Charles Marsala (President of the American-Italian Federation of the Southeast)

Una nuova leadership italiana a New Orleans e nel South East: incontriamo Charles Marsala

Apr 06, 2020 4559 ITA ENG

This interview with Charles Marsala, who is bringing great news to the world of the Italian American community in New Orleans and throughout the South East, was done right before the coronavirus pandemic broke out in Italy, and then a couple of weeks before it also arrived in the United States.

It is therefore a picture of the world before the coronavirus: but Charles' energy and love for Italy are and will be in New Orleans, Louisiana and the South East even when all this will end, to represent the exceptionality of the meeting between these two extraordinary countries, today wounded by a sneaky and invisible common enemy, but always brothers. Thanks to my friend Charles Marsala, and to all, please stay safe

Hi Charles, let’s start with a little bit about you: you are 100% Sicilian, am I right?

I was born in 1960, in New Orleans, my parents were from Monroe, Louisiana. In the early sixties there still was a Little Italy in Monroe.

I did the DNA Test 98% Sicilian and 2% Greek. Maybe from those that settled from Contessa Entellina. Other ancestors are from Cefalù, Salaparuta and Bisaquino.

I’ve read that you own a famous Ferrari…

Yes, I am the owner of the Ferrari Al Pacino drove in the movie “Scent of a Woman.” It is a wonderful 1991 Mondial T. I worked for Lista International Corp of Switzerland as their Northwest Regional Sales Manager. The owner raced a Ferrari 333 SP in American Le Mans Series. I would host hospitality events for his Northern California races.

I found the car on e-bay. I was Mayor of the city of Atherton in California and rode with the Ferrari in the San Francisco Columbus Day Parade for 3 years. 

You are the President of the American-Italian Federation of the Southeast. I must admit that I find very very interesting the federation. Please describe the story and the activities of this beautiful community that reunites several associations

This is an honor for me, as in the 1950s-1970s my grandfather Charles Vincent Marsala Sr. was very active in forming an association of six Italian Clubs in north Louisiana. Joseph Maselli Sr. travelled to Monroe in Louisiana to meet with my grandfather for advice when Maselli was starting the National Federation in the 1970s. Later my grandfather received a Cavalieri Award.

We currently have 20 organizations in Louisiana and Mississippi. I met with a group in Southeast Arkansas last month and there are groups in Pensacola (Florida) and Houston (Texas) I would like to see join.

We provide a $1,000.00 scholarship annually during the New Orleans American Italian Sports Banquet. We have raised funds to endow an Italian seat at Louisiana State University, and to help with the church where in 1689 the Italian explorer Enrico Tonti left a note that was used by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville to claim Louisiana from France.

We are involved with promoting research of our heritage and culture: ten years ago the Italian Genealogy Research facility opened on the second floor of the Jefferson Parish Main Library.

The clubs and organizations are very active. Social Media, emails, and other digital communication are a means to promote activities at a low cost.

Besides the larger cities like New Orleans, Metairie, Kenner, Shreveport and Baton Rouge, smaller towns such as Donaldsonville, Lake Village, Gulf Port, Tickfaw and Independence are creating new and successful events.

Thus the role of the officers and board of the Federation is to add strength by connecting these organizations together for resources. I have suggested we add a Young Italians social at the July 2019 convention in Baton Rouge. 

In 2014 the next generation of leadership in New Orleans started a renaissance. Lena Prima returned to New Orleans from Las Vegas, Frank Maselli became the Italian Honorary Consul. Lena’s album was released last year and Frank finished a $700,000.00 renovation of the American Italian Cultural Center.

I see my role as promoting the activities of our chapters, organizing our bi-annual convention and fostering the exchange of best practice ideas for our clubs.  

You recently launched a very interesting educational media program, involving three different tools: a YouTube channel, an App that describes the most interesting “Italian” places in New Orleans, and a Newsletter. Please tell us more about this

Being in Silicon Valley from 1984 to 2012 I was very aware of digital media innovation. I still own an office building in Menlo Park, which is where Facebook is located.

My dad was into photography, I can remember getting a camera at age 12 for a birthday present. My maternal grandfather opened “Geno’s Italian Restaurant” in Monroe in 1964. Thus, I am very much aware that we need to record the story of those still with us.

New Orleans’ French Quarter is unique for its size of a dedicated Historic District in any city. I can remember in the 1960s there was still a heavy Italian/Sicilian influence in the stores. From 1885 to 1915 there were so many Sicilians in the French Quarter it was called “Little Palermo.” The following generations achieved success and significance: it is a great American dream story to tell.

Last year I began the process of erecting Historic Markers in the French Quarter of New Orleans to tell our story and provide a QR Code to the free tour guide Mobile App we made.

The process is long and time consuming. There are three levels for the State approval: Department of Tourism, LSU History Department, and a Government Committee for Political Review. They only accept proposals once a year.

I was able to find a spot for the Italian and Sicilian contributions to music including Nick La Rocca, Louis Prima, and Cosimo Matassa at the Jazz Museum. The Jazz Museum currently has a Louis Prima exhibit and is managed by the State of Louisiana.

However, there is a second marker, that we have yet to receive approval to erect. It tells the story of the eleven pasta factories opening in the French Quarter after the 1897 Dingley Tariff Act on pasta imports. The reverse side described the protection given by the 280 members of the Italian Battalion to New Orleans in late April 1862 for a peaceful transition back to the Union. That week, the city across the river (Algiers) was burned and looted.

I am looking to install markers about Mother Cabrini, who arrived in New Orleans in 1892 to help with Yellow Fever Epidemic; and to Salvatore Catalano, who was the pilot on Captain Stephen Decatur’s ship of 1804 for the Barbary Coast War. Decatur Street in the French Quarter is named after Stephen Decatur.

So far we have filmed, but not yet finished editing, eight episodes on the Sicilian Migration to New Orleans. Each episode is 30 minutes long. They can be seen on our You Tube Channel “Awe News”.

Last year you were among those who achieved an extraordinary result: the Mayor of New Orleans in person officially apologized to the Italian community for the shameful lynching of 11 Italian Americans in 1891, killed by an angry mob despite being tried and acquitted for the murder of the chief of police. How did you do this?

The Mayor of New Orleans from 2010-2018 was Mitch Landrieu. Mitch and I were in the same homeroom our senior year of high school in 1977-1978. I was Student Council President and had run against his best friend – James Federoff.

When Mitch ran for re-election in 2014, he never mentioned removing monuments in his campaign objectives. Thus when Mitch announced in 2015 he wanted to start removing the monuments of New Orleans, I had many questions. First: there are ten Confederate pieces in New Orleans, why only remove four?  Second: what about other monuments, such as Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, and the Slave Pirate Jean Lafitte?

The process Mitch was setting forth was that any Mayor of New Orleans could take down art worth millions and write a restrictive bid to sell it to their campaign donors. I challenged this process to the City Council.

The new Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell asked a contact to form a committee to recommend a solution to the four pieces of art Mitch removed. The value of the art is from $4 million to $25 million. I was asked to be on this committee. Later I became the spokesperson on TV and was interviewed frequently.

I proposed a solution different from the majority of the committee. New Orleans Businessman and philanthropist Frank Stewart agreed with me.

Thus, when Michael Santo of New York of the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy was looking for local contact, Sal Perricone gave him my name. This was December 2018. Sal is writing a book on the trial and case. He is a former Federal Prosecutor.

Mayor Cantrell emailed me later that month asking to meet with me and Frank regarding re-locating three of the monuments Mitch removed. She then offered me to present an agenda of any issue I had. I added the apology request to the agenda. She assigned a staff member, Vincent Pasquantonio, to facilitate the apology. In January 2019, Vincent, Michael, and I met in New Orleans to work out details.

Michael deserves great credit for making the event international and working with the Mayor’s office to build that relationship. People came from Los Angeles, Texas, and New York to attend to the ceremony.

The night before, I hosted a dinner for 60 people at Andrea’s in Metairie, where we presented a new dish: “Alligator Marsala.”

We are currently researching the case of who killed the police chief. 

Knowing you, I know you're already preparing several new things representing Italian in New Orleans and Louisiana... can you please give us a small preview?

We are considering a concert in front of the Italian Fountain in the Piazza. Joseph Maselli worked with Moon Landrieu in the 1970s to have the Piazza created with an amazing fountain in the shape of Italy.

I would like to do a story on former Mayor Victory Schiro and his achievements in the 1960s for New Orleans, which included the Superdome, the New Orleans Saints, NASA and the Apollo Booster Rocket, creating the Central Business District, and Walt Disney adding New Orleans to Disneyland.

We made a five minute video for the episode on Italian Musicians that includes Nick La Rocca and his ambassadorship for the beginning of Jazz during 1915-1919. Nick’s first album used the term “Jass” while in his next album he changed the named to “Jazz”: there is a great story as far as the reason of the change.


You may be interested