Tuesday, March 8, 2022

ITALIAN IN PUERTO RICO? EXPLORING ITALIAN AND CORSICAN IMMIGRATION TO SOUTHERN PUERTO RICO

by Erin Trybulec

Erin Trybulec is a Master’s Student in Hispanic Linguistics at the University of Illinois. Erin's future plans include pursuing a PhD in Hispanic Linguistics. She wrote this blog post in 418 'Language and Minorities in Europe' in Fall 2021.


Note: Research in Progress

Puerto Rico or “La isla del encanto” (the island of enchantment) as it is lovingly known in Spanish, is relatively small in terms of its physical size, measuring around 100 miles by 35 miles (Telemundo PR, 2018); however, the island is home to an immense amount of culture and rich history, which also happens to include influence from Italy and Corsica, two nations with an intertwined past and linguistic mutually intelligibility (Blackwood, 2008). Although the topic of immigration in Puerto Rico is less discussed, a careful look at historical figures and buildings around the island reveal some remnants of their influence. Italo-Puerto Rican and/or Corsican-Puerto Rican roots can most commonly be traced to southern cities like Ponce and Yauco (Pousada, 2018), as well as the surnames of several well-known Puerto Ricans including: Gabriela Berlingeri (model and current girlfriend of Bad Bunny), Pedro Pierluisi (the island’s current governor), and Antonio Paoli (the first and most famous Puerto Rican tenor of Spanish and Corsican ancestry). The goal of this blog is to compile historical and modern research to explore Puerto Rico’s linguistic landscape (Landry & Bourhis, 1997) during the 19th and 20th centuries; I will demonstrate that Italian and Corsican immigration incentivized by Spanish policy increased the island’s population, but evidence does not support the maintenance of these individuals’ languages due to Hispanicization.


The curiosity for this research topic began following my internship work at El Huerto Urbano del Callejón Trujillo, a former hacienda site near Ponce’s historic downtown that was reclaimed as a community gathering space and garden in 2018. The organizers’ mission was to clean a lot that had collected years of garbage, turning it into a safe space to plant the seeds of food sovereignty and healing post-Hurricane María. I had the privilege to work with the organizers and community members during the beginning of the huerto; each day, we would gather to help remove concrete, dig the mandala gardens, plant seeds, etc. One could not help but notice the large building in the center of the lot. Although uninhabited and predominantly home to many tree branches and vines, one room is home to thousands of documents dating back to the 1940s and 1950s; the majority of said documents contained headers that listed the business name “Mueblería italiana” (Italian Furniture Store) and the names “Buono & Petrilli” were the presumed owners. Interestingly, all of the documents were written in Spanish, but contained these same, blatant references to Italian ancestry.

The 1930 Puerto Rican census for Ponce’s neighborhood Cuarto (4th) listed a husband and wife by the name of José (Giuseppe) Buono y Bello[1] (age 55) and Dominga (Domenica) Petrili de Buono[2] [3] (age 41) as living at 13 Calle Gran Vía[4]. José’s occupation is listed as “shopkeeper at hardware store,” although it remains unclear whether this may have been the furniture store. The census also notes that the couple immigrated to Puerto Rico from Italy in 1908 and spoke Italian prior to their arrival. This is further supported by the 1920 Puerto Rican census, which lists the couple’s birthplace as Italy (more specifically San Giovanni, Puglia per New York passenger lists from 1820-1957) and native language as Italian. Since Puerto Rico was under U.S. control at this time, the census also contained a question about residents’ ability to speak English[5], to which the couple responded “no.” The family also included seven children, all of whom were: born in Puerto Rico[6], listed as bearing the last name Buono y Petrili, English speakers (with the exception of the youngest son, Dante, who was underage for this question), and extranjeros (foreigners). Additionally, passenger lists from travel to New York in June of 1929 indicate that José was an Italian/Spanish bilingual, while Domingo (his second oldest son) was an English/Spanish bilingual. 


The Puerto Rican census of 1940 provides further clarification and an update on the Buono y Petrilli family, showing that their eldest son, Nicolás (age 29), lived at 23 Calle Gran Vía with his own family. He married Guadalupe Anavitate (age 26 at the time of the census; born in Puerto Rico) and they had two children. Nicolás’ occupation was listed as the owner of a furniture store and his English language status remained the same. Despite his English proficiency, Nicolás’ other household members (ie. wife and sister-in-law) did not speak English. The same year, Nicolás’ parents and six siblings still lived down the street at 13 Calle Gran Vía. Four of his brothers were employed at the furniture store and his father appeared to have retired, having no occupation listed.

Based on public records, it appears that there are still some direct descendants of the Buono y Petrilli family living in Ponce today. 


The census data allows us to see that José and Dominga immigrated to Puerto Rico at the turn of the century and adopted Hispanicized names, a common trend among immigrants at this time. We initially see this Hispanicization in their names, as the couple’s respective Italian names were Giuseppe and Domenica. We also note the adoption of the traditional Spanish surname formation, consisting of the paternal last name y (and) maternal last name (Stodder, 1998): José’s surnames are listed as Buono y Bello; similarly, Dominga’s compound surname reflects the traditional adoption of a spouse’s last name with: de Buono (of Buono). The children’s names listed on the census and other supporting documents are all Spanish names; the only slight remnant of Italian influence is a minute suffix transfer from Italian. The Italian diminutive -ino may be affixed to a root to indicate small size or endearment (Maiden, 1995, p. 188). In the 1930 census, the family’s middle son, Blás, is identified as Blasino. Hence, b, it appears likely that the Buono y Petrilli family linguistically adapted to the Puerto Rican environment, with evidence suggesting all family members spoke Spanish and the children all spoke English[7]. Although there is no evidence that suggests the children spoke Italian, the documentation directly states both parents were native Italian speakers and considered themselves bilinguals as of 1930. It is likely that the parents spoke Spanish with their children, but may have spoken Italian with one another, simultaneously providing their children with exposure to the Italian language despite not identifying as Italian speakers. Modern diasporic studies generally maintain that native speakers of a language maintain said language, despite immigrating and predominantly using another language in their daily life, unless a traumatic experience (cf. Schmid, 2002); on the contrary, language maintenance in second and third generations differs by language and country (cf. Potowski, 2013). In the context of Italian, Bortolato (2012) found that the generation among Italians of the diaspora in Anglophone Canada had a large effect on intergenerational language maintenance; her data suggests that third generation family members and beyond are less likely to maintain the Italian language for a multitude of reasons, the predominate one being that proficiency is not the most predominate form of cultural currency required to identify as Italian.

Although the story of the Buono y Petrilli family is a curious one, it only provides one perspective on Italo-Puerto Rican history. In reality, there were Italians and Corsicans in Puerto Rico nearly a century prior, predominantly resulting from La Real Cédula de Gracias de 1815 (The Royal Decree of Graces of 1815). During this time, Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony and this act was Spain’s first time opening their colonies to non-Spaniard immigration. The act brought an influx of individuals from: Corsica, Italy, Germany, France, and other European countries by offering naturalized citizenship, tax breaks, and farmland incentives based on the number of individuals (six acres per colonist); although some researchers insist Spain exclusively sought to grow the island’s white Catholic population, Rosario Rivera (1995) argues that there was also a need for laborers, and the motivation to migrate with enslaved individuals was to receive 3 additional acres of land per enslaved person. Rosario Rivera (1995) also noted that due to the fact that the date of Italian unification is debatable, but did not occur until well after the proclamation of the decree, individuals whose origin states became part of Italy were listed as Italian; similarly, Corsicans were counted as French migrants with Corsica listed as their city of origin. From 1816-1820, there were 268 migrants listed as having Italian origin and at least 35 were of Corsican origin.[8] In a stark contrast, data reported in Dorsey & Barnes (2006) suggests that Puerto Rico lacked and Italian population until 1827 (n=230), which grew to 279 by 1832. There is no individual data reported for Corsican populations at this time, as Corsicans were also counted as French; the French population, however, more than doubled in size from 612 in 1824 to 1,510 in 1832. In Ponce specifically, the French (including Corsicans) “owned the majority of slaves […]” (p. 9).

According to the public records analyzed by Ponce historian Questell Rodríguez (2018), the city’s population had reached 37,345 people and approximately 2,251 people were considered foreigners by 1878. He also notes that there was a large amount of English and French being spoken in Ponce by this time. Rivera Velázquez (2010), on the other hand, noted that the population of nearby Santa Isabel had a small foreign population (~1.29%) which included 14 Italians of 4 different families; these families were all involved in some form of merchantry (including but not limited to: the cotton industry and the manufacturing of bricks) and their children tended to inter-marry. In his research, River Velázquez found some overlap between Italian and Corsican families who shared the same last name; this suggests that further research on Italo-Corsican history and migration patterns is necessary to understand how immigrants’ social circles in Puerto Rico may have been affected.

Today, there is no known discussion regarding the maintenance of Italian nor Corsican as heritage languages in Puerto Rico, nor a large discussion about the long-term impacts of immigration. This is likely due to the topic being somewhat difficult to research from a historical standpoint and because of a variety of overarching political issues and concerns, namely: Puerto Rico’s status as an “unincorporated territory of the United States[9]” and the status of the English language in Puerto Rico, among many others. The modern conversations regarding languages in contact in Puerto Rico tend to focus on Spanish and English, as the 1993 Senate Bill 1 named Spanish and English the island’s co-official languages (cf. Barreto, 2001; Clampitt-Dunlap, 2018). Despite this, Pousada (2018) notes that Italians were among the largest foreign population in Puerto Rico in 2015 and that there are documented cases of native Italian and Corsican speakers on the island within the last decade. Italian is also offered at the University of Puerto Rico as foreign language. In an effort to encourage further exploration of this topic, further analysis of public records is required to trace family histories, possibly allowing researchers to locate members of these communities for ethnographically informed linguistic interviews; these types of interviews could lead to documentation of oral histories including culinary influence, for example, which may also be a viable route for exploring long-lasting Italian and Corsican influence because sofrito, a base of many Puerto Rican dishes is thought to have taken its name from Italian sofritto. An additional route of historical exploration can be accomplished through analysis of the names of Puerto Rican schools and cultural centers, as they are often named for important figures like Anthony Paoli. Additionally, historically informed exploration of the Spanish colonial (post-Royal Decree of Graces), pre-unified Italian, and Corsican language policies will be necessary to determine language status in these respective locations and how these ideologies were combined within the Puerto Rican linguistic landscape (cf. Blackwood, 2008) during this time period. Until then, Puerto Rico continues to face ongoing political and budgetary challenges, which may result in the loss/consolidation of some the aforementioned schools and cultural centers, including some which bear the names of important historical figures of Italo-Corsican origin or descent, like Escuela Antonio Paoli in Ponce.


[1] This is the terminology utilized by the United States government; in Spanish this idea has been translated as Estado Libre Asociado “Free Associated State,” and politically, this remains a great point of contention because it is considered to be evidence of colonization (cf. Barreto, 2001).  

[2] There were many individuals listed as being of French origin, but there was no specification of their city of origin or colony name.

[3] This is can be explained by changes to education made by the U.S. government, which required English courses and the installation of American teachers in an effort to “Americanize” the island following the Official Languages Act of 1902 (cf. Barreto, 2001).

[4] It is important to note that this was a self-evaluation question in the form of a yes/no answer.

[5] Although the 1930 and 1940 censuses state Nicolás was born in Puerto Rico, the 1920 census lists his place of birth as Italy and his native language as Italian; there are other discrepancies with the 1920 census for the other children’s’ birth place is listed as Italy and native language as Italian, but this data was later crossed out.

[6] May appear in Italian as Buono di Bello.

[7] In some documents her name appears as Domenica Maria Gaetana Petrillo Sorrentino 

[8] Although the documentation found from the furniture store has a spelling discrepancy when compared to the census, this likely occurred because census data was gathered verbally and other studies have shown that the direct translation of the U.S. Census to Spanish for use in Puerto Rico combined with lack of understanding of racial boundaries on the island led to other discrepancies, most notably an intentional whitening of the population (cf. Loveman & Muñiz, 2007).

[9] Interestingly, their former address is about a six-minute walk from the El Huerto del Callejón Trujillo.



References

Barreto, A. A. (2001). Politics of Language in Puerto Rico. University Press of Florida. 

Blackwood, R. J. (2008). The state, the activists and the islanders: Language policy on Corsica. Springer. 

Bortolato, C. (2012). Language maintenance-attrition among generations of the Venetian-Italian community in Anglophone Canada (thesis). University of Exeter, Exeter. 

Dorsey, J. C., & Barnes, S. L. (2006). Toward a History of Slavery in Small Places: Agrarian Diversity, 

Demographic Expansion, and Economic Stability in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, 1812 -1838. Journal of 

African American Studies10(2), 3–21. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41819111

Copy 

 

Loveman, M., & Muniz, J. O. (2007). How Puerto Rico Became White: Boundary Dynamics and 

Intercensus Racial Reclassification. American Sociological Review72(6), 915–939. 

http://www.jstor.org/stable/25472503

 

Landry, R., & Bourhis, R. Y. (1997). Linguistic Landscape and Ethnolinguistic Vitality: An Empirical 

Study. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 16(1), 23–49. 

https://doi.org/10.1177/0261927X970161002 

Maiden, M. (1995). A Linguistic History of Italian. Longman. 

Potowski, K. (2013). Language Maintenance and Shift. In The Oxford Handbook of Sociolinguistics. essay, Oxford University Press. 

Pousada, A. (2018). In XI Congreso de Investigación y Creación Académica 2018 (pp. 1–18). Carolina, PR; University of Puerto Rico. 

Clampitt-Dunlap, S. (2018). Es cuestión de idiomas: Un análisis sociolingüístico del lenguaje y el nacionalism en Guam, Filipinas y Puerto Rico. Mariana Editores.

Questell Rodríguez, E. (2018). Historia de la comunidad Bélgica de Ponce a partir de la Hacienda Muñiz y otros datos. Mariana Editores.

Rivera Velázquez, M. (2021, March 28). Los italianos que vivían en Santa IsabelSanta Isabel PR. Retrieved December 21, 2021, from https://www.santaisabelpr.com/los-italianos-que-vivian-en-santa-isabel 

Rosario Rivera, R. (1995). La real cédula de Gracias de 1815 y sus Primeros Efectos en Puerto Rico. R. Rosario Rivera. 

Schmid, M. S. (2002). First Language Attrition, Use and Maintenance The case of German Jews in Anglophone countries. John Benjamins. 

Stodder, J. (1998). Double-Surnames and Gender Equality: A Proposition And The Spanish Case. Journal of 

Comparative Family Studies29(3), 585–593. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41603589

Telemundo PR. (2018, April 24). Puerto Rico no mide 100x35. Telemundo Puerto Rico. Retrieved.                       September 15, 2021, from https://www.telemundopr.com/noticias/puerto-rico/puerto-rico-no-mide-100-x-35/14174/

U.S. Census Bureau. (1920). Fourteenth Census of the United States. (Roll: T625_2064; Page: 13B; 

Enumeration District: 627; Image: 1477).

 

U.S. Census Bureau. (1930). Fifteenth Census of the United States. (Roll: 2657; Page: 20A; Enumeration 

District: 14; Image: 611.0).

 

U.S. Census Bureau. (1940). Sixteenth Census of the United States. (Roll: T627_4628; Page: 5B; 

Enumeration District: 49-36).

 

U.S. Customs Service. (1929). Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1820-1897

(Microfilm Serial: T715; Microfilm Roll: T715_4526; Line 2).

 


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