In the final chapter of the swissinfo interview with Giorgio Cheda, the historian talks about the longing of all migrants – at one time or another – to return to their homeland.
swissinfo: Your own father migrated to California. But he came back...
G.C.: My father worked for nine years in California but he returned, as did many, many others. As I told you, 27,000 people emigrated to California but, of these 27,000, only 1,000 established ranches. We need to double that figure, because there were the wives of these ranchers, though not all of them were Ticinesi. And some became involved in other business activities and spent the rest of their lives in California. But others returned, after five, ten, 15, 20 years or more. This is normal because, where emigration is concerned, there is always a longing to return home.
Many emigrants want to come home, sooner or later, and spend the rest of their lives in their native village. This, too, is interesting and positive, especially in my own case (and in the case of many others) because it meant I had a different relationship with California. In other words, for me California was not just any old place. Not only was it a place to which 27,000 Ticinesi had gone, but also close relations, members of my own family. And so I was interested to know what kind of life, what kind of society this relative had experienced when working for a number of years in California. It was the trigger, if you like, that initiated my research into these letters and motivated me to reconstruct this important episode in the history of Ticino.
swissinfo: How strong are the ties today between the descendants of the emigranti and their relatives in Ticino?
G.C.: Relations with Ticino emigrants have become reduced to the purely private level today, largely because there is no longer the financial dimension I referred to earlier. Today, there are certainly many families which still have ties with relatives in California. But these are becoming less and less important year on year, because the old people are dying off and the young people are not interested in forming new relationships.
In some cases, there are fairly intense relationships between family members who still have common interests, because there are still some families living in Ticino which have property in California, or economic interests in California, but obviously these are private matters.
I think there must be money coming into Ticino because there are still families which receive income from property acquired by their relatives in California. But they have little impact on modern-day Ticino.
swissinfo: Are people in Ticino today aware of the importance of the overseas migrations of the past?
G.C.: Yes, there are quite a few Ticinesi who are aware of their importance, but this is more a matter of nostalgia for the older generation. I would say that the younger generation is not at all interested in this subject. They are much more affected by the phenomenon of immigration.
You only need to consider the success of certain far-right parties, certain xenophobic parties, which make it their business to point the finger at immigrants and blame the most recently arrived for all our social problems and so on. Immigration is viewed negatively, partly because it is exploited by political movements of the right, which would have us curl up hedgehog-like, creating a very closed, limited society such as ours, rather than thinking of the importance of being open, both economically and culturally, which could be a positive benefit of immigration.
swissinfo-interview: Dale Bechtel
1850: approx. 118,000
(Official canton Ticino statistics)