Updated: Apr 1, 2022
Italy is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life Anna Akhmatova
Buongiorno, mi chiamo Valeria Gisella.
G’day, my name is Valerie Giselle. I'm the daughter of Italian migrant parents. My mum came out in 1961 from Sicily. My dad was from Istria, near Trieste, Italy.
Italian Migration History
After World War 2, Italian soldiers returned from war to find that their homes had been left in ruins. There was no work. Poverty gripped the nation. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Italian Government encouraged its citizens to migrate to Australia, including Canada and Argentina.
In Australia, because of the devastating loss of men and women, not just in the second war, but also the first war, the Australian government realised our nation needed to ‘populate or perish’. The call went out to Italians, and other people in southern Europe affected by war, to make Australia their home.
Italians had previously migrated to Australia before the post-war years. There were 10,000 Italian living across Australia by 1914; Sydney and Melbourne were no longer the only cities Italian called home. By 1947, 33,000 Italians called Australia home. The assisted passage scheme brought 42,000 Italians to Australian between 1951 and 1968.
After the second war, Italian men arrived to work on the Warragamba Dam and the Snowy Mountain Scheme. Italians set up restaurants and bars, worked in trade and on cattle and sheep stations in the outback, made award-winning wines and laboured in the sugarcane fields in Northern Queensland.
The Proxy Brides
There were more Italian men emigrating to Australia because of the need for a predominantly male labour force. The cultural and language divide was chronic between Italian men, hoping to marry and settle down, and Australian girls. A lot of the Italian men did not want to marry Australian girls, yet there weren’t enough Italian girls to go round.
A plan to marry as a Proxy Bride was sought after. This was the best option, as Australian fathers did not want their unmarried daughters travelling alone to Australia. Proxy marriage had been allowed by the Catholic Church since the sixteenth century, after the Council of Trento. The system was simple. The man wrote home asking help from his family to find a wife. There would be a church wedding in Italy, and the bride dressed in a wedding dress would be married by a priest. A brother, uncle, or father would stand in for the groom who was back in Australia; most likely sharing a beer in a pub. Between 1945 to 1976, around 12,000 Italian proxy brides travelled to Australia, usually by boat. Some to see their husbands for the first time, others knew of them from the same village, while some planned it, and were already in love.
There are some potential romance stories here.
My first novel, which is currently with an editor, and due to launch later in 2022, is the story of Olivia, whose Italian mother migrated to Australia in 1960 when she was nineteen. Rosemary Benito was running away from an arranged marriage to a man, many years her senior.
In writing the novel, I drew on my Italian culture, as well as my experience growing up as a kid of migrant parents in an inner Sydney suburb during the 1970s. My auntie was also a proxy bride, and I was always fascinated by her situation and marriage.
I grew up on a staple of Sicilian and Italian dialect, Italian food, Connie Francis songs, and accordion music. My childhood was spent going to the soccer with my dad, getting gelato on a Friday night in Kings Cross and attending events at the Italian club with my family. These events were surrounded by a dynamic and passionate family filled with grandmothers (nonnas), aunts and uncles (zias and zios) and cousins.
In my adult life, especially now living in Brisbane, I have met many young Italians who have emigrated here during the 21st century. They represent a wave of new chic Italians, bringing with them a fresh new perspective of the Italian culture.
Australia and our stories will be better off for it.
Ciao and tanti baci (loads of kisses)
Italian Historical Society, 2000, “Italian Migration 1945–1970”,http://coasit.com.au/IHS/facts/pdf/Italian_migration_1945_1970.pdf
Migration Heritage Centre, 2011 ‘Journey to a new life: Italian migration in NSW’, https://www.migrationheritage.nsw.gov.au/exhibition/journey/journey/index.html
National Archives of Australia, “Records relating to Italian Migration held in Sydney”, https://www.naa.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-05/fs-100-records-relating-to-italian-migration-held-in-sydney.pdf
SBS Italian, “Italian Proxy Brides: Australia’s forgotten generation of female migrants” https://www.sbs.com.au/language/english/italian-proxy-brides-australia-s-forgotten-generation-of-female-migrants
Images courtesy of Angelo Cordeschi and Denys Kovtun @Dreamstime.com