I Made the Journey and Found My Roots

Oct 05, 2022 1104

BY: Richard Leto

Growing up and even more so later in life I often reflected on what exactly did it mean to be a third generation Italian American. I knew that meant I was a descendant from family that was from Italy. Through my early genealogy research, I was able to document and layout my family roots back to Italy. In doing so there was some sense of closure of knowing where my Italian family roots lied in Italy.

My paternal grandparents from Calabria (Santa Caterina dello Ionio) and my maternal grandparents from Puglia (Comune di Biccari) all settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and were part of the Great Arrival.  However, for so many years I always wondered if I would ever be able to make the journey to visit the birthplace of my Italian immigrant grandparents.

I like so many others grew up in what can be described as a typical Italian American household. I am the proud grandson of Italian immigrants, both paternal and maternal. I was born and raised in the Little Italy enclave of South Philadelphia by loving second generation Italian American parents. 

So many fellow descendants of Italian ancestry have made such a journey back to Italy where the famiglia roots lie. Their personal stories are well recorded in so many journals, books, magazines, and other publications that we often read about. Too many times I asked myself, would I ever be able to make the journey to visit the birthplace of my Italian immigrant grandparents. Well, this past August I returned to…the land, the birthplace, the village of my maternal grandparents Aniello and Elisa (Basile) Lucera. As the saying goes, “the trip of a lifetime”.  I and my cousin Erick Lucera visited Comune di Biccari in the Province of Foggia, region of Puglia. My cousin had been there many times before and had connected with distant relatives. The village paesani and our relatives greeted us with open arms, they knew our collective family history. There was Gennaro, Guiseppe, Lucia, Michele, and Marcello who all carry the Lucera surname of my grandfather Aniello.

This was my first overseas flight.  We landed in Naples and toured the old city section and walked to the port of Naples and where I could only imagine what it was like for our ancestors boarding the steamships here in the Mediterranean Sea. Thereafter it was a short drive from Naples to Biccari. Once in the village, we met with many of our relatives who treated us like royalty. Walking around the village was like a magical journey for me, thinking that I could be walking on the same ground as my grandparents. I was truly filled with much joy and emotion that I had returned to the place where my family began.

One highlight for me was to see the house where my grandfather lived. The surrounding area of Biccari is filled with fields of grain, olive groves, and sunflowers.

During August, the patron saint of the village is celebrated, San Donato.  I and my cousin attended the mass and procession of San Donato; what a beautiful and historic event. Nightly we would enjoy sitting in the piazza and people watch. Most other days we made a trek across almost the whole coastal region of Puglia, bordering the Adriatic Sea. We stopped and toured the cities of Lucera, Troia, Roseto Valforte, Molfetta, Barletta, Polignano A Mare, Ostuni, and Lecce.

An important aspect of our trip was a book presentation regarding a book my cousin co-authored with our relatives Gennaro and Guiseppe Lucera. The book is about Italian history/mass immigration from Biccari to Philadelphia. The book (bilingual) is a fascinating story of how hundreds of paesani from Biccari settled in Philadelphia to include my maternal grandparents. It’s a true story of what we often refer to as the paese; coming from the same village. Just as in other American Italian enclaves, a large population from Biccari settled in Philadelphia and established a; “New Biccari” the title of the book. The Sindaco (mayor) of Biccari; Gianfilippo Mignogna hosted the book presentation within the Piazza del Municipio of Biccari.

On our last day we returned to Naples and toured the ruins of Pompeii. Our trip was coming to an end, the return flight back to the states was soon upon us. On the flight back, I continually reflected on what had just transpired during the past few days in Italy. Finally, I did it, I made the journey and found my roots.

So proud of our shared heritage and culture that defines many of us as being direct descendants of those Italian immigrants who sacrificed everything for us to have a better life. The story of my Italian immigrant grandparents Aniello and Elisa (Basile) Lucera and like so many others, lives on in the many generations here in America and Italy. 

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