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“There is always a longing to return home”

A shipping agent poster selling voyages to the Americas and Australia Edizioni Armando Dadò

Immigration issues often top Switzerland's political agenda, which makes it easy to overlook the fact that the country once "exported" many more people than it took in.

In an interview with swissinfo, historian Giorgio Cheda explains what drove about one in five Swiss Italians overseas in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Cheda is the author of comprehensive volumes on the migrations to California and Victoria, which include countless letters sent home by emigrants.

The full interview can be found in swissinfo’s special, “We shall not stay long – Swiss-Italian migrations”.

swissinfo: What were the economic conditions like in 19th century Ticino, which led to the first wave of migrations overseas?

Giorgio Cheda: There was a period of economic crisis. In particular, there was the potato blight. There was a drop in production from the alpine pastures because there was a very serious disease that decimated the livestock. And, above all, there was an economic embargo.

Since Liberals in Ticino were helping the men of the Italian “Risorgimento” to achieve Italian unity, the Austrian authorities decreed an economic embargo between Ticino and Italy. This led to the immediate return of some 5,000 workers who were employed in Lombardy. It also meant it was impossible to buy grain, and it was impossible to sell timber, cheese, livestock and so on to Lombardy. So it was a very hard time.

swissinfo: So where did these first “Ticinesi” migrants go, and what influenced their decision to go there?

G.C.: The first place to have a real impact was Australia. Why? Because the emigration agencies insisted especially on recruiting immigrants for Australia. The Hamburg ship owners had invested a lot of money in order to carry emigrants to the goldfields. But the German authorities realised that this form of emigration was also a matter of speculation, and that the clauses in the contracts were not being respected. Since the agencies could no longer recruit further emigrants in Germany, they looked for new sources and so came to Switzerland.

However, strict laws were in force in the cantons regulating the activities of the emigration agencies. Ticino was the only one that had not passed a law of this kind. So for 18 months or a couple of years, the agencies had a free hand.

swissinfo: Can you explain how and where they got their money from to travel abroad and start new lives, since they were very poor?

Giorgio Cheda: In the case of Australia the vast majority of these emigrants did not have the money to pay their fares so they had to contract debts. This meant that, in a village, when ten, 15 or 20 young people decided to go to Australia, they would form a partnership and go to a notary.

The notary would make them sign a personal contract, but with joint and collective liability. This meant that if, for example, someone died on board ship or during the early days in Australia, without having earned anything, the partners who had signed the contract were obliged to repay the debt of their late companion, as well as their own.

swissinfo: Unlike Australia, people migrated to California over several decades – but not only to California, to Argentina as well between 1880 and 1914 and to London. What impact did the loss of all of these people have on Ticino and the people left behind?

G.C.: As always, there were both positive and negative aspects. In my opinion the net result was positive. There were negative aspects, of course, which were borne mainly by the women, because emigration created an imbalance of the sexes. It was mainly men who left, especially in the case of Australia and the first waves of people going to California, and the women were left behind. So these women could not get married and it fell to them to perform all sorts of heavy tasks, which also affected them physically.

But, on the other hand, you have to remember that the departure of many people, mainly to California, also meant fewer mouths to feed with the limited supplies of food that could be produced in our mountains.

swissinfo: Were there other positive aspects?

G.C.: A good proportion of those who emigrated to California may have lived a hard life as cowhands, ranching, working all hours of the day, but they were also able to acquire land at an affordable price, especially between 1860 and 1910 –something that would have been unthinkable here in Ticino.

So clearly this explains how a thousand or so of these 27,000 Ticinesi who went to California were able to purchase, in total, an area almost as large as the Sopraceneri (upper part of Ticino).

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. Of the 27,000 who migrated to California, only 1,000 established ranches. This is normal because, where emigration is concerned, there is always a longing to return home.

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. 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: 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. 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.

swissinfo-interview: Dale Bechtel

Ticino population:

1850: approx. 118,000

1900: 139,000

1950: 175,000

2000: 307,000

Today: 330,000

(Official canton Ticino statistics)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR