Sport and the Shaping of Italian American Identity

My grandfather, Peter Di Benedetto, was an illiterate Sicilian shepherd who envisioned a better life in America. In 1907 at age 16 he stowed away on a ship, where he met a 14 year old orphan, Benedetta Salomone, traveling with her grandmother. Upon arrival, both traveled to Chicago. Without money or an education, my grandfather had only his physical strength and strong work ethic available to make a living. After toiling as a railroad construction worker for a few years he returned to Chicago to marry his shipboard sweetheart. He saved enough money to buy a house in which their eleven children were born; but misery and hardship continued as five of the children died in infancy and another, a boxing champion, died of a brain tumor at 23. Sport appealed to the remaining children, where their physical abilities gained greater social acceptance at a time when Italians were ostracized as unfit for American citizenship. A younger brother also became a boxer; but found greater accomplishment as a football player. As president of a community social-athletic club he acquired administrative and leadership skills that enabled him to establish his own company. He shared his prosperity with the family and the larger community. The grandchildren earned further athletic and scholastic accolades. One became an opera singer and performed for the pope. Another became a wealthy entrepreneur. A third earned an executive position in one of the nation's largest companies. His brother became a college professor, author and renowned global scholar. Thanks to the vision of a young shepherd boy, they fulfilled their grandfather's dream of a better life in the promise of America.

Place(s): Italy, Chicago

– Gerald Gems

Relationship:  Grandchild of im/migrant Grandchild of im/migrant