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A home for the family; a church for the parish priest

Some of the finest houses in Italian-speaking Switzerland were built with funds remitted by emigrants


Ticino emigrants made their mark in foreign lands - and when they returned home.

Many buildings were erected and changes introduced to Italian-speaking Switzerland by those who made their fortunes and returned home as men of wealth. Like in Someo.

Even now, people in the Valle Maggia village are reluctant to discuss certain things: family disputes that go back a hundred years, controversies over religion and secular matters.

According to one elderly woman I meet in front of the church, some of the villagers who emigrated to California returned to Ticino with pots of money.

Having seen the imposing tombs in American cemeteries, they wanted to build themselves big memorials in the modest cemetery at Someo. Delusions of grandeur that the simple peasant farmers of the valley found distasteful.

"My mother did not want my sister, who had returned from America, to erect a mausoleum among the family headstones. But you could hardly go to court over a cemetery!", continued the sprightly 80-year-old.

"And this is partly why we now have two cemeteries: one for the poor and one for the wealthy, or the "Americans", as we say in these parts.

Fine houses in ruins

It was not only the afterlife of the wealthier emigrants that was improved by the dollars sent home from California.

"From the migrants' letters – explains historian Giorgio Cheda – it is very clear that the monies remitted made a considerable contribution to improving the standard of living, diet and dress of their relatives who stayed at home".

"The finest houses in the Sopraceneri region [upper Ticino], and particularly in the Valle Maggia, built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were funded with dollars sent from California".

Walking towards the old centre of Someo, we pass along "America Way", so called because the houses, some of them with gardens, were built by returning emigrants. Featuring fancy decorative work, these spacious houses contrast with the traditional granite dwellings crowded together on the slope of the mountain.

But, over time, their splendour has faded as a result of neglect. The gates are rusted, shutters broken. In the gardens, around the palm trees, weeds have taken over from flowers. "The houses are almost all empty," says Giulio Franscioni, a man with a passion for bric-a-brac. Renovating them would cost more than building from scratch.

Giulio Franscioni's shop is piled high with old furniture, paintings, utensils. "They call me when a house needs clearing. It is fascinating, you are likely to find some real curiosities. I even came across a colour poster for an emigration agency advertising sea crossings from Europe to New York. A rare item!"

Let down by the banks

Houses built by returning emigrants can be seen in various parts of Italian-speaking Switzerland.

"The most outstanding in the Sottoceneri region is Villa Argentina, built in 1872 by a family from Mendrisio that had grown rich in South America," points out Ivano Fosanelli, teacher and historian. "A few miles away is another house with a revealing name: Villa Buenos Aires."

Poschiavo, in Canton Graubünden, even boasts its own "Spanish district". Some distance from the main square, the neoclassical-style villas were built in the 19th century by families returning from Spain.

"If we consider the economic and social aspect, the other main initiatives undertaken by migrants were the building of the hospital at Cevio and, in 1907, the construction of the railway between Locarno and Bignasco, which transformed the way of life in Valle Maggia," explains Cheda. "The savings and offerings of the migrants also paid for a number of churches and chapels."

A lot of money was remitted to Ticino via the banking system. The historical records show that most of the funds deposited with Ticino-based credit institutions (SFr200 million over the course of 100 years) consisted of dollars coming from America.

"The flow of capital tailed off with the collapse of the banks in 1914, which resulted in losses of SFr40 million. The emigrants subsequently preferred to invest their savings abroad," notes Cheda.

New religion

At Novaggio, a few miles from Lugano, investment was not in real estate. Rather than money, Ticino received a new religion, as theologian Paolo Tognina explains: "The evangelical community in Novaggio – he explains in an article in 'Voce evangelica' – was founded by a number of young emigrants who converted to Protestantism (...) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries".

According to Tognina, their conversion may have been due to encounters with Waldensians, Italian protestants who, like the Ticinesi, had gone to seek work in South America.

"And another curious thing – concludes Fosanelli – is the way some Argentinean forenames have been retained, particularly among the elderly. Think how many Luisitos you come across... ".

Luigi Jorio,

Crisis of 1914

1914 is remembered as the annus horribilis of Ticino banking history. The cantonal bank failed, along with two other credit institutions.

The Federal Government decided to intervene fearing that the crisis would spread to the entire Swiss financial system. It supported a project to create a Ticino "State Bank" owned by the canton.

To avoid a repetition of earlier errors, the investment policy of the new Banca del Ticino was regulated by strict criteria set out in the articles of association. Among the more controversial rules was one forbidding the bank to grant unsecured loans.

(source: Banca Stato)

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