Editor’s Note: As Americans prepare to come together next week to observe a holiday that celebrates the immigrant experience, here is a look at three families that made the journey to this country in search of a new life. Nicola and Maria Rossetti were writer Diane Tarantini’s grandparents-in-law. Her sources for their story were family records and interviews. Nghi-Anh Street-Tran and her mother, Tam, are friends of Tarantini. The Hus are the in-laws of Tarantini’s daughter, who is married to their son, Christopher.
In search of a better life
In 1908, at the age of 16, Nicola Rossetti — 5 feet, 4 inches tall with black hair and dark eyes, according to his passport — left his village of Lettopalena in Italy to sail to America in search of a better life.
According to mtholyoke.edu, the idea of immigrating to America was attractive to Italians because of the higher wages American workers received for their labor. In Italy, agricultural workers earned $2 for a six-day work week. A carpenter might earn $9 in the same span of time. In America, though, a carpenter working a 56-hour week could earn as much as $18.
Nicola settled first in Pennsylvania, but later relocated to Masontown, in Preston County, to work as a coal miner. When World War I began, Nicola enlisted at age 25 to fight with the Americans. Because he could not speak English well, he was pressed into service as a courier. Nicola later told friends and family that during the war, more than once, he had to bury himself beneath the bodies of dead soldiers in order to survive.
After the war, Nicola did not return to America. Instead he headed to Italy, back to the village of Lettopalena. There, he hoped to propose to Maria DiClaudio, a sturdy girl with brunette hair and blue-green eyes.
For years Nicola had been infatuated with Maria. Each time their paths crossed in their small village, he proclaimed, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry!” Because Nicola was much older, Maria always answered, “No, not me.”
Upon his return to Lettopalena, Nicola made his way to where the DiClaudio family lived, and there he found Maria. Up a tree, picking olives, in a dress. This time when he declared his desire to marry her, Maria did not refuse.
Not long after the wedding, Nicola returned to West Virginia in order to work. He began saving money for two tickets to America: one ticket for Maria, and one for the baby daughter he’d never met, Annie. The next year, it took Maria and Annie nine days to sail to America on a ship called The DeVilla.
Many people from Lettopalena settled together in Masontown. The Rossettis, along with other Italian families, lived together on a street nicknamed “Monkey Row.”
The company houses had two stories: two bedrooms upstairs and two rooms downstairs. In the main room on the first floor, one bare light bulb hung from the ceiling. There were no indoor bathrooms in the company houses.
Since the Rossetti house did not have running water, Nicola procured a wagon and filled it with large tin cans so his family could collect water from the nearby spring for drinking and cooking.
In 1927, Elizabetta was born. In 1928, Jimmy was born. Maria delivered all of her children in the company house. Angel, a kind woman in the coal camp, helped the miners’ wives deliver their babies. Having been pregnant herself 20 times, she was welcomed at every birth.
When it was bath time, Maria washed the children in a galvanized tub filled with rain water she collected. Youngest to oldest, she bathed the children with Octagon soap, the same soap she used for laundering clothes. After the children were washed, Marie would bathe in the water.
As soon as the miners were paid by the company store, they gave their salary back to the store in exchange for essentials — canned goods, coffee, flour, sugar, shoes, boots, tools — not to mention rent.
In 1930, Josephine was born. Sundina arrived in 1932. The next child was Teresa.
To support his large family, Nicola worked hard in the mines. Every day he woke up at 4 a.m. to go to work. He worked all day then came home in time for supper. Sometimes he was so black with coal dust, all you could see were his eyes. Some of the mines Nicola worked in were only 4 feet high. In others, the miners had to crawl on their bellies inside the tunnels. Nicola was never in a serious mining accident, but in time he developed black lung.
The Rossetti family lived off the land. Each summer they planted a huge garden with everyone in the family helping care for the plot. The children picked berries and hazelnuts in the woods.
The family kept a pig and chickens, and they had a goat for milk. Some people said the Rossetti children had curly hair because they drank goat milk. Nicola and Maria made their own sausage too — regular sausage and liver sausage. Toward the end of each summer, Maria canned tomatoes and peppers.
Maria baked her own bread in a coal oven. The children picked up loose coal on the railroad tracks to burn in the oven. Otherwise, you had to pay to have the coal bin under your porch filled.
Breakfast for the Rossetti family was often toast and Italian eggnog made from milk, eggs and coffee. Lunch would be sandwiches made with scrambled eggs, hot peppers and cheese or salami and cheese.
For supper there would be pasta with tomato sauce, sausage or pork, and sometimes — if they were lucky — chicken feet. The family also ate tripe, which is cow’s belly. It was all wrinkled up and looked like a sponge, and it was chewy, but the children liked it.
The Rossettis also ate pork brains, because they believed nothing on an animal should go to waste. Maria fried the brains until they were crispy, then seasoned them with spices. The children loved this dish.
The family ate salads made from bitter dandelion leaves drizzled with oil and vinegar. One of the family’s favorite snacks was thick slices of homemade bread sprinkled with oil and a “whole mess” of raw garlic and black pepper.
In 1937 Maria insisted the family move away from Masontown. When she heard of a home for sale in Morgantown, she arranged for a ride to see the home. As soon as she saw the indoor bathroom on the second floor, she said, “We’ll take it.”
There, the Rossetti family lived for another 30 years. In 1968, Nicola and Maria’s only son, Jimmy, suffered a heart attack in Pittsburgh. A week later he died at age 40. Two months after Jimmy died, Nicola suffered a fatal heart attack. His family members believed he died of a broken heart.
In America, he had indeed found a better life than the one he left behind in Italy. Not just for himself, but also for his family of eight.
‘America was our dream’
Nghi-Anh Street-Tran was 16 when she left Vietnam in 1983. Her mother, Tam, was determined to give Nghi-Anh and her brother, Tony, a new life in the United States.
“Moving to America was our dream,” Nghi-Anh said. “I cannot imagine what life would be like if I was still in Vietnam.”
In her first marriage, during the Vietnam War, Tam was mistreated by her husband’s family after she failed to get pregnant. Then her best friend stole her husband. Tam fled the family farm for Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City.
Little did Tam know, she was pregnant.
Tam — a strong, street-smart woman — found work in the city. When she went into labor, there was no one to take her to the hospital, so she began walking there alone, breaking the city’s curfew.
Robert Street, a young American military policeman originally from Mississippi and new to Vietnam, spotted Tam walking and wanted to help. He took her to the hospital himself.
Later, when he went back to check on Tam and her newborn son, Tony, Robert realized the young mother had no one to help her. The two became friends, and soon began to go steady — furtively, though, because of Vietnamese animosity toward Americans.
Once the war ended, military personnel began a withdraw from Vietnam. When it came time for Robert to leave, he bought airline tickets to the United States not only for Tam and Tony, but also for a new child. Nghi-Anh had since been born to the couple, but due to anti-American sentiment, Tam told everyone she’d adopted the baby girl.
“People like me are the reminder, the scar, of the war,” Nghi-Anh said.
But Tam and her children did not fly to America with Robert. Instead, they stayed behind so Tam could take care of her aging father.
At school, Nghi-Anh and other Amerasian children were treated like second-class citizens. Bullies at school would say, “You’re dirt. You don’t belong here. Leave my country.”
Due to the persecution, Tam kept her children out of school for a number of years. But then Nghi-Anh told her mom, “Please let me go back to school.” She wanted to prove to herself and others, “I’m human, too. I’m as smart as you.”
In time, Tam enrolled her children at a live-in Catholic school. The siblings stayed at the school Monday through Friday and went home on the weekends.
Even though Tam made good money — she’d become successful at real estate — the family became homeless almost overnight when the Communist Party took over South Vietnam in 1975. People opposed to communism were jailed or forced into “re-education camps.”
If Tam had abandoned her Amerasian daughter, things would have been easier for her and Tony. Instead Nghi-Anh remembers her mother saying, “If we die, we die together. If we live, we live together.”
And then, Tam heard of a way out: the U.S. took a major step and loosened immigration restrictions for Amerasians.
As reported in a 1982 New York Times article, President Ronald Reagan “signed legislation to make it easier for thousands of Asian-born children of American servicemen to enter the United States, and he bid them all ‘Welcome home.’”
Nghi-Anh remembers leaving Vietnam in 1983 on a Boeing 707 filled mostly with children, more than 200 of them from Vietnamese orphanages.
Tam’s family spoke no English, and Nghi-Anh recalls she and her brother Tony wondering, “What if they dump us into the ocean?”
First they flew to Thailand, where they were detained for nearly a month to have their paperwork and health scrutinized. Next they flew to the Philippines, where they waited 10 days to be sponsored by someone or some organization in the U.S.
They traveled with their possessions in bags: a pair of pajamas, a couple of outfits. The few pieces of jewelry Tam brought she ended up selling in order to pay for food and water during the journey.
Finally, there was good news. A Catholic church in Detroit sponsored Tam’s family and many other Vietnamese immigrants. The church helped the children apply for school, and helped families get food.
The church also paid for an apartment for Tam’s family. Warm clothes, blankets, boots and coats were found at second-hand stores. Coming from a tropical country, Tam, Tony and Nghi-Anh had never experienced cold weather, never seen snow. Because their apartment was old and cold, the family often ran the stove for warmth.
Tam went to English classes offered at the church. Several months later, she found a job in a sewing factory, earning $3.25 an hour. Later she worked on the assembly line of an automobile factory.
At Nghi-Anh’s high school, her chemistry teacher, Rita LeBlanc, noticed the girl was strong in math and science, but not in English. Rita and her husband, Larry, took it upon themselves to help Nghi-Anh improve her language skills.
When Tam decided to relocate to California, the LeBlancs watched out for Nghi-Anh, who wanted to stay and finish high school in Detroit. Nghi-Anh graduated second in her class.
At 21, during “a period of rebellion,” she traveled to Mississippi to find her birth father, Robert. She also wanted to “find out who she was and put together the puzzle of my family.”
Nghi-Anh found her father and told him how Tam always used to say she was adopted. She also shared her memories of him taking her to his office to meet his American co-workers in Vietnam. Her father was stunned that Nghi-Anh remembered so much. “She is your mom,” Robert assured her, “and you’re my baby.”
Robert’s new wife was suspicious of Nghi-Anh, even though she assured the couple, “I don’t need anything from you. I just want the truth. I’ve lived in the dark so long. I want to bring it all into the light.” Still, to appease his wife, her father had to sneak out of the house to spend time with his long-lost daughter.
Her father’s relatives begged Nghi-Anh to move to Mississippi and go to a community college there. “We’ve heard about you, and we want to know who you are and be a family,” they told her.
Nghi-Anh stayed in Mississippi for a time. When Tam moved back to Michigan, Nghi-Anh did the same. There, she attended the University of Michigan-Dearborn, where she met her husband, Jeff Brusoe, a physics and mathematics student.
Her father, Robert, died of lung cancer in 2000.
Early on in life, Nghi-Anh had hoped to be a teacher, but she ended up majoring in math with a statistics minor because math required less speaking of English than an elementary education degree.
“I’ve suffered a lot in my life,” Nghi-Anh reflects, “but it caused me to grow. Looking back I can see that God was always working behind the scenes.” She points to the fact that she ended up homeschooling both of her children — so, she did become a teacher.
“See? God honored my original dream.”
‘A whole wide world to see’
In 1986 Maggie and Jim Hu immigrated to the United States from Taiwan with $15,000 and two pieces of luggage each.
Before meeting Jim, Maggie believed moving to America was only for rich people. But after she and Jim dated a few years, he had the opportunity to travel to the U.S. for business. Upon his return, he wowed Maggie with photographs he’d taken, pictures of unfamiliar plants. And snow.
The two soon married and devised a plan to relocate to the U.S. for additional education. In order to save money for the move, Jim worked at an import-export company for three years. During that time, he saved $10,000 by being frugal. There was no eating out, no going to the movies.
In Taiwan, newlyweds are traditionally given new furniture as their wedding gift. In the 1980s, the furniture would have cost approximately $5,000. Knowing the young couple’s desire to move to America, Maggie’s parents gave the newlyweds the money instead of the furniture.
When Jim’s company heard of his plans to emigrate, they offered him a promotion, but Maggie protested. “No. Let’s go to the U.S. Why limit ourselves here? There’s a whole wide world to see!”
Upon moving to America, Jim and Maggie settled in New York state because Jim knew a friend working on his doctorate at the State University of New York at Binghamton. The two decided Jim should earn his master’s degree first, then Maggie. Due to Jim’s excellent academic record, he was awarded a full-ride scholarship in information technology.
But at the end of Jim’s first year of graduate school, the couple’s savings had dwindled from $15,000 to $300. To pay for necessities, Maggie — always “hardworking, smart and lucky” — found cleaning jobs paying $5 an hour. The $20 she earned working four hours could pay for a week’s groceries.
To prepare for her own graduate education, Maggie enrolled in an introduction to programming course at SUNY. Not long after, a professor offered Maggie a research assistantship. Due to her superb work ethic, that position turned into a full-ride scholarship for Maggie that required her to work as a teaching assistant. “I had to teach undergrad students how to do programming in a computer lab setting,” she said.
Jim was nervous for Maggie. Her English was not as strong as his. So he hid outside her class on the first day in case she needed help. She did not.
Jim’s plan after he and Maggie earned their master’s degrees (he also did considerable work toward his doctorate) was to return to Taiwan. An American education is well-respected in their homeland.
But then life happened.
Maggie and Jim’s first son, Alex, was diagnosed with autism when he was 5. Maggie and Jim knew raising an autistic child in Taiwan would be problematic. At the time, Taiwan offered no special education services. Not to mention, autism was perceived by some in the culture to be shameful. Given those circumstances, the couple decided America was the best place to raise Alex and his younger brother, Christopher.
Maggie felt no remorse for staying in the States. She loved the four seasons and cultural freedom. “In Taiwan, if I went outside my home, I’d be expected to put on makeup, fancy clothes, an expensive watch and gold jewelry. To be beautiful on the outside. That was the social expectation.”
In America, Maggie was free to be herself. Which for her, often meant a pair of shorts and flip-flops.
After working for more than 30 years in information technology, Jim is contemplating retirement. Retirement for Jim means focusing in earnest on his passion: tennis. Jim is a tennis player and coach, and taught both of his sons to play at a high level.
In 2006, Alex competed for Team New Jersey in the Special Olympics USA Games. After winning gold in both singles and doubles, he represented Team USA in the 2007 World Games in Shanghai. He won two gold medals there, as well. Christopher played on the Washington and Lee University tennis team.
Once he retires, Jim hopes to become a nationally competitive player in his age group.
Maggie has now worked in IT for 26 years at the UPS Data Center in New Jersey. For the last five of those years, she has also taught IT Management at Ramapo College of New Jersey. There she has instructed nearly 500 students, helping many of them procure internships and cooperative opportunities, as well as full-time jobs.
Unlike her husband, Maggie said, “‘Retirement’ is not in my dictionary.” The ever-industrious Maggie plans to earn a second master’s degree in applied behavior analysis. With her personal experience as a mother to an autistic son, and this new degree, she plans to help families with autistic children.
By doing so, she hopes to change the world for the better, one family at a time. “It is my calling from God,” she declared.