Good water and good people’
MONONGAH — In the rugged Italian south, near the tip of the boot, there’s a little town built high on a mountain. It is a town with an enduring link to north-central West Virginia.
As the Mountain State has lost its sons and daughters to more economically stable states, so San Giovanni in Fiore has given to Fairmont, Clarksburg and the many mining towns in between.
Russell Bonasso’s father left San Giovanni in Fiore in 1913, lured by the promise of a job deep underground, where men and mules pulled coal from the tortured earth.
“There was a touch of San Giovanni in every little coal camp,” said Bonasso, 84, of Fairmont.
The Italians came to America in waves during the late 1800s and early 1900s, escaping a life of sharecropping in the impoverished mezzogiorno.
Translated literally as “midday,” when the sun is the strongest, the mezzogiorno is the local name for the hot, dry south, where economics and education still lag behind those in the north.
But for highland San Giovanni in Fiore, where the winters can cover the town in snow, the climate is more like another mountainous area across the ocean, a place that many San Giovanni residents and Calabrese still hold dear, a place where their families overcame and prospered, where they imprinted the old ways of God, family, hard work and hearty food onto a more modern, foreign landscape.
“A lot of people here know about West Virginia, about Clarksburg, about Monongah,” said Pietro Mazza from his office in San Giovanni, where he works to connect the American descendants of San Giovanni emigrants with their Italian cousins. “San Giovanni is like West Virginia because of its mountains, its good water and good people.”
Honoring their own
Bonasso. Oliverio. Merandi. Guarascio. Minard. Iaquinta. D’Annunzio. The names read like a “Who’s Who” of north-central West Virginia, but they all originated in the Calabrian town with the flowing name, which, translated literally, means St. John in Flower.
(The name is a combination of the town’s patron saint — John — and Gioacchino da Fiore, who founded a monastic order on the town site in the 12th century.)
Although the spelling has been Americanized, another San Giovanni surname, Manchin, now hangs on the governor’s door in West Virginia.
While family ties have linked West Virginia and Calabria for generations, more official bonds are being created.
Gov. Joe Manchin last month signed a proclamation declaring Clarksburg and San Giovanni sister cities.
Mike Oliverio, the father of state Sen. Mike Oliverio, D-Monongalia, will present the proclamation to the leaders of San Giovanni this month when he and several members of his family make another of their frequent trips to the land of their roots.
During the summer, the elder Oliverio was in Italy to be recognized by the government as a Calabrese descendant who is also an outstanding humanitarian.
The Oliverios work with the Audia Caring Heritage Association, founded by Albert Andy, a Washington, Pa., factory owner whose parents emigrated from San Giovanni in the early 1900s. He founded the poverty-fighting association after his first visit to his parents’ hometown in 1998.
The association’s first project was to fund a CT scanner for the hospital in San Giovanni.
“It saved a person’s life the third day it was there,” Sen. Oliverio said of the machine.
In 2004, Russell Bonasso was honored in San Giovanni as Southern Italy’s Man of the Year, both for his lifelong attachment to San Giovanni and for “Fire in the Hole,” his 2003 self-published book that recounts the mining life of the early immigrants, a life often punctuated by tragedy.
‘I can’t sell you a house here’
On a hot day in August, Bonasso walked the sloping hillside that is Mount Calvary Cemetery. Its rows of carved granite are tucked along a side street in the Marion County town of Monongah, a town whose very name has long evoked the memory of mass death deep underground.
Among the headstones, some as new as last month’s obituaries, a scattering of crucifix-topped markers stand narrow and tall, blackened by age and coal dust. Their message is often written in Italian, their date a fateful December day in 1907, when Monongah suffered what is still the worst coal mining disaster in U.S. history.
The Italians were the largest immigrant community represented in the 361 deaths at Monongah, a bitter end for those who sought a better life than what could be found in mezzogiorno.
“Like the frontiersmen going West, they blazed a new trail for their people,” Bonasso said, as he looked over the clipped green grass and the heat waves dancing atop the graves. “And many lost their lives in the process.”
Undaunted by the news of the Monongah explosions, the southern Italians still surged across the ocean, bound for coal camps such as Wyatt and Carolina, the towns of Bonasso’s youth.
By their sheer numbers, they became a force in the communities and the subsequent union efforts. Some were able to leave the mines behind, and, like Bonasso’s father, become storekeepers or restaurant owners.
But prejudices remained.
After serving in World War II, Bonasso returned to Carolina and his wife and children. He was ready to move into Fairmont, where his children would have more educational opportunities. He chose a nice neighborhood near the college and began inquiring about a house there.
“But the agent said ‘Russ, I can’t sell you a house here. ... You’re Italian.’”
At the courthouses in Harrison and Marion counties, yellowed deeds still tell the tale: “May not sell to Italians,” “May not sell to Jews,” etc.
But Bonasso persevered. He found 100 acres on a nearby hilltop overlooking Barrackville, where he still lives today. He has continued to educate himself throughout his life, and is now working on a master’s degree.
His 12 children include a doctor, a dentist, an engineer, lawyers and teachers. Of his 48 grandchildren, more than half are either through college or in college.
“We were taught by our parents that this was the land of opportunity,” Bonasso said. “They told us they didn’t have the chance that we had. At the dinner table, we heard how bad it had been and how good it could be.”
Preserving a heritage
Like many of the early immigrant populations in America, the Italians did not overtly celebrate their heritage. Instead, they tried to fit in. Some changed their first names to the American versions — for instance, Giovanni became John. Many of their last names had been altered because of misunderstandings at Ellis Island and other U.S. ports of entry.
Albert Andy named his association Audia Caring, reclaiming the name that was mistakenly taken from his family by U.S. immigration workers.
Stephen Pishner of Clarksburg is amused by e-mails and mailings that offer to tell him about his family history — his German history. His grandfather’s name, until the day he arrived in this country from San Giovanni, was Piscioneri.
But nowadays, the children and grandchildren of the Italian immigrants are reveling in their history — something that is not lost on the modern-day Calabrese.
In 2003, the Heritage Calabria Emigrants Association began in San Giovanni. Its purpose is to celebrate Calabrian history and maintain ties with the descendants of the region’s emigrants.
“The association intends to keep close ties with groups or entities like the Audia Caring Heritage Association, [and] the West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival,” reads part of the group’s bylaws, translated into English.
Bonasso recently started a chapter of Heritage Calabria in north-central West Virginia.
Today, San Giovanni and Calabria are not mired in the malaise that prompted the great migration. However, when the word mezzogiorno is uttered in the Italian north, it still signifies the lack of opportunity that has long plagued the southern regions.
Separately, Pishner, 40, and Bonasso have made many trips to San Giovanni. Bonasso’s first trip came during his time overseas in World War II, when he witnessed firsthand the bedrock poverty that his father fled.
“But now, most of my cousins there have gone on to school,” Bonasso said. “Now they have a superstrata that goes right along the backbone of the mountain, so you have some, though not much, industry. There is a semblance of a change in the economy.”
Pishner made his first trip there in 1984 and last visited in 2002.
“The city itself hasn’t changed much [in that time],” he said. “The traditions are still there. It’s a little more busy, more traffic. You still see clothes hanging on a line to dry, but on the other end of the line is a satellite dish.”
Pishner has served on the board of Clarksburg’s Italian Heritage Festival for 20 years, working to carry on the traditions of his ancestors.
“But,” he noted, “it’s one thing to put on a festival. It’s another to preserve a heritage. Whatever we can do — art, history, writing — we’re trying hard to make sure the experience is preserved and tasted by generations to come.”
Staff writer Robert J. Byers’ maternal grandfather emigrated from San Giovanni in Fiore in the early 1900s.
This story is part of a series of articles examining remaining pockets of ethnicity in the Mountain State.
To contact Byers, use e-mail or call 348-1236.