Maddalena Simonutti was born in 1904 in a small Italian town near Spilimbergo. When she was only four years old her mother, at age 29, died while giving birth to her fourth child, who also died at the same time. Ten years later World War I began, and near the end of the war, Maddalena’s two brothers, Constantine and Ugo, were killed with some other boys while playing near a bomb that detonated. They were only 15 and 12 years old at the time. Maddalena’s neighbor, Pietro Tonelli, a boy a few years older than Maddalena, was moved with emotion when he saw her crying at their funeral and he vowed to himself to marry her someday when they were older. Maddalena’s father, grief-stricken at the terrible losses began to drink heavily. He later married another woman, who made life miserable for Maddalena.
At age 17, Maddalena moved to Milan to work as a governess in a home. Her employers loved her and treated her like a daughter. They took Maddalena on vacations with them and included her when they went to the opera, which she loved. The kids she raised adored her as well.
Meanwhile, Pietro had moved around Europe looking for work after the war. He lived in France for a few years working as a carpenter near Paris. Then he moved to Turkey, but only stayed a few weeks due to the extreme heat. In 1927 he sailed to America, in search of opportunity. He joined the masses entering the United States through Ellis Island, where he was processed and allowed entry.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
-From New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus, on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty
Pietro found work in construction in New Rochelle, New York, and wrote to Maddalena asking her to marry him. Her employers made Maddalena turn over all of her letters from Pietro so that they could determine if this young man was good enough Maddalena. They approved, made a trousseau for her, and sent her to America in 1930 on a tourist visa, officially to visit her uncle Daniel in New Jersey. Once in America, she travelled to Canada to visit more relatives, and was able re-enter the United States as a Canadian in order to gain citizenship (because there were no more visas that year for Italians) and marry Pietro Tonelli, just two months after entering the country.
It is unclear how Pietro became a US citizen. Family legend has it that he was here illegally for a time, and when asked, Pietro would laugh and claim to have jumped ship. According to his good friend and extended family member, “Uncle Alfred,” Pietro may have gone to Cuba before Maddalena arrived to re-enter legally and gain citizenship.
Peter (Pietro) and Madeline (Maddalena) Tonelli spent the first years of their marriage in an Italian community in New Rochelle, NY. Peter worked construction, building houses. There they had two daughters, Loretta and Marisa Enes, whose first language was the Italian their parents lovingly spoke to them. Uncle Alfred lived with them almost the entire time they lived in NY.
When the girls were still young, their parents moved the family to Washington, DC, where Peter started his own construction company as an entrepreneur. He built the house they lived in on Franklin Street, and Madeline managed their home and the boarders to whom they rented a room.
Loretta, also known as Nonie by her grandchildren, is my mother-in-law. She lived her entire life in the United States, married Robert Dahlstedt, and they raised three children, Maureen, Stephen (my husband), and Eileen. Loretta shared many letters with me last weekend from her Uncle Alfred containing bits and pieces of her family tree: years, names, stories. After the deaths of Madeline and Peter, Loretta had asked Uncle Alfred to fill in the blanks of her family tree for her. She would mail him letters in English, he would translate them to Italian and forward them to her relatives in Italy. They would reply to Alfred, who would translate them back to English and send them to Loretta.
Last February, Stephen and I took the boys to New York for my birthday weekend. The first item on our agenda was to visit Ellis Island, to see where his grandparents entered America. We found their names on the wall and sent photos to Loretta. Here are some photos from that trip:
As Loretta shared her letters and memorabilia from her past, I asked her if she ever faced discrimination in the United States as the daughter of Italian immigrants. “Oh, yes,” she replied. “Other children were not allowed to play with my sister and me because we were ”the enemy” during WWII.” She went on to explain how she has always empathized with other groups because of how she felt as a child, and she was quick to tell me that there were also plenty of good, accepting people who made up for the discrimination she experienced.
Fear and misunderstanding of immigrants is nothing new in our country; many different groups were singled out in the past: Irish, Italian, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, African-Americans, and Latinos, to name a few. But our country was built by immigrants. Unless you’re of Native American descent, or your ancestors were forced here as slaves, you came from an immigrant. To put it into perspective, there are over 51 million records of immigrants in the Ellis Island archives. That is more people than the combined populations of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia today.
I never met Peter or Madeline, and Stephen was still a child when they passed away. They, as many still do, immigrated to the United States in order to find work and better opportunity than they had in their country of origin. They worked hard, building family, community, and a great country, which they passed on to their own children.
Though I didn’t know Peter and Madeline, I can say that their daughters, Loretta and Marisa Enes (Inez) have been a blessing to me. In fact my life has been enriched and blessed by many of the immigrants, people with dual citizenships, and expatriates that I’ve known through the years. They make us better by bringing different perspectives. Many bring special expertise to us. They bring their cultures, and yes, their food. They show us that America is not alone in the world; there is much to be seen, known, and experienced beyond our borders. They are our cousins. They are our ancestors. They are us.
*Photo of the ship Guiseppe Verde from www.libertyellisfoundation.org. It was the ship that brought Pietro to America.