Life during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has taken on a soap opera quality with every day bringing gasp-inducing twists and turns, chaos mixed with boredom, horrors and heroes. Among the notables who have taken center stage are the Cuomo brothers — New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and CNN anchor Chris Cuomo.
Though Gov. Cuomo is in the eye of the storm doing his best for the people of his state — an undertaking made all the more difficult by a defiantly indifferent federal government — and Chris is showing us first-hand what it is to suffer from COVID-19 by broadcasting from his basement, their moments of brotherly gibing and love have produced brief respites for many (check out #CuomoBrothers on Twitter).
As it happens, I once appeared with Chris when he was a Good Morning America host to explain a bit about his roots. Since that was many moons ago, I decided to take another dive into the brothers’ ancestry and share a few things you might not have known about their family.
1) If you guessed that they’re of 100% Italian heritage, you’d be right. Among the many surnames that adorn their family tree are Alberti, Aragona, Aro, Buccino, Caizzone, Castaldo, Conte, Cuomo, D’Elia, Falcone, Giordano, Gitto, Giudice, Grassa, Imperato, Lepore, Longo, Nunzi, Pinto, Raffa, Scarpetta, Schepisi, and Trifiri, so if you share any of these, you might be their cousin.
2) The paternal half of their family hails from the Nocera Superiore, Tramonti, and Cava de’ Tirreni area of Salerno — southeast of Naples, while the maternal half comes from Merì and San Pier Niceto in Messina, the part of Sicily the tip of Italy’s boot seems to be kicking. That their ancestral hometowns are proud of the connection is evident from local tributes.
3) Their father, Mario Cuomo, who served three terms as New York’s governor, was equally proud of his immigrant roots, and spoke of America not as a melting pot, but as a beautiful mosaic. He expressed this belief and offered a few vignettes about his parents in this speech at an Irish America event in December 2013.
4) Curiously, both of their grandmothers were born in Italy, but both of their grandfathers were born in the United States, taken to Italy as youngsters, and returned as adults. This was because both of their grandfather’s fathers were so-called “birds of passage,” meaning that they didn’t intend to emigrate permanently. The objective of such immigrants — mostly Southern Europeans and Slavs — was to go to America, make a lot of money, and go back to live comfortably in their hometowns. While this was the initial goal, most wound up settling in America — some because it eventually became “home” to them and others because they got caught here during World War I when it was no longer safe to back-and-forth across the Atlantic.
Their maternal grandfather’s father, Francesco “Frank” Raffa, was a classic example, except that he finally went home for good. He came to the United States at least four times — the first in 1902 followed by his wife and children in 1903. They remained in Pennsylvania for several years during which two children, including the brothers’ grandfather, Carmelo Raffa, were born, but the family journeyed back to Italy in 1908. Francesco made the crossing three more times on his own in late 1908, 1911, and 1914 (presumably his wife preferred the home country), and did indeed get caught here without his family during WWI. It’s probable that this longer-than-anticipated separation explains why he left the United States after the war.
5) Like their maternal grandfather Carmelo, their other grandfather, Andrea Cuomo (after whom Andrew is named), was born in America — more specifically in Brooklyn in 1901. He was his parents’ fourth child, though they had already lost one by the time of his birth.
6) Andrea’s father, Donato, was also a bird of passage, coming to America at least twice, and possibly three or four times (a couple of Cuomo passenger records that are light on details, coupled with gaps in the births of his children, support this notion). He appears in the 1905 New York State census with his wife and children, including Andrea, in Brooklyn. Running a second hand store worked out well for him as he was able to live in comfort in Nocera Superiore upon his return to Italy.
7) Andrea Cuomo was about 4 years old when he was taken to Italy, and it would be more than 20 years before he returned to America. 1926 proved to be pivotal for him. Marrying in Tramonti in August, he sailed to New York in October. The documents recording these events both note his Brooklyn birth.
As was so common, his wife and first-born child joined him the following year. They settled initially in Jersey City, likely due to an uncle of Andrea’s who had emigrated there decades earlier and become very successful. The 1930 census would find them residing at 147 Bright Street, and in one of those coincidences that all genealogists relish, living across the road from them at 136 Bright Street were my Irish immigrant great-grandparents, David and Margaret Shields.
8) In the video of their father mentioned earlier, Mario Cuomo speaks of a brother also named Mario who died young. The brother he was referring was known by the Americanized version of Morris and was born and buried in Jersey City. 15-month-old Mario/Morris died of emphysema pneumonia in June of 1931. Mario was born in New York in June of 1932. That he was also named Mario is not surprising as many families used to recycle names of children they lost young as a kind of tribute.
Mario/Morris is the only Cuomo in Holy Name Cemetery in Jersey City, but he’s resting with family. Andrea’s self-made uncle, Antonio D’Elia, made room in his plot for his baby great-nephew.
It would be another quarter of a century before Antonio D’Elia joined his relatives at Holy Name Cemetery, and when he did, he was eulogized as the “Apostle of Hard Work” — a description that certainly applies to his Cuomo kin today. It seems that more than just physical traits have been passed through the generations in this family.