I was born in Cleveland and so were my parents, but all four of my grandparents were born in Italy. So, I am second-generation Italian and proud of my Italian heritage.
My maternal grandparents are from Sicily or Sicilia. They both were born in the small village of Cesarò, west of Mt. Etna, in the region of Messina. My paternal grandparents were born in the small village of Colle d’Anchise in the region of Molise.
I’m fortunate to have been able to travel to both of these regions and discover cousins I never knew I had and stand in front of the Sicilian house where my grandfather was born. Just walking on the same cobble-stoned streets where they had walked and seeing the church where they had been baptized instantly made me feel at home. There was something magical about being there.
My grandfather, Pietro Luigi Savoca, emigrated to Cleveland in the early 20th century. Once he arrived, he worked as a laborer, having gained experience building the Simplon Tunnel connecting Italy and Switzerland. Grandpa Savoca was one of the three founding fathers of an Italian-American lodge named Società di Mutuo Soccorso Libertà e Progresso, Cesarò-San Teodoro. The lodge existed until only a few years ago.
I love the story of how my Grandpa Savoca met and married my Grandma Savoca, formerly Angelina Ragonese. Eighteen years her senior, Grandpa was already in Cleveland when he saw a picture of Angelina by a cousin from their same village in Sicily. She was the oldest of four children, two girls and two boys, and by the age of 14, she was largely responsible for caring for them as they were orphaned. An aunt helped care for them, but Grandma had become a strong person as a survivor and caretaker at that tender young age. When she was 21, my grandfather got word to her through this matchmaker cousin that he’d like to marry her and wished to pay for her voyage to the United States.
It was Grandma’s decision and she sent word back that her answer was yes, but only on the condition that he also pay for the travel of her three younger siblings. She was not leaving them behind. I guess it was an offer he couldn’t refuse and he agreed. In 1920, all four emigrated to the U.S. through Ellis Island in NYC and then to Cleveland.
My grandfather died when I was only five and I remember him as being very kind. I was fortunate enough to have my grandmother around long enough for her to see me graduate from college, get married and have her first two great-grandchildren. She died when I was 27-years-old.
Her strength and determination were two of the strongest influences throughout my life and I am the person I am today, in large part from what I leaned from her. In a more practical sense, Grandma Savoca taught me how to make spaghetti sauce and meatballs. I still use the same recipe today and when I cook, I feel like she is by my side. I’m so proud to be a second-generation Italian and am so grateful for these strong personal ties I feel to my Italian ancestors.