Keeping the Sicilian tradition of fishing alive
The village of Torre Archirafi, Sicily, was shrinking. It seemed that men and families were fleeing the country as fast as they could find a boat to take them across the Atlantic. Most had no other choice—there was no money, no food and no future for most of the depressed Mediterranean island, and no one trusted the government to help. At least there was a place to go. America, a vast country on the other side of the globe, had plenty of land, as well as oceans and rivers teeming with fish for the pescatori (fishermen).
Giovanni Pennisi didn’t know what the future held; he just knew he wouldn’t find it in Torre Archirafi. His life was better than most of his countrymen –he was a talented fisherman in a fisherman’s town—but it wasn’t enough for this young, would-be explorer. It was 1906, and Sicilians had been taking ships to the New World for more than 20 years. Young Giovanni was ready to join them, leaving his young bride, Grace, and his family behind. He took a job as a ship’s crewman with his brother-in-law, Giuseppe Vasta. Together, the two worked during the two-week journey and jumped ship at Ellis Island. The landing was the first in a series of stops that lasted nearly 20 years.
“He didn’t plan on staying here”, said John Pennisi of Monterey, Giovanni’s grandson. “He didn’t want to retire here. He figured that he would go back to Sicily.” With his talent as a fisherman, Giovanni took advantage of the bounty America had to offer. As his brother-in-law left for Florida, Giovanni stayed to work the hundreds of bass swarming off New York’s coast. From there, he migrated to the Chesapeake Bay and some years later, moved down to Florida to snatch up snapper near the Gulf.
Bass Fishing In the Southeast, he met men from around the world, but found security in the pescatori from Sicily and southern Italy. He worked with his brother and brother-in-law there, until they all decided to head west to California for the bass swarming in the Sacramento River. There they had the Barca Nera (Black Boat), said to be the first river fishing boat with an engine. Its noise resonated in the otherwise quiet atmosphere.
Giovanni had heard of Monterey by then – it already had a large community of Sicilian fisherman, recruited primarily by Petro Ferrante of Isola delle Femmine in Sicily. Giovanni and hundreds of Sicilians settled in Pittsburg, near the Sacramento River. “All these old people that have now passed away came out this way to fish in the Sacramento River,” John Pennisi said. “they were tough guys and they had a tough life, but there was something gentle and kind about them.” Fishermen along the Sacramento River often traveled between Pittsburg and Monterey, enough so that
Giovanni was curious about what he’d find in the small town on the Central Coast. He found that Monterey had a great deal to offer, from sardines to salmon to shark. Giovanni lived on his boat or boarded in the fishermen’s commune on Franklin Street. His first visits to Monterey were brief—like many fishermen, he traveled up and down the California coast. Then, his instinct to explore arose again—Giovanni made circle around the American coastline, from east to west through the canal, down to the coast of Mexico and up to Alaska. My father was more of an explorer than anything, “said Joan Pennisi of Monterey, his daughter. In fact, Giovanni hadn’t gone back to Sicily until word came that Grace his wife, had died. Following through on a promise he made to his wife years before, he returned to Sicily to marry her younger sister, Giuseppa Vasta. The two settled in Monterey. Buying a house in Pacific Grove, Giuseppa still lives in the city.
A familial evolution Once settled, Giovanni became a mainstay of Monterey fishing community. His boats were made by the Sino family—also of Sicily – who were famous for their bow clippers. The family earned a reputation in Pittsburg before building a major boatyard on Cannery Row. Giovanni raised his son, Joe to become a fisherman like himself. It was a tradition that would continue into the next generation. John Pennisi said he grew up with no intention other than to become a pescatori like his father and grandfather. You hear stories about your grandfather doing it, and so you want to do it too “he said.” After retiring from fishing Joe Pennisi founder Royal Seafood on Municipal Wharf No. 1, where he sells his sons’ freshest catch.
John Pennisi still likes to recall stories about his grandfather, although they’ve grown hazy with time, as well as all the “old Italian guys” who hung around the wharf. It was so neat to listen to their stories, “he said. “they were all Italians; Sicilians language was all you heard and strong coffee was all you smelled. “An American guy couldn’t get a job on a boat if he wanted to”. John Pennisi’s first fishing trip was on his seventh birthday – “I got so seasick” – with his father, grandfather and their friends. “I was trying to grab just a little fishes,” he said ”and all the old Italians guys were laughing at me.”
John Pennisi considers himself lucky to be of Sicilian descent, he was submerged in a culture that has since faded away, he said, as the old, timers who once dominated the bay have died. ''It was a lot of fun, and it was a family: thing," he said. · "It's not like that anymore All the guys I went to high school with, they're not doing it They all got jobs in San Jose or moved to other places."·
Today, the fishing industry is barely recognizable from. the once thriving business of the Monterey Bay, he said. Life on the sea hasn't really changed; but making a life off the sea isn't as simple. "Right now, if someone had. his heart set on being a fisherman, he wouldn't be able to afford it, '' John Pennisi said, ''l have a feeling that in 10 years, you’re gonna see more than half of the fishermen leave Monterey.
Depleted fish counts, environmental concerns and international competitors have all cut into the life of fisherman, and the Pennisi family is one of only a few Sicilian families still surviving in the business. John Pennisi thinks that if the ocean and the regulations were the same, there would be more fisher¬men on the water. "It's more than the economics of it all, it's a way a life,'' he said. "It's sad because it's in their heart and in their blood, but they've got kids and wives.