Generational pain and the legacy of immigration

December 2, 2021

Gratteri, Sicilia, home of my Mazzola family. Population about 1,000. In the province of Palermo, 37 miles southeast of the city of Palermo.

I am the granddaughter of Sicilian immigrants, who left all they knew at the turn of the 20th century to forge a new life in a strange country. They did not speak the language. English was a second language in my parents’ homes and they did speak Sicilian to my grandparents at in our home. If you didn’t know me back in the day then you wouldn’t know this about how I grew up.


My family walking the same hilly cobblestones my grandparents walked. I am ahead of them, walking, too, even though I was recovering from pneumonia.

When we talked about immigrants back then, we meant European immigrants and they all aspired to be part of this big melting pot of cultures called America. Getting here was aspirational and they appreciated their lives in America, even if the streets weren’t paved with gold like they were told. They wanted to assimilate. They worked hard to “belong.” To be “American.”

How times have changed.

It wasn’t until I saw the solo off-Broadway show, Blood Type: Ragu, written and performed by my friend, Frank Ingrasciotta, that I remembered what it really meant to be a kid who grew up so closely connected to immigrants.


Zia (aunt) Maria

After watching his show, I felt acutely the pain that immigrants carry when they leave their homeland. I thought about my beloved grandmother, Mama, and how Mama left for America and never saw her family again.  Even speaking to them on the phone was an impossibility in the first half of the 20th century and after that? It never happened. She never again saw her town in Sicily. She left that all behind when she and her first two children, Giuseppe and Maria, came to Ellis Island.

Zia (Aunt) Maria died when she was 12 from an infection that would have been cured if penicillin had existed. A framed, colorized photo of her hung in the room where my grandmother slept for her whole life. It hangs now in my office in my second house in my home town. I look at it often. Would my Aunt “Mary” have died if they’d stayed in Sicily? Probably not.

Did my grandmother miss her family? I’m sure she did. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to leave everything like so many did. The pain.

I can see that we children and grandchildren carry the generational pain of our immigrant families deep in our psyches.  It’s part of our DNA. It is, as Frank’s show title says, our blood type.


Gratteri: birthplace of my maternal grandparents. In the Madronie Mountains.

I have been to Gratteri , Sicily twice, the small mountain town of my maternal grandparents. I walked the same cobblestone streets they did. I met my warm and wonderful family. I struggled  to converse with them in my bad Italian, enjoying their delight when I would use a Sicilian word or phrase my grandparents used. They were surprised I knew those words.

I tried to explain that I’d heard them growing up, those words and more. But I didn’t have the language skills to really explain.

I don’t think they had any way of knowing how much my Sicilian heritage colored my life in America. They probably think none of that history has any bearing on me.

They couldn’t be more wrong.


My Mazzola family in Sicily waiting to greet me in 2016.

The powerful impact that seeing Blood Type: Ragu had on me was unexpected. It moved me in ways I’m still unpacking.

Frank’s show is streaming through January on Broadway on Demand for $12.50. It’s really, really good.

If you’d like to see it before it’s gone you can at this link.


21 comments on “Generational pain and the legacy of immigration
  1. Diane says:

    As the granddaughter of Swedish immigrants, this strikes a real chord. My great grandmother sent her four boys to Canada when the youngest was 16 and never saw them again. That is pain that never goes away.
    My grandparents married over here and
    carved a life. And how grateful I am for them and those hard decisions! I am so proud of them! My biggest regret is that, because the other kids made fun of her lack of English speech on her first day of school, my mom deliberately forgot her Swedish!

  2. Lynda Beth Unkeless says:

    Thank you for sharing this fascinating and sad history of your Sicilian family. I am so happy you were able to travel to Sicily and connect with your family!

  3. My ex-husband is an immigrant, and there is so much he missed/misses, but he’s also so much more fortunate: phone plans, face time calls, travel, etc. And he’s had the opportunity to go back for visits with our children. Even with these advantages, the leaving is hard

  4. Laurie Stone says:

    I’ve been to Sicily (Palermo) and loved it so much. What a wonderful, fascinating culture to inherit. This makes me want to go back there.

  5. Alana says:

    My grandparents were immigrants, too. I’m told my maternal grandfather was able to make a couple of journeys back to the “old country” before he was able to bring his family to the United States. It must have been wrenching for all of them. How many years did it take? I don’t know. My mother inlaw, whose parents came from different parts of Italy, did try to find some family (on either her side or her husbands’) still in the old country during her two trips to Italy. Sadly she wasn’t successful.

  6. molly best tinsley says:

    As the granddaughter of a Spanish immigrant, I’m fascinated by the idea of carrying trauma through generations. I actually went on to relive it countless times as a military brat who never belonged where she lived. Also my great-aunt died at age 12, before penicillin, of an ear infection.

  7. Beth Havey says:

    These stories of our beginnings are fascinating. So amazing that you were able to physically connect and walk the streets of your forebears. Wonderful. I have been to Italy and loved it, but never Sicily. My brother has been living in Florence for the last three months. Due home in December.

  8. Kristine Bordner says:

    So true Carol. Thank you for your words, it must have been some adventure, full of pain and surprise. I am so proud of my Sicilian heritage. And I loved Ragu!

  9. I love family stories as we are just about all immigrants. Mine were from Russia, Poland, and Slovakia but came here in the late 1870s.

  10. Meryl says:

    My grandmother came over from Hungary when she was just 4 years old in 1904, but she absorbed old country language and foods from her parents. Most of her family immigrated to Israel in the 1930s. When she was in her 60s she visited Israel and met her relatives, and then sent me to Israel to connect with my cousins. A life-changing experience.

  11. Jennifer says:

    I am the second generation as well. Although most of my grandparents came over as young children, so it wasn’t their decision to make. But it was a decision that took a lot of courage and I’m in awe of that strength of character.

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