How My Family and Cultural History Shaped My Identity

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” – Marcus Garvey

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Panorama of Cosenza, Calabria, Italy taken from the top of Castello Svevo.

Family and cultural history are two things that can be incredibly important. It amazes me just how many people know very little about either – I speak specifically of those individuals who are plausibly capable to learn more and choose to not do so from some lack of care (I do however understand that not everyone has such possibilities for a variety reasons, as well as that others have had rather negative family experiences thus demoralizing the desire to reconcile with such history).

Having said this, family and cultural history can play an integral role in learning about who you are as a unique individual, where you are today and what you have today. They can help put your life into perspective. They can help you move forward in life by learning about the decisions and lifestyles of those who came before you. Understanding where you come from and what your ancestors had done in their lives may play an integral role in further discovering what makes you who you are.

While I’ve been fortunate to learn and connect with quite a bit of my family and cultural history, my argument extends further than one’s specific family history; ancient history, the history of your community, the history of the groups to which you belong and identify, the history of your country(ies): this is all fundamental information that establishes our core identity.

Of course, you’re an individual, and not everything that you do is a reflection of your ancestral past – however, learning about one’s history can help fortify individual meaning and increase empathy towards other people whose individual stories may not be like your’s but similar to those of your ancestors.

They’re not all just stories – these facts, your ancestors, live within you, in your DNA. Their struggles, and more importantly, their willingness to get back up and keep moving forward despite the odds (and might I add, with way less means to do so than we have at our disposal in 2020) resulted in your life today. Throughout history, as a people, we’ve always learned from the past in order to construct our present and our future.

There can be no future without knowledge of the past: this is even evident when taking into consideration how our own memories shape who we are and the ways in which we think about things, using them as a guide in navigating our day-to-day lives and ideas about the future.

A few years ago I visited relatives who live in Rende, Italy, one of my ancestral homes, and a cousin of mine showed me an interview that he conducted with my great-grandfather in the late 1970s, a couple of years prior to his death in 1984. The interview is autobiographical, which I’ve included (transcribed into English) at the end of this piece. His story for me is absolutely incredible, seeing as to how little our lives have in common, but at the same time just how much his life experiences and decisions resulted in the life that I have today, and subsequently the way I view the world.

In many respects, learning about one’s family or cultural history can create a greater sense of gratitude – I found this particularly true in my individual case. It’s my great-grandfather’s life story that often brings me back to reality when I feel as though my thoughts have gone astray: a story that’s intrinsic to my identity and cultural history, and helps put my mind at ease when thinking about the future.

Although this story pertains to my specific family and cultural history, again, the idea goes beyond even one’s family ties and showcases the importance of history and culture in the most general sense: everyone feels a sense of belonging to a particular communities, and the history of such communities can prove to be vital in the quest to better understand one’s individual identity and place in the world.

If you’re able to learn more about your family and cultural history (even if not your own family’s specific history, but the history of people who belong to the same community as you) then I would recommend taking the opportunity to do so. It allowed me to understand my life to a greater extent, changed my view of life in general, and rethink what’s important to me that much more – it may just do the same for you.

Raffaele Runca (10 January 1903, Rende – 23 November 1984, Rende)

I went to school until the second grade, having to then leave my studies because I needed to help the family in caring for my younger siblings, and also due to the fact that the school was very far from where we lived.

My family did not own any property. We worked “for rent” for Madam Caterina Morelli’s huge business. The whole family worked for the business and with whatever we could grow, we just managed to eat.

Food was very scarce and of little nutrition – only on special occasions, like Christmas and Easter, did we eat things that were more abundant and of substance.

The harvest was half ours’ and half the landlord’s. A little bit of everything was produced: corn, beans, vegetables, grapes, etc. As children, my siblings and I grazed the sheep and pigs.

Eleven of us lived together in a very old house made up of two bedrooms and a kitchen. The life that my family lived was miserable, with little satisfaction. In the summer months we always walked barefoot, while in the winter months we would wear rubber shoes.

The work that I did in the fields was very hard. I would till soil nearly without stopping until late at night, or I would plant seeds, or even collect figs.

Despite all of this, we were a really close family and loved each other greatly, whereas nowadays people are very sad, unsatisfied, don’t speak anymore; they don’t communicate anymore. People began to have millions in their heads, and then in their pockets. Money makes people pretentious.

I continued to work with my father until the age of 18. At that age I married Maria La Valle.

During this time we had serious problems with the business due to a major drought. Unable to find any job in our town or nearby, I decided to emigrate to the United States.

I spoke with Sir Vincenzo Imbardelli, the emigration officer for Rende. I couldn’t emigrate [to the United States], because I needed to have a fifth grade education.

Sir Vincenzo then recommended that I emigrate to Argentina, because moving there did not require any education standard. My brother Francesco and another twelve people from Arcavacata (municipality of Rende) also came with me. I had to give Sir Vincenzo one hundred and fifty lire for the necessary documents; he accompanied us to Naples. My brother and I did not have money to pay for the trip, so our father lent us the money.

I left with the hope of making my fortune and with the idea to return as soon as possible. I still remember, as though it were yesterday, the incredibly difficult goodbye I gave to my wife and my family, of whom seemed as though they were in mourning.

We left from the port of Naples in November of 1921 aboard the ship “Colombia”. We got caught in a terrible storm: “Colombia” seemed as though it would split in half at any given moment, and could barely move forward and sail the waters. These were truly difficult and unforgettable moments.

After 29 days at sea, we finally arrived in Buenos Aires. During the trip I paid close attention to learn a few words and phrases because there were people [on board] who spoke Spanish.

Having arrived in Argentina, for my brother and I it was quite easy; at the port our uncle Michelangelo Cundari was waiting for us, who also emigrated from Italy many years prior. We stayed at his home for a few days, and then we rented a room nearby our cousin’s home.

I initially worked as an assistant bricklayer, and then in a dairy factory. I left these jobs because they paid little and were very tough. My cousin got me a job with an old friend of his, “Tomba”, the son of an Italian immigrant. He had a factory that produced wine with around eighty workers. At first I had many jobs in this factory, from the most menial to the most difficult.

I was admired for many things; one day “Tomba” called me into his office and said to me: “Do you want to work as a supervisor?” – I didn’t know what to say, and so he understood that I’d accept. From that day forward everything was easy for me; when there was something big to be done, it was always me who would do it, and sometimes I even worked as a night guard. At the end of each month, it was me who received the largest paycheque out of all of my coworkers.

I felt like a little chief, everyone respected me. I have to confess that I had a great relationship with everyone. Most of the workers there were Italian.

After a few months from my arrival in Buenos Aires, I sent my father the money that he had given me for the trip; additionally, every six or seven months, through the bank, I would send savings to my mother. During these years of emigration I made many sacrifices, even with regards to food: I cooked for myself and did my own laundry.

I remember Argentina with much love. It was there where I spent the best years of my life, doing the best that I could, even if being so far away from my country often limited my joy. In fact, although everyone spoke in Spanish, after a few months I felt as though I were in Italy. The people were very welcoming.

After seven years I decided to return to Italy permanently. Returning to Italy was wonderful; to hug my wife and family again was very emotional. But after a few months, with bitter sadness, I had to leave my wife again to complete military service.

Prior to leaving again, I bought three acres of land and a farmhouse with the the savings I made in Argentina, roughly 27,000 lire.

Upon completing military service, I became immediately aware of the extreme difficulty in finding a job, and I was just surviving with the products that I cultivated from working the land.

During this time my wife gave birth to six children, three boys and three girls. I watched my children grow, working alongside me on our land, with very little economic satisfaction. I spoke with my wife and children about once again looking towards the route of emigration, but this time with the entire family. Naturally, all of this would be done to ensure a better life for our children.

I became aware, more-so than before, that emigrating to Canada was especially difficult. I wrote a letter to my brother-in-law Vincenzo La Valle, who emigrated to Canada some years prior, to send a “call notice” (similar to sponsorship). He responded with another letter, telling me that the easiest way [to emigrate] was to send a cheque of “600 dollars” to an acquaintance of his, Orlando Torchia.

Orlando owned a farm in the [Canadian] countryside, and hired me as a farmer through the Italian Consulate. At the medical screening that I was put through in Rome, they made me sign a document stating that I would renounce any form of work in another sector. I followed through with the advice of my brother-in-law, making a lot sacrifices in order to pay Orlando as well as for the trip.

I left by ship from Napoli on January 5th, 1960. After arriving in Canada I worked with Orlando for only a few weeks, after which I went to work first in construction and then in the private railway industry. Just a short period of time later, I sent a “call notice” for the rest of my family.

During these years of Canadian emigration, I worked a lot of truly difficult jobs. I worked outside with temperatures well below zero [Celsius]; incredible how many sacrifices I’ve made in my life! With the Canadians I didn’t have any sort of social relationship; in fact many times, while on the job, I got into heated arguments because they considered us to be dirty immigrants.

Ultimately, in 1972, my wife and I returned to Italy permanently, while the rest of my children remained in Canada, having acquired some customs and habits of that nation.

Now, after many years, my children have succeeded in achieving the economic position that my wife and I dreamed about at the beginning of our immigration journey. We are so happy for our children, but at the same time sad to no longer have them near us.

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🇮🇹🇨🇦 | Language/culture/meaningful travel enthusiast | Always learning | Inquiries: matteo.talotta@outlook.com

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