Little Palermo and the Sicilian Quarter

Calogero Minacore never remembered life before America. He was just six months old when he and his mother Luigia boarded the steamship Liguria in Palermo for the 22-day voyage to New Orleans.

The boy’s father, Giuseppe, been living outside of present-day Algiers for nearly a year before he sent for his wife and infant son. Even though his job as a day laborer at a sugar plantation was grueling and thankless, he was enchanted by Louisiana, and like the most Sicilians living in Louisiana at the beginning of the 20th century, Giuseppe decided to stay and call the place home.

Monument to the Immigrant, New Orleans. Image Credit: Bayou Brief.

Calogero Minacore never remembered life before America or before his family changed their names, which also means that Calogero Minacore never remembered being Calogero Minacore.

His father’s boss at the sugar plantation was also a Minacore (sometimes spelled Minacori), and although the two men were not related, he’d demanded Giuseppe take on a different surname. He chose a name that was more closely associated with Venice than his native Sicily, but he liked the way it sounded, how it conferred a certain nobility.

Giuseppe became Joseph; Luigia changed her name to Louise, and Calogero, before he even recognized himself as Calogero, was now and forever Carlos Marcello.

And for the remainder of his life, Carlos Marcello would never escape the fact that unlike his eight younger siblings- six brothers and two sisters, he would always be an undocumented immigrant.

“I ain’t never been (to Italy), and I don’t want to go there. I wish they’d deport me to Grand Isle where I could do some fishing.” – Carlos Marcello

In Sicily, Calogero Minacore’s family stretched back eons, long enough for time to erase entire generations and for memories to be irretrievably lost to myths. But in America, Carlos Marcello’s family began anew with Joseph and Louise.

Baby Calogero, notably, wasn’t born in Sicily. He was born on Feb. 6, 1910 in La Goulette, also known as Ḥalq al-Wādī (or “river’s throat”), an enclave of Tunisia built atop a sandbar at the entrance of the Port of Tunis. During the 19th century, the North African resort town was so popular among Sicilians, it earned another name, La Petit Sicile, and because it had been a part of the Kingdom of Italy when Marcello was born, the Italian government would eventually, albeit reluctantly, recognize him as one of its own.

Like many others of his generation, when his mother Louise brought him to the United States as an infant, this country didn’t turn him back. At the time of his arrival, New Orleans had become a magnet for Italian immigrants. Between 1884 to 1924, more than 290,000 Italians moved to town, 90% of whom were native Sicilians. Around the turn of the previous century, when Italians comprised an estimated 80% of those living in the lower French Quarter, the area became known colloquially as both “Little Palermo” and “the Sicilian Quarter.”

Although New Orleans had been largely built by the French, Spanish, and the tens of thousands who were forcibly removed from Africa, Italians have been a part of Louisiana since the beginning of European occupation, less than 50 years after an Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus, discovered the New World. As Alan G. Gauthreaux notes in Italian Louisiana: History, Heritage, and Tradition, the first Italian resident to visit Louisiana, Bernardo Peloso of Genoa, arrived in 1540, hitching a ride with Hernando de Soto. A century later, Henri de Tonti of Naples ventured down the Mississippi River with René-Robert Cavelier, better known by his title, Sieur de La Salle.

Their presence transformed the culture and the built environment of the city of New Orleans. And, of course, they also reshaped the cuisine, introducing, among other things, the muffuletta.

In the aftermath of the Risorgimento in 1861 and the American Civil War in 1865, Sicilian-Italians were welcomed by their new hometown, which was far more hospitable than New York and Boston had been. In New Orleans, there was less pressure to assimilate and more tolerance for those who spoke another language.

Over time, though, that would change, particularly as these immigrants became more organized and began to protest against work conditions and a lack of labor protections, stoking resentments among the city’s establishment class. Those simmering resentments came to a boil on Oct. 15, 1890, when the city’s popular, 32-year-old police superintendent, David C. Hennessy, was gunned down in the small hours of the night.

Next page: An Assassination and a Massacre

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Lamar White, Jr.
Lamar writes about the people, the politics, and the magic of Louisiana. He is the founder and publisher of the Bayou Brief and a contributing writer for the Daily Beast. Lamar is best known for his investigative reporting on public corruption, racism, and civil rights. He has appeared as a guest on CNN, MSNBC, and the BBC, and he's been the subject of profiles in The Washington Post, The Advocate, and Huffington Post. Before launching the Bayou Brief, he published CenLamar, a popular blog that initially covered the drama of City Hall in his hometown of Alexandria. Lamar is a graduate of Rice University in Houston and the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Today he lives in New Orleans and is currently writing a book about the life of reputed New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello. Support Lamar's work on Patreon.