Know Where You Come From
I suspect it won’t surprise you guys when I inform you that my last name, Risolvato, is of Italian origin. Ellis Island has a record of Salvatore Risalvato coming in on May 21, 1920 from Castelvetrano, Sicily on a ship called the Italia. He and his wife, Susanne ended up in Omaha, NE where they had four children, the youngest of whom was my grandfather, Nunzio. According to the 1940 US Census report, Nunzio Resalvato was born “about 1926” and was 14 years old at the time of the census taken. Sure there’s good Italian food in New York, but if you’re ever in Omaha, NE, you need to make time to eat. Some of the best Italian food I’ve ever had was in that city. The same one where seven years after the US Government spelled our name wrong on the census, my father was born.
(Census document of the “Resalvato” family in Omaha in 1940.)
I don’t know as much about this part of my family as I’d like to. Maybe I’ve always been drawn to it because there’s more mystery to it. Maybe it’s because it’s the contributing factor to my literal identity. Maybe it’s because it seems to be where I got my nose. I know that the story I’ve been told from family members was that Salvatore, or Sam as he became known in Omaha, made the decision to leave Italy just prior to the rise of Fascism in Italy. Mussolini was making waves and my great grandparents sought a better life for the future generations of Risolvato via the Port of New York.
When I was in the 8th grade I was at a boarding school in Connecticut. We took a field trip to New York to go visit Ellis Island. I knew then that I was walking the same halls that my great grandparents had walked 78 years before. However, I didn’t know the details that I do now. Part of the problem in tracing my family history is the spelling of our name. It was oft misspelled by the people taking notes on the immigrants standing before them. So far while fact checking for this blog the same people have had their names spelled three different ways (Risalvato, Resalvato, and Risolvato).
This learning process is still full of questions for me, and stands in stark contrast with my mother’s lineage which I can trace back to England before they helped settle our country. Some of the places I’ve gone in search of answers have been more helpful than others.
The first time I sought them in New York was in October 1993, with my mother on a trip to Little Italy. This small neighborhood is now practically nonexistent. Chinatown is closing in on every side, and each day that passes seems to make it more a tourist trap the day before. I don’t remember 10 year old Austen Risolvato encountering it the way it is today. I remember more family owned businesses. Old men just sitting at tables outside their shops. Or maybe I just don’t remember all the awful “I <3 My Italian Boyfriend” t-shirts. I remember speaking to an old man who owned a gelato stand and he spoke of growing up by Mulberry Street. I’m grateful to have had that experience.
I went down to Little Italy on this trip with my camera. This is something I’ve been saying I would do on every New York stop since I started shooting fifteen years ago. I finally got around to it. Not much that is authentic is left.
The Italian American Museum has opened at its new location, a bank at Mulberry and Grand. Stop in there on a weekend if you get the chance, you’ll not be disappointed even though they’re in a growing stage. There’s a woman that can tell you most of the history of the neighborhood. She can talk to you about how the major streets segregated where you came from before the unification of Italy. She’ll tell you how the language barrier even within the neighborhood was a problem. How the Italians settling there didn’t know there were cheaper places in the city to live. She’s full of knowledge and the history of where so many of us come from. Stop in and check them out, you could learn something amid the t-shirts, the magnets, and the cannoli, she can even tell you where to get the best one.