Let’s fire up the time machine and take a trip to Italy circa the late 1800s. Upon arrival to our destination, you’ll notice considerable poverty and areas left in ruins after multiple natural disasters, such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.
Further examination will reveal over-population and a growing number of peasants with little to no chance of upward social mobility. It won’t be long before you’re begging to hop back into the time machine and travel back to the future or at least to a time with electricity and running water! This is where the story of the Calvani family began though — Pistoia, Italy. Times were tough and the people were tougher.
Today, you likely associate the name Calvani with the long-standing carpet company located on Pierce Street, or possibly the Calvani farms and pecan orchards south of Carlsbad, but their family’s story began nearly 6,000 miles away in a small Italian village in the Tuscany region. Narcisio Calvani, a stone mason, and his wife, Maria, had three children, and like many working-class Italians, they struggled to get by. Stone masonry was backbreaking manual labor and
rendered very little compensation. Their eldest son, Torello, began assisting his father in his grueling work as soon as he was able, but by age 20 had grown weary of the physically demanding job and began looking for other options.
As fate would have it, a wealthy Swiss-Italian man named De Lentus began visiting the villages, looking for Italians who were willing to immigrate to the United States and help him build upon his wealth by farming fine grapes and registered hogs. It was just the break Torello had been hoping for. At just 20 years old and unbeknownst to his family, he set out to make a new life in the United States of America with a ship full of fellow Italian immigrant hopefuls.
Torello was but one of millions during that time period who fled Italy for the US. From 1880 to 1920 it is estimated that nearly four million Italians immigrated to the United States, all in hopes of somehow achieving a better life. Most of those immigrants landed somewhere along the east coast, stayed, and made a new life there. But then there were those like Torello and the villagers with De Lentus who would end up traveling nearly 2,000 more miles to their final destination in rural southeastern New Mexico.
In a paper Mike Calvani wrote for a college course at the University of New Mexico, he told of his grandfather’s arduous trip across the ocean to New York, his days-long train rides to New Mexico, and the great number of struggles and barriers that come along with being a foreigner in a new land, speaking a different language. One time, for instance, he writes about Torello using a piece of bread someone dropped on the floor and some American coins to convey his message to a store owner that he wanted to buy some bread. It was a primitive yet effective form of communication for the foreigner.
In Mike Calvani’s college paper, he laid out the next several decades of his family’s story as it unfolded in the desert southwest. As planned, his grandfather began working for De Lentus and eventually went on to rent and then own his own farms in the region. He married the daughter of another Italian immigrant, Ersilia Louise Grandi, and together they had 10 children, the youngest of whom was Torello Howard (T.H.), Mike’s father. While their children were young, the Calvanis struggled to care for and feed their children while tending to the farms, so in 1898 Torello sent for his brother, Raffaello, who was still in Pistoia. With Raffaello’s help, the men were able to not only save but expand the family’s farms.
By the 1940s the Calavni family had established themselves in the area and Torello was ready to retire. His youngest son, T.H., had enlisted in the United States Air Force to fight in the Second World War, so his two eldest sons, Robert and Albert, decided to purchase the farm from their father. Today, the Calvani family still farms the land and raises cattle. When T.H. returned from WWII in 1946, he and his wife founded Calvani’s Carpets, which Mike Calvani and his wife, Jo, still own and operate today.
If, like me, you’re tempted to visualize a rich Italian upbringing with frequent gatherings, loads of delicious family meals, and homes in which the Italian language was intermingled with English, I’ll have to stop you there. Unlike the movies led me to believe, Mike was quick to point out that life as an immigrant to the U.S. meant leaving one life for another. At least in the case of the Calvani family, moving stateside meant trying hard to fit in, learn the language, and adjust to a new life. They were now Americans. The food was different, the culture and language was different, and the primary focus had to be on making the farms succeed. “Really the only food that I remember my grandmother making was tortellini soup,” Mike recalls. “It was delicious; so good, but that’s really it. We didn’t have big family gatherings or eat big Italian meals together.” In fact, Mike said he’s never even been to Italy. “My brother has gone but when you own a store like this, there’s really no time to travel like that.”
When you think about it, it’s hard to believe that one life-changing decision made by a 20-year-old boy would so drastically alter the lives of his family for generations to come. We’ll never know exactly what would have become of Torello had he chosen to stay in Italy and continue working as a stone mason with his father, but it’s safe to assume it would have been a far cry from the American dream he created instead.