John Moretto was born in 1910 in Faller, a tiny hamlet located sixty miles north of Venice. He spent his youth in the traditional alpine manner going to school, learning the stone cutting trade, and planning to work in the quarries of France, Germany, or Belgium where many of his townsmen had gone before him.
His father, Tony, however, went to America, worked in the Pennsylvania mines and Michigan car plants, became a citizen, and made it possible for John to immigrate to this country after the 1924 restrictive quota laws had gone into effect. For the young man, coming to America and earning a decent living was something he had desired. He and his mother and brother had to endure the lean years of World War I, a brutal Austrian occupation, and a year of famine that wiped out a quarter of the population. The future in Italy seemed grim and America offered hope. He decided to pin his hopes on immigrating.
In the following tale John tells of the difficulties he had getting his papers to come to this country. The story belongs to the life history genre that many Italian Americans narrate to their children, grandchildren, friends, and anyone who will liste n. The form is usually a lengthy description of village life and how horrible it was, a discussion of the trip to either Genoa or Naples where the boat left, the trip itself, first impressions of America and Americans, and the painful process of establish ing a foothold in this country and ensuing success. In other contexts John covers these topics, but here he focuses on dealing with the Italian bureaucracy and how individuals from villages other than his native one seem to prevent him from reaching his g oal. However, as he shows, fellow villagers (paesani) and regionalists and even the Saints are on his side. With persistence, determination, connections, and innate village cleverness John manages to get his papers, find the American Consul, and answer successfully the three questions that hinge on whether or not he can leave.
I recorded this story and took the photographs on July 15, 1983, one year before John's death and seven years following his retirement as a foreman at Ford Motor Company. The tale telling style is typical for the genre and the individual expressing it: there are stops and starts, confusions, backtracking, and esoteric knowledge that would only be meaningful to someone from his region of Italy. I can clarify several points. The name "Francis" is Francis Slongo who worked as G. Flint Purdy's secretary at the Wayne State Library for over thirty years. Her father is John's godfather and when John came to Detroit, he lived with her family and she taught him English. The names of the towns are all small crossroad villages except for Servo (the county seat) a nd Milano and function as positive or negative depending on the context. When these outsiders get in his way, the villages are vilified. When they help him get through the bureaucratic system--remember John was a greenhorn and had no knowledge of the comp licated procedures of city life--then these people were helpmates.
I'll tell you. My father was in this country see. He had a notion to come back to Italy in 1926 and 1927. But he decided to get...to be an American citizen. Because he was here before, that was the second time he was here, see. He came here the first t ime in 1914. And he went back to Italy in 1919.
Well when he came here in 1923, the second time, he came here from France, not from Italy. He could never make it from Italy because Italy quota was always full. Unless you come from extra quota or you had some money under the table, you had some way t o get in here illegally or something, you could never make it to this country.
It happened he was in France, a little town in France, I forget the name. And there he found a way to get to this country on the French quota because he was in France for so long and he had a good record. He was there when he was a kid and he was there different times, you know. And he also could speak French, just like Italian. He used to say one time he could read and write French when he was a young kid. Fourteen years old he was in France. Anyway, from there the second time he came to the United St ates and he stopped in Export, Pennsylvania in the coal mines, see. He worked there in the coal mines until 1928. In 1928, they had a strike and at the same time Francis's cousin came from Italy and he stop in Export also at the same place where my father stayed. This, Francis's cousin, he was born in Export, that's why he could come back see. There was no job for him see. So my dad, he wrote to Detroit to Francis's father, my godfather, that this boy came to this country but there is no job there and if it is possible for him to get a job in Detroit. He would like for him to come down here, also for him see. So that's why he came to Detroit.
Now we gotta go back. My father applied for citizenship when he was a coal miner in Export, Pennsylvania. And then he came to Detroit. They sent him an order to go back and get his paper. So he had to leave Detroit and go to Pittsburgh and get his citi zenship paper. He came back to Detroit and he made paper right away for me. He made them down here at the Italian office, what the heck! What was the name! The ah..ah..the name of the Italian office..on Chene street there?
They used to teach Italian there. He went and they made paper there and this paper you can send for the relative and you promise to take care of them. And I got the paper in July. When I got these paper, right away, I went to these agents, you know, th at make for the boat. Ja, I went there. They tell you what to do. This guy from Servo, I had to go to Servo where the municipal office was, he couldn't read English you know. They really stupid. They act like they better than you are but they can't even r ead English. So this guy he take the paper to Fonzazo which was a bigger city than Servo. He come back and tell me to write to my father and get the citizen paper and with that I could get a citizen passport.
Well, I wrote to my father, he wrote back, he was kind of mad. "Those fools from Servo, they're dumb. They know." He wrote that to me. He wrote, "They know I'm not going to send my citizenship paper back to Italy."
So he had a friend. He was a lawyer. My father told me to see this lawyer, see, and he'd tell me what to do. But I was going to school in Fonzazo. I was going to drawing school. They teach you drawing with geometry. They teach you to be an architect. I was getting pretty good there. That is besides the point. Anyway I was down there for the test in July or August. I had to stay all day see. So there was a fellow, he had an osteria [bar]. I went over there and I had a little bit to eat, you know, and ge t a glass of wine, you know.
So good thing I did go there. I go there and I says to this man, well, this man asks, "Hey how's your dad?" Because he knew my dad, see.
He says, "Would you like to go over there?"
"Yeah," I says, "but they send me paper here. Nobody know what the hell to do."
"I know what you should do, " he says. This man he know what to do. He said, "You go see Minella." He is a paesan [fellow townsman]of ours.
Minella, at one time, he was the Mayor of Fonzazo until the fascists came. When the fascist regime came, he lost out. But he was also a surveyor. He used to go all over. He used to send people to this country. He could read and write English real good. Because he was in Pennsylvania and he took a correspondence course at Scranton. Scranton got a big school there.
This Minella he look at my paper and he say, "Your paper are good. You gonna go to America."
Jiminey Crackers, he made me fell like I was a millionaire. Because you know not very many Italians could come to America at that time.
"But I can't do much for you, you got to go to Servo. You go there and they got to make out your paper and they got to send for your passport. When you got the passport then you come to see me," he say. "Because I can do it for the people who are born in America, or Italian who got the citizenship paper. I can do it for them. But for you, the first time, that's a new law. They're supposed to give you a passport."
So I went to Servo and they made paper and I waited for one month and they send me back the money order. They told me I couldn't leave the country because I was almost the age to serve in the Army.
So I got down to Fonzazo to see Minella right away and told him about it. He said, "You go over there and tell them to send away just this paper." That was a paper in Italian, it was sent to me from the Consul General of Genoa. Minella said, "You get t hese paper, see. Two copy of this, two copy of that, four in all. Then you should be released and you come to see the Consul of Genoa."
So I went to Servo and I give this fool Servese hell. I was a young kid and I said to that dumbbell, I said to that dumbbell, "Why didn't you send these paper away." He only send out the paper this guy make out in Italian on Chene Street. That didn't m ean nothing. There was a small paper, it came from Washington that testified that my father was an American citizen. Under my father's citizenship paper I was entitled to come see. Plus I was entitled to come from this letter from the American Consul from Genoa. I said, "If you would have sent this away, this little paper, I would have my passport ready." "Well," he says, "You're the first one we send away like this." They send it away and a couple of weeks later I got my passport.
So I went to Fonzazo to see Minella and when I went to see him, he wasn't there. Mamma Mia, what is happening to me. I never get to America. I go to church in Villa and I pray and I make a vote to San Antonio, "Please get me away from these crazy peopl e so I can come to America." I promise him the first ten dollars I make in America.
So I go to Fonzazo, again Minella, he sign me up and then I have to wait for the order to come so I can leave. So I wait and wait. I go to church and pray to San Antonio. "Twenty dollars I give you. Twenty dollars if you get me out of there." Nothing h appens. So I send my mother down to Fonzazo one Sunday. I says, "Mother it's time for me to go because I'm supposed to get on the boat December 11." It was already the 8th. What was the matter? So it was on Sunday and my mother and her paesane went down t o Fonzazo and she went out to see Minella but Minella went to Belluno, see.
He wasn't home. He had a motorcycle, see. So the woman there she say to my mother and her friends to come back later. So my mother and her paesane, they come back to Faller and go to church and make a vote to Santa Filomena. You know we are very religi ous in Faller. We are devoted Catholics. They went back to the house in Fonzazo at 1:00, see, but still she wasn't there. This surveyor's wife, she ask my mother, "Where are you from?" My mother she told them. "You know," the woman said, "there is a man w ho is supposed to go to America and he's supposed to leave tonight in order to get to Genoa tomorrow and his name is Giovanni Moretto." My mother, she says "He's my son. That's why I came this morning early.' "Well I didn't know."
Well this man was there. He was from Feltre. Feltre is a bigger city, see. He said, "You better get a taxi and go get your son," he said to my mother, "and come right back because he gotta get on the train tonight." So my mother left her paesane and ca me to Faller in a taxi which was a rarity; there weren't many taxi at that time. When taxi come everybody gather round and see what happened. Then I find out I was supposed to leave see. I didn't have no suitcase made or no nothing. I put in this and that and then out. That's what happened.
Then I went to Genoa, Italy. There was two fellow waiting for me there. When the train pull in there was somebody waiting for me. They say, "Are you Giovanni Moretto?" I say, "Yeah." "Will you come with us." They look like two policeman but they were g uard from the place where I was supposed to see the American Counsul and be there early.
I got up early in the morning and I ran to the American Consulate because they make ten signatures a day to go to America. The place is at Piazza Verde, you know, that's where they got a monument of Christopher Columbus. I tried to get a taxi. They loo k at me because I was a young kid, a greenhorn from the village. I says, "How about getting me to the American Consulate?" They shout, "Go to hell. Go to sleep." They still have horses, you know, they have a big hat and try to hire one of them see. They w ouldn't take me. "Go back to the village, you hick," one of them laughed.
So I go into a church. I don't know what is going on. I pray to San Antonio. "Please get me to the Consul on time. I give you thirty dollars, the first thirty dollars I make." I run out of the church and I see a streetcar and I jump on because I gotta get some place. There was a policeman on this streetcar and he was going to work. I tell him, "I gotta go to the American Consul, I gotta go fast." "You stay on," he says, "and when I get off, you get off and I tell you where to go," he says. So he get of f and I get off and he tell me to go one block down to the right and turn left and I will see a big sign. It was 7:00 in the morning. Maybe the American Consul never get to the office at 9 or 10 o'clock.
When I get there the caretaker, he say, "You're too late." The American Consul has already signed ten signatures. I shouted, "How can that be? Nobody is waiting." Then he says, "Where are you from?" I says, "Faller in the commune di Servo." "Well" he s ays, "I'm from Aune." He came from the same place where I came, the same commune[district].
This caretaker, he says, "If you want to get through, give some money to that man standing by the American Consulate's door and give him your name and he will put you at the head of the list." So I call him aside and I says, "Say, I gotta catch that bo at tomorrow if you can get me on the list, I'll give you something." "Oh," he says, "I don't know if I can help you. What's your name?" "Giovanni Moretto." "You Bellunese?" "Ja." I knew he was from the same region because he spoke in dialect so I thought I had a good chance. "Well," he says, "I see what I do."
People began to fill up the room. They call one name. Wasn't my name. Call another one. Nothing. Third name, it was me. I get up and go in. I was so excited. I go in with my hat on. The man next to the Consul, he say, "Hey take your hat off." He say, " Take your hat off" in Italian. I say, "Gee, I'm sorry." Then the Consul, he sign the paper.
Well then there was one more stop. I had to go through the physical. They give you a physical before you go to America. One time you used to come to New York. This is what they call Ellis Island. If they find something wrong, they had to send those poo r immigrants back, see. This way when they leave home, if there is something wrong, they catch it right there instead of making them pay to come to America and sending them back.
There were three of us in the room. Me, a guy from Milano and a Lombardese from some village. Woman came in looked us over, then a man, he come in, we dropped our pants, and he looked at us.
This woman, she come back and we all line up. She start questioning us. She wanted to know if we were dumb. If you were dumb they wouldn't let you come to America.
She asked hard questions. She asked multiplication stuff. She asked the Milanese what day Christmas come. He didn't know see. She ask what Christmas mean? He didn't know anything else. He didn't know anything see.
She ask me, "What is 6 times 8?" I answer real fast. She asked the Lombardese, "What is 2 times 20?" He didn't know. He thought and he couldn't answer. She ask me real fast when Christmas come.
"What's the meaning of Christmas?"she ask.
"Birthday of Christ."
"O.K." she say, "You're good. Out. You get to go to America."
So I leave and I give the guy at the door 50 lire see. 50 lire in those days was a lot of money.
So I ran down the steps three and four at a time. I knew I was going to America but until that moment I wasn't sure. I was in doubt. Maybe I couldn't pass the physical.