In 1882, a group of 11 men departed from Roseto Valfortore in the Puglia region of Italy to escape the extreme poverty of their mountain village. They emigrated to America and, in the end, settled in Pennsylvania in the foothills of the Poconos. Others from Roseto joined them over time. They built a community in America, which they called Roseto, similar to the one they had left behind.
They recreated their life from the old country. They were a very tight-knit community. The Welsh, the English, and the Germans from nearby towns shunned the Italians. Slate quarries were the main local industry. The Anglosaxon owners doled out the worse work to the Italians.
For decades Roseto remained a safe haven from hostile external forces. The Rosetans built their own church and their own school. They constructed blouse mills in the town where the women went to work. Two cousins managed bakeries in their basements and furnished the entire town with bread, pizza, and pasta. They made their own wine and grew their own vegetables.
By the 1960s, 95% of the inhabitants of Roseto were descendents of Roseto Valfortore. Roseto in Pennsylvania was one of the most homogeneous immigrant enclaves in America. At that time, Roseto captured the attention of two doctors who wanted to understand why almost nobody in Roseto died of a heart attack or showed signs of cardiac disease. For years, researchers studied the medical records of Rosetans as well as those of inhabitants of nearby towns. They also studied their life styles.
The Rosetans seemed to break every health rule in the book: They smoked cigars and cigarettes. Both sexes drank wine with seeming abandon. They fried their sausages and meatballs in lard. They ate salami and cheese high in cholesterol. The researchers also studied genetics, the drinking water, and the availability of medical care, but could not find an explanation. Moreover, the men worked in the toxic environment of the slate quarries.
The research concluded that family and social ties protected the Rosetans from cardiac disease. The inhabitants had a social life centered on the family. It was intergenerational and interdependent. Everyone worked, there was no crime, nor was there any request for public assistance. Everyone helped everyone else. The rich never flaunted their wealth; their clothes and housing were like everyone else’s. Everyone supported the local businesses. In other words, nobody was alone in Roseto. No one seemed unhappy or too stressed.
The researchers also made a prescient observation in 1963: They believed that as the Rosetans became more “Americanized” (in the sense of less close, less modest, and less interdependent), they would also become less healthy. The loss of the famous “Roseto Effect” would become evident within a generation. And so it was. A study in 1992, published in the American Journal of Public Health, confirmed this sad prediction.