Over the Australia Day 2014 long weekend, I was contacted by Dr Judy Galvin, who completed her PhD back in 1983 on the Lettesi in Newcastle.
The Lettesi were a community of Italian immigrants from the town of Lettopalena, located in the Abruzzi region (Chieti province) of Italy.
Here is an introduction by Dr Judith Galvin, from the work “The Lettesi Story: A Community in Search of Place” pp. 5-7:
“The Lettesi in Newcastle are the extended family members of 145 households, where either one or both partners were born in Lettopalena, Italy. Most of this core group of first generation immigrants arrived in Australia over the seven-year period from 1950 to 1956 and after working in the cane fields, settled mainly in Hamilton, a working-class suburb, close to the heavy industries and port facilities of Newcastle.
The community evolved through a chain migration process that began with the arrival, in 1925, of Giacomo De Vitis. In 1927, Giacomo called his brother-in-law, Arcangelo Rossetti. In 1938 Arcangelo’s sons, Antonio and Giacomo, bought a cane farm in Proserpine where the brothers later purchased farms of their own. These farms became the focus for a major post-war exodus, sponsored mainly by Antonio, with assistance from Giacomo, and other Italian farmers.
Emigration from the village was not a new phenomenon, for many had left earlier for America and Argentina; but during the war, in 1943, after suffering two months of German occupation, the people watched as their homes were destroyed. At the end of the war there was nothing left but the ruins of a village and what remained of the stables. The result was an exodus on a scale never before experienced by the village.
I first came to know the Lettesi community during the course of research in 1971 when a random sample of 45 Italian households revealed seven families from a single village. The village was Lettopalena; and the pattern was surprising as Lettopalena’s population had less than a thousand people.
Among the seven families interviewed were Fiorindo Martinelli and his wife, Filomena; and when I showed surprise at the high number of Lettesi, Filomena offered to have a gathering at their home so I could hear first-hand of the events that had brought them all the way to Australia in such large numbers. It was a powerful, engaging story, but I had to leave it till another time. Four years later, in 1975, the opportunity came to examine it further.
Meanwhile I had interviewed immigrants from different countries, to learn about their origins and destination patterns. What I found among the southern European groups, from Greece, Italy and the former Yugoslavia, were distinctive patterns of residential concentration that reflected the town or region of origin.
The Lettesi, in particular, were a distinctive village entity. The pattern did not apply to those from Germany and the Netherlands; and was not quite so marked for other southern European groups. 1 wanted to know how this community had evolved; how it managed to retain its distinctive identity; and how it functioned within the wider society. The story, unravelled, had a human dimension that encompassed the very essence of the meaning of community – a locality where social life is characterised by a set of common values and beliefs, a strong sense of identity and belonging, social coherence and functional interdependence.
My second meeting with Lettesi, four years later, was the result of a mistake. Hearing a radio announcement of a dance to be held in Hamilton, in support of the victims of an earthquake in Italy in 1975, and being organised by Lettesi, I decided to attend. Being shy by nature, I was grateful for the company of an Italian friend, Luigina Barile, who agreed to come along. We were unaware that the announcement was a strategy for reaching the large community membership; and that the invitation was not directed to the general public. We had gate-crashed a Lettesi community event; and it was hugely embarrassing.
At the door we were met by members of the Committee, and for a second time I experienced the overwhelming hospitality of this exceptional community. Extra places were set at the Committee’s own table where we were treated with a dose of true Italian hospitality, as though we were honoured guests. My embarrassment was complete when, on winning the door-prize, a huge bottle of champagne, I was required to walk the length of the hall, to the stage, then back again, carrying the spoils. This conspicuous introduction was not the one I would have planned.
A commitment to record the full Lettesi story was the outcome of a meeting with Antonio Della Grotta, President of the Lettesi Club. Antonio’s significance to the welfare of the group could never be overstated; nor could his importance to the progress of my research. He led me through the extended family networks that comprised the Lettesi. Then, following a year of in-depth interviews with Lettesi families in Newcastle and recording their accounts of emigration and re-settlement, I went to the village in July 1977.
In Lettopalena I met, for the first time, Antonio Rossetti, brother of Giacomo, and son of Arcangelo, the Lettesi pioneer. It was a chance meeting; but a very timely one. He was visiting family, including the D’Acciones. Antonio was a cousin to Antonio D’Accione who, in 1976, followed Antonio Della Grotta as Lettesi Club President. It was he who had arranged accommodation, in Lettopalena, for me and my family.
Antonio Rossetti was the principal link in the chain migration process. This meeting was fortuitous for Antonio had not been interviewed as he was one of the few Lettesi not resident in Newcastle. He had sold the farm in Proserpine and was living in Brisbane where Angelo, his son, had set up a pharmacy. Pasquale Martinelli whom I had interviewed the year before was visiting the village also. It was his first visit to the homeland.
Both men were indispensable, not only in the roles of informant, guide and interpreter, but also as a channel through which I could identify the connections that linked Australia to the homeland within the maze of complex extended family interrelationships. They were a welcome mat to the community, a bridge to their hospitality. They showed me over the rubble of the old town, sharing their memories as they formed among the ruins of what had once been family homes.
These memories reclaimed the town, generations of Lettesi families, and traditions of a way of life that was practised there for centuries. There, upon a mountain ledge, almost hidden in the undergrowth, were remains of an ancient village where families had lived for countless generations, reaching back to the 12th century. And there, beyond the river, spread out across the relict fields, was the new town of Lettopalena for which Antonio and Pasquale now felt a kind of strangeness. Their memories were embedded among the ruins of the old town.
I recognised in the new town with its spacious layout, comfortable homes and neat kitchen gardens, a way of life that lay in stark contrast to that experienced in the old town, clustered on a ledge of the mighty Maiella massif and overlooking a ravine of the Aventino River. It contrasted, too, with the makeshift homes that Lettesi had forged from the stables of solid stone, in the fields just across the river when the village was destroyed, and at the end of the war. I could see how these changes were symbolic of the break in the chain of continuity of emigration from the village.
There was a story, published in 1998, of Lettopalena’s early history till 1943; a heart-wrenching tale of its total destruction, and of the epic struggle for survival experienced by its people.
Our story begins in 1943 with the destruction of the village; then follows an account of chain migration from the village to the cane fields of Proserpine, northern Queensland; then from Proserpine to Newcastle. It is a story of Lettesi people, of the roles and relations that formed and sustained them, and their spirit and well-being, as a close-knit community in an alien, unfriendly setting. It is a story of community in search of place.”
Their town was systematically destroyed by the Germans, which led to the displaced people being resettled to specific communities in Australia (Hamilton, Newcastle, NSW), the USA (Turtle Creek, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania) and Argentina (Caseros, Buenos Aires).
The reason Dr Galvin contacted us was her wish to ensure that the local community, as well as its companion communities around the world, have perpetual access to the research and resources she collected while doing her thesis.
Thanks to the kind generosity of one of our volunteers, Leigh Graham, who over the past months has donated her time to come in and digitise Dr Galvin’s thesis to create a single PDF file for download at the following link:
The University Library record for this Thesis 866 is here: http://encore.newcastle.edu.au/iii/encore/record/C__Rb1254921?lang=eng#.U5pITS-7mgw
In addition, Dr Galvin also prepared a work documenting the story of the people, written in a more accessible style. It is called “The Lettesi Story: A Community in Search of Place” and is also available for download here:
She has provided The University of Newcastle (Australia) with a letter of permission to digitize this material, and distribute it widely in electronic form; namely both her thesis The Lettisi in Newcastle (Thesis 866) and her recent work The Lettesi Story for access through the University’s digital databases and web portals.
I assisted Judy around 10 years ago to repair and digitize a rare tape recording in her possession.
Tracks 1-6 appear to have been recorded at Judith Galvin’s home, on the eve of her visit to the township in Italy, in July 1977. Members of the Lettesi community can be heard singing and sending messages to their loved loved ones in Lettopalena, and wishes in anticipation for a welcome for Judith and her family on their visit there. Tracks 7-8 appear to have been recorded at Lettopalena at the conclusion of the family’s stay there, and consist of messages back to their loved ones in Australia that Judith would convey to the community on her return to Australia . Anyone with further information regarding this recording is welcome to contact us so that we can include this information with its documentation. All 8 tracks are digitised below:
We thank Dr Judith Galvin for her generosity, and our volunteer staff member Leigh Graham for her diligent work in making this important research available to the communities of the Lettopalena Italian people, their descendants and loved ones across the world.
Gionni Di Gravio
University of Newcastle (Australia)