Alisa DiGiacomo (Author of the book "Italy in Colorado: Family Histories from Denver and Beyond")

Passato, presente e futuro dell'Italia in Colorado

Apr 25, 2016 5497 ITA ENG

On the (virtual) road again, our trip around the US searching for Italian traces brings us today in Colorado. Again, not among the first States usually mentioned regarding the Italian emigration to the United States, but we will discover that there's a lot of Italy here too, starting from its motto that has its origin in Virgil's Aeneid: "Nil sine numine" (Nothing without Providence).

Our guest Alisa DiGiacomo is a fifth-generation Italian American. In 2007, she curated "The Italians of Denver" exhibit at the Colorado History Museum and in 2008 her book, titled "Italy in Colorado: Family Histories from Denver and Beyond" was published. Nobody better than her could help us exploring Italy in the Centennial State!

Alisa, what's the story of the Italian emigration to Colorado?

Colorado's gold rush inspired Italian immigrants (primarily from northern Italy) to move west in the 1850s.

By the 1870s, Colorado's mines, mills, and railroads drew Italians seeking work and opportunity. The railroads needed laborers to lay tracks, supervise and service cars, and move freight. An 1870s silver boom drew miners, carpenters, and others to Colorado's mountain towns. Entrepreneurs, store owners, entertainers, and artisans were also needed for their skills and talents.

The peak of Italian immigration to Colorado occurred between 1880 and 1920. The majority of immigrants during this time were from southern Italy. These newcomers found work with the railroads, in agriculture, mines, smelters, and as peddlers and day laborers. They also found safety and support in the state's Italian colonies; the three largest being Denver, Trinidad and Pueblo. These communities had Italian own businesses, small factories, newspapers, churches and clubs. They also offered residents the freedom to practice their Catholic faith in a predominately Protestant state, and to retain their ethnic identity in the face of growing hostility to immigrants in Colorado and the rest of the nation. Hostility in part due to the passage of Prohibition in Colorado in 1916 which resulted in the targeting of Italians as bootleggers and gangsters by the Ku Klux Klan (a white supremacy organization opposed to Catholics, Jews and immigrants) and other anti-immigrant groups.

The 1920s brought strict immigration quotas in the United States and the number of Italian immigrants in Colorado dropped dramatically. Despite anti-immigrant sentiment, Italians in Colorado had gained a measure of public acceptance. More and more Italian businesses served significant roles in the state and by the late 1920s many Italian American sons and daughters qualified for skilled and white-collar jobs in Colorado.

The Great Depression of the 1930s, the rise of Fascism and World War II brought new complexities to Colorado's Italian American community. Some Italian Americans faced financial hardships, others disagreements over political beliefs, many were at war, others worked for the war effort and a number were arrested as "enemy aliens" and interned in camps in locations including Trinidad, Colorado.

The end of World War II and the close of the 1940s brought change to Colorado's Italian American communities. Returning soldiers took advantage of the G.I. Bill to go to college. Using Veterans' Administration loans, they bought houses and land, and opened businesses. As a result, in the 1950s, more than ever, the children and grandchildren of immigrants were finding opportunities and marriage outside of their Italian colonies.

In the 1960s and '70s, Colorado's growing population added to the changes in its Italian colonies. At a time of civil rights movements in Colorado for African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, and women, Italian Americans had "made it" into mainstream culture. During this time, the rate of migration out of Italian American colonies had greatly accelerated.

With fewer Italian Americans living in concentrated areas, the beginning of the end of Italian colonies in Colorado occurred. Fewer Italian residents in these neighborhoods meant less support for schools, business and churches. Political strongholds weakened and sometimes conflicts arose with new residents. By the end of the '80s previous Italian American neighborhoods were hardly recognizable.

In Colorado, the 1990s brought a renewed interest for Italian Americans in their traditions, culture, and family histories. Today, despite the disappearance of predominately Italian neighborhoods, the Italian American community in Colorado survives. The most visible face of the community is at annual events such as Festival Italiano and the Denver Mount Carmel bazaar. The community is also well represented in the state's community newspaper Andiamo! Regular gatherings of Italian American clubs and organizations, and a variety of businesses also reflect the community's presence. Italian Americans in Colorado are reviving and reshaping traditions that arrived with Colorado's early Italian immigrants. This rich heritage is being explored as today's Italian Americans identify with the values and traditions of the generations who came before them.

To learn more about Colorado's Italian American community view digital stories from The Italians of Denver exhibit here.

Are there places, or personalities, or facts that have had or still have a particular importance in describing Italy in Colorado?

Yes. Much of my book Italy in Colorado covers the history and contributions of Italians in the state. My selections that follow are meant to reflect the diversity of Colorado's Italian Americans, their contributions to the state and their presence today.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, Denver
Established in 1894, Mount Carmel Church is located in the heart of what was once Denver's Little Italy. A predominantly Italian parish today, the church is a uniting force in Colorado's Italian American community. The parish celebrates a number of significant community events including: the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel which includes a traditional procession and three day bazaar, Saint Joseph's Day Table and La Prima Domenica (an event held the first Sunday of each month that includes a Mass in Italian and a cultural reception after).

Mother Cabrini
The first American canonized a saint by the Catholic Church, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, came to Denver as a missionary in 1902. In 1904 she founded an orphanage and school in the city and in 1910 a summer camp west of Denver. Although the orphanage and schools are closed today, the summer camp, now known as the Mother Cabrini Shrine, still houses the Missionary Sisters and attracts thousands of visitors yearly.

Genevieve (D'Amato) Fiore
The daughter of Italian immigrants, Genevieve Fiore began to campaign in the mid-1940s for world peace. Her reasons were personal; one brother died in Italy during World War I and three more served in World War II. Ultimately she co-founded the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Association of Colorado, the third UNESCO chapter in the world.

Potenza Lodge
The Società Nativi di Potenza Basilicata, or Potenza Lodge, was incorporated in Denver, in 1899. A mutual aid society it originally offered English-language support, job search assistance, help locating reliable doctors and attorneys, and insurance to its members. Today, Potenza Lodge is Denver's oldest Italian lodge, with a membership of around 250. The lodge annually sponsors the Saint Rocco bazaar.

Michael Leprino Sr.
Michael Leprino Sr. was born in Potenza, Italy in 1898. In 1914, he settled in Denver where he farmed for many years. In 1950, he started his cheese making business. In 1956, his son Jim Leprino entered the family business, and upon his father's death in 1972, became chairman and chief executive officer of Leprino Foods, today the world's largest producer of mozzarella.

The Denargo Market
Colorado's largest open-air produce market. The history of this market is closely tied to the history of Italians in agriculture and business in Colorado. For a history of the Denargo Market and its link to the present Italian American community visit here.

Nick Perito
Nick Perito was born in Denver in 1924, the son of Italian immigrants. After High School, Nick attended the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver. After serving in World War II, he attended the Juilliard School of Music in New York City and went on to work as an arranger, composer, conductor, and pianist. Over the years, he worked with artists such as Judy Garland, Perry Como, Ferrante and Teicher, and The Ray Charles Singers.

Pietro Satriano
In 1906, Pietro Satriano and his 25 piece brass band performed at Colorado's world famous Red Rocks Amphitheater—it was the first documented performance at the site. Born in Naples, Italy in 1868, Satriano studied music in Milan and other European cities before coming to the United States.

Angelo Noce and Columbus Day
In 1885, Angelo Noce founded the first weekly Italian newspaper in Colorado, La Stella—the only Italian newspaper between New York and San Francisco at the time. La Stella featured articles in Italian about the Denver community, local and national politics, and Italy. His contributions to Colorado were many including: serving as deputy sheriff for Arapahoe County, working in the Colorado State House of Representatives, documenting the history of Italians in Colorado and lobbying for Columbus Day as an official annual holiday; in 1907 Colorado was the first state to celebrate the holiday.

Born in the same province as Christopher Columbus, Angelo Noce focused on Columbus as a means to honor both Italy and the contributions of Italians in America. In Colorado, opposition to Columbus Day emerged in the 1990s along with protests and rallies. The debate over the meaning of Columbus Day continues today.

And how about the actual Italian presence in Colorado, nowadays?

According to the 2000 census there are 201,787 individuals that claim Italian ancestry in Colorado; around 5% of the state's total population. That number has certainly grown with the population increase from 4,301,261 in 2000 to 5,456,574 in 2015. Today many Italian nationals reside in Colorado with a majority from Basilicata and Sicily.

How is Made in Italy in Colorado? Is there room for improving?

To my knowledge there are no business organizations that focus on commerce with Italy in Colorado. While Italian furniture, clothing, shoes, automobiles, scooters and food products can be found in Colorado, there is definitely room for improvement.

You Italians in Colorado have a beautiful magazine, called Andiamo! Please tell us something more about it

Distributed throughout Colorado to native Italians, Italian Americans, and Italophiles, Andiamo! is a newspaper for all who appreciate the cultural and historical contributions of Italy and its descendants. Founded in 2003, Andiamo! is published monthly. Each issue offers readers news, history, entertainment, and pertinent topics related to Colorado's Italian American community. For more about Andiamo! visit here.

You are also active in the Colorado Italian American community. Which group or association you belong to ?

I am currently chair of the Colorado Italian American Preservation Association (CIAPA). A volunteer organization, the mission of this group is to work collaboratively with the Italian American community and other organizations to develop, support, and coordinate projects that preserve, promote, and celebrate Italian American culture and heritage.

The organization has carried out its mission by meeting with people from the Colorado Italian American community, recording their stories, and creating the CIAPA research archive that today includes over 4,500 research files, 220 oral histories, 1000 artifacts and original photographs, nearly 6,500 digital images (historic and contemporary images), sound recordings and moving images. The CIAPA research archive documents the history, culture, and traditions of Italian American families in Colorado and served as the foundation for The Italians of Denver exhibit and the publication Italy in Colorado.

The CIAPA research archive continues to serve as a unique and rich resource for researchers in Colorado and beyond. In addition to assisting genealogists, the archive is also used by academic researchers; recent topics have focused on immigration, the role of Italian newspapers in colonies and the impact of Fascism on the Italian American community during and after World War II. CIAPA also offers programs and lectures on Italian American history in Colorado.

I am also a member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church and Altar and Rosary Society, Denver, Sacred Heart of Mary Church, Boulder, the Sons of Italy Lodge #2075, the Friends of Historical Trinidad and Potenza Lodge, Denver.

Finally, for over ten years I have served as a contributing writer to Colorado's Italian American Newspaper Andiamo! In addition to providing historical images of the community, I also write a monthly piece for the paper that features personal stories of Colorado Italian Americans.

To access the History Colorado collection online (including the Colorado Italian-Italian American collection) visit h-co.org/collections.

In 2014, CIAPA collaborated with Anniversary Books (Modena, Italy) on a project to document lesser know Italian American communities that can trace their origins to Italian immigration. To learn more about the project "Italian American Country" visit their website.

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