In legend, the mafia in Sicily dates to the Sicilian Vespers of 1282. Two of the Five Families of New York, the Lucchese and Genovese families, are Corleonesi in origin. Their founders, Gaetano Reina and Giuseppe Morello, immigrated from Corleone, in the heartland of Sicily, to New York City, around the turn of the twentieth century. They came with their families, and settled in East Harlem.
In 1900, two of my great-grandparents were teenagers in Corleone. They were about to lose their fathers, and consequently, their lives would be dramatically altered. After the deaths of their fathers, Louis Cascio and Lucia Soldano both immigrated to America, each with their mothers and siblings, and settled around 106th St, on the northeast corner of Central Park in New York City. The census reports that my twice-great aunts and uncles found work, and supported their widowed mothers.
I don’t know if Louis and Lucia knew each other in Corleone, or how their marriage was arranged. (It was almost certainly arranged.) According to family lore, after they married, my great-grandmother, Lucia Soldano, sold olive oil to the neighbors, produced and exported by one of Louis’ brothers-in-law back in Corleone. When I first heard this story, I didn’t realize how unlikely it was to be true.
Giuseppe Morello, aka “The Clutch Hand,” was a member of the mafia in Corleone, following in the footsteps of his stepfather, Bernardo Terranova. In New York, Gaetano Riina was one of Morello’s captains. Giuseppe’s half-brother, Vincenzo, married Gaetano Riina’s sister. Giuseppe’s cousin was married to my twice-great aunt Biagia Cascio, Louis’ sister: the one who stayed behind to marry the olive oil producer, while the rest of her family, her mother and all of her siblings, immigrated.
It’s the stories that yield themselves most grudgingly from the facts, that captivate me. Possibly this is because I am one of those people whose lives would have been lived entirely between the lines, if I’d been born in any other time and place in my family’s history. I realized a few years ago that I owed my good fortune to ancestors I didn’t know at all. So I started reading history: American, and Sicilian. I charted the histories of foreign domination and colonization, of feudalism and chattel slavery, and of two of the breadbaskets of a global economy.
And the juncture, where my Sicilian ancestors stepped into American history, coming with the first waves of the mafia: into New Orleans, Chicago, New York, into the coal mines of Pennsylvania and the strawberry fields of Louisiana. How Sicily built parts of the America we know. The intersection of cultures that made me, Atlantic City, and “Don Corleone.” A large part of the story of America’s Sicilian heritage, and my own, the myths and the reality, is about the mafia.
I don’t know for sure that Giuseppe Morello was helping his cousin, but it seems likely. What’s not very probable, is that Biagia’s husband produced all of that olive oil, himself. Most farmers didn’t own any land, and those who did, had very small plots, enough to support only a handful of trees: not enough to start an export business.
I am documenting the relationships among known mafiosi from Corleone: to one another, to other powerful figures, and to my own family. The mafia of the twentieth century has been written about many times. Few have attempted to trace the connections, as I have been doing, from father to son, through the generations, going back to the revolutionary period of the early 1800s in Sicily, maybe farther. Myths sometimes point to hidden truths. Myths tell us who we are. The story my great-uncle told was about how my family became American.
This blog is about the truth behind the myths.