Arts Entertainments

Celebrating an Italian Heritage in East Harlem, New York: Part 3 of a 3-part series

In the conclusion of this 3-part article, we will examine the progression of Italian heritage and community that began and grew in East Harlem as Italian immigrants immigrated to New York and assimilated into the community. In part 1 we examine the Italian Harlem neighborhood and its people, in part 2 we examine the importance of the family, the birth of the Italian community and the church for this community, now we examine the important heritage of the religious celebration that defines this community. community.

Italian Harlem settlement

The first Italian immigrants to East Harlem arrived as early as 1878 and established their place in the vicinity of 115th Street. They were from Polla in the province of Salerno. The first Italians in East Harlem were employed as strikebreakers for an Irish American contractor, JD Crimmins. They were working on First Avenue Trolley Tracks when strikes broke out, angering Irish workers. As a result, all striking Irish workers were sacked. There was great tension between the laid-off workers and the newly arrived Italians. They coexisted within blocks of each other in East Harlem. There were also numerous cases of gang violence between the Irish and Italians over land issues.

During the 1880s, East Harlem was of great interest to New Yorkers. Masses of Italian immigrants escaping the congestion of the legendary Mulberry Bend area, with its dirty and overcrowded tenements, moved to East Harlem. Italians from the regions of Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, and Sicily avoided the lower Manhattan area and established communities here during the last quarter of the 19th century. Italians from the same towns and cities huddled together in niches, confining their associations mainly to family and townspeople, placing bets along the streets of East Harlem. On 112th Street there was a Bari settlement; on East 107th Street between First Avenue and East River there were people from Sarno (near Naples); then, on East 100th Street, between First and Second Avenues, were the Sicilians of Santiago. A small group of Genoese settled south of 106th Street. Neapolitans settled in the space between 106th and 108th Streets. In addition, there were Northerners from Piscento who settled on East 100th Street and Calabrians who settled on 109th Street. They were satisfied. In this new neighborhood they were allowed to use their own language, eat their own ethnic foods, and practice their customs and religion as they did in their homeland, even though there were other nationalities living in the surrounding streets.

The celebration of religious holidays in East Harlem

1) The Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

July 16 is the Feast Day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Italian Harlem. It has been the most attended party in the entire United States. “Its popularity was ensured when in 1903 Pope Leo XIII imposed a set of gold crowns on the statue (one for the Virgin and one for the baby Jesus) and declared the church awarded a basilica, a status that throughout The United States is shared only with Our Lady of Perpetual Help in New Orleans.”

At the height of the 1930s, the population of Italian Harlem had reached approximately 100,000 or more. Even during the Depression years, this was the largest colony of Italian-Americans ever to attend the festivities. Thus, the combination of the local community along with people on pilgrimages from as far away as New Mexico, California, Florida, and even Canada provided a total of around 500,000 participants who attended the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. This annual procession is the proudest outward expression of Italian Harlem’s cultural identity.

Since the 1960s, there has been a steady decline in gathering for the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, as a result of the move of Italians from East Harlem. Yet the passion is still there, bringing Italians back year after year to worship together as they once did. Friendships are rekindled, long-lost neighbors are reunited, and neighborhood memories are revived regarding an era that once was. Not only do they come to the party, but they return to the church to attend the novenas that are said in Italian or to celebrate a particular mass for the dead. Over the years, a new group of participants has given impetus to the “Our Lady of Mount Carmel” feast, sponsored and produced by Italian-Americans. Haitians have been making pilgrimages to East Harlem from many areas within New York and from other states. These Haitians are familiar with the location of the Church of “Our Lady of Mount Carmel.” Many of them visit the Church for its mass in French, which is celebrated on the first Saturday of each month. They seek spiritual guidance and the intervention of the Blessed Mother on their behalf. “Elizabeth McAlister, a Yale University graduate scholar who has been studying the festival, says the growing number of Haitians who have been participating since the 1980s view Our Lady through the prism of Roman Catholic and Afro-Haitian traditions.” .

Last year was the 126th annual procession with many more to come.

2) The festival of Giglio di Sant’Antonio

This party originally got its start in the 1880s in the town of Brusciano, Italy, which is about 20 miles from Naples. Francesco Vivolo, a local Brusciano resident, prayed to Sant’Antonio (Saint Anthony) to help heal his terminally ill son. He promised Saint Anthony that he would have a Gigli built in his honor and would dance with him in the streets of Brusciano if his prayer was answered, in the same way that the townspeople of Nola, Italy, honored San Paolino di Nola. . Vivolo’s prayers were answered and thus began the Gigli ball in Brusciano.

In the early 1900s, many of the families from the town of Brusciano immigrated to East Harlem, New York, bringing with them their cherished traditions, including the annual Giglio Festival dance in honor of Sant’Antonio.

“For those unfamiliar with the Giglio (pronounced JEEL-YO), it is a 75- to 85-foot-tall wooden structure weighing approximately 8,000 pounds with a papier-mâché face adorned with beloved saints and colorful flowers. In the platform just above the base of the Giglio seats a multi-piece band along with several singers.The music is an instrumental part of the Giglio dance, as it inspires the lifters (also known as ‘”Paranza” in Italian) to assume the heavy weight of the Giglio and the band and dance in harmony with the music that is being played”. The Giglio uprising requires more than 100 men working in unity.

Members of the Vivolo family have been involved in celebrating Giglio parties in East Harlem for many years.

Francisco Vivolo had three sons and two daughters. Of the children, Rocco was the eldest, Gioacchino was the second son, and then there was Antonio, the youngest boy who was healed. According to Francisco Vivolo’s great-grandson, Phil Bruno, a native of East Harlem, Rocco was the first to arrive in the United States. He lived on Mulberry street. He then moved into an apartment at 348 East 106th street sometime in 1906. Then Phil Bruno’s grandfather, Gioacchino, arrived in December 1907. Gioacchino sent for his wife and son and they settled in an apartment at 2053 1st Ave. He lived there until 1958 when the houses were demolished. Phil Bruno also lived in that same house. Soon after, the first Giglio party was held on 106th Street in the year 1909. Gioaccino became the first Capo Paranza (Head of the Lifters). That is a position that commands the highest respect at a Giglio celebration. Several years later, in 1918, the Bruscian society was formed with Rocco as president. The first celebration of the Giglio party under the administration of the Bruscianese Society was in 1918.

Sometime during the 1920s and 1930s, many Giglios were built and transported on 106th Street during the party along with a boat. The Bruscianese Society, which organized the party on 106th Street, was only able to do so until the mid-1930s.

A statue of Saint Anthony was sent to Phil Bruno’s grandparents by a relative who was a priest in Brusciano. This statue was used at the festival from 1925 to 1955. It is still in his family today. Phil Bruno’s grandparents sat in front of the statue during every party held on 106th Street along with his mother, aunts and uncles until 1955, Giglio’s last party on 106th Street. Giglio moved to 108th Street, where it continued until 1971. After a 29-year hiatus, the party returned in 2000 and has continued to take place annually ever since. It is as strong and vibrant as ever. I should know, I was there in 2010.

Continuing a family tradition, Phil Bruno’s passion for the old neighborhood and celebrating its festivals is palpable. He has been and continues to be a member of the Society of the Holy Name of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. He attends the monthly fellowship meetings at Mt. Carmel located at 115th Street. Phil is also a board member and capo at the time of the party, and a lieutenant with the East Harlem Giglio Society in charge of Giglio restoration. .

Among the many collaborators who have made the success of both parties possible, Bob Maida is by far one of the greatest. His love, tireless energy and passion for the old neighborhood is strong and contagious. Bob Maida is a volunteer photographer who has voluntarily and magnanimously given of his time and money to capture holiday images with real emotions that are impossible to put into words. Year after year, these images have added to already inflated chests containing Italian Harlem memorabilia.

Although many former Italian Harlem residents have passed away, it is their children and grandchildren who continue to carry the memories of the old neighborhood, preserving the culture and bonds of friendship that have been passed down from one generation to the next. They have experienced the best of both worlds while proudly preserving aspects of their culture, celebrating the heritage their ancestors once brought to their new adopted home.

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