I won’t forget one hot day in 1955, the 4th November, when Dad was working on the railway and we had no electricity, no running water, no fridge, no language…We only had ourselves!
Date and place of birth
Born 1941, Raffadali, prov. Agrigento, Sicily
Date and place of arrival in Australia
July 1955, Fremantle aboard the Oceania ship
Type of migration
Sponsored by father
Life in Italy
Maria Grazia Raffaele (née Lo Pilato) was born on 13 July 1941 in the town of Raffadali in the province of Agrigento in the Sicily region of Italy. Maria’s parents had an arranged marriage and were farmers. Maria completed five years of primary schooling in Italy. At home, her family spoke dialect and she learnt Italian at school. Maria’s family could not afford luxuries.
If the weather was bad and we didn’t harvest enough there was no money…Every little lira counted for us…I had no doll or anything when I was small….
After World War Two, many people in Raffadali found it difficult to make ends meet and they left for other countries. Maria’s father’s sister and her husband migrated to Australia. Maria’s uncle had been a prisoner of war for the English in Africa and was brought to Manjimup in WA to work on a farm for several years. He decided to migrate to WA with his family when the farm owner offered him further work. Maria’s aunt then offered to sponsor Maria’s father to migrate. He took the opportunity in order to give Maria and their two other daughters a future.
Life in Australia
Migrating to Western Australia in 1952, Maria’s father worked on the railways in Beverley. He would send money back to his family in Sicily for them to live. It took him three years to save enough money to sponsor his family to join him. In July 1955, 14-year-old Maria and her five-year-old sister Giuseppina travelled to Fremantle with their mother on the Oceania ship. Nine months before they were due to migrate, Maria’s older sister Giovanna had eloped on the day she turned 17 and so stayed in Italy with her husband.
I remember going to say goodbye to my [grandparents] and they cried and cried, saying, “We’ll never see you again”…They died before we went back in 1973.
After living with her uncle and aunt’s family for three months, Maria’s family moved to the Wheatbelt because her father could not find work in Perth and he was offered work fixing the railway line at Calingiri. Maria used to help with chores such as collecting water from the spring. Maria and her sister attended primary school in Calingiri. They could not speak much English at first and they used to get teased by the other children who were all Australian.
We used to go to the supermarket with my Mum and…[people] would say, “Talk in English, don’t talk in Italian, go back to your own country”.
Maria’s family found it difficult living in Calingiri and in 1957 they moved to Perth. At 16 years of age, Maria was required by law to become an Australian citizen or otherwise register as an ‘alien’. Maria became naturalised in 1958. Maria then left school and went to work for Kakulas Brothers in Northbridge. Maria remembers there were many Italian stores and single Italian men in the area. Maria’s parents were very strict and she was not allowed to socialise much, which made her feel lonely. In 1959 they moved to Fremantle and Maria worked at Ruggiero’s General Store selling Italian products to the large number of Italians living in the area. Maria helped her parents to pay off their house. She later worked at Dreske Sports Shoes in North Lake with many other Italians.
In November 1962, Maria met her husband, Vincenzo Raffaele, who had also migrated to Australia in 1955 from Sicily from the town of Castell’Umberto in the province of Messina. Maria’s parents had wanted her to marry an Italian but Maria was still not allowed to go out with him until her father knew him and a bit about his family. Maria and Vincenzo did not get engaged until 12 months later because Vincenzo’s brother sustained serious injuries in a work accident at the North Fremantle Wheat Silo. After marrying in December 1963, Maria and Vincenzo moved into their own house and Maria worked at Mills and Wares alongside many other Italians to help pay for it.
Maria and Vincenzo had two children and Maria left work to look after them. Before their second child was born in 1970, Vincenzo hurt his back working at the Electric Power Transmissions in Kwinana and he has not been able to work since then. Maria returned to paid work when their children began primary school. Maria’s daughter has since married a second-generation Italian.
I always wanted my daughter to marry an Italian…because of the way we were brought up and I’d like her to do the same. Not in the strict way…but in the way of close family bonds.
In 1991 at the age of 59, Maria retired from paid work because she had to have a hip replacement. She had been working at the Pelliccione’s supermarket in Coolbellup for fourteen years. Her husband was later diagnosed with lymphoma and Maria has spent many hours visiting him in hospital and caring for him at home. She also used to look after their two grandchildren when her daughter was working, and she cared for her father who died two years ago at the age of 92.
After retiring from paid work, Maria joined her mother at the ‘Amicizia’ (Friendship) club which began in the late 1980s associated with the National Italian-Australian Women’s Association of WA. Italian women in the ‘Amicizia’ club met regularly in Fremantle for social activities. It was through this group that the ‘Gioie delle Donne’ (Joys of the Women) choir was born. Most of the women in the choir are Italian but there are also a couple of Australians. Maria and her mother have travelled across Australia with the choir to perform their large repertoire of Italian folk songs, most of which Maria learnt as a girl in Italy.
Maria first went back to Italy in 1973 for three months to visit family and because her husband wanted to see if they could return to Italy permanently. However, they decided their children would have a better future in Australia. They last visited Italy in 1999 to appear on ‘Carràmba che fortuna’, an Italian television variety show featuring music, dance, celebrity guests and reunions. Maria was invited on the show for a surprise reunion with her older sister who she had not seen in over 20 years. The show even paid for Maria’s sister to visit Australia for the first time in 2000. It was a very emotional reunion for them both.
Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if I was in Italy. Would I have been okay or had a different life…?
Maria’s husband, Vincenzo Raffaele, and her mother, Filomena Lo Pilato (née Plano), have died since Maria was interviewed for the ‘Italian Lives’ project.
- Video: Community Life
- Gallery of maps, photographs and documents
- Interview summary
- Interview excerpts
- Interview excerpts