This is What Happened When I Searched For My Southern Italian Heritage

Southern Italian HeritageItaly is more than just major tourist destination to me. My grandparents are from a small village in southern Italy, so this a story about the search for my southern Italian heritage, and the family roots I have been dying to explore.

this-is-what-happened-when-i-searched-for-my-southern-italian-heritage-02Summer 2016 was special for me for many reasons. I led my first study abroad program, taking undergraduate students to London and Paris for three weeks. That was a major life lesson in patience and organization. Another major first for me was a trip to South America. I never envisioned I’d get to travel to such cool places for my job, but I have realized just how lucky I am. But the highlight of the summer, the trip I’ll never forget, was getting to explore Italy and my southern Italian heritage.

Of all the places I’ve been, the most humbling was visiting my grandparent’s village in southern Italy called Montefalcone di Val Fortore. This tiny village way up in the mountains, 50 miles northeast of Naples, with less than 2000 people is where my grandparents are from. When I began planning our trip to Italy, on the very top of my visit list was a day trip to my grandparent’s village. For a brief moment, I considered skipping it because my dad insisted there was nothing there. He assured me that was the reason his parent’s left to begin with, nearly 100 years earlier.

this-is-what-happened-when-i-searched-for-my-southern-italian-heritage-06Despite my minor hesitations, I knew it was important to see where my family comes from. I couldn’t go all the way there and not experience that. The day after we arrived in Naples, armed with a physical map and good ‘ole google maps, my hubby drove us the 2 hours up narrow and winding mountain roads to get to Montefalcone di Val Fortore.

As we drove, I had butterflies in my stomach. The surroundings weren’t all that unfamiliar to something we had seen driving between LA and Bakersfield. Maybe the roads were in rougher shape, but we could have sworn we were driving in California. At one point, we noticed this little, brightly colored village sitting on top of one of the mountain peaks. My husband told me he was sure that was the village. I assumed it was just too small. As we drove up and up we kept getting closer. Sure enough, that was the village.

this-is-what-happened-when-i-searched-for-my-southern-italian-heritage-03Once we reached the village, my nervousness remained. There were very few people outside and the village was just as tiny as my dad had said. There was one main road that cut through the middle of town. On either side, there were brightly painted homes. The entire village appeared so much newer and modern than I had envisioned. For some reason, I thought I would be transported back to 1921 when we arrived. Like time had somehow stood still since my grandparents emigrated.

We parked our car and began walking around the village, shooting pictures of the juxtaposition of the old and new, wandering up another mountainous path to reach the lookout over the city. It was extremely windy and cold, much different than the hot and sticky weather we had left in Naples. I was wearing a dress and hat which was not a good choice for the ultra windy weather.

this-is-what-happened-when-i-searched-for-my-southern-italian-heritage-04What struck me the most about the village was just how isolated it felt. It was up high on the top of this mountain, overlooking rolling hills of green and farmland. There was hardly anyone around, except for some elderly men sitting on a bench outside of a teeny convenience store. We also walked past a home with a crying child. He was probably 4 or 5 and the minute he saw us walk past, his crying stopped. I’m sure he was very confused to see my husband, who definitely stood out in Italy in general.

After only about an hour, we decided to depart from Montefalcone di Val Fortore to check out nearby Benevento, the capital of the province of Campania. As we drove away, all of a sudden I got choked up. Tears began to well in my eyes and soon were streaming down my cheeks.

this-is-what-happened-when-i-searched-for-my-southern-italian-heritage-05At first, I was perplexed by my reaction. Certainly, the tiny village was underwhelming to see in person. It was tiny, there was hardly anything or anyone around, but yet, I was emotional. Why? Well, I began to think of my grandparents.

Just under 100 years ago, they left this place, with nothing, to come to America to make a better life for their children. What struck me was the courage and tenacity they must have had. It is nearly impossible for me to envision my grandfather riding on a donkey from Montefalcone di Val Fortore all the way to Benevento, to get on a train to Naples, to take a boat half way across the world, to end up in Ishpeming Michigan, all in hopes of finding a better job to support his family. That is courage.  My grandfather arrived in America in 1920, nearly one year later, with my infant Aunt Mary in tow, my grandma made her way, on her own, to follow my grandfather. That is strength.

this-is-what-happened-when-i-searched-for-my-southern-italian-heritage-07I only wish I had known them. Unfortunately, my grandfather died three years before I was born and my grandmother died when I was only five years old. I have some faint memories of her, but mostly I just have the stories my dad has told me. What I do know about my grandparents is that they valued education. That is one of the most important values they passed on to my dad and in turn to me. I am thankful for my grandparents for leaving their tiny little village of Montefalcone di Val Fortore. Even though I didn’t know them like I wish I could have, I value their courage and their willingness to take such a big risk for a better opportunity for my unborn father. Their bravery is truly inspiring, even 100 years later. I’m so glad I was able to explore my southern Italian heritage.


  1. My family is also from Montefalcone di Val Fortore. It was interesting to stumble on this article! We are from Long Island, my family immigrated to Queens, NY. I went to visit back in 1996 when I studied in Italy. I met some family members that my Great Aunt had a phone number for. It was a fantastic experience, especially because my grandparents were married in the church.

    1. My great grandparents were also from Montefalcone and settled in Ishpeming . I hope someday also to visit Italy so I can see where they came from. Thanks for sharing.

    2. Thomas Sammut says:

      Not sure how long ago this was written, but my great grandparents were both from Monteflacone di VF. & I too am from Long Island! I started searching for the village as I’ll be traveling to Naples this summer and was hoping to find my way up there. If you have any pointers and would like to connect – my email is [email protected] ! Salute, cugino!

  2. Lori Manzoline says:

    Today is March 10, 2024 – I stumbled upon your site and had to comment as my grandparents were also from Montefalcone and the story of your Grandparents journey to Ishpeming is so similar to mine.
    Short version: My Grandfather, Nunzio Manzolino, and his two brothers, first sailed over to work in the Ishpeming underground mines between 1915-18?. He returned to Italy, married my grandmother 1919. He went back to Ishpeming to earn money for her passage, (with my aunt born 1921), on Oct. 1922.
    My Grandmother’s maiden name was Zeppa. I never met my Grandmother she passed before I was born and my Grandfather passed when I was only 2.
    Last week I mentioned this story, and your Grandparents last name, Vicario, to my cousin who grew up in a house, top of the hill, Main Street, Ishpeming. She knew of them instantly. Her mother (my other Aunt) knew your Grandparents and the exact house they lived in down a street behind their house?.
    Isn’t it ironic how we descendants feel that pull to want to pay homage to our Grandparents,, and honor their courage of leaving their country/families, to an unknown land for a better life.
    Thank you for posting your story. (and to the other commentors)
    I have been researching Ancestry.com, and “virtual touring” the cities and surrounding areas of Benevento, in hopes of going to Montefalcone someday soon, to also experience my heritage.

    1. Hi – my dad instantly mentioned they changed their last name so he remembers too. What is the name of your aunt who knew my grandparents? She probably knows my dad – Anthony/Tony. He still goes up to Ispheming often.

    2. Hi Lori – my dad instantly mentioned they changed their last name so he remembers too. What is the name of your aunt who knew my grandparents? She probably knows my dad – Anthony/Tony. He still goes up to Ispheming often.

  3. Lori Manzoline says:

    Hi Stacy, glad to hear from you!
    My Aunt’s name was Rose Manzoline Stensaas. (she passed 20+ years ago) They lived at 412 Main Street.
    Hmmm, I spoke with my other cousin (Jim Larson who lives in Negaunee),,,who chimed in on knowing your family, I think he named a Tony as being a friend of his wife, Linda’s, brother? (If you can follow that) I don’t know her maiden name, but said her brother is 80 something.
    I visit Ishpeming every Memorial weekend myself, I was born there but now live in Mpls.

    1. My dad is in his 80s so totally possible. He does have a friend named Dave in Negaunee and he does remember the Manzoline’s in Ishpeming. He’s definitely up there several times in the summer. What a small world and small internet 🙂

  4. Les Kangas says:

    What a story and follow up posts. I went there in 1969 with my parents to see where mom was from. She came to US in late 20’s with her mother and later joined by step-sister who was in a convent. I remember the contrast of visiting relatives who barely running water or one, without a front door (hanging straw, like hippie days with beads). Distinct memory was on Saturday, a donkey pulled cart went to the top of hill and slowly dumped a load of water on the cobblestone culvert. All the women had lined up along the stone culvert to wash clothes as the water ran downhill. The first in line, at the top, got the cleanest water. Another day, women were walking with loaves of bread on wood boards on their heads, coming from the central oven, I assumed. The contrast was we went to Turino to visit more relatives and watched us land on the moon. Family name D’Angelo.

    1. Les Kangas says:

      Forgot to say, mom ended up in Gwinn, Michigan when she came over, through Ellis Island. I am [email protected]

    2. Love that so many people are finding this story and sharing their family’s stories too!

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