The godfathers of the American South

The godfathers of the American South

 

In Mario Puzo’s novel, “The Godfather,” Vito Corleone is called by the name of his hometown because he was fleeing the mafia. But why was he called “don”?

In the US, we don’t have a term similar to this Sicilian honorific. The Southern custom of calling elders “Mister” or “Miss,” along with their given name, like “Mister Vincent,” comes close. “Don”  began being used by Sicilian nobility during its centuries under Spanish rule. In rural settings, the titles were applied more loosely, not only to the marquis, the barons, and their families (the feminine form is “donna”), but also to priests, and to other respected men in the town. In Church records of marriages, baptisms, and deaths, the elite guildsmen are recorded with the title of “maestro,” and nobles, priests, and a very few others are called “don.” The vast majority of people are peasants, and are given no title at all.

Children in Sicily call their godparents padrino and madrina (or cumpari and cummari), or they might call them “uncle” and “aunt” (zio, zia) or “grandpa” and “grandma” (nonno, nonna) but not “don” and “donna.” These honorifics are communal, not familial. Sicilian culture associates masculinity with self-sufficiency. In an agricultural setting, with little infrastructure or police presence, decisive—even violent—action can be necessary to survive. Men who command the resources to solve problems not only for themselves, but for others, prosper and earn the respect of their neighbors.

As a rule, the owners of large tracts of farmland in Corleone in the 19th century employed farm managers, agricoltore or gabelloti, to run their estates, and rural guards (guardia campestre) to protect them. Meanwhile, the landowners lived in Palermo, an arrangement that sheltered the landowner’s property, both within Palermo and outside of the city, from taxation. Because there were so few police working on the island, the guardia were a necessity in rural areas: so much so, that the state paid guards’ salaries (to protect land on which the state did not earn tax, a corporate loophole familiar to anyone who reads the US news). The nobles’ absence from small town life made the next rung down, the gabelloti and the guardia, the public face of authority to the peasantry. “Becoming a field guard was a familiar way of acquiring local power and influence,” writes Denis Mack Smith in his “History of Sicily.” They had the power to solve their neighbor’s problems, and some were so widely called “don,”the title appears in the Church records of their children’s baptisms and marriages.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a system of patronage helped many new immigrants from Sicily find work and housing in America. The farm managers to whom peasant farmers went, hats in hands, to beg for work on the estates of Corleone, had money to loan.

With the advent of steamship travel, farmers who could no longer make a living in Sicily, could do so in America. Ships from Naples stopped in Palermo before crossing the Atlantic. One’s patron could secure passage from Palermo to New York, and from there, to a high-paying job in the American South. The Americans who had previously performed agricultural labor in the South were being lured north to cities, to work in new industries. Their vacancies were filled, in some degree, by immigrants from Sicily, through the connections of their patrons, their patrini. Because whoever sent them to Ramos, or to Bryan, knew the name of the don of that place, who would help their countryman.

Not all of the farmers in Corleone who wanted to go to America, were able. People who could afford passage were still turned away at the port in Palermo, because they had physical handicaps, or not enough money to reach their final destination. One of my twice-great grandfathers is listed on a 1906 ship manifest, and then crossed out, indicating he attempted to immigrate but was not allowed to sail. His wife and some of his children had already immigrated, and he was attempting to join them. Family legend says that he was blind. After he died, his two remaining children at home, both teenagers, joined the rest of the family in New York. One of them was my great-grandmother, Lucia Soldano.

Besides the cost of a steamship ticket and the physical health necessary to travel and work, immigration required other resources. For an illiterate Sicilian who spoke no English to consider immigrating, he would need clothes, including shoes, suitable for travel, and enough advance money and food to make the journey. To be allowed to sail, he must provide the name and address of a contact person in America. Once he arrived, he needed work and housing. Besides these immediate concerns, Sicilians abroad depended on their local patrons for insurance against unemployment, disease, and death. The men called “don” solved such problems: for a fee. Like “Don Vito” Corleone, they helped their friends, who in turn would help their patron.

Many families from Corleone went to Ramos, Louisiana, west of New Orleans, and to Bryan, Texas, 100 miles inland from Houston, both places where large numbers of Sicilian immigrants settled. On one ship manifest, a bride travels with her brother-in-law to meet her husband in Ramos, and their neighbors from Corleone, the Grizzaffis, heading to Bryan to work. The bridegroom shares a name with “Mr. Vincent” Collura, another immigrant from Corleone, of unknown relation, who returns to Corleone after WWII.

The Morello-Terranova family spent time in each of these communities in the 1890s, planting sugarcane in the former, picking cotton and contracting malaria in the latter, before returning to New York. In the City, they delivered ice (an age-old mafia activity), ran saloons and coal cellars, and printed counterfeit money. That their story would be exceptional is evident from the passenger manifest: among mainly illiterate passengers, the men in Giuseppe Morello’s family could read and write. Despite Giuseppe’s birth defect, which left him with only one finger visible on his right hand, he was not turned away at the port. And while their neighbors had one or two bags each, the Terranova family brought more than a dozen pieces of luggage.

For the poorest of the poor, escape was impossible. For those with the ability to pay, however, the choice to escape the cycle of poverty was an easy one to make. Help from one’s “godfather” was an offer no one could afford to refuse.

 

Image: “Decatur Street Italians, 1938” Russell Lee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons