The Sicilian doctor who gave the American dream to Italian emigrants
“I have a dream” said the Italian doctor Vincenzo Sellaro, sixty years before Martin Luther King Jr. uttered the same words of hope, delineating his high and longstanding desire: the complete integration of Italians in American society. It was 7th June 1905 and Sellaro had gathered in his New York home a small group of friends (immigrants from different Italian regions) to give life to the Order Sons of Italy in America, the instrument for the realization of that dream. It was the oldest, and to this day the largest, mutual aid association for our fellow immigrants in the United States. However, the assembly on 1905 was only the crowning achievement of a project to which the doctor of Polizzi Generosa (Palermo) had dedicated already in 1897, when he landed on Ellis Island.
Sellaro, qualified at the Cornell University Medical School just one year after his arrival in the United States, began to practice medicine in the heart of Little Italy in Manhattan. Here, to face a new and not always welcoming reality, Italian communities gathered around the different regional identities. Whole streets, and sometimes the same buildings, were dividing lines between people from Campania and Sicily or those from Calabria and Piemonte. However, all shared the persistence of a language barrier which was often the cause of serious problems. The medical assistance, Sellaro soon noticed, was one of the main problems: Italians did not receive adequate care because doctors couldn’t understand them. The committee consisting of bilingual doctors, managed by Sellaro, helped to alleviate, at least temporarily, the problem. In the meantime, the doctor started to search founds for the construction of a hospital where Italians could feel at home. Thanks to the financial support of mutual aid companies, ‒ there were about two thousand only in New York early in the century ‒ the Columbus Italian Hospital was completed in 1902 and Sellaro managed the gynecology ward.
The relationship with the mutual aid societies was a real turning point for the Sicilian doctor. These associations were a point of reference both for the newcomers in the United States and those that, despite living there for a long time, were struggling to adapt their life in a metropolis as New York, so different from the rural Italy. From help in finding a job and learning the English language to the economic support for families in difficulty, mutual aid companies also represented for many a way to preserve their identity, allowing them to continue speaking Italian and passing on the customs of their places of origin. Closely observing their work, Sellaro was convinced that these groups, often characterised by a strong regional character, lacked cohesion. This is how the project of establishing a community addressed to all Italian-Americans, and Italian-Canadians, wherever they came from, was born.
“We left our native land to survive and many believe that history has reserved us some bad cards to play. As we were the last to arrive in America, we had to suffer prejudice and discrimination”
“Regardless of which part of the peninsula gave us birth, first of all, we are Italian. We can’t keep considering us as subgroups of a national community. ‒ warned Sellaro in his speech on 7th June ‒ That way we will stay weak”. A position of inferiority with respect to which the future Supreme Venerable ‒ proclaimed three weeks later during the first official assembly of the OSIA ‒ did not hide his disappointment. We left our native land to survive ‒ continued ‒ and many believe that history has reserved us some bad cards to play. As we were the last to arrive in America, we had to suffer prejudice and discrimination”. Not a trace of self-pity in his words, but a resolved encouragement to the determination to overturn their fate: “We must work together for our common good. We have come this far, leaving our homeland and our families behind, not to find a new life, but to earn a better one”. A redemption that, in the mind of Sellaro, had to be accompanied by the return of a debt of gratitude towards “this adopted homeland of which, with all our actions and discourses, we must increase the greatness”. At the end of his peroration, Sellaro declared patience: “It would take another hundred years for this project to see the light”, said the doctor.
The doctor from Polizzi Generosa would probably be proud that the almost one hundred members of Order Sons and Daughters of Italy in America dating back to 1905 have now become about 600,000 and that the aims of the association meanwhile are changed. From the mutual aid company designed by Sellaro ‒ who died in his Columbus Hospital in 1932 ‒ the OSDIA has become a charitable foundation also for non Italian-Americans, promoting the rights of the 26 million descendants of Italian immigrants in North America, it battles all forms of racism and discrimination, and is committed to preserve the identity and history of the Italian-American community.
Translated by Daniela Marsala