Italian Day 2019: Postwar Italian immigrants forged strong community links in Vancouver
The theme of comunità—or “community”—anchoring Sunday’s Italian Day on Commercial Drive is a fitting nod to the special bond that ties the area’s sons and daughters of Italy together.
“Family isn’t just blood relatives,” says local author Mario Miceli, who is working on a new oral-history book about Italian immigration to Vancouver. “We all grew up in each other’s homes, with our cousins, with our parents’ friends who were Italian.”
With plans to publish the as-yet-unnamed book by the end of the year, Miceli has already conducted more than 85 hours of interviews, with the aim of including about 40 different families.
“It’s amazing how they were able to adapt and overcome any problem which hit them,” he says. “These people just refused to give in; there are great nuggets in every single interview I’ve done.”
Inspired (and mentored) by area historian Ray Culos—who wrote Vancouver’s Society of Italians, which covers the early years of immigration to Vancouver—Miceli’s work will cover the period following the Second World War.
The book will be more storytelling than straight history, however, with Miceli focusing on personal accounts and providing a more intimate look at the aspirations and struggles found in the immigrant experience.
“I was trying to understand what prompted people to move here,” he explains. “I’ve been sitting with people in their living rooms and kitchen tables, sitting with family members and their children, and in some cases their grandchildren, and listening to their stories. I even interviewed my aunt, and I was amazed at what she went through to get here. And when I said, ‘How come you never told us this?’ she just looked at me in a traditional kind of Italian way and said, ‘You never asked.’ So now I’m asking!”
Everyone’s story, of course, is personal and particular, but there are definitely some common narratives. There’s the desire to make a better life for their children, an openness to often backbreaking manual labour, and an overwhelming necessity to succeed in their new Canadian lives.
“The reason they came becomes obvious pretty quickly,” Miceli notes. “A lot of them were economic refugees. Post–World War II Italy was a devastated country; there wasn’t much opportunity there.
“It’s been interesting speaking with some of the older generation,” he continues, “and more than once I’ve heard people say, ‘When we had nothing, we had everything.’ They arrived with just a trunk and a cardboard suitcase and now it’s funny how the affluence that came with working so hard has really changed things. A lot of families have moved away from the core community, and people don’t get together to the same extent anymore. There are many who pine for those simpler times.”
Miceli is also quick to add that there’s a deep love for their adopted country among the immigrants he’s spoken to.
“They’re very Italian, but they’re also fiercely Canadian,” he says. “They defend being Canadian just as much as anyone who was born here. Like my dad: he was still going to make his homemade wine and all that stuff that was important to him as an Italian, but he was also all about being Canadian. He believed that everything he had was because of Canada, and he was incredibly patriotic about it.”
As Miceli was to discover during the course of his interviews, it turned out to be a recurring theme.
“Of all the people I’ve interviewed, there wasn’t one person—not one—who has any regrets about making the decision to come here.”