Introduction to Delta Pieces: Northeast Louisiana Folklife
Map: Cultural Micro-Regions of the Delta, Northeast Louisiana
The Louisiana Delta: Land of Rivers
Working in the Delta
Homemaking in the Delta
Worshiping in the Delta
Making Music in the Delta
Playing in the Delta
Telling Stories in the Delta
Delta Archival Materials
Italians in the Delta: "Pioneers of Monroe"
By April Clark Honaker
Editor's Note: In Phase Two of the Delta Folklife Project, fieldworkers Stephanie Pierrotti and Madelyn Boudreaux interviewed descendants of Italian immigrants in the Louisiana Delta in the mid-1990s. Louisiana Regional Folklife Research Associate Kay Gandy continued this work in 2001 with second or third generation Italians who grew up in Monroe, including Tony and Marguerite Cascio, Anthony J. Bruscato, and Vincent Anzalone. Based mainly on Gandy's interviews, this essay presents stories from these families' oral history, handed down for generations. These stories reveal the folk community identity of Italians in Monroe, Louisiana—their history, politics, society, religion, and their folk traditions.
The Italians in Monroe, Louisiana, are a small, tight-knit group of successful, family-oriented people who have established deep roots in the Delta while maintaining a connection to each other and to their home country, despite pressures to become mainstream Americans. Even though Italians were the largest immigrant population of turn of the 19th century Louisiana, they have remained understudied. Surprisingly, the Italians once comprised the biggest immigrant population in Louisiana, totaling 20,233 in 1910 (Cordasco and Bucchioni 40). However, many Italian immigrants were quick to adapt and disappear in the melting pot of American life if doing so meant a chance at greater success. According to Joseph Logsdon, whose focus was Italians in south Louisiana, "[A]ssimilation had to come at the expense of Italian-American ethnicity. It was (and is) necessary to divest oneself of the outward signs of one's Italian-ness in order to climb the vaunted ladder of 'success' in the American social system" (26). Thus, at a glance, the Monroe Italians appear to be fully assimilated. Despite this fact, their inner Italian-ness remains very much intact. As a group, their origins and religion are similar to other Louisiana Italians, but they are pioneers whose own family stories and traditions truly bond them.
Most of Louisiana's first-generation Italians were farmers who came from poor regions in southern Italy and Sicily in the late 19th and early 20th century, and they were looking for success. Industrious and motivated, many of them were able to turn the meager wages they earned working sugarcane and other crops into enough money to strike out on their own (Becnel) or to return to their home country (Boudreaux). Frequently, Italians who came through the Port of New Orleans worked hard on local farms, saved enough to buy land, and settled around Independence in Tangipahoa Parish where they could profit from the booming strawberry industry (Becnel). However, others travelled further north, many on the railroad. A few settled near rivers in towns such as Waterproof, Vidalia, and Lake Providence (Gregory), but many were drawn to urban areas across the Mississippi and Louisiana Delta, such as Monroe.
By 1928, Monroe had a population of just over 27,000, and according to the Monroe-West Monroe Chamber of Commerce at the time, "'The eyes of the nation's investors [were] turned toward Dixie where . . . a prosperous empire [was] rising'" (qtd. in Harvey 28). Many Italians who had managed to accumulate enough money to invest found opportunities in Monroe, Louisiana. Once settled, they often established businesses, including bars, bakeries, grocery stores, restaurants, and fruit stands. According to Tony Cascio and Anthony Bruscato, descendants of immigrants in Monroe, many of the Italians there owned rental houses in addition to starting small businesses. Delta Italians also took advantage of educational opportunities to ensure that future generations were able to climb further in socioeconomic status (Wilson). According to Gregory, some Italian families in the Delta have since seen their offspring establish careers as doctors, lawyers, and scholars. Indeed, Tony and Marguerite Cascio confirm this trend. Tony Cascio said, "Most of the Italians here—they weren't well-educated. Most of them didn't go to college," and Marguerite Cascio continued, "They were just working people, [but] I would say the third generations were your lawyers and your doctors. We have quite a few of them now."
The dream of making a better life for themselves and their families drew many poor Sicilians to Louisiana. Anthony Bruscato, a third-generation immigrant and practicing lawyer in Monroe, has spent much time reflecting on what might have motivated these immigrants:
I think it was remarkable. I guess it was the time. It was occurring around the world—not only the Italians and predominantly the Sicilians, but people all over Europe—Eastern Europe, and Asia, and whatever—migrated to the United States. There was a lot of hardship, poverty, lack of opportunity, repressive governments, people looking for some room and for some opportunity to better themselves and provide a better opportunity to their children. That's what had to have drove them to what they did because the migration to the United States was worldwide.
According to Tony Cascio, a second-generation Italian who started several restaurants in Monroe, the promise of money was appealing as well: "My daddy came to this country to work, like all of the guys. That's what they all came for, to make money." Despite the Diaspora that happened as immigrants passed through the Port of New Orleans, Bruscato said news began to circulate through letters and care packages back and forth from Monroe to small towns in Sicily—Cefalu, Caccamo, Vicari, Salaparuta, and Corleone—that one could leave home and find family in Monroe. According to Marguerite Cascio, word of job opportunities also traveled back to Sicily: "The way I understood it, you had to have somebody more or less not sponsor you, but you had to know someone living here that would probably offer you a job. You almost had to have a job promised to be able to come in to the country."
Still the people drawn by the American dream and the promise of support were disproportionately poor. Even Bruscato could not imagine why a family of firm middle class standing would want to relocate, but for those with little prospects, the decision was easy:
If you're poverty-stricken, no job, no opportunity, can't find the funds to buy clothes or food for your family, and you make and do, and your diet is horrible, and you hear that there's a place over there, another place in the world—there's jobs, there's opportunity, you can achieve things you want to do in life, I guess the attraction would attract anybody. . . . I guess that's what happened.
Though many Italian immigrants came into Louisiana with nothing, they quickly got busy pursuing the American dream and often found the work easier if they joined forces with other Italians.
Once settled in Monroe, the Italians stuck together, building and supporting one another's businesses, creating "a little network" according to Bruscato. Along with businesses, they built homes and established Italian social clubs, such as the Columbus Social Club and the Progressive Men's Club. Bruscato believes it was his mother's uncle Antonio Messina who built the first Columbus Social Club at the corner of DeSiard and Sixth around 1906. His description of the Monroe club illustrates the importance of the site in maintaining Italian folk traditions such as rituals and music:
And every area where all of these immigrants, and particularly Sicilians, they all stuck to each other when they got where they were going. Here in Monroe, of course Christopher Columbus is a national hero of Italy, and most Italians wherever they populated in the United States would start a club called the Columbus Social Club. And we had one in Monroe, Louisiana. While on the rooftop [of the club]—if you talk to the old timers the immigrants—they would have their socials up there, they would have their weddings, their receptions, their birthdays or gatherings. My grandfather on my father's side played the accordion and he was part of the entertainment. Somebody else would play this instrument, so it was a close knit—where the Italians would get together and enjoy each other's fellowship and friendship. Most of them were members of that club.
According to Bruscato, these clubs, especially the Columbus Social Club, were a favorite site for weddings, receptions, birthdays, and other celebrations. They served as a point of connection for the Monroe Italians, as well as a place for them to celebrate their Italian-ness.
Both Bruscato and Tony Cascio also reported that the overall Italian presence in Monroe was much greater than most realize. They were involved in the community at every level. While small grocery stores were a common livelihood for Italians, Bruscato said, "Not all Italian immigrants opened grocery stores." Italians did many things to provide for their families. Vincent Anzalone, a second-generation Italian, said his family initially had barber shops. Then in 1940 he and his brother opened a hardware and furniture store: Star Hardware. Cascio said his father started "just about any type of business you can name: a grocery, a barbeque business, and we had a little dry cleaning plant. All this was on Oak Street . . . where we was born. He had a little Italian restaurant too. That's the way we all took off from there, you know." In addition to owning small businesses, Italians worked in city government, ran buses and trolleys, and practiced trades including carpentry, tile setting, general labor, and plumbing. Many passed on their trades to their children.
According to Cascio much of downtown Monroe was populated by the Italians up until Mayor Howard expropriated the land needed to build the Civic Center. Cascio said,
Where the fountain is [in front of the Civic Center] that was my daddy's property. In fact when they . . . cleared all that out, that was "Little Italy." From Seventh Street back to the railroad, where the Civic Center is, all that property was "Little Italy" . . . . Well, you can call it "Little Italy" because they had so many in there. . . . You know you had about 500 houses that they destroyed when they built the Civic Center.
Cascio was not sure what year the land was taken, but the Civic Center was built in 1965, and the changes did little to slow progress for the Italians, especially the Cascios. Cascio explained,
So when the city took our property, me and my brother-in-law had a little old bar on the end down there, so they bought it from us, and we just borrowed, we all, me and my brothers, borrowed money from the rest of the family. That's how we went into the restaurant business, and, of course, we had it all together. We had eight or ten restaurants in Monroe.
The Cascios, Tony and his wife Marguerite, talked at length about their success in the restaurant business. Many of the restaurants they owned or started changed names and locations over time. Tony and Marguerite Cascio opened their first restaurant in 1953, Tony's Redwood Lounge, which they say was located where ACME Glass is now on Louisville. In 1955, Tony partnered with his brother Joe David to build the Italian Village where the current Burger King is on Louisville, but before Tony Cascio and Joe David partnered, Joe David had his own place near Selman Field. According to Tony Cascio's story, this small restaurant started it all:
He [My daddy] had a little Italian restaurant too. That's the way we all took off from there, you know. My brother had a little Italian restaurant during the war. He was a bus driver, Joe David—my partner, he was a bus driver, and they had a little old restaurant on the way to Selman Field. That's when Selman Field had all the soldiers. And those guys was craving spaghetti and pizzas and all, and so he said, "Well, I'll get my wife to fix you some spaghetti," you know. Started off like that. So he rented a little building across from James' Machine Works. That was the main part of Monroe in that area at the time. And he'd get a busload of them and call his wife and she'd fix . . . three items: hot tamales, spaghetti and meatballs, and pizza. And I think we served the first commercial pizza in Monroe. That's how we got started.
Tony and Joe David Cascio also owned Cascio's Seafood Tavern on 18th Street where the Magnolia Bar is now, and Joe David also owned Duffy's, an Italian-Mexican restaurant where North Sixth Lounge is on North Sixth. Marguerite Cascio added, "We had another place called Les' Restaurant out behind the Tower Drive, where the overpass is that ends there." While these restaurants' menus included typical Southern food, their featured foods were Italian with heavy Sicilian influence.
However, their biggest most longstanding restaurant at the time was the Paragon Club, a private club the Cascios started in 1957 and owned until 1970. According to Tony and Marguerite Cascio, the Paragon was located at the corner of 19th and Auburn where Monroe Steakhouse is now. They had a large ballroom that could seat 500 and frequently booked big name bands. Marguerite Cascio mentioned Liberace, Harry James, Glen Miller, Guy Lombardo, and Bob Crosby. Tony Cascio said, "Back then it was 'the' place. . . . I had all the prominent people." In 1970, when Tony and Marguerite Cascio sold the Paragon, they joined the rest of the family at The Chateau, which was started in 1965 by one of the brothers. Marguerite Cascio explained, "Then it [The Chateau] was so wide-spread, and they needed more help, so we decided to close the Paragon and all of us concentrate at The Chateau." Following all the changes in restaurants and ownership is difficult. Even the Cascios struggled at times to remember and convey all the changes, but one thing is clear: the Cascios were very successful business people who helped build up the area around Louisville Street in Monroe. According to Marguerite Cascio, some of the roads they built on were not even paved at the time, and Tony Cascio reports not only his personal success, but how he had a hand in others' success as well, including a Mr. Kellogg, who developed much of 18th St. Apparently, Tony Cascio partnered with and advised other entrepreneurs in the area and started the first Holiday Inn in Monroe with his friend Arthur Grant. Tony Cascio aptly summarized, "So we are really pioneers of Monroe, my family."
However, the Cascios were not the only pioneers in Monroe. The hard-working, pioneering spirit appears to have been rampant among the Monroe Italians. For example, Vincent Anzalone recounts how he and his brother transitioned from selling firecrackers on the street to starting and growing Star Hardware, one of the few remaining independent stores of its kind in Monroe. He said, "The last year we sold [the firecrackers] we had about five stands. We saved up $800 back in the forties. Saved enough to buy a truck and go into the used furniture business, that's how we got started." Though it has evolved some to accommodate the times, Star Hardware is still running and has never lost a customer. In fact, Anzalone said, "The only way I've lost a customer, as a rule, they die."
Bruscato also recalls how his father who continued in the family grocery business came back from World War II "and moved to Louisville and Riverside streets where he converted a large building into a place to live and some commercial outlets." According to Bruscato, after a few years, his father became restless and wanted to try something else:
[H]e had this wanderlust attitude that the world was bigger than Monroe, L. He sold [our] house, and I remember him counting the money on the kitchen table, what he received in the proceeds of that sale, and he bought . . . a brand new Studebaker, a land cruiser, and he bought a late '30s truck, ton and a half truck. Loaded all the furniture and hired a driver and with the three boys and my mother and father, headed west. It took us three weeks to get to California because there were places along the way he might have wanted to stop and live, but he kept going. I guess if it wasn't for the Pacific Ocean we'd still be going west. Well, anyway we stayed out in California from my age eight till age sixteen in southern California and L.A. County and then came back to Monroe in 1956.
Though the Bruscato groceries no longer exist in Monroe, their legacy remains. Tony Cascio remembers them: "Yeah, Bruscato's folks had a place . . . right next door there [to Star Furniture] . . . they had a big grocery store with fresh seafood back then. Hell, that's before the war so we're going way back, and that's how we started in the restaurant business . . . fresh seafood. That was our secret." In many ways, it seems the Italians were a very connected group in Monroe, often telling stories about each other.
In fact, Bruscato told about the Varino family's grocery business and the impact it had on the community, especially smaller grocers. His story describes a process in which credit trickled down in the hardest times:
There was a family here in Monroe, their last name was Varino, and they were from a small town near Caccamo on the coast called Termini Imersi. And he still has relatives there. When he came over, Frank Varino and his wife, they had a large family. He was in the Wholesale Grocery business. It was located on Trenton Street, the old section of West Monroe. Well, all of his children worked in that wholesale grocery business, and they would be salesmen making rounds with these grocery stores that these Italians were running, and that was where they would get their credit to get in to business—to stay in business. All this transpired in the teens and the twenties and thirties, during the depression. So it was extremely important they got credit, these people who had these grocery stores.
The customers that would come into these grocery stores would also get credit. To a large measure most of them were African Americans where the businesses were located. And they would get credit. So it's interesting how the credit line was extended from the wholesaler down to the ultimate purchaser, particularly during hard times when people didn't have any money to buy food but they needed food and they found credit. So there was a great deal of affinity among grocery store operators and the people who traded with them, because they could always go down there and get something to eat. Every one of them had a little box with what is the credit balance that you owe.
Such stories suggest the loyalty the Italians had to one another and their concern for the wellbeing of the community as whole, not just for their personal advancement.
Bruscato told another powerful story of Italian unity, which may have led to triumph over the Mafia for the entire community. Though the Mafia was a problem for Italian business owners in other parts of the country, apparently the early generations in Monroe did not tolerate organized crime, as Bruscato's story illustrates:
I remember talking with my aunts and uncles and my grandparents. I'm assuming back in the teens and in the twenties Italian organized crime obviously extended into the areas where Italians had migrated in the United States because those in crime from Italy or part of the Mafia or whatever, always preyed on their own kind first, and extracted—extorted. Besides the word Mafia there was an organization called the "Black Hand," nero mano. It was an organized crime group. And I remember my grandparents, aunts, and uncles telling us, my mama too, that there were a few people that came out of Chicago that came to Monroe, and they were asking for some protection money against some of the Italians that had retail businesses, like grocery stores. "And if you don't, your plate glass may get broken or this, that, and the other. You need our protection, and it's going to cost you this." Of course, they realized what it was. It was straight extortion. The immigrants, a few of them got together, with Mr. Varino, who had the wholesale groceries. They all packed their pistols one night, and they went to visit these people that came from Chicago that were in Monroe to organize the "Black Hand." They told them at that meeting with guns drawn that they ought not to be in our town come sunrise. And that's the last they ever heard of them. So they shipped them on back to Chicago.
Though Italians of Sicilian descent have had to battle the stereotypical association of Sicily with the Mafia, according to Bruscato, "the image of the Mafia being located in Sicily is being diminished more and more because of efforts to root it out." As a lawyer, he believes that Monroe has remained free of this threat: "I've never—not only being raised here, but in the practice of law, and I'm not telling you that I'm all-knowing, nor am I naïve—I don't know of any organized crime or Mafia influence here in this community." His story reveals the Italian's concern with maintaining a wholesome community and their willingness to defend themselves, their property, and families with a true pioneer spirit.
While the drive to succeed and work together appears to be a common thread among Italian immigrants, they were often disliked and misunderstood by those outside their group. While their hard-working, dependable nature garnered praise, their thriftiness ultimately allowed them to leave the labor force, which disappointed their employers. On occasion, Italians even endured the same level of unbridled racism endured by African Americans in the Jim Crow south. While African Americans were the primary targets of lynching in the 1890s, the Italians were targeted as well. For example, in 1891 eleven Sicilians accused of murder were lynched in New Orleans after being found not-guilty, and in 1899 five Sicilian store-owners were lynched in Tallulah for treating African Americans and whites equally (Gambino 109). Boudreaux's research suggests that the mutual oppression experienced by African Americans and Italians led the Italians to develop a unique connection with African Americans in their communities. Tony Cascio corroborates this theory. As he tells it, Mayor W.L. Jack Howard of Monroe sought his help in negotiating with African American leaders of the Civil Rights movement, such as Rap Brown:
[Mayor Howard] said, "What do you think I ought to do?" and I said, "Well, go in and meet with some of the Black leaders here and talk to them, tell them, 'Well, these people was raised this way. They didn't know right from wrong . . . and just make peace with them and say we'll work with y'all.' Work with each other. It ain't going to be changed overnight." So that's what he said . . . . What did happen? Well, they made peace. They made peace, and we made a hero out of the mayor.
Tony Cascio also claimed that he would have served Rap Brown or anyone else at the Paragon, the Cascios' private club, as long as the person seeking service was accompanied by a club member. In addition, Tony Cascio told how he'd hired the "first Black lawyer in Monroe" to resolve a title issue involving some land he and his brother had owned, and after he told this story, Marguerite, his wife, said, "Tony's always had a good relationship with the Blacks, you know—all of them." In fact, Tony and his brother saw themselves as father figures to some of the African Americans who worked for them in the restaurant business. Tony Cascio explained how he and his brother encouraged them to go to college, how they helped many of them do so, and how he's even contributed to the campaigns of those who've run for office. When asked if he experienced any discrimination for being Italian, Tony Cascio said, "No. Nothing," and Marguerite followed with, "Well, he was born here," but Tony Cascio clearly had made efforts to connect with a variety of groups and even attended a Baptist church. His story appears to be unique.
According to Boudreaux, some Italians had serious problems with discrimination and many were justifiably reluctant to share their ethnicity with others: some feared being chastised, and some realized that shedding the obvious markers of their Italian-ness made it easier for them to succeed in America. Vincent Anzalone, owner of Star Hardware in Monroe, reported being a victim of discrimination and presented a very different picture from the one presented by the Cascios. He said, "I don't want to hear the Blacks. They'd better not ever talk to me about discrimination," and he complained particularly about the rejection he faced in Catholic school: "None of the American girls wanted to date an Italian." He also explained that most of the Italian-owned grocery stores were located in African American neighborhoods and that the Italians had no problem selling groceries to African Americans on credit. According to Anzalone, who delivered groceries as a kid, many whites looked down on Italians because of this relationship. Anzalone said, "[B]y in large, most of the Italians, a lot of them, changed their names from their regular given name for that reason—because of discrimination." Apparently, one particular store-owning Italian family he knew changed its name to Miller.
Anthony Bruscato spoke candidly about some of the same issues, indicating that he, too, felt like an outsider growing up:
Of course, when you're born and raised, initially you know of no difference between your classmate . . . until you become of age, and you begin to realize that there is some differences in people's backgrounds. And when you become aware of that, or other people make you aware of that, then you begin to notice there is some difference between yourself and others. Of course, I think first-generation and second-generation Italians probably notice it more than subsequent generations because all that begins to blend out. But you were always singled out if there was something different about you—not so much in a positive way, but in a negative way. I never could understand it as I was growing up. I guess that attitude and feeling stayed with me for a while because I never could understand why there should be a difference.
In trying to make sense of the alienation he felt, Bruscato, like Anzalone, recalled how he grew up and how the Italians were often inextricably tied to other minorities, apparently for economic reasons:
I guess [Italians were discriminated against] because maybe first generation immigrants lived in certain parts of town that was where most minorities lived. I guess that's where they found housing. And most of them had their businesses in areas that bordered on or in areas where minorities lived. And that was their livelihood, and that's where they raised their children. Although they went to so-called "white" schools, their backyard was not the same backyard as white students who they were going to school with.
Though Bruscato acknowledges that his own generation and his parents' generation experienced discrimination, he seems to hold no bitterness and believes many of the circumstances that led to that discrimination have improved: "[M]y children experienced [discrimination] very little if any. And all of that's kind of gone by the wayside. I think time has resolved a lot of those things."
For Bruscato, a trip back to Italy, which he took with the Cascios in 1980, helped to heal many of the wounds he developed growing up in an oppressive environment:
[N]ot that I had real . . . inferiority feelings at all, it was just that that was something you were raised . . . in. So I made the first trip to Italy, and it was almost like closing the circle, and coming back, it was not something you were looking for, but it was just a developing feeling, an attitude you had within yourself that you maybe were a foot or two taller than you were when you went over there. You saw where your roots were, and you saw your ancestry, and you visit the town where they came from, and then remarked about what an effort they had undertaken, and find generally warm relatives in Sicily who you meet for the first time, but after you're around with them, you almost feel like you've been around with them your whole life. . . . and once you were relatives, you were fully accepted, and you were a part of their life, and they were a part of your life.
Though Bruscato had never met these relatives, the connection he felt with them was quick and powerful. A shared ancestry and shared history made instant family of people who had otherwise been strangers. Though their worlds had shaped them differently, they recognized a sameness in one another.
Preserving their Italian-ness while climbing the ladder of success must have been difficult for the Delta Italians. Some seemed to cling to stories of other successful Italians in the U.S. They would use them as fuel for their own success. Anzalone said,
Whether you like him [former Mayor LaGuardia of New York] or dislike him, we're talking about immigrants, Italian immigrants who've made it in this country: Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra . . . there were a lot of them, you know, through history. They were all self-made, you know. They come up the hard way. I have no patience for people that say you can't make it in this country. They want it this way, on a silver platter. And it ain't that way. There's still a lot of opportunities in this country.
Likewise, Bruscato echoes Anzalone's belief in the power of successful Italian role models to help young Italians overcome hardship and maintain a sense of identity:
So it was kind of a feeling in growing up within your own environment, family and extended family. You always had good feelings and good vibes, and good comments about your ancestry and being Italian or Sicilian and listening to at times classical music or knowing or hearing about noteworthy people of Italian background who were noted in the different sciences. Even in sports, whether it was Joe DiMaggio or Rocky Marceano, they were always your heroes because they were Italians. And you picked that up from your parents who used them as role models . . . who have succeeded in America. And so I went through all of that. Almost at times you had to prove yourself, that you were a full measure as anybody else.
Bruscato and Anzalone both struggled to prove themselves and grappled with how that process affected their Italian-ness, but some Italians, like the Cascios, seem to have been more comfortable adapting to mainstream American culture. Cascio had even resisted his father's pleadings to learn Italian: "I'd say, 'Well, what the hell do I want to learn it for? I ain't never going to Italy.'" Later when he served as a paratrooper in World War II, Cascio accidently crashed near his father's hometown of Salaparuta, Italy, according to his war story:
When I was in the army, I was a paratrooper. And I got shot down by the American navy in Sicily about 50 miles from where my daddy was born. Of course, I lived through it. The plane was shot down. I did get, you know, they got me to jump in. All the paratroopers got out of that plane, but . . . the plane was wrecked anyway. After we got on the ground, we started every direction. . . . I didn't know until after we started getting settled down and started on a run. We was going around a big mountain, and they had a big sign up there "Salaparuta." And this . . . [Polish] buddy of mine, he started laughing. He says, "How you pronounce that name, Tony?" just ribbing me, you know.
I said, "Hell, that's where my daddy was born."
And he said, "How do you pronounce it?" And I told him, and he just died laughing, you know. And the truck went right on into town, and it couldn't get through because it's a big truck and narrow streets. So we stopped right in the middle of town. And some guy walked up and said, "Anybody here from Kansas City?"
The boy said, "No, here's one here from Monroe," and I told him to shut up. We couldn't fraternize at the time, you know. At that time we couldn't fraternize with the Italians. And my daddy never did forgive me for not going to see his folks. And I said, "Hell, I was in the war; I wasn't on no tour." . . . I [had] just kept going north, you see, going away from his home town. I never did get a chance [to visit them] though we did go back [to Italy in 1980].
Tony Cascio had not anticipated the change of heart that would lead him and Marguerite back to Italy in 1980. However, his earlier rejection of his family's native language, of his own Italian-ness, fell to the wayside as Cascio found himself reclaiming it and receiving it with newfound appreciation. Both Tony and Marguerite Cascio were awed by the welcome they received during their visit. Tony Cascio said, "[I]t's really unbelievable how much those people love you and had never seen you before," and Marguerite Cascio said, "They treated us like royalty." Still, Tony Cascio did not seem to regret never learning Italian; he only praised the 14-year-old girl who served as an interpreter for them during their stay with family.
Other Italian Americans like Tony Bruscato and Vincent Anzalone seem to have struggled more with the pressure to shed their ethnicity. Anzalone recalls how the girls in Catholic school refused to date Italians, as well as how families he knew changed their names to avoid discrimination. Though Anzalone clearly views these memories negatively, he also laughs when he tells how he finished school and conformed to the role expected of him: "[W]hen you graduated, you picked your career, and you went on stage. If you were going to be a nurse, you dressed as a nurse. . . . I got a pin striped suit with a gold chain, with a Stetson hat, a big cigar. I was going to be a business man, and I wound up being a business man." Like Tony Cascio and other Delta Italians, Anzalone inevitably gave up a part of himself to be successful. However, he did not give up everything and fondly recalls family Christmas traditions:
My older brother would get me, I was the younger one, and we'd go out in the woods, there where KNOE is now were woods, and cut down a holly tree, a pine tree for Christmas, and my mother . . . had these little candle holders. We didn't have Christmas lights. She didn't. And you'd clip them on the branches, and they had little candles on them, and you'd light them at night for about an hour. And we had the family traditions.
Anzalone was also adamant about the connectedness of his rather large family, suggesting that closeness is the most important thing that has been transferred to his children and their families:
Now to show you how you inherit something from your parents, we're close knit. I said I had nine children, and they scattered. My kid's best friends are one another. Even though one lives in Seattle or Houston, they call one another up. They take vacation trips together. They speak to one another once a week. They come down here for Christmas, Thanksgiving, what have you. We're just a close knit family.
At eighty years old, Anzalone seems content with his life and choices, especially with regard to his family:
[M]oney doesn't mean anything to me. If you've got your health, the old saying, you've got everything. Not that I'm filthy rich. I'm comfortable. But it's good to sit back and see the kids you're proud of, that you've raised these kids. That they are one another's best friends, and they think their mother and father is the salt of the earth.
Anzalone's praise of his immediate family suggests that family provided stability for him as he struggled to reconcile his Italian-ness with mainstream American life. Bruscato, too, relates a tradition that strengthened bonds in his family: the Catholic tradition of meatless Fridays. This tradition regularly brought his family together for meals inside his grandparents' grocery store:
I think initially the Messina brothers came over here in the later part of the 1900s, maybe 1898, 1899. But anyway they returned around 1904 or 1905, and my mother was the first born. After that, they had a total of eleven children. They operated a grocery store on DeSiard Street for the longest. They raised their entire family in small quarters there above the store. I remember as a kid going down there. He would bring fish from the Gulf and have it in ice. In the back of the store, the fish was kept in ice and there were oysters and everything. Until freezers came about and started this whole frozen food industry, up until the end of World War II, all of it was iced down. I remember being Catholic, Friday was a meatless day. You could always be at their house, and they had a huge round table that always had somebody sitting down eating. Even coming up on Fridays there was an awful lot of fish, oysters, shrimp, you name it. It was always an abundance there.
Grocery stores were a prominent part of Italian life, and many families started them because they could live there and always have something to eat. Within these stores, traditions related to food, work, and religion overlapped.
Another tradition that affected Italian families in Monroe is the matching of marriages. Bruscato, whose parents were matched, recalls how prevalent the tradition was for earlier generations:
All of the immigrants' kids, most of them, their marriages were matched. I'd say over half of the marriages were matched. My parents' marriage was matched by their parents who decided they'd make a nice couple. That's the old tradition. I found out in Sicily, the old tradition is there is no dating.
Bruscato suggests that even though marriages are rarely matched today, remnants of this tradition linger. He says, "It's still closely guarded on how people will wind up being married one day, the parents having a major input in that decision."
Generally, the Monroe Italians express pride in the closeness of their immediate families and their traditions, but they view connections with Italians outside their immediate families differently. Unlike Bruscato and the Cascios, Anzalone feels the sense of Italian community began to deteriorate somewhat after the war and was replaced by nationalism:
After World War II—I went to World War II, my brother did too—you come back. Everybody wanted to join the American Legion, the M-Vet, the VFW, the Knights of Columbus. You know all those clubs now. We've grown up now, raised our families. . . . I think wars bring people together like that. When you come home they want to belong, to be part of something, society.
From Anzalone's point of view, people returning from the War wanted to feel a part of something bigger.
Bruscato suggests simply being Italian remained that something bigger for many Italians. For Bruscato, the meaning of family runs much deeper in the Italian community than appearances might suggest. For example, the Italian families' marriages gave them an extensive network of cousins and other relations which Bruscato reports were denoted by Italian terms:
[O]f course, every time you had an aunt or uncle, family aunt and uncle, they married, so their other side becomes somewhat relatives of yours in the circle of people who would refer to each other as "cushina." You'll hear that phrase every now and then, "Hey, cushina." That means "Hey, cousin," if you have some kind of relation, or if you're close, among the original immigrants. If you're from the same town you're a "paezano" from the same piazza. Paezano. So our adaptation of that is that if you're a blood relative or close you're a cushina. You don't hear it too much anymore, but . . . some people still use that phrase cushina . . . . So, the Cascios for example that own and operate restaurants here in town, Tony Cascio and his brother Joe David Cascio and their brother-in-law Jack Fontana, they're not blood, but they almost are because I was raised around them, and they're dear friends. And Joe David Cascio who's at the Chateau Restaurant . . . I probably had more meals with him at lunch time than I've had with my mother growing up. We would sit and chat all day long. Tony Cascio is a very dear friend. He made that first trip with us to Sicily, he and his wife Marguerite. The Fontana's, the Cascio's, other people from Caccamo here in town—the Romano's, the Sampagnaro's, Varino's, Marsala's. None of them are relatives except on the Varino side. Frank Varino's son married my father's sister, Ann Varino, and she's still living today. Militala's—let's see—there are some families nearby Monroe. For example, in Tallulah there's a family by the name of Scuria. They're from Cefalu, and they are distantly related on my mother's side. There are some relatives in Shreveport—Cush, Elardos—that are related on my mother's side. So between Monroe and Shreveport—has a large Italian population. Tallulah has some. Isn't it interesting that they're all kind of inter-related and having either some ties back to a particular town or anyway related? And they all visited with each other.
It seems Bruscato considers the Cascios, as well as several other Italian families in Monroe, to be family or "cushina." While the word itself is fading out of use, for Bruscato at least, there is an understood connection between the families of Italian immigrants, as well as a connection to their home country, one many still signify by marking the graves of their relatives in the traditional way. Bruscato describes how the cemeteries cement the ties to families and the old country and reflect memorial traditions in Sicily of using family photographs on the gravestones:
The trip you took down to the cemetery in looking at all the names and looking at the location where the immigrants were born—a scattering of towns in Sicily. Some of the tombstones had pictures. If you go to Sicily, every mausoleum—most of them—are buried above the ground. And they're stacked. But every one of them will have a picture of who's buried inside that vault, and they are the same type of pictures that you saw in some of the tombs down there at our cemetery. That cemetery of ours on Washington Street is about full. A lot of Italians now, or people with Italian backgrounds, are being buried at Mulhearn's Memorial Cemetery on Highway 80 going out of town. There's just no additional space down there. I made sure I bought enough plots for my immediate family. At least I'll be in the same area of mother earth as the immigrants. I always looked at that cemetery as being an extension of Sicily because of all the ones that are buried there. There's an uncle down there, Buttitia. There's some relatives with the last name, Scalia. Or if you want to pronounce it like the Supreme Court Justice, Scalia, same spelling. Cordello's, Ricardo's, Costanza's, anyway it's a nice bit of history in a small locale like Monroe, Louisiana, that's unique. It's special because I'm part of it.
As in most families, family ties to past generations and their traditions are preserved also through family photographs. For example, the Cascio family treasures its family photos of St. Joseph's Day altars, which were a major religious celebration. Marguerite Cascio explains the holiday:
The Italians, the patron saint of the Italians, most of them are Catholic—the patron saint is Saint Joseph. And on March 19 is St. Joseph's Day, and they always made an altar. And what this is supposed to do is feed the poor with it. Okay, they make all kinds of different breads. This was really an art to cut these breads and things and design them. They make all these cookies; they do all of this stuff. It takes them a couple of months to do all of this. Now that had to be in the early 1900s, that picture, because the altars were so much different.
Tony Cascio describes a photograph of the large altars made by his grandparents:
This was taken in his grocery store. That's my granddaddy there, and my grandmother. This was taken in his grocery store. He just took the whole store and made this altar. So it was something big. Back when we was young, we used to have maybe 200 of them in Monroe. It was a big deal you know, just like St. Patrick's Day. They'd all go around to these altars.
He laments that the current altars in Monroe are not plentiful, nor as large; yet the tradition does persist. (See St. Joseph's Day Altar Tradition in Monroe). Bruscato also admires the tradition and explains how Monroe families used to hold altars:
Certain families would take their living room and put chairs and boards and tablecloths in staircases up like an altar and place food. Anyone and everyone, mostly Italians, are invited. So you would go from one house to the next, to the next to help them celebrate St. Joseph's Day, and sit down and eat or get a bag of cookies. That tradition, when I was coming up, there had to be four or five altars. I think the last family that had an altar was probably five or ten years ago [1991-1996]. The Costanza family always had one. Now St. Joseph's church on the south end of town, the Catholic church, will have an altar. So it's really a thing which has died off., . . . you seldom see it much anymore. Most of the time it's going to be associated with a church where a predominate number of people are of Italian background. That's a wonderful tradition, another opportunity for people to come together and gather and visit and get out of their ordinary routines of what they're doing.
Bruscato also fondly recalls the baking of all the delicious cookies for the altar and other special occasions:
Interestingly enough, at these altars would be an assortment of Italian cookies-pastries that are made. I remember my mother and her mother and all of her family in preparation for St. Joseph's altar would have a barrel of flour, and they would cook for three or four days making all these pastries. They were very rich in butter and whatever. They would take these metal containers, gallon or two gallon containers with a lid, and they would put paper and store the cookies there. And they would keep them in the house. Of course, being the first grand kids, they would always hide them from us because we'd always be looking for them. Because when they'd have visitors, you'd always bring out a plate of Italian cookies to serve with your coffee. And it doesn't matter whether they were a month old or four months old, they tasted as fresh.
In addition to baking cookies for St. Joseph's Day and other celebrations, many Italians continue to observe All Soul's Day by visiting the Catholic cemetery on Washington Street. Bruscato relates the ritual associated with All Souls' Day, another family-based tradition in both Sicily and in Monroe:
All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day, in November, tradition in Sicily and Italy is that the local priest will go to the cemetery on All Soul's Day with an entourage of altar boys and dressed in the garments for the occasion, the same type of garments you would find a priest wearing in church during mass. Sometimes they will say a mass there at the cemetery or they will say the rosary. Then after that, everybody would scatter to the grave site of their relatives, and the priest would walk throughout the entire cemetery. Using the holy water, would sprinkle holy water everywhere he would walk—on the people that were there and on the graves. So it's a blessing of the graves.
He explains that his own family celebrates a similar tradition in Monroe that keeps the family connections strong:
There's another old tradition too besides that being done annually. My mother did it and still does it. They don't do it as frequently, but they still do it maybe weekly or bi-weekly. They'll take flowers and put it on their mama's grave or their daddy's grave. And they'll talk among themselves sometimes, you know I went down there and had to clean some flowers, I brought some flowers. They're always doing something like that. So there's this close tie with their ancestors. Again if you go there on All Soul's Day—I remember as a kid coming up—that cemetery would be crowded. Now you go out there, there are still a pretty good number that show up, but it's not as large as it has been. That tradition is going by the wayside. I think it's good that part of your background and your experience and your culture is to maintain contact with your ancestors by honoring them, being present, and revisiting them, and renewing contact with who they were and why they're there and why you're here. So it's part of the Italian and Sicilian custom of touching and feeling and staying in touch not only with your children but also your parents and your grandparents.
Though many of the Italians' original businesses and some of their customs and traditions have been lost or diluted through adaptation to American life, many have been preserved. Surviving Italian restaurants in Monroe rival their counterparts in bigger cities (Gregory), and St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Monroe continues the weeklong food preparations for St. Joseph's Day Altar Tradition in Monroe (Pierrotti, "Cooking"), and many families also continue to display rosaries in their kitchens and pay tribute to saints in their gardens (Gregory). These simple gestures exemplify the importance and frequent intersection of foodways, work, and religion for these families. The interviews reveal not only their pioneering spirit and the sustenance that food and religion provide them but also their genuine connectedness. While Tony and Marguerite Cascio, Anthony J. Bruscato, John Marion Varino, and Vincent Anzalone, proudly espoused the value of hard work, education, and ambition, they also tempered that spirit with a fondness for tradition and a loyalty to family and to other Italians. They pioneered a place for themselves and their families in Monroe, but they refuse to forget their Italian ancestry, as Bruscato illustrates: "I think it's good that you get some feel for where you're going by realizing where you come from. So we're not all islands in the ocean or blades of grass in the desert, but there is a connection. And I think it's good to pass it on to your children, too—that there is a connection."
Anzalone, Vincent. Interview by Kay Gandy and Darrell Kruger. 13 September 2001.
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Boudreaux, Madelyn. "Italian-Americans in the U.S. & Louisiana—A Brief History." Unpublished Field Article. Louisiana Regional Folklife Archive. Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, 1994. Print.
Bruscato, Anthony. Interview by Kay Gandy. 4 October 2001.
Cascio, Marguerite and Tony. Interview by Kay Gandy and Darrell Kruger. 17 September 2001.
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Gregory, H.F "Pete." "Italians: An Urban Minority in the Delta," Unpublished Field Article. Louisiana Regional Folklife Archive. Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, 1994. Print.
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Pierrotti, Stephanie. "Cooking with the St. Joseph's Altar Society." Unpublished Field Article. Louisiana Regional Folklife Archive. Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, 19940. Print.
_____. "Sausage Maker M. J. Varino Marion John Varino." Louisiana Folklife Program. Louisiana's Living Traditions: Virtual Books. Web. 12 October 2012. [Link: http://www.louisianafolklife.org/LT/
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