TAMPA — Each table was adorned in the traditional red, white and green of the Italian flag as the Campisis streamed in on a sun-splashed Sunday and past a display set up with hand-scribbled immigration paperwork from a century ago.
The occasion was the reunion of one of the first families of Ybor City and kin from as far away as California were here to celebrate 110 years of being in America.
The Campisis hail from two small Sicilian towns, Cianciana and Santo Stefano di Quisquina. Eight brothers made it to Ellis Island in New York City in 1903, destined for Tampa where there was plenty of work for immigrants in the cigar factories.
Some went into that line of factory work, said matriarch Frances Campisi LaRosa, now 90, who was among the first to arrive at the reunion to greet her far-flung family under the event tent at Ricks on the River.
“The brothers settled along Fourth and Fifth Avenues,” she said. Some brothers branched out and started their own businesses, like a grocery store and other kinds of shops.
“They looked around and figured what was needed in Ybor City,” LaRosa said, “and they filled that need.”
She grew up there, cradled by a big family.
“I loved it,” she said. “I was married in the same house I was born in. I had three kids and they all grew up in that house. She and her husband, Dick LaRosa, lived there until after World War II when they bought a home in South Tampa.
“I continued to work until I was 82,” she said. Her first job was a hairdresser, just before she got married. The last one was dispensing medication to patients at a nursing home.
“I had a lot of jobs,” she said with a grin,”but I only remember the first one and the last one.”
She was the favorite among the arriving Campisis on Sunday afternoon. They waited in line to offer up cheek kisses and hugs to the grand dame of the family.
One-hundred-thirty-five Campisis or Campisi-connected people were expected to attend the reunion, said Lisa Chillura, the family historian, who began researching the clan’s history a few years back.
“I guess I turned a hobby into what is now an obsession,” she said, nervous about having to be the master of ceremonies in front of such a large group. She held an armful of historical documents that included old photographs and books and other fruits of her genealogical efforts.
She said her interest in her kin’s past stretches back to when she was a child.
“I used to go over to Nana’s house,” she said, nodding to LaRosa standing a few feet away, “and I wanted to hear all the different stories of Ybor City.”
Chillura said many of those attending the reunion, even though most live in the Tampa area, are strangers to her. After the original Campisis settled here and began having children, many moved across town or across Tampa Bay and sort of lost touch with each other.
“But almost all of us,” she said, “are here for the reunion.”
None of the Sicilian relatives were there, but Chillura has been in contact with them and plans to travel to Sicily in a year or two to delve into the family history before 1903. That could go back hundreds of years, she said, if not further. Getting those records will be a challenge, she said. Churches and family documents likely will be her main source of information, unlike here, where much of her work is done online.
But for now, she’s fortunate to have her Nana to flex her memory on family history, a memory that still is pretty sharp.
“She is very important,” Chillura said. “She’s the oldest one in the family and she does not forget a thing. She knows everything.”