Hidden in the Rubble: Finding A Family's Past in Poggioreale, Sicily

Silvia Donati | Fri, 01/10/2020 - 00:00
People watching a photo of ancestor

[In the piazza, meeting relatives who brought with them old family photos. The man in this photo is a Campise relative of Sarah Campise Hallier, whose story we're featuring for our Back to Your Italian roots series.

“We would not be who we are today without the grit and grind our ancestors endured,” says Sarah Campise Hallier, whose story we’re featuring on this month’s episode of our Back to Your Italian Roots series. Along with her mother and siblings, Sarah traveled to her ancestral town, tiny Poggioreale in western Sicily, for the first time last autumn. Then and there, “We learned that we are not just American; we are also Sicilian,” Sarah says. “And we wouldn’t have it any other way”.

As she recalls in the interview below, Sarah has inherited an interest in genealogy from her mother, who, Sarah recalls, spent hours and hours researching details and stories about the family’s ancestors. When Sarah’s father passed away unexpectedly, she and her mother began a quest to find out more about his side of the family, the Campises, immigrants from Sicily.

Using new DNA technologies, the support of a local immigrant group and even Facebook, they were able to put together decades of ancestral lines and to connect with relatives in Sicily. After a lot of hard work, they were ready to embark on the journey of a lifetime.

“The late nights my mom and I spent piecing together our family tree resulted in our trip to meet the relatives,” Sarah says. “The moment I stepped off that long flight from San Francisco to Palermo, jet-lagged, wide-eyed, inhaling the contradictory scents of musty cigarettes and Tyrrhenian sea breeze, I felt that something had changed inside of me. I had come home.”

1. Sarah, what prompted you to begin your search to trace your Italian roots?

Genealogy has always been a part of my life. As a child in the 70s and 80s, I listened to my mother calling cemeteries and churches, asking for any details about our family's ancestry. Pre-internet, she collected binders and books of our family tree, compiling lists and names and charts, all while getting eye-rolls from her children who were tired of hearing about it. As an adult, I look back on my mother's late-night organizing, books and piles around her desk, and her hope that one of her six children would one day appreciate her madness and her time. Apparently, I inherited her almost obsessive desire to find out more about our family's past. My journey began a few years ago when my American father of Sicilian descent passed unexpectedly, and we wanted to find out more about where our Campise side came from.

2. Please describe the process. Did you already know your ancestral town? If not, how did you find it? Who or what was your first resource when you started your search for your ancestral town and Italian relatives?

As a young married couple, my parents would visit my father's uncles and cousins on occasion. They had the pleasure of listening to their stories and their escapades. My mother would quickly scribble notes, writing down words (sometimes sounding out words that were some sort of passed–down Sicilian-American dialect that did not always make sense). My father's uncles were first generation Americans, raised by my great grandparents who came to America from Sicily when they were just children. Their parents never spoke fluent English, and they were never really encouraged to speak Sicilian, either. It must have been a difficult world that they lived in, trapped somewhere between their old world and their new.

Tour group in front of city sign

[Sarah and the Poggioreale tour group with whom she traveled to her ancestral town.]

Cousin Jimmy left a most particular impression on my father, as he was 12 years his senior and had many more memories of their Sicilian-born grandparents whom they shared. Cousin Jimmy's father was one of the oldest brothers, while my grandfather was one of the youngest. Cousin Jimmy and my father (yes, they were both named James Campise after grandfather Girolamo Campisi) were good friends, despite their age difference, and my parents enjoyed visiting with him and his wife, Kikuko. One evening, while eating dinner together at their Japanese food restaurant in Fresno, CA, Jimmy would discuss his memories of his grandparents' stories about their childhoods in Sicily. He also recalled the old stories that their six uncles and two aunts would tell about their early days in Bryan, Texas (the small farming community where most of our Sicilian line lived when they first arrived in America). He was very excited on this night, and he announced that he had finally remembered the town – Porto Royale. Royale was said the Italian way with the "e" at the end pronounced like a long "a". He said he thought that it meant Royal Hill.

My mom could not wait to finish their meal and get home to our recently purchased Apple with newly connected dial-up internet to try to search the name that cousin Jimmy had so proudly delivered. It took a lot of searching (the early 90s) on the slow internet – possibly months. Her search encompassed every possible combination of Porto Royale and Royal Hill and Sicily and Campise and finally a website popped up about Poggioreale. There were many surnames included on the site – and there was ours – Campisi. Bingo. She had finally discovered where our family originally came from! And cousin Jimmy had remembered correctly that Porto Royale, or Poggioreale, really did mean Royal Hill!

For the next 20 years, my mother continued to search for records of our Sicilian ancestors. Then, in 2002, my older brother and his wife had the opportunity to travel to Sicily and took the long trek to the western side to find Poggioreale. By slight miracle and maybe some guidance from our great-great grandparents, they not only found the little town, but were able to locate a priest who opened the Latin records and handed my brother a certified copy of our great grandfather, Girolamo Campisi's birth certificate. It was a dream come true. Our family was getting closer to discovering so many of the mysteries that our Sicilian family brought with them to America.

Looking over church records with genealogist

[With genealogist Rosario Sanfilippo in the church records room in Poggioreale, reviewing birth records from the 1700s.]

Fast forward a few years, and my mom and I both decided to take DNA tests through ancestry.com. Beyond what DNA sites offer in regard to viewing where your ancestors most likely lived over the past five generations, the family trees and myriad of documents already posted within Ancestry are a gold mine. What a lot of people may not realize is that ancestry.com has years and years of genealogists'work – collections of birth, death and marriage documents, extensive family trees, immigration paperwork, and so much more. And most recently, they have introduced a feature that maps your DNA with other family members’ trees, connecting your lines with theirs and mapping out generations and centuries of family tree lines for you. Some is hypothesis and takes detailed work to ensure its validity. But most is a valuable tool that assists in discovering delicate details and solving age-old mysteries that relate to your past. We could never have accomplished as much research, figured out as many details regarding our family's path to America, or have connected with as many third and fourth cousins without DNA. DNA offers the merging of old school genealogy with new school technology – and it boosts your productivity in finding both close and distant family tree connections. I met the President of Poggioreale in America, my fourth cousin Ross Todaro, as a match through DNA. Some of his relatives matched to us and we were able to tie together a long line of relatives. His great-great grandmother, Giuseppa Campisi, and our great-great grandfather, Mariano Campisi, were siblings, both born in Poggioreale, Sicily in the early 1880s. It was through Ross Todaro and Poggioreale in America that my mother and two siblings had the amazing opportunity to visit Poggioreale last autumn, and it was quite possibly the most amazing adventure of our lives. Poggioreale in America is an organization that connects those who emigrated from Poggioreale, Sicily, and now live in America or Australia. It also helps by sharing stories, photos, and old family documents. Its recent tours of Poggioreale are an added bonus, as they help connect you to family members who still live in the small town.

Group of travelers in Poggioreale

[The Poggioreale in America tour group in Poggioreale antica (old town).]

3. What were the obstacles, if any, during the process of finding your relatives and then getting in touch?

There are two very obvious obstacles when you begin your search for relatives in Italy. One is time, and the other is the language barrier. Both present gigantic obstacles and issues that are not always easy to solve.

The study of your ancestral lines takes time. It takes late nights studying Ancestry and other sites that offer ways to view, study and order documents that help piece all of the information together. But it isn't impossible. Start with ordering your DNA and then upload it to other sites. This will immediately help you connect with other relatives who may have already done extensive genealogical work.

The language barrier can present a problem as google translate can only go so far. We were lucky to have a cousin on our trip to Poggioreale who spoke Italian, and this was so helpful in asking the townspeople questions about their family. We met several Campisis while on the trip, and were able to communicate with them due to our cousin's understanding of the language. Search for Italian websites that specialize in genealogical services. There are many who can point in the right direction and get you started on the journey of discovering if you have relatives in Italy. A genealogist in Sicily helped us extensively due to his knowledge of both the government records and the church records. His ability to speak English and Italian was so beneficial during this process.

4. Please describe the moment when you first met your Italian relatives. How did you feel?

Our nine nights spent in the new town of Poggioreale were some of the most memorable times of our lives. Our morning venture to the local bar offered us the chance to sit with the locals, leisurely sipping our cappuccinos with pistachio croissants. By day three, still unsure of the customs and expectations of this ragged yet spirited city of 700, we waited for eye contact to say it was okay to approach. In their thick and 'schooshy' Sicilian language (please don't call it a dialect), the retired men of Poggioreale told us their stories.  Some eagerly joined us in the piazza, oversized family portraits in hand, salvaged from the walls of their old family homes. The familiarity in their noses and their last names made us smile and eased the discomfort from a language barrier we wished we hadn't brought with us. Through the whiff of their smokes and the grins on their aged faces, we shared a commonality almost impossible to put into words, regardless of the two languages that clashed. We shared blood, and survival, and a misunderstood need to figure out why we had come. And why they had stayed. Our connection will last a lifetime. Our conversations, though broken and funny and loud, sat comfortably in a corner of our minds, ready for more.

We were able to meet three Campisi relatives while in Poggioreale, and although we were not able to link them to our direct line who left for America, we are confident that they are related to our family somehow, and that was enough. Meeting them and seeing the smiles on their faces and the pride they exhibited when showing us their family photos was such an emotional moment.

Sarah Campise and brother

[Sarah Campise and her brother in front of their great-great grandfather's Mariano Campisi home in Poggioreale Antica.]

5. Please describe how you felt the first time you walked the streets of your ancestral town.

The people invited us into their homes, cooked us authentic Sicilian cuisine, introduced us to their families, and walked us to the pub at night, arm in arm, google translate in hand, laughing at jokes we were sure we understood but probably didn't. We got to know a side of this underrepresented town where time has stood still in a way that most tourists could only dream. Our last names seeped out of the concrete homes of the new town, inching closer to the missing branches of our family trees. The Campisis and Todaros and Tondolas and Caronnas were all still there – relatives of our great grandparents who had stayed behind for reasons we may never know, and could only fully appreciate after spending time there. And each day we unpeeled their stories, 150 years of families who still call Poggioreale their home today.

6. Did you discover any amazing story during the process of searching for your Italian relatives?

Due to a devastating earthquake in the Belice Valley of Sicily in the winter of 1968, the original, once thriving, medieval village of Poggioreale (now usually referenced as Poggioreale Antica) was eventually abandoned and left to rot in the sizzling Sicilian sun. The government explained that the damaged town was beyond repair, and the only solution was to rebuild. What may have seemed like a win-win alternative to living in the powerless and crumbling old city on the hill, the people of Poggioreale told us a different story – one that hovered somewhere between mafioso folklore and Sicilian pride. The new town of Poggioreale was built over the next 15 years, funded by the Italian government. By day, the tired families hiked the two-mile trail up to the old town – to make breakfast and spend their days pretending life would eventually get back to normal. By night, as the western winds whistled through the low hills, they took their broken spirits back down to the government barracks that taunted them with power and warmth. As months turned into years, the realization that their old way of life had vanished became a hard reality. The new town offered government housing and a chance to start over. Fifty years later, the old town up on the hill still whistles their names and their hearts.

old town of Poggioreale before the earthquake

[Old town of Poggioreale before the earthquake. Courtesy of Poggioreale in America.]

Poggioreale after the earthquake

[Poggioreale after the earthquake.]

7. Ultimately, what has the experience of reconnecting to your Italian roots meant to you?

I don't know what the future holds for the town of Poggioreale. With the average age well over 60, and many young people understanding the importance of education on the mainland, I'm unsure where this community will land in ten more years. Regardless, what we felt and what we saw in Poggioreale was something so familiar. The faces of the Poggioreale people are faces of survival and of reinvention. And most importantly, they are the faces and the noses of our grandparents, smiling at us and happy to see us come home. The people of Poggioreale showed me the importance of family in a way I had not yet discovered. I cannot wait to take my children back there, endearing concrete walls and all, to feel what I walked away with – friendships and family for life.