The Ustica Connection

Newsletter of the San Bartolomeo Society Apostolo of New Orleans
Issue 3 - 16 March 2002

Name Changes: Ustica to America
By Chris Caravella
One consequence of the "americanization" of Italian immigrants was often a change to the surname. It is a common misconception in the US that surnames were changed because our immigrant forefathers were unable to read or write and they adopted the spelling that was done for them by an immigration official unfamiliar with the Italian language. This is largely myth based on ethnic prejudice.
Upon examining the civil records of Ustica prior to the era of immigration in the late 1800's, one can see that most participants and witnesses signed their names even though they probably could not read or write. Some names are clumsily written and you can sense the careful attention that the person signing used in slowly scrawling out each letter. A signature and a family name were definitely a source of great pride, as they still are today in Italy. The more likely reasons for surname changes were a desire to be accepted in America and the need to make surnames more pronounceable in English.
Signatures of Vincenzo Olivieri, a butcher, and Cristofalo Ingargiola, a farmer, from an 1832 Usticese birth record.

Surely many immigrants saw their names misspelled and heard their names mispronounced. Rather than add to any sense of ethnic bias against them, many actually chose to adopt the new spelling or pronunciation. This willingness to sacrifice some aspects of their cultural heritage was all part of the process of becoming American. All immigrants in America experienced this, if not in their generation then definitely in the next generation of their American-born children. In cases where an immigrant had established a prosperous business, a surname change was a sure way to guarantee that their business would be readily accepted and not suffer from ethnic preconceptions.

Long Italian surnames with many syllables almost always were shortened simply due to the difficulties Americans had pronouncing them. Most notable of these are the Usticesi surnames, Ingargiola and Verdichizzi. These surnames are typically spelled differently from one document to the next. Ultimately, one or two variations became accepted and were passed between each successive generation. The surname Verdichizzi today in New Orleans is no longer used, but has become either Verdigets, Virgets or Verges. The changed surname Verges also demonstrates another common practice of substituting existing French or English surnames, which were similar in pronunciation to the original Italian version. Families, which long ago adopted these types of surnames, often do not know that their ancestors were Italian.

The following list of changed surnames are those which have become established and are still in use today.

Usticese SurnameChanged surname
Mollica Mull
Caserta Cazzetta
Lauricella Laurice
Randazzo Ranatza
Verdichizzi Verdigets, Virgets, Verges
Caruana Carrone
Manfre Mumphrey, Mumfrey, Mamfre
Maggiore Majoria, Majorie, Monjure, Majuri
Ingargiola Najolia, Najiola
Pittari Pitre
Luca Luke
Camarda Commander
Gallo Allo
Gumina Umina, Omina