John DeCecco (President of the Italian-American Club of Hilton Head Island)

Rilassatevi, divertitevi e celebrate l'Italia: benvenuti in South Carolina

Sep 12, 2016 2546 ITA ENG

One of the most popular locations for the Americans who like to spend their free time in a wonderful place enjoying the sun and the nature of the east coast is Hilton Head Island, in South Carolina: one of the three American States where you can actually find a city named Italy (the other two are Texas and New York).

Jokes apart, Italy is here too, with an active community, a wonderful festival that will open next September 17, and a club led by our friend John DeCecco, who will tell us about Italy in the Palmetto State. Thanks John and welcome on We the Italians!

John, you are the President of the Italian-American Club of Hilton Head Island. Please tell us something more about the history and the activities of your club

The Italian-American Club of Hilton Head Island is about twenty-five years old. I've been a member since 2010, and its president for the past three and a half years. Our club was once part of UNICO, but for the last twelve years, we've been running independently, and no longer affiliated with UNICO.

We are a charitable service organization, which promotes Italian heritage and culture, while raising funds for local scholarships and other charitable organizations in our area. Annually, we host at least five fundraising events.

We have one hundred and fifty-four club members in what we consider, our large Italian family. In addition to all the charitable endeavours, our club meets weekly for lunch at Flora's Italian Cafe here on Hilton Head Island. We have fun whenever we are together ; you know how Italians are. The club is open to men and women, and is not restricted to those of Italian descent. As long as they consider themselves Italians at heart, and want to help us on our mission to serve each other and our community, they are welcome to join us.

Ours is a full volunteer club, with no paid staff. 2016 has been very good so far, and I think that with some of the things we have planned, 2017 is going to be off the chart, because we have some unique new ideas in the pipeline. Stay tuned.

On Saturday, September 17, 2016, the club will organize the 7th annual Hilton Head Island Italian Heritage Festival. How many people do you expect, and what is going on during the festival?

This will be our 7th year, and it's been a success every year, both financially and with the number of attendees on the increase every year. In 2015, thirty-five hundred people passed through the gates, and this year we're expecting a little bit more.

We have many venders - thirty-four in 2015 - who sell everything from food to arts and crafts, and jewelry. We also have a couple that brings in beautiful ceramic crafts from Sicily.

There's a children's section, with inflatable activities, waterslide, and face-painting. We also have a dunk tank for the bigger kids. Once in a while, I am the main dunkee, which raises a few bucks and lots of laughs. It seems a lot of people want to watch the president get dunked.

We also have live entertainment. An Italian couple from Myrtle Beach, Larry & Claudette Tanelli, sing, dance, and get the audience involved. It's a real Italian festival, in honor of San Gennaro, like they do in New York City, only it's not on Mulberry Street, in Little Italy. It's held about a thousand miles south, on the property of what was once a southern plantation, known as Honey Horn. I believe it is the largest one-day festival on the island. Which is to say that we Italians know how to bring the fun wherever we go.

Are there many Italians or Italian Americans in South Carolina?

Nowadays, South Carolina is one of the leading American destinations for Italian-Americans who are relocating to retire, or for job opportunities. With a beautiful coastline, and a growing economy, the lowcountry area of the United States is fast-becoming one of the more desirable places to live. From Hilton Head, to Charleston, to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina has everything from sandy beaches to great golf, and a very temperate climate. There are many Italian organizations besides ours, and we all work together to support our local communities while sharing our Italian Heritage.

There are several doctors, attorneys, and other Italian-American professionals here around the island, and throughout the state, who have been here for quite a while.

Last year the Italian community succeeded in having South Carolina pass a law declaring October the "Italian American Heritage Month". Please tell us more about this

Oh this is beautiful! The State of South Carolina passed this law signed by the governor in March 2015, and the two gentlemen that are behind this are from Myrtle Beach: one is Fred Nesta, and the other is Senator Raymond Cleary. Fred lobbied really hard and vigorously to get some acknowledgment up at the State House, and his good friend Senator Cleary introduced the bill and got it passed.

It took over three years to get this done, and we celebrate it all over the State. There are only eight American States that have passed a law making October the Italian-American Heritage month. Other States are doing proclamations, which are different because they have to be renewed each year.

We're trying to capitalize on a wide-ranging program by working closely with Mr. Nesta and Senator Cleary. I am co-chairing the State committee with Fred, who is currently organizing a state-wide movement that includes, a Columbus Day parade and celebration to be held at one of our larger cities, like Columbia, Charleston, Myrtle Beach, or Hilton Head Island.

On the other hand, we have a lot of island history here on Hilton Head. The Heritage Library is planning an unveiling of the plaque of the new South Carolina Law making October Italian-Heritage Month and they've given us a section where they will be helping people research their ancestral backgrounds. We do have politicians involved who are very responsive to us because of our community involvement.

Senator Cleary attended our festival last September (2015), with Fred Nesta to address our members. We are looking forward to their returning this year. Senator Cleary will also appear and make a speech when we donate the plaque to the Heritage Library.

Which are the most important "Italian" places in South Carolina?

I don't know of any Italian-centered neighborhoods ('Little Italy's') down here, as we, from the northeastern United States know them. We have some great Italian restaurants here in Hilton Head and all the way up the coast, but there's no center of Italian culture in the American south. I think that's why our organizations do so well down here. Italians love the climate, and joining a club is the easiest way to meet friends with shared backgrounds.

Every year, for a couple of weeks Charleston organizes the Spoleto Festival USA, one of America's major performing arts festivals. It is an American counterpart to the annual Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. How much Italy is there in the Spoleto Festival USA?

I have not attended the Spoleto Festival, but some of the IACHH members go there every year. According to them, there is not much in the way of an Italian atmosphere. It is an excellent international cultural event with a huge audience, but not much of an Italian presence in this particular festival.

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