An American Dream

Oct. 01, 1991
Oct. 01, 1991

Table of Contents
Oct. 1, 1991


An American Dream

By Frank Lalli Managing Editor

All of my grand-parents came to America from Italy by steamship at
the turn of the century with little more than the clothes they were
wearing. That is, except for my mother's father, Salvatore Eovino. He
brought the family jewel -- his personal account of how he decided to
go to America. To this day his story resonates with meaning for
anyone who has ever thought about why so many people immigrated here
then, and still do today. My grandfather's adventure helped shape
this special issue of MONEY.
Grandpa was a gentle man. My earliest memory is of him carrying me
around his grocery store on his shoulders so I could take any cereal
I wanted off the top shelf. According to him, however, he had a
frightening temper as a youth. One day, in a shouting argument with
his mother, he smashed several jars of her preserved tomatoes with
his horsewhip, jumped on the family horse and galloped down from
their village on Mount Vesuvius to the Bay of Naples, 30 kilometers
away. There he traded the animal for one-way passage to a better life
in America. He was 16.
My grandfather lived the American dream -- the real thing, not the
movie version. He sold tomatoes on the corner in Brooklyn, saved
enough for a pushcart and then got a horse to pull the cart. After
years of peddling door to door, he bought a store in Cliffside Park,
N.J. with three rooms in the back -- just enough space for him and
his wife Louise to raise five daughters, including my mother Anne.
The five girls slept together in one bed as children and joked about
it as adults.
Salvatore was thankful that his family had food on the table
during the Depression; that neither his youngest daughter, who
volunteered, nor his sons- in-law, who were drafted, were killed in
World War II; and, above all, that his children prospered without
having to work, as he had, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., six days a week
for 57 years of his life. He told everyone he had a good life in
Throughout the years, he wrote long letters in his antique Italian
to the family he left behind in San Gennaro Vesuviano, most often to
his younger brothers, Francesco and Antonio. He often sent money too.

This is an article from the Oct. 1, 1991 issue

Twenty-one years ago, my wife and I went to visit the brothers,
who spelled their name Iovino, carrying my grandfather's letter of
introduction from the American Eovinos. From what we could tell,
little had changed. We slept in the room -- indeed, in the very bed
-- where my grandfather was born. Francesco, who owned the house,
farmed the two-acre hazelnut grove behind it. Antonio, who lived next
door, worked as a carpenter and also farmed his plot. With more than
a hint of rivalry, the brothers took turns for two days ferrying us
from one relative's home to another. Each of the families offered to
feed us. No one wanted us to leave.
I promised to come back. But I never did -- until a month ago.
What I learned on that return trip changed what I think about my
entire family's future -- and my grandfather's past.
For the past eight months, a team led by associate editor Denise
Topolnicki and assistant managing editor Tyler Mathisen has traveled
around the globe to produce this issue, marking the beginning of
MONEY's 20th year. The assignment: to determine who lives best -- and
then to explain how our readers can improve their lives by learning
from others. What we discovered will be heartening to Americans.
Despite all we have heard about our nation's decline -- and what we
fear may be true -- we not only still live better than anyone else,
we live far better, especially compared with our major economic
rivals, the Germans and Japanese. Furthermore, our reporting
identified five all- American attributes, such as our acceptance of
immigrants and of working women, that suggest our children will also
live better than the children of other lands.
We at MONEY realize, of course, that there is a limit to what
statistics and objective reporting can reveal about other people's
lives. It doesn't tell you much about their values. Or how content
they are at the end of the day. Or how optimistic they are about
their children's future. Everyone knows that people in the smallest
houses sometimes have the biggest smiles.
As we discussed the problem, my mind turned to my grandfather and
the brothers he left in Italy. They knew from his letters and his
gifts that he was making it in America. Yet none of the adults, nor
the children, asked him to help them immigrate, even in the barren
years after World War II. What did they have that they wouldn't trade
for a full stomach? And, more to the point, do they still have
whatever that was?
Could it be that by some measure beyond statistics, my relatives
there are living better, perhaps with home and work in balance, than
my relatives here? Moreover, if somehow I had been born to that
branch of the family and had raised my family in Italy, would we be
more content than we are now?
I felt compelled to get an answer. With my elder daughter, Carla,
19, I returned to my grandfather's hometown a month ago and asked all
the Iovinos I could find this question: Do you dream of a happier
life in America, as I sometimes do about Italy?
Nothing had prepared me for what my relatives told me about
themselves and about my grandfather.
The piazza in the heart of the quiet, rural village of San Gennaro
Vesuviano was the first clue. It was no longer the dusty, desolate
square block etched in my memory. A bustling cafe dominates one
corner, directly across from a neon-bright gasoline station. And the
empty lots, dating back to wartime bombing, that had separated one
home from another, like the gaps between an old woman's teeth, are
filled now -- not just with houses, but with multistory apartment
Three households of Iovinos were waiting for us in the same spot I
had left them 21 years ago, the courtyard behind the two brothers'
homes. Everything else was different. Both brothers died years ago.
So did Francesco's wife. But their sons, and Antonio's wife Anna, who
is still active at 81, live with their families in gleaming renovated
quarters in their original homes. Within minutes we were presented
with the same grand lunch of macaroni followed by grilled steak that
they gave to my wife and me in 1970. Then, however, the ^ family only
served us; they did not sit with us and eat. This time 11 of us
shared the food and the family's history for hours. And the next
afternoon, a Sunday, there was a seven-course feast for 20, featuring
the family's own poplar mushrooms over pasta.
Between meals we ate. As on my first visit, the family took their
American guests from one Iovino household's dining room table to
another's. Beyond the abundance of food, there were unmistakable
signs of prosperity in the spotless homes of these farmers,
schoolteachers and small businessmen -- big-screen TVs, VCRs, a
video camera. One cousin, who had been described to me as the
school-bus driver, turned out to own a tour-bus company and the local
radio station. The floors in his impressive home were marble. Another
relative walked me past his six tanker trucks, which haul wine and
olive oil, to his most prized possessions, a race horse and her foal.
And another escorted me through his bountiful farm to the far end to
show me the three-bedroom home he built and furnished for his
daughter as a wedding gift.
As proud as they are of their progress, the Iovinos freely
acknowledged that their lives are less than perfect. Sacrifice and
thrift dictate daily routine, down to making a conscious decision
before switching on a light bulb. And most of the married women
complained bitterly that their husbands, and sons, treat them like
maids. The men refuse to help with household chores, even serving
drinks, and almost without exception forbid the women the freedom to
work away from home. ''What would your husband do if you took a
job?'' I asked one woman of about 50. With a tight smile, she pulled
her finger across her throat.
Furthermore, the Camorra -- the Neapolitan Mafia -- maintains a
feudal grip on this Mezzogiorno area south of Rome. In some villages,
anyone who wants to sell even his own home must offer it first to the
local crime boss. Few defy these men. The night before I arrived,
three bodies were found down the road.
Still, despite those drawbacks, virtually all of the parents I met
were extremely optimistic about their children's futures in what
European economists are describing as the Golden Age of Italy. It was
no surprise to my relatives that, during my visit, more than 18,000
Albanian refugees were risking death to live in their country. The
headline writers there have a term for the immigrant quest. They call
it ''The Italian Dream.''
As I neared the end of my visit, I felt grateful for the freedom
and opportunity we take for granted in America. I also was happy
for my Italian relatives. I could understand why one after another of
them had said no, they don't dream of a better life in America. ''We
don't have to go to America,'' said Francesco's 50-year-old son,
Serafino Iovino. ''America has come to Italy. Now we are well-off
(adesso stiamo bene), even the Iovino family.''
What about years ago? I persisted. Did the brothers ever dream of
jumping on a horse and riding off to prosperity like my grandfather
The relatives stared at me, puzzled. That's not how your
grandfather went to America, they said. They told me this story. Not
only did young Salvatore have a temper, he was on the evil road, la
strada cattiva, hanging out with street gangs, gambling, getting into
fistfights and even carrying a knife. His mother feared that he would
end up being recruited by the local crime family, the Guappi -- the
''men of respect'' who went on to organize the Camorra.
One day Salvatore's mother sent him with the cart to buy the
family's supply of bread flour. He returned with a large dog he had
bought instead. They had a furious argument that ended when she said,
''I never want to see you again.'' Shortly afterward, the family sent
Salvatore to America.
''His parents were desperate,'' says Antonio's son, Luigi Iovino,
52. ''They sent him away to save him.''
''Desperation of one sort or another,'' Luigi added, ''is why all
the emigrants went to America. They weren't pulled away from here by
opportunity. They were driven away by desperation.''
So there you have the two family myths. Obviously, each side has a
stake in its story. The American Eovinos have always believed that
they were the descendants of an adventurous achiever. Of course, they
live well today. Salvatore gave them the gift of prosperity by
running away to America. The Italian Iovinos have always believed
that Salvatore, though beloved, was sent away for his own good. To
them, their fathers, Francesco and Antonio, were the true achievers
-- the survivors. Of course, they live well today. Their fathers gave
them the gift of family strength by staying in Italy.
What's the truth? Did Salvatore buy his ticket to America? Or did
his parents get it and send him away?
Nobody knows. I prefer to think that he ran away, just as I prefer
to believe that my family is living better in this country than we
could anywhere else in the world. But then again, I have a stake in
that story.