Sante Matteo



Day 256 - Red Wagon


“You’re going to have that baby right there in the middle of the field!” the passersby shouted to the pregnant woman working under the hot July sun.

Serrà kǝ ätǝ rejōn” (you might be right), she called back, but kept working until the sun began to set. It was a half-hour walk to her hometown, Petrella Tifernina. As in other agricultural towns in southern Italy, most of the townspeople were contadini, tillers of the soil. They all lived inside the town and went out everyday to cultivate plots of land located around the town. Some contadini owned the fields that they worked, but most worked in the fields of others for a share of the crops. When the crop yield was low their families went hungry.

The townsfolk who warned Giuseppina that day were almost right: she gave birth to me that night. The midwife had to be called out of her sleep and barely made it to our house in time. I came into the world in my parents’ bed in the same room and house where my father had been born.

Giuseppina was from a well-off contadino family that owned several fields. She married Nicolino, a stonemason like his father, an artigiano (artisan), slightly higher on the town’s socio-economic ladder. His family owned fields around the town too, but those plots were cultivated mostly by sharecroppers. They were married after he returned from serving in the Second World War and made their home in his family’s house on the town’s via nova (new road), the only road wide and smooth enough for automobile traffic. His widowed father, Sante, commonly called Santuccio, after whom I was named, lived with them in what had been his home too.

That happened in the Middle Ages. That is, I was born in a setting and in conditions that had changed little since medieval times: an agricultural community in the Apennine Mountains of South-Central Italy that had remained largely cut off from the industrial revolution and modern progress. Life was cyclical, bound in age-old traditions. The seasons determined activities, and the proverb-based wisdom of forebears and elders dictated customs and behavior. Superstition was a large component of common knowledge. Supernatural beings—witches, ghosts, werewolves—lived among us. Incantations and rituals to ward off spells and the evil eye were essential parts of our education: tools we had to master, skills we had to learn.

Children typically remained in the same social category as their parents from generation to generation. Lilino, as my father was nicknamed, had learned his trade as a mason from his father and was now a mastro (master mason) himself’. Aided by their apprentices, they had built numerous houses in the newer part of town: extracting the stones from quarries outside the town, cutting and shaping them with chisels on the ground floor of our house, projecting and constructing houses from bottom to top, inside and out: walls, floors, staircases, chimneys, roofs.

But no plumbing. Houses did not have running water. Water had to be obtained daily from springs outside the town, from wells in the nearby agricultural fields, or from three public fountains inside the town. The houses built outside the town’s medieval gates and at the edge of town, including ours, had a backyard, with vegetables, fruit trees, chicken coop, pig stall–and an outhouse. Those in the medieval quarter, clustered around the twelfth-century Romanesque church of San Giorgio, and those situated in the internal alleys of the newer section of town did not have any yards at all, nor an outhouse. People who lived there had to use chamber pots or go to fields outside the town to relieve themselves.

We got our water from a fonde nov, the new fountain, a couple hundred steps from our house. Women filled a tinuccia, an amphora-like, hourglass-shaped copper receptacle, and carried it home on their heads, balanced on a cipolla (onion), the name given to a rolled-up strand of cloth used to pad the top of the head and to steady the heavy copper urn that held ten or more liters of water. The fountain was where the women mingled and picked up the news and gossip of the town.

Children were often called into service, to await the family’s turn at the spigot when their mothers didn’t have time to wait. The fountain was often crowded, and so my mother took me with her to hold her place in the succession. There was no actual line; everyone just mingled, after determining who was ahead of them. Mamma asked who had arrived before her, put the tinuccia on the ground upside down so that I could sit on it, and instructed me to run home to get her when the person ahead of us started filling her tinuccia.

There were usually many children thronging around the fountain, some called into service, others just hanging around. Those of us on place-holding duty didn’t always stay seated on our tinuccia as ordered. We were lured away from our post to play games, confident that we could still keep an eye out on the water-gathering process and fulfill our task. But there were times when we got too caught up in the games: hopscotch, bottle caps (like marbles, but with flattened bottle caps), zeckumur (tossing bottle caps to see which came closest to a wall without touching it), and forgot to go get our mother when our turn came up. When those neglected and angry mothers showed up, there would be loud arguments among the women about whose turn it was and who was to blame for the disruption, followed by even louder reprimands of the neglectful miscreants, often accompanied by spankings, and loudest of all, the wails of the punished culprits: all echoing piercingly off the stone walls and paving and through the piazza, which a few minutes earlier had resounded with our peals of fun and laughter.

Joy and misery were communal experiences, shared in the open with one and all. The fountain and the piazza were our communal living room where we met as one big family.

In such a closely knit community I grew up with a strong sense of belonging, of being rooted among people who cared for me. As I played in the alleys, in the piazza, or in the communal threshing floor on the edge of town, I never felt lost or out of bounds. Everyone knew me and my family. Everyone had the right and the responsibility to take care of me: to aid me if I was hurt, to admonish and scold me if I misbehaved. I belonged to them all; they all belonged to me.

When I was five, my father, who as a stonemason was a skilled sculptor (scalpellino), received a work contract and visa to emigrate to Quincy, Massachusetts, to sculpt marble tombstones. His intention was to make enough money in a year or two, in order to assure a good future for me and my younger sister, and return home. And in fact, he returned to Petrella after two years. He hadn’t enjoyed life in America and was glad to be back home,with his family and friends.

When my mother learned that in America women could also work and earn wages, however, she talked him into going back to the States and submitting a request for his family to join him. There was a quota system that limited the number of Italians that could be admitted each year, and we had to wait two years before receiving visas in 1958.

I had mixed feelings. I was eager to see my father and this mythical place called “America,” where so many people from my town had gone to “make money.” My father had sent us packages, which were like treasure troves with exotic items from another world. One contained a cap gun, which made me the star and the envy of the other children in town—even after I ran out of caps and had to go back to making shooting sounds with my mouth: pam, pam! I still had what looked like a real metal gun, as opposed to the sticks we used for guns and rifles when we played soldiers, or if we were lucky, the scraps of wood of different sizes and shapes we occasionally got from the carpenter.

The most alluring items in the packages from America were the illustrated children’s books that seemed to depict a strange fantasy world where people not only spoke an undecipherable language, but where everything was different: the houses, the clothes, the children’s toys, the dogs, even the way people stood, sat, and looked and smiled at each other. The children—with the strange, unpronounceable names Dick and Jane—usually had a cute dog, Spot, romping around them and what seemed to me outlandish contraptions: a pedal car, or bulky bicycles that looked more like motorcycles, and a red wagon that they could pull or ride or use to transport all sorts of marvelous belongings: toys, dolls, stuffed animals, picnic supplies, gardening tools and the harvested vegetables and flowers.

Our own toys were all home-made: discarded hoops from old wine barrels that we would roll down the street or the stone sidewalks, guided with a stick; short sticks sharpened at both ends and long ones from fallen branches, to play p’zzill, peg and stick, or tip-cat; soccer balls made of bundles of rags tied together; sling shots made with a forked twig and the elastic from an old pair of home-made underpants—or sometimes from a new pair, in which case we had not only to cope with the discomfort of our underpants not staying up, but had to live in fear of the punishment that would surely be meted out on the next wash day, when our mothers would discover the crime.

Unlike our houses, which were made of bare blocks of hand-hewn granite and attached to each other in rows, the houses in the town where Deek and Yahneh (as I pronounced their names) lived seemed to come in many shapes and colors, and most intriguingly, seemed to be surrounded by grass, bushes, flowers, trees, and some by wooden fences. I had never seen anything like them. The paved roads, where enormous automobiles zoomed, branched off and extended to smaller buildings next to each house, where one of those huge cars was sometimes parked. Garages and driveways were unknown concepts.

The children’s clothes seemed to be more colorful as well, and always clean and new, not patched as ours were, sometimes with patches on patches. They seemed to sport a different outfit everyday. Jane always had bows in her hair. It seemed that there was no dirt in America, and clothes never tore or got dirty. I wondered if underpants would stay up even without the elastic that our mothers used when they made our underwear and other clothes. What a wondrous place to visit, I fantasized, if that’s how things really were. But what if these books were indeed just fairy tales, and Dick and Jane were just the American versions of our Pinocchio?

Curious as I was to see this fabled America, I also dreaded the thought of leaving my own world: my extended family, my friends, the familiar places where I had played, got hurt, learned, grown up, become me. I told my friends—and myself—that it would just be an extended vacation, a kind of scouting adventure. I would surely be back in a year or two, and I would tell them all about those cars and funny houses surrounded by grass, and the meaning of those unpronounceable words with alien consonants in them.

The thought that I would not return, that I could abandon my home, my family, my playmates, my world forever was not even conceivable. But perhaps a seed of doubt was planted somewhere in the recesses of my mind by the tears shed by others who had left and had not returned and by those they left behind. Where in the world were we going and for how long?

Boston was where we were going. My father had traveled back and forth by ship, but we went by airplane—possibly the first from our town to do so, as I recall. As the plane approached the airport I peered out the window to get a look at this new world. It did look like those pictures in the books: individual houses of different shapes and colors surrounded by grass and trees. “Parǝ nu presepyǝ!” I exclaimed to my mother—“It looks like a creche!” My father made beautiful nativity scenes for the Christmas season, fashioning houses, churches, palaces, and huts out of cans and boxes. So, as I looked down on this quaint landscape from the sky, the resemblance to my father’s nativity scenes made it a little less foreign, but in another sense, it made it more unreal: an artificial place of fantasy.

My father was waiting for us at the airport with another paesano. Papà looked the same as I remembered him and yet different, foreign: dressed in strange clothes, moving in an alien context among people and objects that were unfamiliar and mystifying. My excitement turned to shyness, my pleasure mingled with bashful discomfort, as he enveloped me in his strong stonemason’s arms that had become unfamiliar.

The other Petrellese with my father was one of two other masons who had emigrated with him, and whose family was traveling together with ours. To my delight and amazement he actually owned one of those colossal cars pictured in the Dick and Jane books: a 1949 Pontiac, with a jutting feathered head of the Chief mounted on the hood.

Those books had not contained lies after all: the cars were as big as ships, and the city streets were full of them. We made sure to have our picture taken in front of the mammoth Pontiac to send to our family and friends back home to show that we were already enjoying some of the fabulous riches of this strange new world.

Inside, the houses seemed even more like something out of a fairy tale: wood and carpeting on the floors, rather than stone or terracotta tiles; an oven and stove for cooking, rather than a fireplace; a refrigerator, rather than just a pantry; stuffed easy chairs and couches, rather than straight-backed wooden chairs with straw or wooden seats; and of course, sinks, a bathtub, and a washing machine with running water available right in the house!—and both cold and hot (even if the cold water was mistakenly labelled “C”, which in Italian stood for caldo, hot)!

And most magical of all: a television set! I was mesmerized by it when my father first turned it on and soon became an addicted viewer, particularly on Saturdays: Rin Tin Tin; Broken Arrow (which I called Cochise); Fury; Mighty Mouse; The Lone Ranger. Just listing the names evokes some of the same open-mouthed wonder and excitement I felt then in front of that futuristic marvel. Within a few weeks I knew the TV schedule by heart, knew the names of the characters and the actors, and recognized all the theme songs: Wanted, Dead or Alive, with Steve McQueen; Have Gun, Will Travel, with Richard Boone; Wagon Train, with Ward Bond; Zorro, with Guy Williams (learning much later that his real name was Armando Catalano, the son of Sicilian immigrants); Gunsmoke, Leave It to Beaver, I Love Lucy, and so on, and so on.

Though my parents would sometimes curtail my obsessive viewing to send me to bed or chase me outside to get some air and exercise, they generally indulged me in my new addiction. It kept me off the streets of this strange place, where who knew what could happen to me. The traffic in Quincy’s streets was terrifying compared to Petrella, where the alleys and even the main trafficable road served served either for the foot traffic of contadini and their animals (goats, sheep, donkeys) going out to the fields in the morning and returning to town in the evening, or other townspeople going on errands during the day; or they served as playgrounds for the children. The only vehicular traffic was two or four times a day when the buses to or from Campobasso passed through on the via nova. They didn’t mind too much that the TV was keeping me off the dangerous American streets.

Furthermore, this magical box was beginning to teach me and my sister this country’s incomprehensible language. Television was my first American teacher. Because we had arrived in June and did not have to go to school until the fall, I had the summer to be introduced to this alien place. I learned a few things from the children in the neighborhood: a few words, money units, where to shop for what, and how to play a bizarre American sport called baseball. However, my introductory indoctrination was limited by the fact that many of my neighbors and playmates were also recent immigrants from Italy, and we talked mostly in Italian, or rather in our respective dialects, or a mixture of dialects, sprinkled with some standard Italian and a few English expressions.

Indeed, the experience of that first summer was as informative and interesting in what it revealed to me about Italy and Italians, about their various dialects and customs, as what it taught me about American language and culture. It was in Quincy, Massachusetts, that I first realized what a complex and rich patchwork of languages and cultures Italy is, that there are in fact many different Italies. And it was strange that I should encounter these other Italies in Massachusetts, indeed that I could only encounter them in such a place. In Petrella I never had met any Italians from other regions. However, in our Quincy neighborhood there were families from Sicily, Campania, Calabria, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont: a veritable microcosm of Italy. So, when I ventured outside I found a window with a telescopic view of Italy superimposed on my initial exposure to America: like looking through a window at twilight, when one sees both what’s outside and the reflection of what’s inside.

When school started in September I was placed in the fifth grade. But because I had not learned much English and did not know how to read or write, the teacher assigned another Italian boy, also from the Province of Campobasso, to act as my translator and had us start by reading first-grade books and progressing through the other grades until I caught up with the rest of the class. The first books he assigned were Dick and Jane books. “Ah, Deek e Yahneh!” I exclaimed in recognition. No, my little mentor Donato corrected me, “Dick and Jane. J in English is like a G.” And so, my pedagogical introduction to English and to America continued as it had begun back in Petrella: with Dick and Jane and Spot and their little red wagon.

Nevertheless, my main picture window to America remained the TV set. Through that window I peered in fascination to catch black-and-white glimpses of how Americans dressed, moved, talked, laughed—and surprisingly frequently punched, hit, stabbed, and shot each other. It was not only the language I picked up, but the values, ideas, and beliefs that defined the characters and determined their conflicts and their conduct. And this ethos, I eventually realized, was substantially different from the beliefs, values, customs, and practices that had formed the basis of life and social interactions in my previous world.

Flint McCullough, the scout on Wagon Train (played by Robert Horton) , was one of my favorite characters, in one of my favorite series, of my favorite genre: the Western. The heroes in the Westerns that dominated the TV airwaves at the time seemed to embody what it meant to be “American”: self-reliance; a certain reserve or reticence, a need for privacy; a stubborn, single-minded adherence to a personal code of justice and fair play; a willingness to fight, even to the death, for this code—but a reluctance or unwillingness to talk about it: the pioneer spirit that conquered the west, that tamed the wilderness: American individualism.

I wanted to be like Flint, the scout: stalwart, brave, serious, quiet, reliable, strong, fast and accurate with the gun, fair but dangerous, steely-gazed yet shy, honorable. I looked at myself and my life from the outside as if I were watching a TV series and patterned my behavior, my gestures, my “attitude,” my thoughts on those of Flint McCullough and Matt Dillon and the Lone Ranger. I Americanized myself by this kind of imaginary playacting.

The identity I was putting together in this fashion was very different from the one I had fashioned in my previous existence in that other world, where people had not been as silent, as indomitable, as self-reliant, or as forceful and potentially violent as Paladin or Cheyenne. There had been no television heroes at all back there; only real flesh-and-blood neighbors I saw in the streets or in the piazza—and the supernatural beings of our superstitions and imagination.

There, in my old world, communal values, social interaction, familial and societal ties seemed more important than the individual’s personal code and mission. One’s identity was determined to a larger extent by one’s place and function in the community. We lived more by communal customs and expectations, dictated by folkways, popular proverbs, prejudices and superstitions accumulated over many generations.

These two identities, my Italian self and my American self, took root within me: neither one fully dominant, neither one ever abandoned. I continued to straddle two worlds during my adolescence. At home I lived by the standards and customs of my Italian hometown. I always talked to my parents exclusively in our native dialect, throughout their lives. At school and with my American friends I spoke a different language and wore a different mask.

These two worlds never merged fully, and I continued to shuttle back and forth between them in my daily life, feeling slightly out of place in both. Among my schoolmates I was a foreigner with a strange name who brought strange lunches to school—such as fried or roasted sausage and peppers, frittata, sliced meatballs on home-made crusty bread: food to make my mouth water today, but embarrassing when what I coveted was the peanut butter-and-jelly-on-white-Wonder Bread sandwiches that the American kids brought in a little, white, store-bought lunch bag that they—and probably Dick and Jane too—used once and threw away, whereas my exotic and humiliating lunch was packed in an even more mortifying re-used brown-paper shopping bag—often with the price of the merchandise still written on it with a grease pencil that I tried to erase or hide. But I had become a foreigner at home as well: an American boy in an Italian household, who found it difficult to share his outside concerns, activities, and problems with his parents, because we no longer shared the same points of reference.

And yet, the other side of that coin is that as a migrant forced to adapt to new places and ways of life, and possibly because my childhood took place in a secure, familiar and familial environment where I learned to trust people and rely on them, I have generally found it easy to make friends, or at least to establish friendly relations, and to adapt to new circumstances, wherever the paths of life took me. My childhood upbringing in a small southern Italian town taught me to like, trust, and rely on people, and as a result I have generally valued and enjoyed the company of neighbors, colleagues, and acquaintances as I’ve moved from place to place for study, military service, or work.

In retrospect I now suspect that I was especially attracted to Wagon Train because it was about migration—and perhaps previously to Dick and Jane’s little red wagon as well because it too was a means of transportation and movement from place to place. The wagoneers’ trek across the plains and mountains was analogous to my family’s trip across the ocean. The covered wagons containing their few remaining belongings betokened the social and cultural baggage that the migrants carried with them from their former lives: a little piece of their old world that they were transporting with them to their new destination: residual items analogous to the language, foods, rituals, memories, traditions, and beliefs that we had brought with us and tried to perpetuate in our new setting.

But what about the native populations they encountered in their westward journey, whom they often had to fight: those “savage Injuns”? Did I identify with them too, or only with the white “migrants”? Did it register at some level in my ten-year-old mind that the Natives were typically depicted as the aggressors, even though it was the Whites who were invading and occupying their lands? Or was I too trapped in the persistent tropes of the biblical Exodus, perceiving the Whites as the “chosen people” going toward the “promised land of milk and honey” set aside for them by God, or if not by a deity, in secular terms, by history, or biology, or the certitude that they were the bearers of a superior civilization?

It could just be revisionist memory, but as someone who had been uprooted from his own land and way of life, I think that I also sympathized with the lot of the indigenous people whose way of life was being disrupted, indeed destroyed, by the incursion of these self-righteous alien strangers into their world. My fascination with Westerns might have been enhanced from being able to see myself on both sides: the migrant looking for a new life and the person whose lifestyle is disrupted by forces beyond his control.

When the “Indians” attacked and the wagoneers circled their wagons to defend themselves, I didn’t cheer for one side to annihilate the other: the “right” over the “wrong.” I wanted them to stop fighting, to mingle, to share, to learn from each other, to improve their lots mutually: to reject an “either/or” logic and accept a more productive “both/and” way of thought and conduct.

I’d like to think migration tends to promote a “both/and” approach. The shuttle that weaves the fabric of our lives tends to move back and forth, intertwining strands that come from different places and cultures. Migration provides rich and diverse threads, and it does so not only for actual migrants who move from one country to another, but for all of us.

We are all migrants through life, even those who stay put in one place. We all move through different periods of time, through various socio-cultural settings, and through diverse existential and psychological states. The world around us changes, our neighborhood, our circle of acquaintances, the technology that dictates how we interact with others and how we establish and maintain relationships.

We must all choose how to deal with those various forms of dislocation and change: whether to be terrified by alteration and difference and seek a safe harbor where we can drop our anchor and remain immobile and try to prevent others from intruding, fearing that they might introduce unwanted changes and flux; or rather to embrace change and transformation with open and curious minds and to keep sailing from port to port (trans-port) in our cognitive journey, welcoming encounters with strangers and the novelties and cultural riches they bear.

As for me, where have Dick and Jane’s red wagon and Flint’s Wagon Train and the winding paths of my own journey through life transported me? Perhaps to a proclivity rather than to any set conviction: a tendency to remain an observer on the sidelines while also being in the midst of communal activities as a participant. Even in the turbulent 1960s, the years of my adolescence, when I no longer spoke English with an accent, and when I participated actively and with conviction in the crusades for Civil Rights and against the war in Vietnam, I also remained an onlooker perched on the margins, from where I could see different sides: both an actor in the play and a spectator, viewing events as through the TV screen where I first met and came to know America.

In a sense, migration is a “religious” experience, albeit not in the common sense of that term. The word “religion” comes either from Latin re-ligare, to tie together again, or re-legere; to re-read, and hence to review, revisit, rethink. In either case, it’s a linking of different realms of experience: here and there; now and then; past, present, and future; the real and the ideal; actions and ethics; self and others; individual and society; nature and culture. In this sense to be “religious” is to perceive, understand, and accept differences and to bridge them: in essence, to migrate, mentally if not physically.

What results is a migrant’s acceptance of difference, perceived from a marginal perch from which one can see that there are many sides to any issue and that we are all particles—or better yet, quanta—that seek an equilibrium between countervailing forces: a centripetal force that ties us to our roots and a centrifugal force that pushes us out toward greener pastures, like sports. Quantum theory may apply to human activity as well as the physical universe: we are caught up in a fluctuating field of waves and forces that take us on a continuous and never-ending journey of “entanglement” with others, be that journey undertaken across the street in Dick and Jane’s little red wagon, across the continent in Flint’s wagon train, across the seas on the ocean liner Cristoforo Colombo, or across space—and our imagination—on the Starship Enterprise.



Sante Matteo was born and raised in a small agricultural town in southern Italy.  His family emigrated to the United States when he was almost ten. He had the good fortune to maintain and strengthen his ties to Italy by becoming a professor of Italian Studies.  He is currently Professor Emeritus at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he resides, reminisces, and writes.