My grandfather, Agatino Arena, was born May 28, 1907, in the town of Adernò in Sicily.  He came from a line of stone cutters or masons.  His paternal grandfather and namesake was wealthy enough to own land.  However, this wealth apparently was insufficient to shield his family from the economic devastation that overcame the region known in Italy as the mezzogiorno (Southern Italy from Naples down to the tip of the boot, as well as Sicily).

Sometime either in late 1908 or early 1909, my great-grandfather, Carmelo Arena, left on a ship and came to New York City.  We will probably never learn where he got the money for this great voyage. My guess is that his father, Agatino, funded the voyage in order to give his son a chance at economic survival.  Carmelo left behind in Adernò his wife, Agata, his two-year old son, Agatino, and an infant daughter (or a very pregnant wife depending of the timing of his departure).  Like so many other immigrants of the day, Carmelo would never return to his home again.

The Italia

Very little is known about Carmelo’s time in New York.  However, it is a safe bet to state that he worked very hard as a laborer.  Within a relatively short period of time, he had saved up enough money to send for his young family.  And so, on November 13, 1909, Agata, with her babe in arms and my grandfather in tow, boarded a ship named The Italia in Palermo and sailed to the New World.  They would spend 15 days at sea.  Like Carmelo, none of these people would ever set foot on their native soil again.

The Italia was built in 1903 in Glasgow.  In 1909, it was running between New York and Mediterranean ports.  It was undoubtedly overflowing with human cargo when sailing westbound.  However, there were probably not many passengers on the way back.  The ship’s records indicate that it accommodated 1,420 passenger: 20 first class and 1,400 third class or steerage.  I think we can imagine which section my forebears traveled in.  The Italia continued to make this traverse during the great years of the American immigration experience.  In 1923, The Italia was scrapped.

On November 28, 1909, our three travelers arrived at Ellis Island in their new country.  Immigration records indicate that my great-grandmother could read and write.  She disembarked with only $50.00 and a Manhattan street address of 2239 First Avenue in her pocket.  She was going to join her husband. 

Manifest from my grandfather's arrival at Ellis Island. He is line #2.

Carmelo Arena

The family was reunited.  Other children were born.  However, Carmelo was not long for life in the New World.  I am informed that he dropped dead on a train platform one day.  He was in his early 3os.  My grandfather told me that he died from smoking “those guinea cigars” that he apparently favored.  I would also venture that Carmelo Arena’s exceptionally hard work life had something to do with his untimely death.

Agata (who for some reason became known as Ida) lived out the rest of her life in America.  Unfortunately, she could not care for her children.  My grandfather went to an orphanage in Tarrytown, New York.  His stories of life in the orphanage have stayed with me.  In light of this, it is a great comfort that we were able to remove my youngest child from an orphanage in Haiti.

At some point, Ida married a kind man of Ukrainian descent named Basil Kokor (the name was later changed to Coco).  At that point, the family was reunited.  Basil and Ida had more children.  He was a tailor, and taught my grandfather the first of his many trades.

Agatino joined the U.S. Army in the late 1920s.  He learned to ride a horse and was part of the cavalry.  He became an American citizen at that time.  He also took a new name, Arthur.  He would never use his old country name again.  In fact, he bristled at its mere mention.

Arthur Arena’s Army service had two lasting legacies.  The first is his appearance in a famous silent film,1927’s The Roughridgers.  It was directed by Victor Fleming (who went on to make Gone With the Wind in 1939).  It featured the biggest stars of the day, Charles Farrell, Mary Astor and Noah Beery.  The film recounts Teddy Roosevelt’s 1898 charge up Cuba’s San Juan hill during the Spanish American War.  My grandfather told me he carried a flag while riding his horse.

His other Army legacy is me.

Arthur lived a full life in America.  He married and had three children.  My mother was the youngest.  My earliest memory is of my grandfather helping me up a stoop in New Jersey.

Arthur died in 1995 at the age of 88.  He never made it back to Italy.


I have been to Italy.  However, I have never been to Sicily.  One day I will go to honor my grandfather, and to claim my birthright.

My birthright is neither money nor land.

It is the opportunity to visit Adrano.

The town’s name has changed many times now.  Each name change reflects a different invasion of Sicily.  According to Wikipedia:

The Romans changed the name of the township into Hadranum; during the occupation by the Arabs it was called Adarnu or sometimes Adarna, while the Normans referred to it as Adernio and Adriano. Until 1929 its official name was Adernò, until eventually it was changed into Adrano. Several elder inhabitants of the town still use to call it Adernò. [sic]

The final change came about because of Mussolini and Fascism.  The dictator sought to evoke the greatness of Italy through its link to pagan gods.  Thus, Adernò became Adrano in honor of Adranus, a Phoenician deity.

One day, I will walk Adrano’s streets.I will gaze out at nearby Mount Etna.I will recreate in a piazza such as this one:I will look up in wonder at the Norman castle.I will stand upon il Ponte dei Saraceni or the Bridge of the Saracens and peer down into the gola or gorge of the Simeto, Sicily’s longest river.And especially, I will walk the via Garibaldi now known as Corso Garibaldi where Agatino was born.  I will look up at each house in wonder, while thinking about the man and how much he gave me.— The Major

Three dapper men by the Williamsburgh Bridge. Arthur is at right.


6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by lisa on November 3, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    Wow thank you. I knew some of it and would love to hear more. I too dream of going to Sicily to see where Papa was born.


  2. You are lucky to know so much about your family history. It is a wonderful gift to pass on to your children.


  3. Posted by Teresa Lancer on November 6, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    Michael, thank you for this beautiful tribute to Papa. Dad just told me about it today. I am in awe of how much you know of your grandfather. Recently a lady from physical therapy and I have been talking about taking a trip to Sicily (more like dreaming).
    When you showed the pictures and said someday you will be there to see it with your eyes, I got all teary eyed.
    So thank you again for this wonderful blog. Hopefully, I will be here to see it thru your eyes!
    Love, mom


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