In 1951, when she was 16 years old, Emma Bovino LaCoppola said goodbye to her mother in Balvano, Italy, and boarded a ship alone to travel to America.
She settled in St. Johnsville, a place very different from the mountain village where she was raised. In Balvano, her family made a living growing olives and grapes. In the Montgomery County town she grew to call home, LaCoppola made slippers at the Felt Shoe Factory and, for 22 years, pressed high-end dresses in the long, drafty wooden building that housed the Corso Dress Co.
In 1959, she married a man who spoke no Italian. She spoke no English, but with time, she learned the language and made friends, had three children and settled into life in the small village.
Italy has never left her, though. It’s in every heavily accented word she says, in the nativities she places in every room at Christmastime and in the prayers she says each night.
In Italy, much of life centered around food preparation, the 77-year-old recalled.
“We used to cook everything on the stove. Everything was in the kitchen,” she said.
Back when her kids were young, she made all of the food for her family from scratch. Pasta hung over kitchen chairs to dry, and all summer long she cooked outside over an open fire built in a wheelbarrow.
Sons, daughters of Italy
LaCoppola’s journey from Italy to upstate New York to start a new life is one shared by many Capital Region residents. Lured by the prospect of economic opportunity and better lives, Italian immigrants began arriving in large numbers in the area around 1900, according to former Schenectady County Historical Society President Frank Taormina.
By 1920, Italians had become the most numerous immigrant contingent in Schenectady, according to “Electric City Immigrants: Italians and Poles of Schenectady, N.Y., 1880-1930,” by Robert R. Pascucci. Many Italians settled in surrounding cities and towns, as well.
The Italian population still thrives in the Capital Region, but the older immigrants have begun to pass away. When they die, precious things are often lost with them, including traditions, gardens and tales of what it was like to start a life in a foreign land.
That history needs to be preserved for coming generations, said Cesare Maniccia of Schenectady, who immigrated to the United States from Sgurgola, Italy, in 1957, when he was 21. The chairman of the scholarship committee for the New York state Order Sons of Italy in America said he’s dismayed at how little the younger generations know about their Italian heritage.
“We ask the kids to write a little essay, 200 words, about what part the Italian culture, the Italian background in the family, played in their life, and 99.9 percent talk about the food. Nobody knows about the art, nobody knows about the history. A lot of people are so confused,” he said.
Value of hard work
Food is an important part of Italian tradition, the 76-year-old was quick to admit, but along with the appreciation of a fine, home-cooked meal, he said he brought to America a respect for institutions, people and authority; the love of family; and a strong work ethic.
“There is nothing old-fashioned about respect, honor and all those other things. They belong in any society, any culture,” he said.
Maniccia’s father raised his family by growing grapes and selling the wine he made from them. He hauled 50-liter barrels of it to Rome by horse-drawn cart. Later, he immigrated to the United States.
As an adolescent growing up in Italy, Maniccia also helped to support his family.
“I remember going to work in the summer. Whatever I made, whatever they paid us, I turned over to my mother,” he recalled.
When he became a young adult, Maniccia joined the Italian Air Force and worked in the control tower at Ciampino International Airport.
Once in America, he enrolled at SUNY Cortland, worked various jobs and studied to perfect his English. He earned a degree in mathematics and supported his family by teaching in local high schools and at the University at Albany. He was also co-founder of the Capital District Youth Soccer League.
“Italians are successful in this country because in our generation and even the generation before, we grew up [believing] if you want to get out of poverty, either you [learn] a trade and you go to work or you go to school,” he said.
That same strong work ethic helped 68-year-old Romeo Niro to build a life in Schenectady.
He was only 15 in 1961 when he left his small farm in Vicalvi, Italy, to come to the United States with his family. His father went to work at Schenectady Concrete, but Niro joined the U.S. Army and then built a successful painting and remodeling business.
“Over here, for us, we worked hard. That’s the part that bothers me. A lot of times, you see these kids on the welfare line looking for a handout from the government. We came over here, we worked hard to improve ourselves. That’s just the way it was,” he said.
Food and family
Standing in a backyard edged with grapevines, flowers, herbs and tomato plants, he inspected one of his fig trees and explained how he lays it down and buries it every winter to protect it from the elements.
“These figs, they’re big. They’re kind of purple on the outside and reddish inside,” he said, fingering the fruit, which was still green in late August. “It’s just nice to see them growing.
“Growing up in Italy, we were used to all of this. Over here, it’s a different environment. It’s a little harder [to grow them], but for us, it’s in our blood.”
Every year, he buys grapes from Pede Brothers in Schenectady and makes gallons of merlot or zinfandel, a bottle of which makes an appearance on the dinner table almost every night.
The garage attached to his modest, well-tended home has been carpeted and paneled to accommodate large family gatherings. Niro spoke of boisterous Christmas Day dinners of lasagna, prime rib, homemade sausage and all sorts of vegetables. But it’s not the feasts he wants his children to carry on in tribute to his Italian heritage.
“My biggest thing, hopefully they keep the family together, the cousins together, and they have respect for one another,” he said.
Pina Michela was 27 when she left her home in Aglie, Italy, and boarded the SS Andrea Doria to travel to America in 1953. She was on her way to meet up with her new husband, Joseph, in Queens and was excited to see what her new life would have in store.
“I had two younger brothers, and that was my strikes against, because, you know, I was only a girl,” the 88-year-old said in heavily accented English. “Eighty-some years ago, girls had to be home to help in the house, so I was never sent to school like I wanted so much.”
In Italy, Michela helped her mother tend their general store and eventually was able to get the equivalent of a high school diploma. She reminisced about good times and hard times in her little town at the foot of the Alps, where her family’s records date back to the 13th century.
During World War II, the German army seized a nearby castle that once belonged to the royal family, she said.
“We never really suffered too much, except every night, 10 men from the town had to present themselves to the German army and they were kept responsible for what happened if something happened during the night,” she recalled.
Michela raised a son and a daughter in Queens and now lives with her daughter in Niskayuna.
She knew no English when she came to the United States.
“That was the fun part,” she said, with a smile that lit up her face.
From Italy, she brought many poetry and history books but few typical Italian traditions. She’s never been very traditional, she said.
“People who know that I’m Italian say, ‘Oh, you must be a great cook.’ I’m not,” she said. “You talk about Italian food, I just have a few recipes. I was never very domesticated. I never wanted to do things in the house. “
“My mother sent me to the nuns to learn how to embroider,” she recounted, her distaste for needlework evident on her face. “I used to climb mountains. Really, that’s what I like. Those were the days — 15,000 feet.”
She said she led a happy life in Italy.
“It was not that I really needed to [leave],” she said. “I wanted to get away from it to see the world.”
At age 15, Angelo Piccirillo of Schenectady left Italy with his family in search of prosperity in the United States. Until then, they had run a self-supporting farm in Caserta.
“Farm work, it’s a tough life. We were looking for a better life,” he explained.
But more than a half-century later, he’s still tending a sizeable plot of vegetables in his backyard, the weed-free rows revealing his devotion to the task. He wasn’t happy with his tomato plants this year, though.
“They’re healthy, but they have no tomatoes on them, and I’m not the only one. Everybody’s complaining about the same thing,” the 74-year-old said while standing beside his thriving garden in August. “The flowers are just coming out now. When are we going to eat them, December?”
Piccirillo graduated with the first class at Linton High School, learning English as he went.
“The first year, I didn’t know what was going on, but after that, I started catching on. I went to night school; that helped,” he recalled.
His father worked at Mont Pleasant Bakery, but Piccirillo chose another path. He joined the Navy and then went to work in construction, a career he continued for 25 years. He married Carol, a girl he met at a movie while in high school, and they raised three children in the house he built.
He said he wouldn’t change his life for the world.
Now retired, he spends a lot of time at the local Sons of Italy lodge, talking in Italian and drinking coffee with his buddies. Twice a week, there’s a bocce league, and every once in a while, they play cards.
When he’s not at the lodge, he can usually be found out in the yard, tending to his neat rows of tomatoes, leeks, lettuce, eggplant and pole beans.
“It keeps me busy. My wife says I don’t do nothing for her because I’m too busy in the garden. What are you gonna do?” he asked with a grin.