The tiny village of Gesso in Sicily is celebrating the victory of the next US president Joe Biden and the historic rise to the White House of a First Lady with Italian roots, whose ancestors hailed from here.
Jill Jacobs Biden’s grandfather, Domenico Giacoppo, was born in this remote, offbeat hamlet where only 500 people live amid fluorescent green hills and oxygen-rich air. The picturesque cluster of old brightly colored farmer dwellings boast scenic views of the stunning Etna volcano and the mythological Aeolian islands.
Domenico Giacoppo was a toddler of barely 2 years-old when in 1900 his family set sail across the Atlantic to Ellis Island and later settled down in Hammonton, New Jersey.
The family surname Gacioppo was Americanized to Jacobs.
120 years after that epic departure, Gesso is in the spotlight. It’s no longer an unknown place.
Locals are excited and eager to welcome in the village the presidential couple, particularly Caterina Gacioppo, 64, a distant cousin of Jill Jacobs Biden (eighth degree).
She had no idea of her relationship to the new First Lady until a local duo of genealogical researchers dug out the Gacioppo family tree.
Speechless and shy, taken aback by the sudden popularity, Caterina tells me she’s thrilled for Biden’s victory and that she can’t wait to meet her American cousin.
“I’m so happy. I invite her to Gesso, I really hope she comes to visit me. When and if she will be here, I will make for her platefuls of meatballs with tomato sauce and we will eat together”.
“I will also make Jill other top local delicacies like aubergine parmigiana with cheese, pasta incasciata and Cannoli pastries filled with fresh goat ricotta which are one of my specialties”.
Caterina never had any news from her distant relatives in America, saying contacts were cut-off when Jill’s branch of the family left Gesso while her family stayed behind working as farmers in the fields.
She’s a bit flabbergasted now at finding out that she boasts such a famous relative soon to enter the White House.
“This hamlet is beautiful, there are lots of things to see and do. Life here is great. I welcome everyone in my village, and I really can’t wait to meet Jill.”
“Jill, I’m here, my house is open for you, as is the entire village of Gesso. Please do come visit us next time you travel to Italy”, adds Caterina.
Jill Biden has another cousin too: Caterina’s sister Felicia lives in an old age home near Gesso.
Gesso, proud of being the origin village of the Gacioppo-Jacobs, has been cheering for Joe Biden and his wife ever since the beginning of the electoral campaign.
US flags, posters and white blankets reading ‘Jill J. Biden US First Lady’ and ‘Gesso-Hammonton-White House’ can be seen hung on sun-kissed balconies.
Tonino Macrí, one of the researchers who traced Jill Biden’s family tree, tells me it was a huge but rewarding task. Together with Antonio Federico, another villager, they analyzed hundreds of state archives, church wedding records, birth and death certificates, recovering the lost stories of many local emigres.
Their quest went as far as digging rare immigration documents from Ellis Island.
“We can ascertain with proof that Jill’s ancestors were born here. Her grand father Domenico, alongside his mother and siblings, left Gesso in 1900 to join his father who was already living in the States since a couple of years”, says Macrì.
A copy of the certificate bearing the names of emigres who arrived at Ellis Island, including the Gacioppos, is showcased at Gesso’s folklore and traditions museum.
The old crumbly rural dwelling of the Giacoppo’s still stands in the outskirts of the village.
Each year groups of Gesso-rooted Americans fly in from Hammonton to discover their origins and explore the fascinating town and its simple lifestyle, indulging in homemade delicacies. They’re the ones who helped in the family tree research and brought to Gesso migration certificates from Ellis Island.
And now they’ll have one more reason to visit the village: Jill Biden is set to be the first ever Italian-American First Lady in history, and she’s got Sicilian blood.
In Gesso’s tiny church a few of Jill Jacobs Biden’s ancestors are buried, and this is also where her great-grandfather celebrated his marriage before taking off for the New World in search of fortune.
And for sure, Jill Biden is the ultimate incarnation of the great ‘American Dream’ come true, fuelled by the passion and sacrifice of millions of Italian emigres who contributed to building the US.