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My Families History

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For this interview I interviewed my great grand uncle Nicholas Joseph Degrazio. He is the brother of my deceased Great Grandfather Vincent on my mother’s side. Even though he now lives in a nursing home, he is extremely smart and has a great mind. Uncle Nicholas emigrated from Naples, Italy, in April of 1920 with his brother Vincent and his father Pasqual. He came over when he was 7 years old, via a steam ship that left Italy for a 12 day cruise, eventually arriving into New York City. Nicholas was 7 years old and Vincenzo was 10. As my Great Grand Uncle recalled, the trip was both exciting and frightening for a 7 year old. “My father would tell my brother and me many stories prior to out sail to the great country, Ameriga, where food was plentiful, and people could work. This was the reason that left, our quest for opportunity and a better life. We would be able to find happiness and start a new life in a country where if you worked hard you could succeed to make a better life.”

Packing for the trip was simple at best; we had few possessions and little clothing, pants, shirts, sweaters, and a hearty pair of work boots. Food was a larger problem as we had to pack for the 12 days at sea and exist on sandwiches, of dried meats, dried cheese, breads, and whatever liquid we were able to purchase on board. We also had dried figs. Twelve days seemed like weeks after the initial excitement wore off. Most of us hunkered down in sections with some cots to make our encampment. We were thankful to have a blanket each and a few cots for the journey. Friends from our town were also making the trip, so we had some kids our age to play simple games of hide and seek with.

Two days into the journey, hide and seek was stopped because we hit a major storm in the mid Atlantic. Our ship pitched, and rolled and was forced to stay below deck and in our sections so as that we would not be swept out to sea. It was the worst two days of my young life. I was never more frightened. After the storm, most of the days ran together. The days were spent, napping, eating, playing with the other kids and staying very close to our father fearful of another storm. The excitement grew when we were told 10 days out that we were within a day’s sale of the United States and that we would be docked at Ellis Island in the Port of New York where we would begin our immigration process. On the 11th day, it was a day I’ll never forget. We slowed, and saw the magnificent skyline of New York. Seeing the great lady, The Statue of Liberty, standing on the island in the Hudson Bay… it is a sight I will carry with me for the rest of my days. We might not have arrived in heaven, but it was the closest thing that I could’ve ever imagined. Each compartment of people disembarked to be greeted by officials who instructed us to follow them through a process which included step one, a hot shower, head lice inspection, clean clothing that we had to make fit. Also we got socks. It was an effort to make sure no one brought bugs into the country. After all this they finally feed us. It was very different than what we were used to, but still good. They served us hot soup, bread, and jelly. To this day I still have a fondness for bread and grape jelly.

The next two days were difficult because of the language barrier. Fortunately, our father had learned a few words in English and we were able to answer most of the questions asked of us. Our sir name was DeGrazio and was not mangled in the process, but many of our friends got slightly different names. The three of us were also luck to have remained healthy on the ship, as all the people who had coughs were quarantined as the United Stated didn’t want to bring in illness. After a two day process the most difficult part started. We had to find our Uncle Angelo who had to meet us in New York to vouch for us, by saying that we had a place to stay, and address, and a job ready for us in Chicago. Uncle Angelo was at the dock, he greeted us, and we took a New York taxi to Catholic Charities where we spent one night before our train trip to Chicago. It was a 22 hour adventure. We were excited and we knew that we were going to live in a place with others from Italy. Chicago was known as the city of Big Shoulders and multiple ethnic neighborhoods. The church was kind, but we had a hard road ahead. Uncle Angelo was a shoe maker and my father became a shoemaker’s helper, and we started as shoe polishers.

The most important thing for us was school. We had to learn the language, and learn about America to become part of the great American dream. Within one year, both, my brother, father and I had a good grasp of English even though it was broken as far as my father was concerned. When we reached high school, we were fluent, and had become Americanized. It was then that we started our journeys to raising our own families. We had moved to a neighborhood where everyone spoke our language, and were fortunate to have Uncle Angelo for a place to stay. The sights and sounds were very similar to being in Italy. Moving to America was difficult, but it was the greatest thing that my father could have done for my brother and I.


Post-Interview Reflection

After speaking with my Great Grand Uncle, I was amazed. The interview process was long but interesting enough that it held my attention. The most difficult part of the interview was I had so much information to absorb all at once. I’d never taken the time to really learn about how he and his family had gotten to America. The amazing part to me was how much my Great Grand Uncle really wanted to become an American. I couldn’t believe it when several time during our conversation, he became emotional. Becoming an American, even after all these years brought him to tears. It took time and effort and desire to get here, and the people that came suffered but prevailed. After the interview, I found myself wanting to know more. I ended up learning that the brothers that landed here as seven and ten year old non-English speaking kids, turned out to be a Pharmacist and an Illinois State Representative. I also learned that many of my Italian relatives served in the US Armed Services. America truly is the land of opportunity, and a land that my ancestors were more than proud to become a part of. In closing, I feel happy and proud of the accomplishments that my family has made in their journey to become Americans. Also if I had the chance to redo the interview I would have brought a camera to take a picture of my great Uncle and me.





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