A Sicilian-American Experience
Dr. Jeremiah P. Spence, Ph.D.
June 2020 – Austin, Texas
To look at me, one would never imagine that I have a connection to Sicily. My last name is Spence and I am blond haired and blue eyed. However, my connection to Italy runs deep, and as a part of the Scardino, Corolla and Lavite families of Houston, Texas, I am related to a significant part of the Sicilian community in Houston, Texas. My paternal grandmother Mary Elizabeth Gross (née: Corolla Spence) had a strong hand in my upbringing after several tragic events struck my family as a child.
(My grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Corolla Spence Gross – great-grand-daughter of Andrea Scardino from Poggioreale in Sicily)
For several years I spent all of the time that I was not away at Catholic boarding school at my grandmother’s home in Sharpstown in southwest Houston, and keeping up with the large network of Scardino, Corolla, Danna and other cousins in the Houston area was just short of a full-time job. Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday we would be with one relative or another, from: Cousin S.J. Corolla who was in his 80s and still held himself like the sailor he once was and wore a mechanic’s outfit all of the time, to Cousin J.L. Scardino who was very tall and broad shouldered, even in his 70s, who ran the Scardino Printing Company which he had inherited from his father “Uncle John” — when my grandmother was in college at the University of Houston studying journalism she interned at the Scardino Printing Press under the direction of Uncle John, to Andy Scardino and his wife Jeanette — they were such sweet people who encouraged me to follow my curiosities about the family history. Every year or so we would have either a Scardino or a Corolla family reunion that would draw hundreds and hundreds of fascinating people with strange last names and who looked much more Sicilian than me and my siblings.
(John Lavite Scardino – Owner of Scardino Printing in Houston, Texas – son of Andrea Scardino of Poggioreale)
Once a month, we would go check in on Aunt Lucille, who was in her 90s and later lived to 103. She was a Scardino, a sister of my grandmother’s mother Annie, but married a cajun man by the name of Delahoussaye. One of the last living cousins of my grandmother is Mary Louise Delahoussaye Harrod who lives in Brenham with her husband Marshall where they have an antiques shop. No one else calls her Mary Louise, except me, because that is how her cousins called her, all of whom are now gone, but I remember. Mary Louise was a late baby in her family making her one of the youngest of all the cousins, which means she was around the previous generation for a lot longer than the other cousins. This means that Mary Louise has all the really juicy gossip. One day we were chatting as she tells me, do you remember Uncle X? I said, “of course.” She replied that in fact Uncle X was Cousin X, since he was actually a son of one of the Aunts but was raised by the grandparents as their own son. These things used to happen.
(My siblings – around 2007 in Austin – from left to right – Jeremiah, Calysta, Samara, Tabitha, Hannah and Josiah)
I was fascinated by these people and their stories, but most interesting was just how little anyone in our family knew of our origins. No one knew of Poggioreale or even how to spell the word. I was given several documents that said the grandparents came from “Port Royal,” which is a mis-translation of “poggio” which means road not port. It was not until the mid-1990s that I crossed paths with a number of distant relatives including Weldon Scardino, one of the Tritico cousins, among others, and began to assemble a function map of all the major branches of our Scardino family.
(My Dad – Curtis P. Spence – always with a keen observation – 2010 – Austin)
After years of piecing together little hand written notes and tidbits of stories overheard we gradually pieced together the story that our ancestors, along with many others lived in a little village in western Sicily called Poggioreale and around 1880 they left Sicily for the States where there was land and jobs, and a future. They came on steam ships to New York City, to New Orleans and to Galveston. Many went to the Brazos River Valley where rich farm land was promised to the immigrants. This includes both my Scardino and Corolla families — however, like many others, the farm life was not for them and they quickly moved to Houston.
(Michaelangelo Corolla, his wife Domenica, and his many children – around 1911 – Corolla Home in the Heights Neighborhood in Houston)
My great-great grandfather Michaelangelo Carollo, who became Corolla, first went to New York City by steamship where he married his wife – a 14 year old young woman he met on the ship crossing the New York, and had his first daughter – Aunt Florence. From the bits we have been able to piece together the Carollo name in New York and New Jersey was linked to the Sicilian mafia. As a result a number of Carollo families left for other parts and changed their name to Corolla. Michaelangelo was a barber by profession, and built a large home in the Heights neighborhood on Cortland street, which had a small barber shop on the corner of the lot. This was around 1910. During World War I one of the staging grounds for the soldiers being sent off to Europe was just a block from his house, which resulted in many of the soldiers coming to his shop for their regular hair cuts. Towards the end of World War II there was a schism in the Corolla family, which seems to be between one group who married Sicilians from other regions, and the second group who married Sicilians from the same region – near Palermo. I am from the first group, as the two sons, Sam and Frank, both married two daughters of the Scardino family from the village of Poggioreale. Sam married Nena, and Frank married Anna Mae or Annie. My grandmother, Mary Elizabeth, is the daughter of this Frank Corolla and Annie Scardino.
My great-great grandfather Andrew Scardino, the grandfather of my grandmother, Mary Elizabeth, was born into a prosperous and educated Scardino family in the village of Poggioreale. In Poggioreale there were two separate Scardino families, one was of farmers who did not live in the village and some of these people immigrated to the Brazos River Valley and later to Houston — I am not related to this family. The second Scardino family lived in the village since the founding of the village and were the town’s lawyers, notaries and were quite active in municipal affairs. A number of these Scardinos came to the States — some to New Orleans, some to Houston, and some to Bryan, with a few going to New York and New Jersey. Andrew Scardino was born Andrea Mariano Scardino, and left Poggioreale with all of his siblings and many of his first and second cousins beginning in 1880 and continuing until after the First World War.
(Antonino Martino and Mary Scardino Wedding Picture)
Andrew Scardino married Carrie Lavite, born Carmela La Vite to Giovanni or John La Vite, who was also from Poggioreale. John Lavite was one of the first Sicilians from Poggioreale to be established in Houston, and had a small grocery store at the western end of the modern Montrose neighborhood. He managed this grocery store with his wife Nicolena Gennusa who was from Salaparuta. In 1903 Lena Lavite died suddenly in her 40s leaving John alone, as his three adult daughters were all already married: Carrie to Andrew Scardino, Lena Lavite to a Danna from Corleone, and Mary Lavite to a distant Lavite relative. John decided to shut down his grocery store and return to the old country. Aunt Danna received letters from him for a number of years, and according to some of her children, who were my grandmother’s double-cousins, John Lavite eventually ended up living in Tripoli (now in Libya) where he remarried and had additional children. When I was living in Europe I tried to contact the archives in Tripoli, only to discover that they are currently involved in a civil war and no one is available at the archives. Hopefully, one day I will find more information about the fate of John Lavite.
Andrew Scardino started out as a “mule-driver”, as mules, not horses, were used to pull cargo and proto-buses. From what I have been able to gather Andrew Scardino invested heavily in land near the Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral at the southern edge of the modern downtown Houston. They were able to send a number of their children on to college, some of who became quite successful. Dr. Peter Scardino, and his son Dr. Peter Scardino were both very successful and well-known urologists. Robert Scardino, and many of his children and grandchildren became successful lawyers, and Robert Scardino even became Judge Scardino later in his life. Andrew Scardino (son) along with one of his brothers acquired the Houston Trunk Factory. John Scardino had the Scardino Printing Company, which was later run by his son, J.L. Scardino, and more recently by his grandson, Johnny III. When my grandmother interned there, the Scardino Printing Company printed most of the school yearbooks and newspapers in the Houston region. We even had one cousin in the movies, Hal Scardino, the great-grandson of Dr. Peter Scardino, with the boy in the “Indian in the Cupboard” movie.
(Hal Scardino – the main actor in the movie “Indian in the Cupboard” – and my 3rd cousin)
My grandmother bought a VHS tape of the “Indian in the Cupboard” and made sure that we all had a copy and knew how the star of the movie was related to us.
It is within this environment that I was raised, and when I went off to college, I did so with a strong desire to learn as much about the world and the wide variety of peoples in the world. Not long thereafter, I met Lali, actually Laura Allodi, whose family left Parma, Italy after World War II and settled in São Paulo, Brazil where they were quite prosperous. Lali was a fellow student and we connected, and a year later we would be married. I would too learn that marrying a latin, in a latin family is an entirely different experience that what most people here in the States experience. Being married to an Italian meant that you have married the entire Italian extended family, which operates full blast 24/7. This was quite a bit for me to absorb. We had weekly pasta dinner were Nona (grandmother) has spent all day making the pasta by hand, only Italian was spoken at home, and in a single meal at least a single case (24 bottles) of wine was consumed. The manager at the market knew me well, because I was the guy who bought wine by the case, frequently.
(My first wedding in São Paulo, Brazil in 1998 into an Italian family)
It was within this environment that my perspective of what it meant to “be” Italian actually meant. In Houston, we were technically Sicilian by blood, but our families came to Houston over 100 years prior, and we knew very little about Sicily, being Sicilian or being Italian.
(Joining an Italian-American family with an Italian-Brazilian family)
Through my marriage to Lali I was able to apply for dual citizenship in Italy. This process took seven years, but I was sure happy when I finally went to the Italian Consulate in Boston to take the Oath of Citizenship in front of the Consul. They gave me a printed text and told me to read it the best that I could, which I did. I then noticed some grins and laughs from the consular staff and I asked what was the matter. They replied that they had never heard an American read Italian with a Brazilian accent. I decided to take it as a compliment. The same day they presented me with my first red passport.
Later, I would decide to go on to graduate school to pursue my master’s and doctoral degrees in Global Media Studies at the University of Texas here in Austin. I had to choose three topics to focus my studies on and I chose immigration as the first of the topics. The next decade was spent researching and publishing new research related to the immigrant experience and process. I focused on the questions of assimilation and acculturation, and how media contributed to or detract from this process. My first co-authored book, Inequity in the Technolopolis, published at the University of Texas Press, focused heavily on these questions related to immigration. Over the years I have presented research at over a dozen conferences in numerous countries, and published numerous papers.
For my doctoral dissertation, I decided to focus my research on television in Brazil, so I went to Brazil for several years of research in-country. The last year and a half of my time in Brazil was spent in a rural village — some 400 miles from the nearest other village — in the southern Amazon rainforest, where I a town of internal migrants and three indigenous villages deeper in the rainforest. It was an amazing experience that resulted in an interesting dissertation that I defended and later received my Ph.D. or Doctorate in Philosophy.
While I was writing my dissertation I went to visit my uncle Craig Spence, my father’s younger brother, in Houston, and discovered on his dining table these enormous sheets of butcher paper where he was attempting to map out just how everyone was related to each other in the extended Corolla and Scardino families. It was at that moment that I realized that it was very possible that I was the last living relative in our extended family who knew they entire family tree. All the genealogists and family historians of my grandmother’s generation had died — indeed by that point almost everyone of my grandmother’s generation was gone, and the next generation was getting older quickly. I decided at that point to write a family history that I could publish which would be a resource for my uncle and everyone else in my father’s generation.
This initial project I named “My Big Sicilian Family” – Volume 1 was on the Scardino and related families, and Volume 2 was on the Corolla and related families. I published both in the Spring of 2015. Not long thereafter, I finished my doctorate and went off to a post doctorate, which was followed by an Assistant Professor posting in Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
After some time in the Netherlands I began to have health problems that resulted in me taking an extended leave from my teaching post at the university. The one thing that I found brought me some happiness and contentment was my various family history projects. At some point I began talking with a distant relative in the Danna family, a large Sicilian family from the village of Corleone, in Houston. They saw my books and would like a book for their Danna family. This kept me busy for a couple months as there are many, many Dannas around. Later, some of the Todaros in Texas and in Chicago became aware of my books, including the then recently published Danna book, and decided that they too would like a book documenting their Todaro family, which was also from Poggioreale.
This was the beginning of a lengthy collaboration between myself and members of the Todaro extended family, including Christine Tina Tondola Anderson and Ross Todaro, Jr. At some point it was concluded that it would contribute to the completeness of the Todaro family history if I could visit the village of Poggioreale personally and perform some on-site research, and since I was already in Brussels, Belgium, Palermo was only a couple hours away by plane. So, off I went to visit the homeland on my ancestors — the village of Poggioreale in western Sicily.
As I discovered there are no trains and no busses to Poggioreale, so I arranged for a driver to pick me up at the Palermo Airport and drive me to Poggioreale. The countryside reminds me a lot of West Texas, and is very hot in the summer. I stayed at the inn of Mrs. Pietra Suppa who provided me with a room and cooked two meals for me every day in her kitchen. She did not speak any English, which obliged me to accelerate my functionality in Italian. It was there in Pietra’s kitchen that I learned the true essence of Sicilian cuisine. At one point I was there smacking my lips trying to absorb all the textures and flavors — and focused on a particular sensation that I could not identify. Well, it turned out that Pietra practically bathed all the food in fresh olive oil, straight from the press at the olive groves that surround the village. The taste is unlike any olive oil I ever had in the States or elsewhere in Europe. I can only describe it as “fresh” tasting. For desert she had these huge blocks of frozen fruit juice in her freezer, and she would shave off bits for me to munch on.
There there are two Poggioreales, the Poggioreale Vecchia or Old Poggioreale, and Poggioreale Nuovo or New Poggioreale. The old Poggioreale is in ruins and sits at the top of the hill. The original village was constructed in the 17th century, but was mostly destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1968. Afterwards, the remaining people either left for other places or lived in temporary military barracks while a new village of Poggioreale was constructed — down the hill.
Many of this historical records were preserved from the earliest times of the village, and what is available to public can be found in the archives room at the town hall. Traveling by foot, about 100 feet from the door of Pietra’s inn to the door of the municipal building, I found the small archives room occupied by an older fellow who introduced himself as Antonio Culmone — town archivist. I would call him just Culmone as he became my buddy and helped me extensively in my research there in the archives. It turns out that there was another researcher from Houston who spent years in Poggioreale in the 1980s and left several binders and booklets of his collected information. I furiously scanned as much of the information as I could before leaving to return to Belgium.
After I returned to Belgium, I finished and published the book on the Todaro family, and reflected upon what I should do with all this information. I returned with two primary pieces of data:
- A transcription of the town’s marriage records, and
- A set of collected notes on principle families in the village.
My first career, before graduate school, was in information architecture and information systems management, which I decided to apply to these collections of information. I hired teams of people to first digitize all these information and then to transform them into searchable databases.
This resulted in two data products:
- The Poggioreale family genealogy database (https://poggioreale.zzme.xyz/), which includes 18,000 persons related to the Poggioreale families, past and present; and
- A Poggioreale marriage record database (https://data.zzme.xyz/) covering 1650 to 1900 and including some 4000 records of marriages.
Together these two data sources allowed me create complete maps of the major families coming from Poggioreale to the United States, many back to 1700. These books range from 60 pages to 700 pages, depending on the amount of information on the particular family.
(The Italian men of the York Society in Houston, Texas – around 1915)
In total 23 family books were published — all of which are available for purchase on: amazon.com; amazon.co.uk; amazon.de; and amazon.it. The families there are covered in the over 4000 pages are:
- Aloisio (Lewis, Louis);
- Danna / d’Anna;
- Di Benedetto;
- Guarisco / Varisco;
- La Barbara;
- Loria, Laurea, Lorea & Lowry;
- Palasota / Palazzotto;
- Salvaggio / Savage;
- These books are only as accurate and complete as the information that I have available to me at the time of publication. If your family is not included — that means that I have no record of them. If you would like them included in a future edition of the book, let me know about them.
- I do not “own” this information. The information comes from public and private vital records collections and private notes from various family members. I do “own” the assembly of that that information into book format. This means that you cannot reproduce or republish the book in its entirety; however, the individual bits and pieces of information are entirely in the public domain.
- The same can be said of the two online databases — I do not own the individual bits of data, but I do own the assembly of that data into online data sources.
- Finally, do not contact me complaining that something is wrong. Not too long ago an elderly distant relation from Louisiana, who will remain nameless for the sake of decency, called me up and yelled at me for an hour straight that I was abusing their family, had all the information wrong, and I was a failure as an academic (I am not kidding!). After a week of digging, it turns out that there were two distantly related men in New Orleans with the same name: John X-1 and John X-2. Her grandfather was John X-2 who died within 12 months of John X-1, and I had mistakenly placed the obituary and obituary photo of John X-2 on John X-1. A five minutes fix.
I both appreciate and honestly value constructive criticism, as well as, corrections and additions to the family history projects. Realistically, there is only so much information that I can gather on a given family in a reasonable amount of time. Children move away and are estranged from the family; people change their last names; people have second, third and fourth marriages, among many other possible reasons that I have no records of entire branches of families. Don’t be that lady!!
It gave me an excessive amount of indigestion and costs me a week of valuable time on something that could have been calmly resolved in five minutes. Having said all of that there is one more thing worth mentioning: the history of the village of Poggioreale. There are several history books that were written and published in Italian over the last century, or so.
At the ongoing encouragement of Tina Tondola Anderson, I have translated and publish two of these books from Italian into English.
- First, I created a new print of the book: Storia di Poggioreale (Sicilia): Italian Version by Can. Francesco Aloisio (Author), 6th edition, 2019.
- Second, I translated and redeveloped the book in English: The History of Poggioreale, Sicily: From 1640 to 1956 by Dr. Jeremiah P. Spence Ph.D., 1st edition, 2019. There were entire sections of this book that were written in the Sicilian language rather than Italian. These sections in the Sicilian language were translated by Annette Chiappetta Rovello in Kansas City, Missouri, whose family has continued the use of the Sicilian language to the present day.
- There is another, more modern history of Poggioreale book written by Erasmus Vella, that is titled in English: Poggioreale, Sicily: Peasants, Civilization and Modern Day. This book has already been translated into English and will be available to purchase in November 2020.
- Both of these books have been translated and published with the written permission of their appropriate copyright holders in Italy.
(The Old Village of Poggioreale)