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Single Men and Women

Carmela Citro: A Solitary Journey

This Sobey Plaque is in honor of my mother, Carmela Torjan, who immigrated to Canada in 1951, via Italy. In celebration of her own individual journey, I chose to inscribe the Sobey Wall with her maiden name, Citro, because that is who she was when she arrived to this new land. Although she did not travel alone, I believe a part of each immigrant’s journey originates as a solitary one, beginning with a personal resolve to fulfill an inward dream, challenge the human spirit and seek out a better life. No matter the land of origin or destination, each journey begins the same – with the personal resolve to face one’s fears and take that first step. And though many may travel along the same path, each step remains propelled by the individual, driven by fear, by desire, and a yearning that fuels the soul.

Carmela’s journey to Canada was no different. Before her departure from Italy, she worked in a trade school as an Orlatrice Modelista (shoe designer) where she quickly became the favorite with her Profesore, who not only enjoyed her gentle spirit, but recognized her eye for design was matched with talent, and second only to a strong work ethic. The Profesore soon offered Carmela a job in the country’s largest production factory, located in Torino, where she would design and make shoes. It was an exciting offer for a young woman, but it was an opportunity that would be left unrealized. Leaving behind this job offer was the last thing on Carmela’s mind, when her eldest brother, Raffaele, announced to the family that they’d all be moving to Canada.

Raffaele was Carmela’s eldest brother and head of the household. The remaining family was her mother, Elisabetta, two other brothers, Antonio and Alessandro, and a sister, Raffaela. True to tradition and custom, it was Raffaele’s responsibility to be the man of the house; so his decision to move the family to Canada was respected and obeyed by all. Raffaela, the only wed sibling, remained in Italy with her husband, where she resides to this day. When you ask her about it, Carmela shows tempered disappointment at leaving behind a promising position as an Orlatrice Modelista, but strong in family loyalty, she prepared for the departure from her homeland with strength and fortitude. Circumstances left Raffaele unable to immigrate to Canada, because he was rejected by Canadian immigration authorities for having poor vision. At the time, only those who met strict health requirements could emigrate, as Canada was interested in only the strongest workers. This ironic twist of events sent Carmela on ahead to a country she had little interest in, while leaving behind a promising future in Italian shoe design. A situation Carmela freely admits she was opposed to. Crying, she begged her brother to let her stay, but her new future was already set in motion.

Traveling light, Carmela not only left behind her homeland, but most of her belongings as well. She arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax on December 6th, 1951 with two of her three brothers, Antonio and Alessandro. Carmela was relieved to finally reach land, as she not only spent much of the ten day voyage ill with sea sickness, but also in fear that the rickety old boat she traveled on would fall apart before reaching land. In fact, the ship, the M.S. Anna Salen, was in such poor condition, that this was the last voyage it would ever make, and it was retired thereafter. There was little excitement in Carmela’s heart upon reaching this new land. Her thoughts were with Italy, her eldest brother, and mother, who remained behind with the promise to bring Carmela’s belongings once they made the journey themselves.

Immediately after leaving the ship, Carmela was separated from her brothers; her last remaining contact to home. The situation seemed to get worse at each turn. Feeling alone, afraid and with nowhere to turn, Carmela began crying. A kind immigration officer saw Carmela, and helped calm her nerves. Concerned, the immigration officer made arrangements for Carmela to be employed with two other immigrant women at the Connors Brothers Hotel in Black’s Harbour, just outside of Saint John, New Brunswick. So the three young women boarded a train and made the journey to New Brunswick, and Carmela left behind her two brothers, unsure when or if she’d ever see them again. So, in less than twenty-four hours upon arriving to Canada, Carmela had a job and was put to work, while at the same time, losing her homeland and family. Alone, isolated and unable to speak the language, this young girl of twenty-one had already had enough of Canada, and was desperate to run back home to Italy. But the thought of disobeying her eldest brother, and of another dreaded sea voyage, tempered her spirit.

Carmela made $49.00 a month working ten-hour days, seven days a week, at the Hotel in Black’s Harbour as a housekeeper. Her only contact to the land she once called home were infrequent letters from her brothers in Canada, and remaining family in Italy. It was a difficult and lonely time. In accordance to immigration law, Carmela had to remain employed at the same job for a minimum of 12 months or face deportation. [These were] tempting consequences. But Carmela remained dutiful; working and sending money, both to her brothers here in Canada and back home to her mother in Italy, while keeping little of her meager salary for herself.

In 1953, after thirteen months, one month over her required employment, Carmela wasted no time in reuniting with her brothers, Antonio and Alessandro, in Calgary; a snowy little town of barely 200,000, where she still lives to this day. Taking a job at the Salvation Army, and reunited with her brothers, life in Calgary seemed well suited to Carmela. It was here, that Carmela met the man who later became her husband, Rudolf Torjan, who ironically, arrived in Canada years before, via Pier 21, and was from a small town in Slovenija that bordered Italy, not far from where Carmela grew up. In 1954, her eldest brother, Raffaele, and mother, Elisabetta, were finally granted entrance to Canada. And with that, Canada had finally begun to feel like home.

So, Carmela began a family of her own, having four children, two girls and two boys; Canadian by birth, but not far in upbringing from an “old country” that was left far behind in geography, but not in spirit. And thus began another new chapter in a long life’s journey. A journey, at times, that was traveled with many, but required the enduring courage of one; a quiet young girl from Italy.

Looking back, I find it poetic that my mother left behind a career in shoes, only to occupy a pair that few could fill. When asked of her trip to Canada, Carmela always speaks with both pride and a twinge of melancholy as she describes those early days now long gone. It was an era that ended with the final steps taken on a departed land of old, and renewed in a snowy country a world away from home, where the first steps toward an unknown future began, on Pier 21.