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Isolated and living in harsh conditions due to the lack of roads, the family lived in a small two-room hovel. The entrance was covered with a heavy rug which led directly into the kitchen/living quarters and bedroom. They were without a toilet or running water. The floor was dirt. They had but one window with metal bars to discourage any intruders. The walls were covered with nails where the tools of the farmer were hung, and when necessary, more hang from the ceiling. A large fireplace in one corner was the center of all family life with an iron pot that was always kept boiling. The walls surrounding them were hung dried peppers. All of their meals were prepared on the table and consumed there.
Nothing was thrown away. The ashes and cooking waste were collected in a bucket and brought to the fields for fertilizer. The bedroom was almost bare. A double bed was supported by a series of makeshift metal supports nailed to the wooden boards laid side by side, then covered with a heap of straw and a flimsy sheet. All five adults slept at the head, the children curled up at the foot. A wooden cradle sat next to the window, while under the bed were two wooden cases. One where clothes were neatly kept, the other held mostly potatoes and corn. This den of despair without hope nor even a shadow of privacy, was simply a place to sleep, cook, and survive.
Poor soil yielded little, while illiteracy, disease, and malnutrition were widespread. They worked in the very time before dawn and after dusk when the malarial mosquito was most likely to roam. Many villages were built on high land to avoid the ever-present threat of the dreaded disease, as well as making it necessary to walk many miles to till the soil. It was backbreaking work using archaic methods, the same kind of hand plows, hoes, and spades used in the days of the Romans. The soil was tilled with a square-bladed hoe, with a lighter model for the women. Grain was planted with a wooden dibble, an almost useless tool to break the hard-barren soil. Only a few owned a plow, a pair of oxen, and a cart.
They worked 365 days a year, and even though they stayed healthy, they still barely made enough for necessities. They produced a little corn and wheat for rustic bread and macaroni. Apples, pears, cherries, plums, and figs purchased in the village square, were dried and stored for winter use. A few of the very fortunate grew squash, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, and greens in their tiny plots. Farming in the south in 1885 was socially despised, but along with other hardships and no way out, they believed it was God’s will. From an economic and social viewpoint, the Sicilian’s hunger for freedom and prosperity was one of futility.
Despite the insurmountable adversities, the most expulsive factor was the cruel social and psychological punishment by the master class, to the point where to be a peasant in Southern Italy, was to be a stupid and despicable earthworm; an image accepted by the peasant himself. Meanwhile in America, preconceptions and inequity spread across the land creating a Nativism among Italians, leading to xenophobia based on the fear of escalating unemployment, their Catholic religion, language, and customs.
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1 thought on “Excerpt from “Open Arms” The Novel”
This reading is phenomenal! My maternal grandfather was from Sicily and born circa 1890. While I read this I was feeling the dire circumstances they lived in. I remember my grandfather telling me they made a ball out of wood, just to have something that resembled a “toy.” The details of the life they lived are parallel to what he told me! Amazing work!