Life in the small villages of Calabria was one of hard work with limited opportunities. Vincenzo Tigani was a farmer, who faced with limited opportunities in an economically depressed 1930’s Italy, made decisions in the interest of his family. These decisions would see him journey from Italy to Eritrea, India and Australia.
The Tigani Family: Maria Rosa, Domenico, Domenica and Vincenzo
(from the collection of Maria Rosa Allan(nee Tigani))
Farmers from Vazzano and Santo Onorfrio had been part of the first wave of migrants away from Italy. This Push-Pull migration resulted from farmers experiencing difficulty in making a reasonable living from small plots of land which were mainly rented. Sons worked with fathers on these plots without a wage. A roof to sleep under and food to eat was the currency. This offered little opportunity for families to grow their wealth, build their own homes and increase the acreage under cultivation. Combined with disease, underemployment, high taxes and the degradation and erosion of the soil, men looked for opportunities offered through a system termed chain migration.
Labour agents in USA assisted the Italians to find employment and accommodation and the period from 1870’s to 1910’s saw an influx of young Italians arrive to seize opportunities. Bruno Tigani from Vazzano (Vincenzo’s father) found his way to Braddock Pennsylvania, likely working in the steel industry and like many made the journey back and forth across the Atlantic. Domenico Lipari (Vincenzo’s future father-in-law) found his way to the “Little Italy” of New York living on Hester Street and working at N.Y. Steam Company. He would also travel between Italy and New York before becoming naturalised in 1937.
Against this background, Vincenzo Tigani enlisted in the Italian Army. In 1936, Mussolini combined Italian Eritrea, Italian Somaliland and Ethipoia into the Italian territory of Africa Orientale Italiana. Government employees, workers and soldiers were needed and Vincenzo became a soldier in the 1st Battalion Speciale Genio dell Eritrea. It would have been a difficult decision to leave behind his wife Domenica and two young sons: Bruno aged 3 and Domenico an infant with this decision resulting in a 10 year separation from his family.
Captured in Massaua, Eritrea 8 April 1941, Vincenzo as a prisoner of war was sent to Australia via India. In less than three years, he was working on a banana plantation owned by Mr AJ Schulz at Poona/Palmwoods in the Nambour district. His time there offered him an insight into the opportunities that Australia offered and the seed would have been sown as to the future direction of his and his family’s life. His hard work earned the respect of the Schulz family, with family members over 70 years later, speaking kindly and fondly of Vince. Vince told his family how he climbed the middle Glass House Mountain and carved his initials on a rock and how they, the POWs would walk everywhere including Nambour to Brisbane.
The return journey from Australia to Italy was long and protracted for Italian prisoners of war. But while waiting at N33 Prisoner of War Camp at South Head Sydney, Vince was allowed to visit family and/or Calabrian Italians in Liverpool. He would have weekend release from Friday night to Sunday evening and during this time he would have made the acquaintance of Salvatore Raffaele from Dee Why. Much discussion would have transpired over immigration to Australia, work opportunities in Sydney and the process of returning to Australia.
Vincenzo returned to Italy and to a stagnant and economically depressed Vazzano. Little had changed during his ten year absence. It was a village that was not directly impacted upon by the war, although planes often flew over the village and black outs and curfews were imposed. Only 100 kilometres away, Reggio Calabria was bombed heavily by the Allies. It was however a time of uncertainty and hardship.
The Tigani family survived with the support of Domenica’s family. Domenica’s father sent money from USA to fund the building of a home. With two sons to provide for, Domenica worked hard in the fields. Her fortitude ensured she survived the ten year separation from her husband. Vincenzo returned somewhat as a stranger to his family. His wife Domenica had, out of necessity, lived an independent life. His sons had grown up without the presence of a father and his youngest son Domenico had difficulty in accepting this stranger as his father. Their reunion was bitter sweet.
The Tigani family welcomed a daughter and sister, Maria Rosa in 1948. Little had changed in the region, and like his parents and parents-in-law, Vincenzo planned for a brighter future for his family.
The family was separated again when Vincenzo returned to Sydney in 1950. Within two months he was working as a labourer at Crown Crystal Glass Company in Bourke Street Waterloo and living at 72 Riley Street Surry Hills. In all likelihood, living in a city and working in a factory might not have been the ideal situation. Another complication was that the employees were strongly unionised and union action was being reported in the newspapers during May to June 1950.
Vincenzo returned to a familiar life and to the employment of his former POW employer, Mr Schulz. Within three months, he moved to Brisbane. Alexander Filia, an ice cream manufacturer, offered Vincenzo a place to stay at 10 Ernest Street South Brisbane and organised work as a Peter’s Ice Cream Vendor. His daughter Maria Rosa remembers a story from her father about those days: “He had a line-up of customers, when a cockroach raised its feelers above the metal frame of the cart. Children began to scream and Dad, nonchalantly, rang his bell repeatedly and called out loudly, ‘Ice-creams for Sale’.”
Within 18 months of his arrival in Australia, Vincenzo was reunited with his son Domenico who arrived as a 15 year old in November 1951. Priority became saving the passage for Domenica and Maria Rosa to travel to Australia and a new home in Brisbane. Domenico’s actions of hiding saved money under the stump caps of the house, reflected his intention to bring his mother and sister out to Australia and set them up with a new life. His sister, Maria Rosa reflects that Domenico took on a quasi-role of protector and provider for his mother and sister. He had spent more years with them, than his father had, and so he felt an obligation and responsibility for them.
1951-1952: Domenico and Vincenzo Tigani in Brisbane
(from the collection of Maria Rosa Allan (nee Tigani))
Domenica and Maria Rosa arrived in Fremantle in July 1957. Domenico had made the journey to Fremantle to greet them and to assist them on the last stage of their journey to Brisbane. The voyage to Australia had seen Domenica in bed with sea sickness for a month while Maria Rosa wandered the ship freely, exploring this ‘new’ world. It was an adventure and the staff continually reminded the nine year old to go back to her room as her mother needed her. Upon arrival Domenico asked his sister if she spoke any English, and her curt reply was, “Shut up! Money.”
In time, Stafford Street East Brisbane became the family’s new home. Vincenzo worked in the building industry, with a gas company and as a night watchman with Evans Deakin at Henry Point. Those were difficult times for migrant families: the impact of war, years of separation and social isolation. As a family man, Vincenzo made decisions in the best interest of his family. At times, these decisions had a negative impact upon the unity of the family. Maria Rosa remembers that after her father died, she found two photos he had kept. One was of her as a 9 month old and another as an 18 month old. Her reflections were tinged with sadness as she thought of her father in Brisbane with his memories and photos of his family, while his wife and daughter were in Italy. It was a case of doing something to make life better- enlistment in the Italian army and migration to Australia and at the same time, these actions caused much hardship for the family.
Daughter Maria Rosa is grateful to her father for many things. “He gave us many opportunities which would have been unattainable in Vazzano. Opportunities such as a good education, owning our own businesses, owning our homes, can be attributed to the difficult decisions made by my parents,” says Maria Rosa. “My father’s story is no different from that of my grandparents who had emigrated to USA. Long periods of separation between family members, financial uncertainty, the dream being hard to find, social isolation and all those things associated with being a foreigner in a strange land.”
Vincenzo Tigani – Icecream Vendor
(from the collection of Maria Rosa Allan (nee Tigani))
A family man, Vincenzo’s legacy is the close family ties between members of the Tigani extended family in Australia. There are relatives who have loaned money to those struggling financially, there are those who have assisted ‘new comers’ by finding them jobs and accommodation and there are those who continue to support others through health problems. Maria Rosa believes that at one stage her father seemed to have ‘lost faith’. “It is hard to define what I mean. It might have been a sense of insecurity about the decisions he made and how other people interpreted them. It might have been that he didn’t realise his dreams. It might have been his sadness over the ‘lost family years’,” reflects Maria Rosa. But life is what it is. Doors open, decisions are made and legacies forged.
And Maria Rosa now takes on the role of the head of the extended Tigani family in Brisbane. In 2017, to celebrate the feast day of the Patron Saint of Vazzano, Maria Rosa approached her parish priest to honour Saint Francesco Di Paolo. This special gathering of family ensues that traditions and stories from Vazzano are not forgotten: a tribute ‘for the family’.
Celebration of Saint Francesco Di Paolo in Brisbane 27th August 2017
(photo from the collection of Maria Rosa Allan)