The old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” can literally apply to my vintage Leto family portrait (circa 1923). Therefore, you might say this famiglia photo of my Italian immigrant grandparents and their second-generation children has a story of at least a thousand words. Many of us who cherish and share our old family photos know that each have a story to tell. Today, many of us that share in our Italian American heritage love to reminisce of the way things were, and our old family photos help us in our nostalgic journey.
This well-staged family portrait is a precious heirloom, a museum quality artifact, a forever keepsake to us who were so fortunate to call Francesco and Caterina (Tropiano) Leto our grandparents. My paternal grandparents were part of the well-documented mass immigration during the mid-19th and early 20th centuries.
Through my amateur genealogy research, I was able to trace their arrival to America to around 1910. Their story is that of many others who can trace their ancestors’ voyage across the Atlantic. They left their small village of Santa Caterina dello Ionio (Region of Calabria, Province of Catanzaro) and settled in the Little Italy enclave of Philadelphia (South Philly).
As you glance at the photo, their story and the thousand words it conveys continues with their legacy through many living generations. Myself, my sister and my many first cousins are the proud third generation direct descendants of Francesco and Caterina Leto.
What story does the photo tell? The photo has some interesting facets. The portrait shows a proud, strong father and mother showcasing their children. My grandfather is standing stoic and surrounded by all that is important to him, La Famiglia. You get a sense that they are living the American dream since leaving their ancestral homeland. America is a better place for them. My grandparents and their children (my aunts and uncle) are in their nicest period dress. Often noticed is how no one ever seemed to smile in old photos of Italian immigrant families. That is the case here. If you take a close look, most interesting in the portrait is that almost everyone seems to have a hand on someone else’s shoulder or is at least touching one another, making for a strongly bonded family. Lastly, everyone seems to be extremely focused on the photographer, even the infant (my Aunt Molly).
There is more to the story. Both of my grandparents were born in Santa Caterina dello Ionio, Francesco was born in 1880 and Caterina born in 1884. My grandparents married in Italy and their first-born daughter, my Aunt Mary (born in 1909, the tallest of the children in the photo), was also born there. My grandfather made his first trip to America alone and secured work as a laborer. Around 1910, my grandfather returned to Italy and brought my grandmother and my aunt Mary (who made the journey as an infant) back to the U.S. Upon settling in Philadelphia, my grandparents raised their seven children in what can be described as a typical Italian American household.
Now, back to the photo. The children of Francesco and Caterina include my dear father Louis (Luigi). You can see that my grandfather has his hand on my father’s shoulder. In all, the children include my dad, my five aunts and one uncle. Pictured in the photo from left to right: Philomena (Aunt Phyllis), Victoria (Aunt Vicky), Louis (my father), Francesco (my grandfather), Pasquale (Uncle Pat), Caterina (my grandmother, sitting), the youngest, baby Immaculata (Aunt Molly), Aunt Rosie, and Aunt Mary. If you were to see my family tree diagram, you would see, like so many others of us that share our Italian American culture, the naming of the children reflects the names of relatives back in the motherland who never emigrated to the U.S. This portrait captures this naming tradition.