Joseph L Cacibauda, a second-generation Sicilian American, is an elementary school teacher who was born and lived in the New Orleans area. After Laughing Comes Crying is an historical novel that focuses on Sicilian immigrants in Louisiana at the beginning of the twentieth century.
As his bibliography indicates, Cacibauda did a great deal of research for his novel, though the characters and many of the events are fictional. His novel is another piece of the Italian immigrant mosaic that includes the growing number of novels and historical works over the last twenty years on the role of Italian immigrants, especially Sicilians, in Louisiana and in the South in general. Mary Bucci Bush’s Sweet Hope, set in the Mississippi Delta, is another of these works, which I reviewed last year in L’Italo-Americano.
After Laughing opens in the village of Sant’Anna, Sicily, in the late nineteenth century on the eve of the Festa du Santu Crucifissu. The novel focuses on the impoverished Graci family, among other minor characters, and their struggle to survive. Cacibauda addresses the problems that the long-suffering South has endured over the centuries at the hands of colonizing foreign governments.
Unfortunately, the people of Sant’Anna have not fared any better under unification. As one character, Rocco Aquino says, the people of the village had high hopes after Garibaldi swept through Sicily and succeeded in unifying Italy. But little has changed. The northern government did not institute the land reform that it had promised the South. Their land had been stolen decades before by the lantifondisti, who refused to give back the land to the peasants.
One day representatives of the Louisiana Immigration League visit the village to recruit men to work in the Louisiana sugar and cotton plantations. In the wake of the migration of African Americans after the Civil War, the south suffered a labor shortage and began an active campaign to import immigrants to fill the void. The villagers are told that they would work for $20 a month, including a house and free passage.
They are told that their work on the plantation would be pleasant, not like digging tunnels in America’s big cities where they would be forced to live in crowded, unhygienic tenements. Though the men do not want to leave their families and village, many cannot turn down the opportunity to make what they perceive to be a decent wage. Like so many Italians immigrants who came to America, their dream was to save as much as they could so that they could return home and buy back the land that they had lost.
In their passage across the Atlantic, Cacibauda’s research gives an informative view of what steerage was like for immigrant passengers. Inhabiting the lower decks below the water line, the men sleep in hammocks in dormitory-like quarters with stagnant, fetid air. The menu for third class passage is as bad as their living conditions, pasta and a watery gruel made from remnants of animal parts. Their only relief is the fresh air on their lower deck. They are forbidden to go to the higher class decks above them. Upon their arrival in the U.S., they are met by yet another link in the labor contractor chain, Gaetano Mistretta, who works securing workers for several plantations. At every step of the immigration process, everyone makes money off the immigrants, whose fate is in the hands of the strangers who recruit them.
When the men from Sant’Anna arrive at the Belaire Plantation in Plaquemine Parish, they work alongside “Negro” workers. The Sicilians develop a respect for their co-workers, whom they regarded as hard workers and competent farmers. The newly arrived Sicilians knew nothing about the Jim Crow laws that relegated African Americans at the time to the bottom of the social ladder. In fact, the Italians’ more experienced boss on the plantation, Pietro Salamone, views the unskilled Sicilians as lower on the racial ladder. Next to their African American co-workers, they are less skilled and are given the harder, menial jobs while African Americans are given the skilled, higher paying jobs.
In the Sicilians’ relationships with African Americans, they befriended their Black co-workers. As a result, Sicilians unwittingly challenged the Jim Crow racial laws. To their chagrin, Southerners began to overhear African Americans address Sicilians by their first names, instead of the Jim-Crow required mister or misses. As a result, they attracted the ire of white Southerners. Southern whites’ animosity towards Sicilians resulted in their lynching of eleven Sicilians in New Orleans in 1891 and the subsequent lynching of five more Sicilians in Tallulah, Louisiana, in 1899. In Tallulah, the five Sicilians refused to wait on their white patrons ahead of their Black customers. Southerners would lynch at least nine other Italian immigrants throughout the South during this period, from Florida, Kentucky, and Mississippi, to Arkansas, and West Virginia.
University of Rome professor, Patrizia Salvetti in her Corda E Sapone: Storie di linciaggi degli italiani negli Stati Uniti, which I reviewed in L’Italo-Americano last year, documents nearly forty lynchings of Italian immigrants in America before 1940. As I also reviewed recently in L’Italo-Americano, Professor Donna Jo Napoli’s historical novel, Alligator Bayou, is an excellent fictional account of the Tallulah lynchings.
As animosity towards Sicilians grew throughout the South, the Ku Klux Klan became more and more vigilant in monitoring the new immigrants’ relationship with their African American co-workers. Sometime before World War I, members of the Texas KKK visited my grandfather in Bryan, Texas, where there was a large Sicilian settlement, to threaten his life and the life of his wife and eight children, my father included. Three members of the KKK came to his house one day and ordered him to stop allowing African Americans (I am sure they were not so polite in their use of racial appellations) to enter their house from the front door and ordered him to stop allowing them to eat at the dinner table with the family. Based on the scholarship that documents Sicilians’ resistance to Jim Crow laws, such threatening visits must have been repeated throughout the South.
Sicilians had no reasons to behave otherwise. As Mediterranean people, not Europeans, Sicilians culture has always been a part of a wider Mediterranean culture that includes North Africa. The black Madonna is worshipped throughout Southern Italy, including my grandfather’s village in Bivona. Moreover, many saints are of Mediterranean and African origin, such as Santa Rosalia, the “virgin hermit,” worshipped in Sant’Anna, as well as in Bivona, and Sant’ Onofrio, the African mystic, worshipped throughout the South, including my other ancestral village, Centrache, in Calabria.
Cacibauda’s Sicilian workers from Sant’Anna, brothers Pellegrino and Giovanni and their cousin Pietro, work fourteen hours a day on the sugar cane plantation. As time passes, Giovanni is able to save enough money, not uncommon for immigrants, to buy land and own his own farm. In short chapters, Cacibauda also addresses the exploitation that Italian immigrants suffered in the Northeast as they began to unionize. In another aside, during Prohibition, Sicilian immigrants are harassed by the local sheriff and the KKK for making and selling wine. Santo Tumanello, one of Giovanni’s co-workers, marries, and leaves the Belaire Plantation to open a store.
Later in the novel the local sheriff accuses him of selling liquor and kills him. In this scene, Cacibauda touches briefly on yet another important event at the time, the passage of Prohibition. Research is beginning to show that nativist hostility towards Italians, as well as German and Irish immigrants, served as the tipping point that ultimately influenced Americans to approve Prohibition. Nativists feared the influence that immigrants were having upon American culture. By 1910, Italians had created some of the largest wineries in the world, including Secundo Guasti’s The Italian Vineyard Company in Cucamonga and Andrea Sbarbaro’s Italian Swiss Colony in northern California. They were producing millions of gallons of wine annually.
In the abrupt ending of novel, Giovanni becomes a successful farmer. He attempts to pass on to his children his Sicilian heritage, but must admit that times have changed and their world will be radically different from his.
At times the continuity of Cacibauda’s narrative suffers from abrupt shifts in place and time. Also, in his eagerness to present his historical research, character development suffers. Nevertheless, his novel is an important contribution to the history of Italian immigration. Too little is known about Sicilian immigrants in the South, their marginal racial status and above all their resistance to Jim Crow. The first article on Sicilian resistance to Jim Crow appeared as early as the 1890s in an article that appeared in New York’s Harper’s Bazaar magazine. But official histories of immigration have failed to represent accurately this aspect of Italian immigration. After laughing Comes Crying is an important contribution to the growing literature, historical and fictional, about Sicilian immigrants in the South under Jim Crow.
Ken Scambray’s most recent works are The North American Italian Renaissance: Italian Writing in America and Canada , Surface Roots: Stories, and Queen Calafia’s Paradise: California and the Italian American Novel . His essay on the Watts Towers and the Underground Gardens appeared in Italian Folk, ed. by Joseph Sciorra.