As a third-generation Italian American born in the baby boomer era, I remember growing up getting bits and pieces from my parents about my paternal grandparents who emigrated from Southern Italy around 1910. My aunts and uncles also provided insight into their upbringing as children of Italian immigrant parents.
I grew up in the Little Italy of South Philadelphia, and my childhood was filled with the typical Italian-American experience of family traditions that so many of us enjoy. In my mid-20s, I started to wonder about my family tree: Where did my grandparents, Francesco and Caterina Leto, come from in Italy, and how would I go about finding whether any relatives were still there?
In the mid-1980s, way before ancestry.com or any other internet search engines, I started my journey to find out about my ancestors. I went to the National Archives in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Records Department and the Free Library of Philadelphia in search of basic information (name, birth/death dates, etc.).
Back then, records were cataloged on index cards and stored on microfilm. My first attempts met with great success. I found a treasure trove of family information, including immigration records and death certificates. I also found out when my grandparents entered Ellis Island, what ship they sailed on, their hometowns in Italy and their parents’ names. At that point, I placed all the documents I had collected in a folder, which remained untouched for 35 years.
My interest in uncovering my family roots was rekindled by all the advertisements for ancestry.com and other genealogy services, but I didn’t take that route. Instead, I opened the folder of documents I had assembled years before and headed in a different direction.
Around 2010, I climbed on board social media, creating a Facebook page to stay connected with family and friends. Then, I got an idea: Why not dig through the platform to find my extended family?
Unfortunately, my parents, aunts and uncles had all passed away, and with them went the answers to many of the questions I had at the time. However, I knew that my cousin Angelo had traveled to Italy in 1990 to visit the town my grandparents came from: Santa Caterina dello Ionio, in Calabria. It was possible that Angelo and another cousin, Rita, could hold the key to pursuing my roots and finding any relatives who were still living in Santa Caterina. Angelo provided me with several old photos of distant relatives that he had brought back from his trip to Santa Caterina. Rita gave me the names of my grandfather’s brother, Pasquale, and Pasquale’s daughter, Caterina.
Since I was a Facebook user, it seemed like a no-brainer to post the old photos of my relatives and see if I received any comments from relatives who were still living in the village. I found a Facebook group for the town of Santa Caterina dello Ionio and posted the old photos along with a short description of the family members depicted.
Within hours of the posting, I received numerous replies. My roots had found me! Many comments were from people who either knew my relatives or my family surname, Leto. Some even told me they were neighbors of my grandparents. The many responses indicated there were no direct living relatives.
My story ends there. My family tree stands tall — it might be missing some branches, but oh those roots! As I reflect on my journey, I have to ask myself, “Is it really complete?” Yes, but in only one sense.
Many of my Facebook friends expressed a willingness to meet me whenever I make a trip to Calabria. Now, I’m asking myself, “Should I take the next step in my journey and walk the streets of my grandparents’ town to see for myself their birthplace, my ancestral homeland?”
It may soon be time to make the voyage.