When the Earth Moves, So Do Its People
Mary Brown, Ph.D.
February 24, 2023
FROM THE ARCHIVE
When the Earth Moves, So Do Its People
Mary Brown, Ph.D.
Most people understand that a natural disaster is one of the causes of migration. But natural disasters are one of many push factors, which include poverty, war, and other forms of persecution. Not only does migration follow a natural disaster, it has preceded it, and with diaspora communities often acting as first responders to an earthquake, hurricane, or volcanic eruption. The Center for Migration Studies (CMS) has several items that document this historical development.
For example, in 1985, CMS published Felice Bonadio’s pictorial biography of Amadeo Pietro (“A.P.”) Giannini. Born in California to Italian immigrant parents, Giannini left school at age twelve to work for his uncle and immediately realized one issue confronting the developing Italian American community: access to credit to build businesses. Giannini organized a bank.
Cover of Felice Bonadio’s A.P. Giannini: Banker, Philanthropist, Entrepreneur, published in 1985 by CMS.
Although it was headquartered in San Francisco, he named it Banca d’Italia to signal that he wanted immigrants as its customers. As he was running a small business, Giannini was able to access his bank’s vaults and records days after a 1906 earthquake destroyed much of San Francisco, disrupting the water supply so that the fire that followed was more damaging than it otherwise would have been. He opened an outdoor office in the Italian neighborhood of San Francisco’s North Beach, handling withdrawals, making loans, and supporting the first steps in rebuilding San Francisco and in turning Banca d’Italia into the Bank of America.
The first modern earthquake in which migration figured prominently struck the Italian Straits of Messina and the two cities on either side of it, Messina on the island of Sicily and Reggio in the mainland province of Calabria. Violently shaking the earth early in the morning of December 28, 1908, historians estimate the earthquake’s death toll at 200,000, including many of the people who would have been first responders. As the epicenter of the earthquake was below water, the initial earth-shaking shock was followed by tidal waves that caused further death and destruction. On top of everything, one of the damaged buildings was a prison: the prisoners escaped and added looting to the list of problems that needed to be brought under control.
CMS has an artifact from the earthquake, a book prepared by an author identified only as “W.P.B.”, that includes hand-inserted original photographs of Messina shortly after the earthquake. Nick Falco, a librarian in the Queens public library system, an archivist, and an active member of the Italian American community, donated the book, which is today part of CMS’ Collection.087.
Photoprint from CMS’s copy of Messina After the Disaster, published in 1909 by “W.P.B.” Copies of the book are rare because the images were hand-inserted into each copy.
The Messina earthquake produced bits and pieces of recovery which were later joined together to create a fully coordinated response system. On December 31, 1908, the New York Times listed Americans who had booked passage to Messina shortly before the earthquake. The list included John Moglia, an Italian American fruit importer who had gone to visit relatives in Messina a month before the earthquake and, fortunately, left the city two days before the disaster. At that time, travelers did not need visas to enter the United States; so the Kingdom of Italy was able to secure use of the Italian cargo ship Florida to transport 850 persons left homeless by the earthquake from the nearest usable port, in Naples, to the United States. Despite a collision with the RMS Republic, which sank, the Florida arrived in the United States and discharged the passengers to find their own way in New York. Other families from the region migrated entirely on their own.
In its 1909 annual report, the New York branch of the Saint Raphael Society for Italian Immigrants printed the story of one such family. Fifty-year-old Pasquale Lanzo lost his home but got his 48-year-old wife Giuseppa and their daughters Nunzia, Salvatrice, and Pietrina–ages 14, 10, and 9, respectively–to safety. After six days sheltering in an abandoned railroad car, the family made its way to Genoa in January 1909, intending to resettle in California with adult sons. They got as far as New York, but ran short of cash for the cross-country rail trip; their sons were unable to advance them the fare. The Saint Raphael Society offered the family hospitality at its New York City home while raising the eighty dollars necessary to reunite the family out West.
Left to Right: Giuseppa, Nunzia, Salvatrice, Pasquale, and little Pietrina Lanzo; survivors of the 1908 Messina earthquake were assisted by the New York branch of the Saint Raphael Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants while on their way to join adult sons in California. Their story is preserved in the Society’s 1910 annual report, CMS Collection.005.
In terms of loss of life, Italy’s next largest earthquake took place in Irpinia, an area east of Naples, on November 23, 1980. The death toll was 4,900, far below that of Messina, partly because modern equipment and techniques were able to reach persons trapped in the rubble. However, the greater survival rate brought its own challenges: care for the injured, immediate shelter for half a million persons living in hamlets across the region, and decisions about whether people could return to their homes or had to be resettled elsewhere.
CMS recently acquired the papers of Brooklyn’s Bishop emeritus, Nicholas DiMarzio, which tell of his involvement in responding to the quake. In 1980, Father DiMarzio was a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, where he had been born. His family was of Italian background and he was fully bilingual, which made him the obvious choice for coordinating the archdiocesan earthquake response.
By the time Bishop DiMarzio began his work, many of Newark’s Italian American organizations were collecting donations to aid Irpinia. Bishop DiMarzio worked with Catholic Relief Services to send the donations and to use them to buy what the survivors needed. This was important, since organized crime was still an issue in that part of Italy at that time, and precautions had to be taken to ensure goods and funds got to where their donors intended.
In December 1980, Father DiMarzio visited the affected area. The visit’s purpose was threefold. First, he ascertained whether relief was reaching its intended recipients and serving its intended purpose. Second, he laid the groundwork for a more advanced stage of relief work in which New Jersey’s Italian Americans would be able to identify reconstruction projects to which they wished to contribute, channeling the generosity of those who especially wanted to help the places from which their own ancestor had emigrated. Third, he gained some insight into whether immigration might be part of the recovery strategy.
When Bp. Nicholas Di Marzio was a priest in the Archdiocese of Newark he made a 1980 pastoral visit to earthquake-damaged Italian villages, many of them the ancestral homes of Italian Americans in New Jersey. This itinerary is part of Bp. DiMarzio’s archives.
On the immigration issue, an important change had occurred since the Messina earthquake. Prospective immigrants now needed visas. While some of the Irpinia earthquake survivors had American relatives and qualified for family reunification visas, most were refugees. As the only refugee visas the United States offered were for those suffering persecution, it would take special legislation to accommodate refugees from natural disasters.
To secure that legislation, Father DiMarzio turned to an organization that was, like CMS, an initiative of the Scalabrini Fathers. The American Committee on Italian Migration (ACIM) monitored legislation as it impacted Italians and Italian Americans. ACIM’s Executive Secretary, Father Joseph Cogo, c.s., wrote Representative Romano Mazzoli, Chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Migration, International Law, and Refugees, regarding changes in US law that would assist with recovery efforts in Irpinia, and he urged ACIM’s members to write their Senators and Congressional Representatives in support of the legislation. House Resolution 8388 of December 12, 1980, amended a 1961 law to address the immigration issues created by the Irpinia earthquake.
Fr. Joseph Cogo, c.s., Executive Secretary of the American Committee on Italian Migration, sent this memorandum to ACIM’s local chapters to urge a letter-writing campaign on behalf of legislation expanding the number of visas available to survivors of the 1980 Irpinian earthquake. CMS houses the archives of this important organization, run by the immigrant community for immigrants.
It is not clear exactly how many people were admitted to the United States following the 1980 earthquake, for two reasons. First, some were admitted on regular family or work visas rather than through this special legislation. Second, and more importantly, once the combination of government agencies and non-governmental organizations addressed the immediate crisis of the earthquake, the survivors did not need much extra help. They came to the United States, learned English, found jobs, moved into homes, raised families, and blended into their communities. They exemplified the idea that contrary to some arguments, immigration does not cause problems so much as it helps solve them.
There is one more development in social assistance that is not reflected in the Irpinia earthquake. The documents in CMS’ possession tell stories of Italians assisting their co-ethnics and Catholics assisting their co-religionists. The story of the earthquake of Turkey and Syria will also be a story of immigrants helping their homeland. For example, signs urging donations to the cause appear on Turkish restaurants, and the many different religious groups represented in Turkey and Syria have mobilized to assist the recovery effort. However, these individuals and agencies are joined by others who give out of sympathy, not for compatriots or co-religionists, but for fellow human beings.
Natural disasters are impersonal forces of nature. They call from us the most personal and heartfelt of responses.
February 24, 2023