by Onorio Colucci
You’ll see, said my friend Sandro. You are going to regret it! Lucky you, said his sister Patrizia. You are going to be so happy!
It was April of 1970 and I was a 12-year-old boy growing up in the hamlet of Ranno in the countryside just outside of the town of Casalvieri. On this sunny spring day I had gone in search of wild asparagus with my friend Sandro and his Sister Patrizia. We headed nearby to the well-known asparagus hotspot known as Mercante on the road to the town. As we searched the bushes for asparagus, we discussed the big change that was soon coming to my life: in a few weeks my mother, my paternal grandmother and I would be leaving to go to live in Windsor, Canada to join my father who had lived there off and on since 1950. The difference of opinion between Sandro and his sister related to weather or not going to Canada would be something that I would enjoy.
As the 50th anniversary of my arrival in Canada approaches, I reflect back to that day in Mercante and ponder who was right after all: Sandro or his sister?
In order to properly frame that question, it’s important to look both backwards and forward from that day.
I was born in Casalvieri (Via Ranno) in 1958 as the only child of Domenico Colucci and Natalina D’Andrea. Both of my parents were also born in Casalvieri. My dad in the hamlet of Ranno, where just about everybody’s last name was Colucci (including the father of the well-known late French comic Coluche, who was also born in Ranno and was likely a distant relative). My mother came from the nearby hamlet of Sorelle. All my grandparents, great grandparents (and beyond, as far as we know) were also born in Casalvieri.
This area of the Val Comino is stunningly beautiful but in my youth it was economically very poor. Essentially all the people, including my family as far back as anyone can remember, worked the land as farmers. However, the poor transportation infrastructure and the dispersed plots of land meant that life was hard. This led many residents of the area to emigrate in search of a better life.
The cycle of emigration in my immediate family started in 1920 with my grandfather, Onorio Colucci. Shortly after being discharged from the Italian Army following the First World War, and having just married my grandmother Antonia Fasanini, he joined his sister Luisa and her family in Detroit, USA for approximately a year in search of work.
Postcard from my grandfather Onorio to my grandmother and and to his parents while travelling to Detroit on his first trip in 1920
After returning to Casalvieri, he and my grandmother went to Paris for a while (where his older brother Luigi and his family were living at the time). In the years that followed he also returned to Detroit, the last time in 1932 for a year or so. In fact, he was in Detroit when his parents, Pasquale Francesco Colucci and Isabella Pagnani, died on the same day of natural causes (I remember my grandmother telling me that my great grandfather kept saying: wait for me Isabella, I am coming with you!). Unfortunately it was the second time that my grandfather Onorio was abroad when there was a death in the family. He had also been away when his young daughter Adelina died while he was in Detroit (in 1926 I believe) during another trip.This tragedy compounded the grief from his recent loss, shortly after his birth, of his first born child, Antonio. These sad events remind us of the challenges faced by immigrants in the days when trips lasted 7 days and the means of communications were not what they are today.
The years immediately following the Second World War were especially difficult ones in Italy. This was the impetus that in 1950 led my then 22 year old father to follow in his own father’s footsteps in search of work. He had hoped to also go to Detroit where his aunt still lived but was unable to get into the USA. Therefore, he chose Windsor, Canada which is just across the Detroit River from Detroit. This allowed him to be close enough to his aunt, the only person he knew in the area. My grandfather Onorio joined him in Windsor a couple of years later before both returned to Casalvieri in 1956.
My grandfather Onorio when he was in Windsor with my father. The pickup truck from their construction company
My parents were married in 1957 and I was born a year later. When I was one and a half years old, my father went back to Windsor with the intention of working a few more years to save some money before coming back to Italy to stay permanently.
I lived with my mother and paternal grandparents. We lived in a house built by my grandfather’s brother Luigi Colucci with money saved from his time working in Paris. He and his wife Annunziata had three children but unfortunately they all died young so they left the house to my father, their nephew.
My cousin Onorio Fanelli, also an only child and who was just 4 weeks older than me, lived nearby in our ancestral home. In my pictures as a child we are often seen together dressed as twins. As we were both only children and the same age, we were like brothers and we were very close. My cousin, who unfortunately was born with a progressive disability, also immigrated to Windsor with his parents in the early sixties.
Me with my cousin Onorio Fanelli on the left
After my cousin left for Canada, I got to know Arseno Vitti who lived close to our house and who quickly became my best friend. All it took was a loud whistle from one or the other to alert each other to get together. We were both big fans of Inter FC in the years that, led by Sandro Mazzola, they were winning many championships. Whether it was playing soccer, making bows and arrows or slingshots, trading comic books (Tex, Capitan Miki, Blek, Comandante Mark, Zagor) not a day went by that didn’t bring happiness and a sense of adventure.
My maternal grandparents, Salvatore D’andrea and Arcangela Minicilli also lived nearby. I remember fondly visiting my maternal grandparents. Every time I went to visit, my grandmother Arcangela would have some chocolate for me. Needless to say, I visited often! Every Sunday after church and lunch, I would join my grandfather Salvatore (in the area everybody called him Blackbeard) in Sorelle where the men of the hamlet would play bocce on the unpaved street. He was a very good player and always shared his winnings with me (chocolates or beer depending on the winning prize of the day).
In 1962, when I was 4 years old, my father came back for a month or so for a surprise visit. I still remember playing in front of our house when he arrived that day and asked where my father was. I vividly remember his happiness when, having recognized him from pictures, I said: “He’s in Canada, but I think it’s you”.
With my parents before my father returned to Windsor
The next time I saw my father was in 1966 when sadly my grandfather Onorio passed away suddenly. He stayed some six months and before going back to Canada bought a car for my mother who became one of the first women in the area to drive. Though sad from my grandfather’s passing, I was also happy to get the first real chance to get to know my dad during those six months.
Life seemed much simpler in those days, though perhaps in part because I was still a child without the responsibilities of adulthood. Though simpler, life was also harder in many ways. My mother and grandparents worked long hours in the fields before coming home at dusk to take care of the animals and to make dinner. We did have a car (from 1966) and a TV (ordered by my father from Canada at the Ianni store in Casalvieri and delivered for my 4th birthday in 1962). However, we didn’t have what today are considered necessities: indoor plumbing, telephone, refrigeration or central heating in the winter (our heating consisted of heating a brick in the fireplace than wrapping it in a blanket and taking it to bed for the night). But this was common to nearly everyone in the area so we did not feel poor. Whatever we didn’t have economically, was more than offset by the beautiful environment, friendships, and the sense of love that permeated the family.
Living on a farm there was much work to be done. As I got older I had chores to do, mostly in helping take care of the animals. One of my frequent tasks was to take the cows to the nearby pastures and keeping an eye on them while they grazed (at times I would get so engrossed in reading my comic books that I would lose track of the cows and I would have to scramble to try and find them and bring them back!).
In regards to my schooling, I attended the elementary grades in a small two room school in Sorelle. The year before emigrating I started middle school in a building attached to the main church in Casalvieri. I liked school and generally did reasonably well.
Primary school in Sorelle, 1966
Overall, other than being away from my father, my childhood in Casalvieri is full of fond memories. It was natural therefore that as we got closer to leaving for Canada, I was certainly feeling sad to be leaving my friends, my maternal grandparents, my other relatives, and even my dog Pappuccio. However, I was also happy to be able to reunite with my dad, my cousin Onorio, and the other relatives that had by now had also immigrated to Canada.
My mother, grandmother and I left Casalvieri early in the morning of May 6, 1970 and arrived in Windsor late that same night.
Unlike when my father had arrived in Windsor twenty years earlier, there were by then many relatives in Canada and they gave us a very warm welcome. My father's two sisters, Rosa (with her husband Guido and my cousin Onorio Fanelli) and Filomena (with her husband Antonio and my cousin Loreto Rea) lived in Windsor. Also, when we arrived in 1970, two of my mother's brothers, Onorio and Antonio and two of her sisters, Assunta and Anna, had emigrated to Canada and lived in Toronto with their families, including my cousins Maria and Ennio Carlesimo and the newborn Salvatore D'Andrea). They too gave us a warm welcome and we often visited them, even though the two cities are almost a four hour drive from each other.
My father was self-employed in construction, my mother started working on a farm 4 days after we arrived. During tomato season, my mother, grandmother and I would go pick tomatoes for farmers outside the city. It was hard work having to bend over the whole day in order to pick the tomatoes. The pay was 30 cents per bushel and you had to be quick if you wanted to make a reasonable wage. My mother, who has always been an incredibly hard worker, was very fast. My grandmother, who by then was 70 years old, was also very quick. They were both much quicker than me. I decided it was better to go help my father in construction as that was much easier on my back and my ego!
My aunt Rosa and my uncle Guido picking tomatoes, a job that I did as well along with my mother and grandmother
By the start of school in September I had learned enough English to get by in school and was put in the 2nd year of middle school. As I had finished the 1st year of middle school in Casalvieri, I was able to continue my studies without having to start at a lower grade. In school, I met new friends and the interaction with them helped me to perfect my English quite quickly. Fifty years later, Leonardo Caro, a classmate from that first school year in Canada, and whose parents were born in Sicily, remains one of my best friends. Two years after arriving in Canada, I finished middle school and started high school. I continued to help my father in construction when I could. I also worked for a grocery store on Saturdays.
When I finished High school I enrolled at the University of Windsor. For a short time I was in the School of Law. However, I didn’t enjoy that subject so I switched to Economics and Business Administration. I received my degree in 1982 with a specialization in accounting. While going to university I worked on the weekend at the Chrysler factory in Windsor that made the full sized vans. That income helped me finance the university costs.
After finishing university, I was hired by an accounting firm (KPMG) and worked with them for two years. In September 1984 I left KPMG to go work for the Municipality of the City of Windsor. I have worked for the municipality ever since and it’s been a very rewarding career. I started as an accountant, later worked as an internal auditor, Director of Accounting, Treasurer, and for the last 4 years in the position of Chief Administrative Officer.
City council of Windsor
During the last 35 years at City Hall, I have worked with many colleagues who have become close friends. Many of them are of Italian origin and their roots cover almost all the regions of Italy from Sicily to Friuli. Some colleagues, and not only those of Italian origin, have even come to visit me during my holidays in Casalvieri and always talk about the beauty of the Val Comino. I plan to retire next year and I hope that this will allow me to spend more time in Casalvieri.
In terms of more personal matters, I was married to a very nice French Canadian woman, Colette Champagne, in 1988 and we had three children: David, Natalie, and Lidia. Unfortunately my marriage broke up after 11 years. Nonetheless, my former wife and I have remained cordial and have always worked for what is best for our children. From the day they were born, my children have always been the love of my life. They have grown up and have all left the house but still live and work in Windsor and are doing well on their own. My parents and I spoke to them in Italian as children, and my wife in French, so they can all speak Italian (or at least the Casalvierano dialect) quite well in addition to English and French. They love Italy and have been there 3 times. One of the highlights of my life was being in Casalvieri during the Soccer World Cup in 2006 on my children’s first trip to Italy and being able to celebrate with them in my hometown Italy’s championship.
With my mother and my children
The magical night of the 2006 World Cup victory. My children on the right along with my godfather and uncle, Onorio Paolini, my cousins Mauro and Valentina and their dog, Swiffer
For a long time now, I've felt well integrated into Canadian culture even though I think that one's own culture and background influence relationships more than one might sometimes think. This seems to manifest itself in my friendships, since not everyone but many of my closest friends are of Italian origin, even if they were born in Canada. In the same sense, it is also interesting to note that my ex-wife remarried a French-Canadian man, while I have had a constant companion, Ivana Liegghio, of Italian origin, for almost twenty years. More precisely, Ivana's mother was from Atina and her father from Casalvieri. Although Ivana was born in Canada, she lived briefly in Casalvieri as a child since her parents had returned to live there for a few years.
With Ivana in Casalvieri in 2016
As far as my adopted city is concerned, Windsor is the southernmost city in Canada and this makes our climate mild by Canadian standards. We are a medium-sized city with 220,000 inhabitants, so it is quite easy to travel around the city compared to larger cities like Toronto. Yet we are located right across the river from Detroit, which has a metropolitan population of about 4 million and gives us access to everything that only a very large city can offer, including greater job opportunities.
Windsor on the right and Detroit on the left
As an immigrant, I have always felt welcomed and have never felt discriminated against. Windsor has many institutions that cater to Italian culture and life. St. Angela Merici Church, the Ciociaro Club, the Caboto Club, the Fogolar Furlan Club, etc. Unfortunately, in the last few years some are starting to face challenges and will have to evolve as there are very few new immigrants coming from Italy to support the institutions and the older generation continues to dwindle. Italian groceries which were very scarce and difficult to find when my father arrived in 1950 are now in every grocery store. Italian restaurants are everywhere. In Windsor one can live a modern Canadian life while still maintaining the cultural connections to our native land which are important to many of us. Modern communication means and social networks really help as well in that regard as we are able to easily keep in close contact with our friends and relatives in Italy.
Though it seems impossible, it is indeed fifty years from that discussion with my friends while picking asparagus in Mercante. So, with the benefit of hindsight, who was right about what lay ahead of me at that time? Was Sandro right in saying that I would regret leaving Casalvieri? Or was it his sister Patrizia that was right when she said that I was lucky to be going to Windsor and that I would be very happy?
In retrospect I think they were both right.
Sandro was certainly right in the sense that I missed my friends, maternal grandparents and other relatives that I left behind. He was right in that I missed the reassuring feeling of continuity one gets while living in the same area where one’s ancestors had also lived. He was right in that I missed the mountains and the general beauty of the Val Comino. He was right in that I missed the less stressful lifestyle.
On the other hand Patrizia was right in many aspects well. I was reunited with my father for 34 years before he passed away in 2004. I was reunited with my cousin Onorio, who was like a brother to me as a child, though unfortunately he passed away at the young age of 34. I was reunited with other aunts, uncles and cousins who are also in Canada. I was able to take advantage of the educational opportunities in my adopted country, becoming the first university graduate in my family, and which have allowed me to pursue a fulfilling professional career.
In summary, I love Italy as the place of my birth and the land of my ancestors; for being the residence of many friends and relatives who treat me so well every time I return there; for its incredible beauty, culture, history and food. I am always thrilled to return there as often as possible. I love Canada for accepting a young immigrant without discrimination, for being the birthplace of my children and for rewarding the hard work of my family and other immigrants. In other words, I love both countries and both of them have helped shape the person I am today.
From the right Ivana, myself, my mother, Lidia with her boyfriend Robert, Natalie and David with his girlfriend Danielle
Nonetheless, if Italy and Canada ever meet in the final of the World Cup of Soccer, I will be cheering for Italy. In some matters one has to follow one’s heart.
ALBUM DI FAMIGLIA
My grandfather, Onorio Colucci as a soldier in the First World War
My grandmother Antonia Fasanini (sitting), on the left her sister Francesca, on the right my grandmother's sister in law Maria Colucci, in the centre, Francesca's sister in law, Caminella
My granfather's brother, Luigi Colucci, his wife Annunziata, and their children Caterina, Michele, and Adelina
My grandmother Arcangela with my mother Natalina on the right and my aunt Assunta on the left, circa 1935
My great grandmother Annunziata Paolini, mother of my grandmother Arcangela
In front of our house after the wedding of my parents. My great grandfather Antonio D'Andrea is on the right
Walking back home after the wedding of my parents at the church in Roselli
My first communion on January 1, 1967 in front of the church in Roselli, with my parents, grandparents, aunts,cousin and my godfather
With my cousin and childhood friend in Italy, Onorio Fanelli, during my first months in Canada
In my grandparents' kitchen during my first visit back to Italy in May 1979, with my grandmother Antonia, my mother, and my grandparents Salvatore e Arcangela
My high school soccer team (kneeling in the middle with my eyes closed)
With my parents at my wedding
With Ivana, my parents and my children at the wedding of my cousin Angela D'Andrea in Toronto
The whole family at the wedding of Ivana's daughter Vanessa
With Ivana at the wedding of Vanessa and Adam
With Windsor mayor Drew Dilkens and City of Windsor Treasurer Joe Mancina (who's parents emigrated from Calabria) during the press conference announcing the 2020 City Budget
The Ciociaro Club in Windsor