On May 17 every year, Emanuel and Franca Ortiz have a party. Complete with a cake and decorative icing, the celebration looks more like a birthday party than an anniversary. But May 17 is an anniversary for Franca Ortiz, formerly Franca Ferraro. And this year’s 50th anniversary of her arrival in America was momentous for the four-year Selbyville resident and anyone in attendance.
“We are all very proud of her,” said Linda Morrison, one of Franca’s two daughters. “She has made a big accomplishment in her life. She’s come a long way.”
Growing up in a small Italian town on the sea about 45 minutes southwest of Rome, Franca, 69, lived a good life in her early years. Her family was wealthy and her father was a tax collector for Mussolini’s government — a government, Franca said, which treated Italian people well.
“We had everything,” Franca said. “It was beautiful even with Mussolini. He loved the Italian people. He was very good to the Italian people and we loved him.”
But in the late 1930’s things started to change. Hitler’s German army went on the offensive and soon World War II would reach Italy. When it did, Franca said, her family was forced to abandon their homes to escape the war zone that had come to their beautiful hometown.
Franca and her family stayed with friends in their nearby mountain home for months and, when they returned after fighting had ceased, they were no longer wealthy. Things were much different.
“When we got back to our homes, everything was destroyed,” Franca said. “I was very young during the war, but there are things you don’t forget. It was very upsetting.”
The walls of their homes were still standing but parts of the roofs were missing. Most of their belongings were gone. It was a new beginning for Franca’s family.
They lived in their ravaged homes for months while Allied forces built homes to house the Italian people, who had lost much during the war. After moving into the “American built” houses, the homes in which Franca grew up were demolished.
Despite the hardship, Franca’s family moved on. But it takes a long time to rebuild a country from such a war, she noted. A decade later, things weren’t much better. So Franca, who was 19 at the time, and some family members decided to make a change.
On May 9, 1956, Franca, her brother and her father left their war-scarred Italian hometown bound for a better life in the United States of America. And on May 17, after spending eight days on board the ship Andrea Adoria — which would sink on a later trip from Italy to America — Franca awoke to the sight of the Statue of Liberty and New York City.
After uniting with other family in Pittsburg, Pa., Franca met and fell in love with a Marine named Manny Ortiz. She and him wed, had two children and spent time in Pennsylvania and the Washington suburbs — where she worked in a daycare business — before retirement.
Now, the pair — who have three grandchildren — live in Selbyville. They also spend much of their time in an Ocean City apartment that they have owned since the early 1980’s. And on every May 17 — a date that coincidentally falls near Memorial Day — Franca and her family celebrate her life as an American.
“I’m very happy with my life, to be an American,” said Franca, who had to wait five years, fill out an application and take a test to earn the citizenship many Americans take for granted. “A lot of people knock this country and they don’t appreciate how beautiful this country is. I’ve had some ups and downs, but the people were just wonderful. They made me feel at home.”