14 December 2007

The Heart in a Suitcase

27 November 1908

It is a Friday in the chill of winter, and a 37-year-old woman arrives in New York Harbor for the first time. Her name is Angela Marie. She is short of stature with a dark complexion, brown hair, and grey eyes. Three of her children are at her side: Maddalena, age 13; Giacomo, age 9; and Gregorio, age 3. Her youngest brother, Cateno, has also made the journey.

She has come to join her husband, who is working in the coal mines in western Pennsylvania. He first left their home in 1902, recruited by a sub-agent of a steamship company promising economic opportunities abroad.

It is the first time they have seen or touched land for several weeks. They left their small village in the Sicilian countryside by two-wheeled, horse-drawn carts for the capital city of Palermo. There they boarded the San Giovanni and endured weeks among 1,800 other 3rd class passengers bound for America.

They are hoping to leave behind them harsh economic conditions: the destruction of the vineyards by a root-eating aphid, foreign competition in the tuna industry, a crisis in the local sea-salt mines, antiquated sulphur mining practices, and difficulties exporting citrus fruit.

One month after their arrival, an earthquake hits Messina on December 28th, further devastating the island. It kills 60,000 residents and displaces another 80,000 people. An estimated 20,000 of those rendered homeless will find their way to the USA.

Angela Marie is also leaving behind two children, Lucia and Mariangelica, who died in infancy. Her parents, two brothers, and a sister will also anchor her heartstrings to Sicily while her sights are on a future in America.

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