A true story from behind the bench comes to Maple Grove Cemetery

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Judge Gloria C. Coco, the first Italian-American woman to sit on the bench in Chicago, wanted to satisfy her mother’s dying wish, to find an uncle’s burial place.

Like many families that came to the United States, her mother, widowed grandmother and uncle were aboard a boat. Riding storage from Sicily, they landed at Ellis Island. Uncle Alfio Freddie Manninici, born in 1917, was only four years old when he died while they waited for their papers in 1921. Nobody could tell her where her brother had been buried when the search began in the mid-1990s, until it ended in 2000 at Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens.

What began as a search turned into a one-woman show, “Finding Uncle Alfio,” which Coco wrote and has been performing for several years. She will be sharing the true story at Maple Grove Cemetery for the first time on Saturday, June 16, at 3 p.m.

While still on the bench in 1994, Coco went back to school to get a degree in radio, television and film at Northwestern University. As part of her senior project, her assignment was to write a play in a storytelling class.

“My mother would tell me about these heartfelt sad stories about what it took for her mother and her children to come to the United States where the government first had to decide if it was feasible for them to stay or be sent back,” Coco said.

Although her mother was given a death certificate, it was not clear as to how her brother died or what was done to his body, most likely due to a language barrier.

“My mother had a sister, 14 years her elder, who had already come to America which is why they were able to send for the family,” Coco said. “When my mother died in 1993, there were no computers for us to do the seeking. My sisters and I decided to do a search in the ‘40s through the ‘70s where one could only do it by mail and by going through various New York authorities, National Archives and Burial of Vital Statistics.”

The death certificate listed Maple Grove as the burial cemetery and when she went there in 2000, the executive director searched through the ledgers and showed her more handwritten information that included where he was buried.

“It was described to me as a ‘mass grave’ where many of the children of immigrants coming through Ellis Island were buried,” Coco said.

As for her play, “Finding Uncle Alfio” was a smaller portion of a drama, “The Passages of Grace,” that started her acting career first performing at theatre festivals in Chicago.

“There was a book written called ‘Italian Women in Chicago,’ edited by Dominic Candeloro, in which 20 women were asked to write about their Italian heritage,” Coco said. “I was asked to write the story in my mother’s voice. The book was translated into Italian. I then performed my play as part of a book tour for the Italian Senate and then went back to Rome for the 100th anniversary of the death of Mother Francis of Cabrina, the Patron Saint of Immigrants.”

“For every story that you hear about people coming to America as the ‘land of opportunity,’ there were several stories about this country not being ‘the land of hope’, including tragedies of those who did survive,” she added.

A few years ago, Coco connected with historian Carl Ballenas, the president of Friends of Maple Grove, along with Executive Director Helen Day. Ballenas asked Coco if she would perform her play at the Center and Coco obliged.

“As an actor, you become a conduit of human emotion. This is one story that everyone will be able to relate,” she said.

Maple Grove Cemetery is located at 127-15 Kew Gardens Road. Reservations for the show can be made by calling (347) 878-6614. There will be a Q&A session after the 30-minute performance and a reception to meet Coco will follow.

Posted 12:00 am, June 11, 2018
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