The purpose for me conducting this interview was to This assignment was important to me, as I had never been given the opportunity to sit down with my Zia Theresa. I had no idea how fascinating her story was. My Zia Theresa is the oldest living relative in my family at age 91, since my great Nonna (Gemma) passed away 5 years ago. I was extremely close with my Nonna Gemma, who was very close with my Zia Theresa. Doing this interview made me feel close to both Gemma and Theresa.
My Zia Theresa speaks broken English, as she spoke only Italian upon arriving in Canada, so I brought my Nonno, Gaetano, who is Theresa’s nephew, to translate when necessary. I hand wrote my Zia’s answers to later organize into each specific question, as she answered some later questions early on in the interview. Collecting photographs and memories was far more difficult, as my Zia had given away most of her belongings from Italy to other family members. She has always been a very generous woman. I left the interview with a bag filled with vegetables from her garden. The chest she sent with all her belongings to Canada was in her basement, and the passports of our family members were at my Nonno Gaetano’s house, where I visited after the interview to take photographs.
Theresa DiPonio was born in a small village just outside Casino, Italy in 1932. She travelled alone with only her two year old son in 1951 to Canada by boat. She arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax in April, then travelled by train to meet her husband in Windsor, Ontario where her husband had been living for the last two years working in Detroit. She was the last member of her family to move to Canada. After two years of work he finally had enough money to send Theresa to Canada, where she had one more child whilst living with her brother-in-law’s family. She moved a few years later, to a house in which she is still currently living.
Transcription of Interview:
Date of Interview- Saturday September 30th, 4:00 pm.
Name of Interviewee- Theresa DiPonio
Location of Interview- Windsor, ON at Theresa DiPonio’s home.
Interview was not recorded as per Theresa’s wishes.
|What first brought you to Canada?Were you already acquainted with anyone in Canada before you arrived? Family?||First my husband came to Canada in 1949 with his three brothers, two years before me. His father, Marco, had lived in Detroit since 1904 to make money. He had a sister that lived there. Since Italians weren’t allowed in America yet he made arrangements for his family to come in 1949 and make some money.|
|Where did you first arrive and when?||I came in 1951. The boat dropped off all the immigrants off in Halifax at Pier 21. Not just from Italy, from all over|
|How? (means of transit)||I came on a boat.|
|Who did you come with?||I was by myself. I only had my son Joe with me, he was 20 months old.|
|How old were you when you immigrated? From which part of Italy?||I was young, I just had my first baby. I came from a very small town close to Casino. There was a big mountain right behind the town.|
|What was the journey to Canada like?||It took us almost a month. They made so many stops. Luckily I did not get sick. I was so scared to get off the boat, every time they made a stop I was scared.|
|What do you remember of your first impression of Canada? Did you encounter any obstacles/barriers as a new immigrant to Canada?||I arrived in April in Halifax and had to take a train to Windsor. There was no snow but it was cold. I remember white on the trees, it might have been ash. They took all the immigrants to the second floor of a house to wait for our train. I was scared but happy to finally be in Canada. It was scary not knowing any English. The biggest thing that stood out to me was the bread, it was so soft and came in a strange shape. I have grown to really like it though. (she calls it toast bread)|
|Did you bring any items of importance with you when you came to Canada? (i.e. photographs, family heirlooms, mementos)||I shipped a big case to my husband in Canada before I left with some photographs, but mostly linens. We made all our own clothes, bedsheets, and pillows in Italy. My husband asked me to send him a wool pillow. Everything here (in Canada) felt fake, plastic. We were used to making everything ourselves, we were self sufficient.|
|Would you be willing to share some of them with us? Photographed?||Everything I brought with me I have given away to other family members since my husband has died (2014). I still have the chest I came with, it is in the basement.|
|Would you be willing to allow them to be studied and made available to the wider community?||I don’t want to have it leave my house.|
|Did you encounter any obstacles/barriers/difficulties giving birth in Canada?||It was much easier for me to give birth in Canada than it was in Italy.|
|Describe your experience as a new mother and a recent immigrant to Canada.||We were living with another family and both of us gave birth to one child in Italy, and one in Canada. That made things easier, I had lots of support.|
|6. Did you exchange letters with relatives in Italy?||I was the last person to come to Canada, but my husband sent me lots of letters when I was in Italy and he was still in Canada. I wanted to send him letters back but I did not go to school. I had 11 brothers and sisters so I had to stay home to help care for them. At the end I started to teach myself English at home so I was able to send one or two letters before I left.|
|Would you be willing to allow those letters to be transcribed, studied and made available to the wider community?||I do not know where the letters are now.|
|7. Where is “home” for you and why?||Canada, as soon as I got off the boat I was so happy to be here. I have been so happy here since the beginning.|
|8. Looking back on this experience, is there anything you would have done differently?||I wish I had learned more English before I came, I tried to teach myself a little bit. It was hard having everyone around me speaking a different language. It was also very hard to get a job not speaking English. I didn’t have time to go to school when I was in Canada because I had two kids, and I never went to elementary school in Italy.|
|Did the experience of motherhood/giving birth in Canada give you an increased sense of Canadian identity? In other words, did this experience make you feel more Canadian?||Yes I think it did. It made me proud that my second son would be born in Canada.|
|9. Is there anything further you would like to add to this story?||No, I don’t think so.|
The way in which my Zia spoke about her sense of pride and excitement about finally arriving in Canada really reminded me of the Fiippo Salvatore reading from week 1, specifically when he spoke of the bravery that was required to leave what he was familiar with. As I felt the same emotions behind his writing to Giovanni Caboto. The way she remained so positive when speaking of Canada when she arrived also struck me, especially after reading week 4’s Mazza Reading, which outlined how poorly Italians were treated for decades after the 1940 War Measures Act. Theresa undoubtedly faced acts of racism throughout her years in the country, yet remained so happy to be living here, because she knew it was what was best for her family.
I feel a much stronger connection to my heritage in doing this project. I had asked questions periodically to my Nonno and Nonna, mostly regarding timelines and ages at which they emigrated. I was also very curious about how they met (which was in Canada) and if they had ever met in Italy. I was quite familiar with my Nonna’s journey to Canada, as my Nonna Gemma is her mother and I was very close to her. However I knew very little about my Zia Theresa’s experiences immigrating here.
Learning about all the different people who went through such tremendous experiences to move across the world just to give me the life I have today makes me grateful for what I have. Coming to a country alone not speaking the language is more than I can imagine. Not only that, but having to leave behind the village they grew up in and where they met one another must have been incredibly emotional, yet Theresa speaks about in so calmly. It gives me a much greater appreciation for what I have, and gives me more drive to achieve my goals of becoming a veterinarian. It also makes me view myself as a woman differently. I have never considered myself a traditional woman, especially as a queer individual who does not want to have children. I sometimes feel guilty about these aspects of myself, especially given what women in my family have gone through in the past. However, their struggles are what give me the freedom to live my life as I truly am today. I did not at all expect to have these revelations during this process.
Carmella DiPonio, Theresa’s sister-in-law’s passport.
Alessandro DiPonio, Theresa’s brother-in-law’s passport.
The case Theresa DiPonio brought from Italy in 1951.