Migrations interview: Part two

Advertising posters made the journey abroad seem like a grand affair

In this section, historian Giorgio Cheda describes why, in general, the migrations to Australia were a failure and those to California a success.

This content was published on February 11, 2009 minutes

swissinfo: Can you explain in more detail how and where they got their money from to travel abroad and start new lives, since they were very poor?

Giorgio Cheda: Yes, this is a very significant issue. And it explains the difference between emigration to Australia, which occurred over a period of only two years, and emigration to California, which involved many more people but was spread over a century.

In the case of Australia, as I said before, the issue is very complex because, since the vast majority of these emigrants did not have the money to pay their fares, they had to contract debts. This meant that, in a village, when ten, 15 or 20 young people decided to go to Australia, they would form a partnership and go to a notary. The notary would make them sign a personal contract, but with joint and collective liability. This meant that if, for example, someone died on board ship or during the early days in Australia, without having earned anything, the partners who had signed the contract were obliged to repay the debt of their late companion, as well as their own.

This meant that a great deal of the property of the families in these villages, where 100 or a 150 young people (and not so young people) were going to Australia, became burdened with debt – their houses, cowsheds, and their land. In many cases, I have discovered that part of these debts were repaid, ten or 15 or 20 years later, but with the savings accumulated by their relatives who had emigrated to California.

Therefore in general, albeit with some exceptions for which we have documentation, emigration to Australia was a failure from a financial point of view and also on the human level. Because, of the 2,000 who emigrated to Australia, only ten or so were women. This meant that in Australia they were not able to rebuild their families, as happened in California, where, because emigration was spread over so many years, it could be self-financing. Apart from the first emigrants, who had to contract a debt, those of the second, third and fourth waves were generally funded by their relatives already working in California. So it was self-financing.

Then, many of those who emigrated to California were able to rebuild the kind of family life they had known in Ticino, on the ranches of the Salinas Valley, in Sonoma county, West Marin and so on, where full-scale "colonies" were formed by groups of Ticinesi. The women were Ticinesi. The young men were Ticinesi, and if a young man could not return to Ticino to find a wife, he would write a letter inviting his mother or father to find him a promising young woman, then he would send her the money to join him in California and get married. As a result, many weddings were celebrated in San Francisco, or in Salinas or elsewhere, but still within the village community. So nuclei of Ticinesi peasants were reconstituted, but operating on a different geographical and economic basis from that of the Val Verzasca or the Valle Maggia, because obviously the conditions in California were very different from those of their native valleys.


Key facts

Ticino population:

1850: approx. 118,000

1900: 139,000

1950: 175,000

2000: 307,000

Today: 330,000

(Official canton Ticino statistics)

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