Italians to Ellis Island: The story behind this iconic photo

Rosa Camillo (pictured center). Photo: Italian Community Center.

Much has been written on the topic of Italian emigration to America in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The experiences of the Italians who immigrated as part of earlier mass migrations waves have been well documented, especially those of Italian men. Yet, scholarly literature has paid significantly less attention to the experiences of Italian women, and they too are deserving of recognition.

One woman’s journey, that of Rosa Camillo, is the classic representation of the 20th-century immigrant arriving in America from Italy for the first time.

A POWERFUL image of a crying Rosa taken before the ship enters New York Harbor now hangs in the lobby of Milwaukee’s Italian Community Center.

Photo of Rosa Camillo on the top left.

In the decades since it was taken, the photo has become inextricably tied to Milwaukee’s Italian Heritage.

Most of Milwaukee’s early Italian population consisted of working adult males. However, many women — whose primary duty was to the family — took factory jobs that required little or no skill.

They would care for the children in the morning, walk to the factory and put in an honest day’s work, and then go back home to prepare meals.

Some even died from a variety of toxic diseases they often got while working in the factories.

Though many found work and a place to live, the Italian immigrants were hardly living the luxurious life.

Rosa’s inspiring story, and her life afterward, helps shine a light on the many sacrifices made by our ancestors.

We are truly grateful and thankful, for without them our lives would most surely be different today.

VIDEO: Gina Camillo Manning tells the story behind the now-iconic picture.

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Written by
Joe Battaglia
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