Wednesday, June 16, 2004 | 06/16/2004 | Pittsburg's Italian immigrant women were resourceful | 06/16/2004 | Pittsburg's Italian immigrant women were resourceful

Posted on Wed, Jun. 16, 2004


Pittsburg's Italian immigrant women were resourceful

WORKING WOMEN as a theme has caught my attention in the most recent articles written. Their stories in general seem to strike a chord in hearts of many of the immigrants of Pittsburg.

Elizabeth Smith of the Pittsburg Historical Society is now conducting a class for seniors in the new center off Harbor Street. "Recollections are funny and poignant and very real in the minds of those who have lived a lifetime here," she says.

As timely now as it was 50 years ago, this story of Rose Mutolo's family was told to Mary Ericsson, a writer for the Post Dispatch for many years. The story was given in a class by Ericsson titled Immigrant Women, when she led a course on the subject.

In Rose Mutulo's grandmother's lifetime in Italy, she remembered always being hungry. After her husband Antonio Belleci left for America, the former Angela Aiello made fishing nets to support her two small children, who had only one meal a day. At night, she would knot a dish towel around each child's stomach so the youngsters would not suffer hunger pains.

Italian women were willing to follow their husbands to Black Diamond, an unknown village at the other side of the world. Pioneer settler Pietro Aiello, of their native village, told them that "the rivers are full of fish, and no one need ever be hungry."

It took seven years from his arrival here in 1887 for Mutulo's grandfather to earn enough money to send for his family. There were no home rentals in Black Diamond, and immigrants had to buy 25 foot lots from C.A. Hooper Co., a real estate firm, which loaned them the money to build a six-room home, (similar to a duplex, with two families sharing three rooms each in the residence.

Although the Italians were surrounded by their countrymen here, they still had language difficulties because of different dialects. Most immigrants were Sicilian, and spoke a different dialect than others from villages where more proper Italian was spoken.

The trip across the ocean for Mutulo's grandmother included sharing steerage with the animals and suffering sickness.

Her arrival to the new land did not include a life of ease for the pioneer grandmother. In addition to caring for her home and eight subsequent children, she baked bread daily in an oven built outside her waterfront home and sold fresh loaves to the fishermen before they went out on the river for several days at a time.

She also did laundry for those who were not married, grew vegetables in her garden for her family and others, made tomato paste for winter use, and cooked the plentiful fish in numerous ways, including cioppino, a hearty fish soup. Fortunately, the family vegetable garden faced the river and the incoming tides provided irrigation eliminating the need for watering.

At the end of the fishing season, Belleci would go to San Francisco to purchase sacks of flour, cheese and gallons of olive oil to supplement the family diet.

Small children, including Belleci's 10-year-old son, went fishing with their fathers and had little opportunity for schooling. Mutulo's mother, Patrina, was the first in her family to go to school, but many days were missed to accommodate baking day or clothes-washing day" at home, when her assistance was necessary.

Italian religious feasts were also declared school holidays by the immigrant families, baffling teachers and school officials. With these detours it took Patrina seven years to complete the fourth grade, the end of her formal schooling.

Later, the elder Belleci's illness and inability to continue fishing made it necessary for the family to start a small grocery store, but the store and the family home were destroyed by fire.

Early immigrant women went to work in the Booth Cannery which processed asparagus, fruit and tomatoes. They worked long hours and earned 25 cents an hour.

In reviewing the three-generation scene of Italian lifestyle here, Mutulo recalled that her husband's grandmother, Maria Costanza, who was widowed and left with four small children, also found it essential to be enterprising.

She made trips to San Francisco by Sacramento Northern train (The Short Line), purchased merchandise from wholesalers and peddled it from her home to neighbors and friends. She also supplemented her income by making panelli, a Sicilian pancake, traditional for use at the Santa Lucia Festival.

Italian immigrants learned the English language mostly from their children educated in America. Men acquired citizenship so they could vote, but this wasn't considered necessary for women.

Ironically, Mutulo's mother, who was American-born, lost her citizenship when she married an alien husband.

While husbands were away fishing, the women managed their homes and earned and controlled the money. They were more liberated and progressive than women whose spouses worked in local factories and were home nightly.

The challenges met by these Italian housewives was a testament to their intelligence and ingenuity.

Marti Aiello is curator of the Pittsburg Historical Society museum.


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