Interviewed by Valerie Russo
Podcast by Leah Shaw
Luisa Micelli Russo is a born and bred Brooklynite . . . and proud of where she is from. “Brooklyn, USA,” she tells her daughter Valerie in her oral history. “Everyone knows Brooklyn, N.Y—you can tell by my accent,“ she laughed. And in her podcast she skewers stereotypes of people who “sound” Brooklyn
Second generation Italian, Luisa was born in Carroll Gardens to two immigrants from Ischia, a small island off of Naples. She’s lived in Carroll Gardens, Red Hook and now Gravesend.
Her daughter interviewed her twice for Prof. Phil Napoli’s history classes. “She’s so wise. She ‘s seen so much and been around,”
said Valerie, talking about her mom in a coffee shop right off the Brooklyn College campus. Valerie just returned to Brooklyn from a semester abroad in Italy, studying history. After she graduates in May, hopes to go to graduate school in Germany.
Even though she has interviewed eight to ten other people for her history classes, she feels her mother gave her the best interview. “She’s animated. She has very detailed memories of smells and feelings,” she said.
Luisa discussed the times during the recession of the 1970’s when her father, a construction worker was laid off for three years and could only find work in a second cousin wife’s fruit store. “Me, even as a child, I remember, the fear of not having enough,” she said. And she describes what her mother cobbled together so they would have something to eat.
After she graduated from high school, Luisa traveled to Ischia, the rest of Italy and Switzerland, where she worked at a resort. She returned to Brooklyn and married Valerie’s father, having three children together. But they divorced when Valerie was 7-years-old. Her mother has supported her three children on her own since then working as an office manager at a dental office. Valerie and her sister attend Brooklyn College; their brother goes to Kingsborough.
“I think she’s one of the smartest women I’ve ever met even though she only has a high school diploma,” said Valerie. “She’s curious. She’s a polyglot—she speaks four or more languages: English, Italian, the dialect of Naples, the dialect of the island and Spanish.”
Luisa has watched the neighborhoods she has lived in change and spoke about the affect of gentrification both in this podcast and in the podcast on Gentrification. “These people are coming in and paying $1.2 million for a floor in a brownstone. Do these people know what $1.2 million is?” Most people she grew up with can no longer afford to live in Carroll Gardens and certainly not their children. Because of the skyrocketing rents, “it’s unfathomable to think about living in Carroll Gardens now. It breaks my heart,” she said.
Sometimes it is a challenge doing oral histories because many of the people who are approached to be interviewed refuse, because they don’t think they have anything important to say. That’s not the case with Luisa Russo…who was open to being interviewed by her daughter.
“She doesn’t take it for granted that she has a voice…and she’s happy to use it,” said Valerie.