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Lucia Capacchione: Her Grandparents Helped Build L.A.'s Little Italy

Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@LosJeremy) asks: "How did you - or your family before you - wind up living in Los Angeles.

Today we hear from art therapist, artist and author, Lucia Capacchione:

"Both sides of my family are from the same town in Italy. The name of the town is San Ferdinando Di Puglia. It is a small town near the city of Bari, a large city known for its soccer stadium, in the province of Puglia on the south eastern Italian Adriatic coastline. That province can be described as the heel of the boot of Italy.  

"My paternal and my maternal grandparents on both sides were from that town. A very large group from that town immigrated to Los Angeles approximately between the years of 1908 to about 1920.

"My maternal grandparents' (family) name was Distaso. My mother's father, Dominic Distaso, spearheaded a movement to Los Angeles from that town. He came over first to assess the situation, and went back and told a lot of his countrymen that he thought Los Angeles was going to become a huge city and it was the place to be. 

"He already had some contacts with Italians who were living in wine growing areas around Cucamonga and Azusa and those areas. But he wanted to be in the city. 

"So he went back and married my grandmother -- her name was Grace but she was known as Graziella -- and he brought her to Los Angeles. They came in about 1911. He opened a barber shop on North Broadway, a couple of blocks south of New China Town. Newly arriving immigrant men came to the barber shop for a bath, haircut, and to inquire about jobs and other work opportunities. Dominic and Graziella had four children here in Los Angeles. They used to say that they came to Los Angeles for their honeymoon and never went back.

"My grandfather Dominic started really networking the Italian community at his barber shop. There were two Little Italy's in Los Angeles. One of them is in what is now the Chinatown area, North Broadway. And the Italian Catholic church, St. Peter's, is still there. 

"It is one of the only remnants of Little Italy, of which North Broadway was the main street -- that and the building of Little Joe's restaurant, which is still there but not open to the public any more. Little Joe's and St. Peter's Church were kind of the main points of the Italian community that was founded mostly by people from Puglia.

"You had people from that whole coastline along the Adriatic settling in Los Angeles. Partially because the climate was similar and partially because two or three people like my grandfather Dominic came and saw the area and its potential and encouraged their countrymen and their relatives to immigrate.

"Both sets of my grandparents lived on New Depot Street, not far from Santa Fe Street, where the old Union Station was. Most of the families who lived on New Depot or across what is now the Pasadena Freeway on City Terrace were either related to us or were paesani from the same town.

"The story I was telling about Dominic was about the maternal side of my family. On the other side, the paternal side, the immigration story -- and the migration west -- was a little more dramatic. All of these relatives came through Ellis Island, but the Ellis Island story that my father used to tell is a little more dramatic.

"Ferdinando Capaccchione was my paternal grandfather. His wife, my grandmother, was Lucia -- I was named after her. My grandfather Ferdinando came over around 1912 or '13.

"He came as did many immigrants, alone, without his wife and children, so he could raise money and send for them. There was a phrase used, especially among Greek immigrants, called, 'Stealing America.'

"What they had thought they would do is come here and make a lot of money and then go back with the money. Almost all of them stayed -- they did not go back to Italy.

"My grandfather Ferdinando came over alone. He was a trained blacksmith. He worked as a blacksmith on the Southern Pacific Railroad.

"The railroad yards in Los Angeles were, and still are, right off of north Broadway -- which of course was the Chinese and Italian area. A lot of Chinese and Italians worked on the railroad and this is very possibly why the Chinese and Italians settled in that area.

"In any event, my grandfather worked on the railroad for many years. He sent money back to Italy. My grandmother Lucia had hoped to come to America sooner, but when World War I broke out it was not safe to travel. So they waited. In 1920, my grandmother Lucia came over with their two surviving children. (They had three children in Italy, but the youngest of the children that were born in Italy died in the influenza epidemic of 1918.)

"My grandmother, my father -- Francesco -- and my Aunt Rose, who was two years older than my father -- came over from Naples. When Lucia got to Ellis Island, she gave her a surname, which was Russo. In our part of Italy, the women did not change their last names when they got married. Of course, the children's last names were their father's surname, Capacchione.

"My grandmother had red hair and her two children had black hair. At Ellis Island, they took a look at this redheaded woman and her two dark-haired children, they looked at the papers, and they looked at the names and then said, 'Well, we don't think you can stay.'

"They said: 'The children can stay, we have papers for them, and if somebody comes to get them, we'll be fine. You may have to go back. So we're going to have to put you in another area with your children' -- which was basically the jail area at Ellis Island.

"While they were there, there was a prison break with alarms and search lights and lots of chaos. All of the cells examined and so forth. My aunt never wanted to talk about the experience, it was that traumatic. But my dad told the story often. I think it was therapeutic for him talk about the trauma they went through.

He also recalled that a woman my grandmother befriended on the ship coming over, who had an infant in arms, was deported. She was in a cell with Lucia and her kids. Her husband came and got the baby -- he had a new woman in America -- and the mother was sent back. This really put terror in my grandmother's heart. Deportation was a very real possibility.  

"My grandmother was getting quite frantic, but fortunately, she remembered that the family had relatives in New Jersey, and she figured out that New Jersey is close to New York. She gave some Ellis Island official the name of the Di Feo family -- these were relatives who had a pastry store in Jersey City. Somehow they got a phone call through to Joseph Di Feo, who I met when I was a teenager on my first trip to New York. He told me his side of the story.

"He went to Ellis Island with a gigantic picnic basket full of food because he'd heard the food was horrible there and Italians are allergic to bad food. He visited my grandmother and the kids. He was able to talk to immigration. They sorted it out. They got a phone call through to my grandfather in Los Angeles.

"Based on his word and Joseph Difeo as witness, they allowed my grandmother then to leave Ellis Island and take the children. Joseph Di Feo had tears in his eyes when he spoke about my grandmother and her plight at Ellis Island.

"When I visited Ellis Island with my older daughter, Celia, after it had be reopened as a museum, we had some profound experiences in the exact spots where I know my grandmother and the kids must have stood. We stood right outside the courtroom where cases of deportation were tried. We looked into the room which was chained off, thinking about my dad's stories. When we entered the FREE TO LAND room -- where immigrants were sent when they were approved -- my daughter and I were struck by waves of emotion. First I felt extreme relief and heard words that meant, Thank God. We can stay."

"Then I felt deep grief. 'I'll never see my family in Italy again.' And then I was hit by a tidal wave of fear. 'What next? We have to go across country to California. What will happen on that part of the trip?' I literally experienced what my grandmother must have been experiencing standing on that very spot at Ellis Island. I knew her well because she raised me for the first four-and-a-half years of my life while my parents were working during the Depression. There was no mistaking her presence. That pilgrimage to Ellis Island to honor what our ancestors went through to come to America was a memory I hold very dear.

"Returning to my grandmother's story -- after Lucia was released from detainment, she then had to get herself and my dad and my aunt across the country by train, not speaking English. My father remembered them stopping in Philadelphia, where they were met by what he called, 'The gray ladies.' They were probably the order of social service nuns. These ladies met them at the train and took Lucia and the kids for a buggy ride around the city, because apparently there was a delay on their rail connection.

"Lucia and the children ended up heading cross-country. But they didn't know how to order food. They didn't know there was a dining car. And if they had, they didn't know the language. So they bought and ate candy and gum from the vendors who came through the cars. They thought gum was candy and so they swallowed it.

"My father remembers the train stopped in Albuquerque and he saw Native Americans outside. They were selling blankets and jewelry at the train station.

"He had seen Western movies and he thought they were going to attack the train. So he went to the window and he rolled up newspapers and threw them at these poor men standing outside. My grandmother, who was an extremely progressive woman and did not have one shred of any kind of racism or prejudice in her, was horrified. She asked,  'What are you doing?'

"He explained, 'I have to protect you and Rose because those Indians are going to attack the train.' Of course my grandmother gave him a lecture and pulled him into the train told him to stop that.

"They got through with no meals until the very last day before arriving at the old Union Station in Los Angeles. My father went up and down the train asking, 'Does anyone speak Italian?'

"He ran into a passenger who did. My father explained to the man that they hadn't had any food and the man took them to the dining car and got them their first meal on land in the United States.

"Once they made it to Los Angeles, my father's first impression of his father was memorable. 'He's so short!' my father thought. While still living in Italy, little Francesco used to tell his pals that the statue of Ercolo (Hercules) in the plaza of the nearby town of Barletta, was of his father who was in America. I've seen the statue. It's from antiquity and is quite large. It was found on the coast buried in the ocean having fallen off a ship. This was the beginning of the clash of 'expectations' versus 'the reality' of America." 

-- Lucia Capacchione
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)

Do you or someone you know have a great Los Angeles Arrival Story to share? If so, then contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com. Also contact or follow Rosenberg on Twitter @LosJeremy

Top Photo: As Lucia Capacchione describes -- "The altar in a box was done by me in honor of my two sets of grandparents and my father, Francesco (Frank) who died Dec. 23, 1992. The paper dolls in the box (standing on a map of the province of Puglia in southern Italy) are my maternal grandparents on the left (Dominic and Grace Distaso) and my paternal grandparents on the right (Ferdinando and Lucia Capacchione). The photo on the right on the box door is of my father, Francsco (Frank) Capacchione as he appeared when he arrive in California at age nine." Photo courtesy Lucia Capacchione

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