the group. A war had already erupted from the depths of Europe three years earlier. But now what was surprising was that the American Government had declared war on Germany and its allies. I wished to fight with my brother and that was what I was going to do. I was going to fight with the United States but I knew that deep down, just like my little brother, my heart was still in Italy. That is why I was worried about my native country since it was allied with Germany. But eventually, Italy would ally with the United States, France and Great Britain. I was going to fight next to the brave and the proud in Europe. The war had begun and I was going back to Europe.