How I discovered America as a child

By Giorgio Cheda

The idea of preserving the memory of the Ticinesi who emigrated to California between 1850 and 1950 dates from my adolescent years. My reading of Salgari and Kipling inspired me to travel the world in the footsteps of their intrepid heroes, comparing their stories with the unembellished, but true, accounts of my father and grandfather, both of whom had survived an experience common to many peasant farmers from the Alps.

My grandfather’s adventure was impressed on my memory by my mother. When she was a small child, her father, suitcase in hand, had given her a rag doll – a poor substitute for a parent who for many years was mentioned longingly in the conversations of the adults around her. When Giuseppe Martinelli bought his second ticket for “a Merica”, his fourth child was still a babe in arms. Every time I look at that portrait of a family about to lose its head, I feel a touch of peasant pride at having devoted so much of my time and energy as an adult to researching, preserving and making good use of the documents that sing, like a powerful choir in perfect harmony, the story of the poor. Some of them became wealthy as a result of emigration. A job well done, you simply have to have faith!

My father spoke little about California. My mother often quizzed him about it, though in our home almost everything bore witness to America. Beginning with the house itself, which, from a poor barn devoid of animals had been purchased, thanks to dollars still worth five francs a piece, and transformed into a modern dwelling with a toilet, bathroom and laundry. Emigration, then, had been a special blessing to my mother, who could now do the washing without having to carry the basket on her shoulder to the stream or, when it froze, rinse the dirty linen at the spring above the Ronchini – an hour away on foot -, as she had learned to do from her mother.

As a child, I was always fascinated by a massive trunk, parked in a corner of a little-used room, my silent accomplice when we played hide-and-seek. It was a real treasure compared with the haversacks normally carried by those departing overseas. Like a big black box – living testimony to a fortunately successful flight from the New World – it had impressed the good people of Maggia who had come down to the station to welcome back some of their returning sons. This was only a few weeks before that black Thursday of 1929, when all those “greenbacks” earned with such toil and sweat in the “corrals” lost their value overnight.

It had taken a strong cart to carry the trunk home, once it was unloaded from the baggage van of the Valmaggina: the modern train provided for the peasant farmers and first tourists on the initiative of the generous and intelligent, not to say fortunate, heirs of Ticino migrants, and with the modest savings of so many cowhands.

That trunk accompanied me on my imaginary journeys through the big wide world, as soon as I was able to spread out a topographical map of New York on the kitchen table, a map found with the letters from California in the bottom of another drawer. I came to love America by poring over the different districts of the Big Apple, not yet interconnected by the elegant bridges of the Swiss engineer Othmar Ammann: the harbour with its thousand piers, where ships from all over the world moored with their cargoes of migrants who passed through Ellis Island for inspection before being admitted; the Statue of Liberty which welcomed them, holding high the torch of an inalienable ideal; the skyscrapers of Manhattan, which still amaze me, even after 9/11; the Harlem district, near Central Park, of ill repute because it was home to the Afro-Americans (whom we called Negroes on account of their skin colour) – 200,000 of them packed into a square kilometre: the whole population of Ticino compressed into the area of my village! For me, the Negroes were still the people over whom I had wept copious tears when reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, and (naive as I was!) I found it difficult to place them in the slums of that metropolis, symbol of unlimited success and progress.

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