WILKES-BARRE — As the city prepares to celebrate the inaugural Multicultural Parade & Festival, I have had the honor and duty of providing details of the event to the public on behalf of Mayor Tony George. In doing so, I began to think about my cultural background and how it has affected me personally.
Like most American millennials, my heritage is a melting pot. Growing up, I identified with my Italian lineage mostly because of my close relationship with my grandmother, Aggie Cuscela Hummel. As the daughter of Italian immigrants, she beamed every time I would announce “I’m Italian.”
Although my great-grandparents, Frank and Gilda Cuscela, passed away years before I was born, I felt like I knew them through the stories about them told by my grandmother and mother. Their memories depicted Frank as an energetic, personable man who was invited to every wedding and party, and Gilda as a selfless homemaker who made her own clothes and was known for her delicious food.
Our home was purchased by my great-grandparents in the 1960s. Gilda and Frank lived on one floor with their two youngest sons, and my grandparents and their daughters lived on the other floor of the duplex. My mother grew up here, I grew up here, and now my daughter is growing up in the same house. It is such an amazing and comforting feeling to know that five generations of the same family have continuously lived under one roof.
My great-grandparents are the epitome of the American Dream, and this is their story:
Frank Cuscela came to America around 1910, began work as a coal miner and lived in a boarding house in Pine Township, Pa. When the United States entered World War I, he became an American citizen and enlisted. He served overseas for a year and was a part of the Battle of Saint-Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. After the war, he worked as a hotel porter in Wilkes-Barre while living with his older brother and his family on Hill Street.
In 1924, he visited Italy, at which time we believe he married Gilda Marino. They returned to Wilkes-Barre and soon welcomed their first son, Daniel, to the world. Their second son, Peter, was born a few years later but died from pneumonia at 10 months old, the grief of which made Gilda want to return to Italy.
Less than a year later, the birth of their daughter, Agnes, encouraged the couple to remain in America and soon add three sons to the family.
While Frank began his life in America as a laborer, he started his own business as a fruit huckster, often buying wholesale produce from fellow Italian immigrants in Wilkes-Bare and driving his truck filled with produce throughout the Wyoming Valley. He also rented apartments on South Washington Street to further provide for his family.
By World War II, his draft card listed his employment as “Self Employed.” Within 20 years, my great-grandfather went from being an immigrant employed as a laborer to a self-employed entrepreneur.
His gumption was genetic, as his son Frank began his first business in the basement of the Cuscela family home in South Wilkes-Barre. The younger Frank would become a successful businessman, enabling him to give back to the community. In 1999, he dedicated the Frank & Gilda Cuscela Dining Room within the Henry Student Center at Wilkes University.
The dedication probably was one of the best moments of my grandmother’s life, as the dining room represented a core concept in the Italian culture and the Cuscela family: “MANGIA!” (“eat” in Italian). One of the other best moments in her life is when my daughter began to tell people, “I’m Italian!”
My great-grandparents certainly lived the American Dream — they created their own success story. It is a story shared by many of our families in Wilkes-Barre and Northeastern Pennsylvania. Our ancestors immigrated for a better life, labored in the factories and coal mines, built their own businesses and provided for their children.
Today, we have more nationalities and cultures represented in our city than ever before. Culture is not something that separates us; rather, it connects us through food, music, dance, and most important, family.
I am honored to have shared a portion of my heritage, and I hope you will join the city of Wilkes-Barre as we celebrate the many cultures that have created our community.
For other Multicultural Parade & Festival stories, click here.