Story from
Nov. 23, 2008

Times of Trenton Regional News

Italians tell story of immigrant experience
Alito family one of many from Mercer to make mark

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Special to the Times

WEST WINDSOR -- Leaders with Italian surnames, such as Alito, Bencivengo, Bocchini, Colavita and Inverso may seem commonplace today, but in 1880 the Mercer County census listed zero residents of Italian descent, Rosemary Alito told an audience at Mercer County Community College yesterday morning.

Then, a wave of poverty swept over Italy, known only as "the misery," causing Italians to leave their homeland in droves, seeking a better life in northern Europe, Australia and South America, said Alito, sister of one of Trenton's greatest celebrities, Samuel A. Alito Jr., associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Faced with a choice between Argentina and New Jersey, Alito's ancestors chose the latter.

Alito, an attorney with G&L Gates' Newark office, was the keynote speaker at a conference called Celebrating Cultural Connections: Meet and Learn about the Italian Americans of Mercer County.

The conference included a presentation on the statewide curriculum on Italian Americans and their history that was created with assistance from Gilda Rorro Baldassari of the Italian Consulate in Newark. Baldassari said the curriculum uses the Italian experience as a way of talking about respect for people who are different, issues involving prejudice and lesser-known aspects of history.

The audience was welcomed by Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo, who said his ancestors came from Italy's Calabria region. "Grazi, God bless and have a good time," he said.

Introduced from the audience were Mercer County Prosecutor Joseph Bocchini, Mercer County Freeholder Pasquale Colavita and former state Senator Peter Inverso.

Frank A. Campione, who teaches Italian at Steinert High School in Hamilton, said his teaching is enriched by stories of his grandparents and great-grandparents.

For example, his great-grandmother told a terrifying story of a "giant, one-eyed iron monster with smoke coming out of its head." His students are always amused to learn she was describing the first time she saw a steam train.

Like Campione, Alito's ancestors acclimated to America.

Alito described how her family settled in the Chambersburg area of Trenton and went to work at John A. Roebling's factory, maker of flexible cables used in the Brooklyn Bridge.

"They were either working for John Roebling, or opening groceries or barbershops to serve Roebling's workers" who worked 10- to 12-hour days, six days a week for about 15 cents an hour, Alito said.

Yet, people of their time scorned the Italians, she said.

"They are simply rough, unskilled, illiterate, unimaginative and hard-working laborers, and even in America, with all its opportunities, they will never be anything else," author Frank Julian Warne wrote in 1916.

But families like Alito's proved him wrong.

She described how her relatives gravitated away from Roebling's factory to join the professional class. Her uncle had his own tailoring business in Chambersburg, and other relatives went to work for the city of Trenton and its hospitals.

Her mother, who was in the audience, was the youngest of four siblings, and graduated from the Trenton State Teachers College and went onto advanced studies.

"They sent us to prestigious colleges," she said. "I don't know how they did it."

Their hard work, sacrifice and emphasis on education enabled her brother to be elevated to the Supreme Court, she said.

"If you were going to pick the best and brightest professionals in New Jersey, you would pick a lot of Italian Americans. And we owe that to all those Italian Americans who worked long hours at John Roebling's factory for 15 cents an hour."

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