A Stellar Flare of Young Adult Writing and Visual Art
BY ADELA XHEZA
The first words that Nonna said when I was born was “questo è in fiamme.” This one is on fire. We all thought that she was talking about my red hair, but looking back she must have known about what was to come. Back in Sicily there was nothing but drought and hardship there, Babbo worked on a farm when he was needed, but most times he was not. So like many others he went to America, “‘the land of gold'” was what everyone called it. In America a man could work for himself not for a rich landowner. In America there was equal opportunity.” Was all he talked about, he had America fever and left to make enough money to send for us.
Mama was left with four children and a mother in law, while waiting for Babbo to return, hard lines cut into her face. We all knew stories about husbands who left their wives and children, but never came back. She would snap at all of us regularly, even Alexi, her golden boy could do no right. But Babbo sent us tickets to join him in the golden land, unlike many others. Mama was so busy then that it was Clara, with her hard dark eyes, looked after me. Always yelling “Lucia! Fix your dress. Lucia! Brush your hair.” Lucia this, Lucia that. I began to resent my sister who had nothing but a sharp tongue and mean words to say about me. So I spent more time with Nonna who taught me her ways, she was a midwife and nurse. Always knowing what remedies for what sickness, so I looked up to her wanting to know everything. She also told me about other things. About how she fixed the problems of girls who believed a boy’s empty promises. And of married women who already had six children with little food at the table. I felt proud knowing that Nonna trusted me with her secrets and not Clara, it made me feel useful when she would berate me for spilling precious water on the dusty path, on the way back home from the well.
I was 12 when we stepped onto the boat and left. The constant motion on the boat made us ill for the journey, for a month we bobbed around, constantly sick, with children all around us wailing ; once the storm hit we all believed we would die, all of us were praying in between vomiting, praying that we would somehow survive and step foot on land again. But we made it and landed in Ellis island, the stories we know of that place were horror stories, about people who came so close, were turned away for random reasons. But some how we made it through and landed in New York.
Clara went to work in a factory immediately, not even knowing a word of English. I was lucky and got to go to school and began to be called a different name. Lucy instead of Lucia, it made me seem less of a greenhorn and I liked it. But at home I was still Lucia, who helped mama make those artificial flowers for fancy ladies hats. Even with Babbo, Clara and Alexi working we still didn’t have much, we had a small cramped apartment in the lower east side, me,Clara and Nonna in our room, Mama,Babbo and baby Toni, and Alexi sleeping on the sofa in the main room.
So it came at no surprise when I was told to work in the factory with Clara. After all according to Mama I didn’t need more learning, I could read and write English and I could do maths well so I wouldn’t get cheated in the market, this was enough learning for a girl. The first thing I learned at the factory was the costs: twenty five cents for a locker every week, five cents for a needle, fines for being late, fines for ruining the cloth, ten cents for talking.The amount of money that we got paid depends upon the amount of shirtwaists we finish. The Bosso splits up the girls so we can’t talk to each other, I began to work with a Yiddish girl, Sara. Who taught me how to snip the threads of of the finished clothes, my hands became red and sore as the hours rolled on, the dust and dirt in the air made it hard to breathe, the room was damp and hot, all of us were shiny with sweat but couldn’t stop or the Bosso would scream at us, finally lunch rolled around and Sara turned to me. “Your English is very good”. I mumbled out a thank you in response, we continued our conversation for the thirty minutes, oblivious to Clara glaring at me. Once the clock reached six I was ready to leave but we had to wait to be dismissed, six turned to seven and we stayed for an additional thirty minutes until we could leave. Outside the shop Clara pounded on me “stay away from those Jewish girls Lucia! That Sara especially. They are nothing but trouble.” Shocked I didn’t know what to say, Sara was nice to me that day so instead I asked if we would be paid overtime. Clara shook her head at me and told me no, we don’t get paid overtime.
After a while I became a machine operator, I was so proud of my promotion, and how I helped put food on the table and a roof over our head but there was problems about the factory that I was always thinking about, how the bosses kept one of the doors locked so they can search our purses for stolen scraps, how we had to run up eight flights of stairs if the elevator wasn’t working, and Sara’s constantly talking about the unions and strikes. “Lucy! You must join the union, the more workers who join, the more pressure we put on the bosses”.
“Sara, I’m not sure Clara says that the unions are only for the Jewish girls.”
“We need more Italian girls in the unions, otherwise when we are on strike, they break the picket lines. Do you remember the strike last year?” I remembered it too well, I remembered not having enough food to fill our bellies, I remembered having to stay up all night making artificial flowers, I remembered Mama crying at night praying that we could afford rent and food, I remembered Toni crying from hunger because he was three and didn’t understand, I knew why so many Italian girls were strike breakers. We are the poorest ones, none of the pamphlets were in Italian, they were in Yiddish or English, we weren’t accepted by them.
Sara continued on “they called it the uprising of twenty thousand. We all stood on the picket line, marching shoulder to shoulder.”
I finally agreed to go to a meeting with her at the end of the day, after I finished I waited for Clara, she worked up on the ninth floor,while I was on the eight. We had grown apart in the last few months, she would go to the apartment above ours to talk with her friends while I would talk and listen to Nonna, as she would tell me stories about her day.
As we ate at the dinner table I spoke up.
“Tomorrow night I am going to a union meeting.” Clara stood up and slammed her hands hard on the table, making our bowls and cutlery dance.
“No!You are not! Unions are only for Jewish girls!” She yelled at me
“That’s not true, more Italians need to join otherwise the bosses will pit us against each other!” I stood up and slammed the table
“Look whose talking. You aren’t even Italian anymore! I hear everyone calling you Lucy, who do you think you are, a fancy American girl?!”
“Without a union we don’t have a voice! What part about that do you not understand!”
“UNION” “UNION” “You sound like a socialist!”
“So what if I do! What is wrong with that!”
We screamed at each other back and forth like that, until Nonna slapped the table with her wooden spoon,
“Enough! Both of you finish your food and then go to bed.”
We both sat down in silence and finished our soup.
A few days later it was March twenty fifth. A date that I will never forget, it started off normal, with Clara and I leaving the apartment silently, and going to our respective floors. There I worked while Sara told me of her Sunday plans. “I’m going to the Yiddish theatre tomorrow,”
“That sounds lovely, I hope that you will have a good time. I am probably going to sleep for the whole day.” All of us girls were giggling and talking until we smelt smoke, panic struck us all, as we saw flames lick the walls, coming closer to us. In panic we swarmed to different directions, Sara and I ran to the closest door.
It was locked
We all screamed and banged at the door as the flames crept closer to us, finally a young man found the key and unlocked the door. We ran down the staircase,it was clogged with smoke and I tripped down as I ran to escape the flames that were close behind me,licking my every step. Finally we made it down all eight flights, down outside was a crowd of spectators and firemen, Sara turned to me in shock
“Lucy! Your hair!” I lost my hat in the rush to get out of the building and my bun had been burned off by the fire, but I was still alive and for that I was thankful.
We all looked up, the ladders and hose from the fire trucks didn’t reach the ninth floor. I screamed.
Clara was still up there.
One of the windows burst,smashed open and a group of girls fell out, the safety nets didn’t work and they all smashed down on the pavement. The fire escape, warped by the heat and the amount of people on it collapsed. Sending twenty people to their deaths. A young boy was helping girls up onto the window ledge, as if he was helping them on a streetcar. He and the last girl shared a final kiss before they jumped together. I spotted Clara on a window ledge, her hair was loose,it and her skirt was on fire. She mouthed out a prayer, the same one we used to say together.
Holy Mary mother of God
Pray for us sinners
Now and at the hour of our death
She looked right at me, and smiled before she jumped.
When she hit the pavement right beside me all I could think of was that Nonna was right when she said that
questo è in fiamme
This one is on fire
This story is about the triangle shirtwaist factory fire, in March 25 1912, considered one of the worst workplace disasters of the twentieth century. Most of the workers were young Jewish or Italian girls who were immigrants to America and who worked long shifts in factories such as these. The factory bosses didn’t put enough money in safety for their workers which led to all of these girls deaths.
Adela Xheza is a 15 year old writer from Kent.