Sometimes, (virtually) wandering around the United States getting to now Italian American leaders, I end up meeting somebody who really is committed to promote and celebrate the Italian culture, our language, our values. I live in Italy, and for me it is always incredibly inspiring to see how much love there is for my country, outside of it.
Today we welcome a great leader, a committed fellow Italian works hard to defend and spread Italianicity in Southern California, in the land that from Los Angeles goes south and reaches San Diego. Her name is Vicky Carabini, and she is one of those Italian Americans to whom Italy should say thank you, more than it actually does
Vicky, you are one of the most active personalities of the Italian community in the Southern California. Let’s start from your role of Ambassador to San Juan Capistrano’s Sister City, Capestrano. Please tell us something about this
My husband Michael and our two daughters, Christina Elena and Anna Maria, moved to San Juan Capistrano in 1996. I did not discover that our small town had an Italian Sister City until I was reading the L’Italo Americano newspaper in 2007. Our Mayor and my neighbor, Sam Allevato, was featured in an article as he had attended the Abruzzese/Molisani Club of Los Angeles Anniversary Dinner. I left a message for Mayor Allevato that I had a copy of the paper for him to show his family and mentioned that I was Abruzzessi and that my grandfather’s town of Rocca di Mezzo was quite close to Capestrano, that I spoke relatively good Italian and had a home in Tuscany. Within a few days, the Mayor petitioned the City Council to appoint me Ambassador to our Sister City. I have traveled there several times along side my cousins from Rocca di Mezzo and have been part of their annual anniversary celebration of their patron saint San Giovanni da Capestrano which is on October 23rd.
On one visit, I brought hand made rosaries from the 5th grade students at the Mission Parish School which had been blessed in the Mission Basilica and were given to the primary school students in Capestrano. Those students in turn had taken an antique roof tile from San Giovanni’s home and painted an image of San Giovanni il Guerriero (the 6th century BC statue called “The warrior of Capestrano”) on the tile. I have loved the opportunities to connect the two worlds and especially for children to learn about the difference between their two cultures. For a child to understand that in Italy they are finished with school while the children in California are just getting ready to start their day in itself is a mind boggler.
We have also hosted City Council members from Capestrano for many events and have had more than 15 vendors from Capestrano and L’Aquila come to our historic Mission for an Italian Festival. I was also able to raise enough money to have the award winning audio tour of the Mission translated into Italian. It is currently being upgraded to a new system.
As part of our Sister City program, I also host a monthly Italian Movie Night the first Thursday of the month at the Regency Theater in San Juan Capistrano. We have well over 100 attendees and quite often have a sell out crowd of 160 people. I have been doing this since 2009.
I lead the Italian entry in the Swallow’s Day Parade, the largest non-motorized parade in the US and possibly the world! We have had an entry for the past 12 years and have won the Civic Award more times that I can count. Our entry has over 50 participants carrying the 20 regional flags of Italy, pizza tossers, opera singers, dancers, Venetians in Carnevale costumes and several times a Sicilian donkey. The parade is always held in March on or near St. Josesph’s Day when the swallows return to San Juan Capistrano.
In honor of St. Joseph and to honor the Sicilian tradion of feeding the poor, I coordinate a community food drive for Serra’s Pantry and have a symbolic St. Joseph’s Day Table at the Mission on March 19th.
You are an example of a true Italian passionate about her motherland, who lives abroad…
As a small child I had always boasted that I was 100% Italian. When I was 15 years old my maternal grandmother took me to Italy. She made sure that I visited each of the four villages where my grandparents were born. I met aunts, uncles and throngs of cousins. I was enamored with my Italian heritage from the moment I stepped off the plane. Once I returned I started a special savings account titled ‘Italy’ and dreamt of returning. I wrote to my cousins and kept the connection alive. In 1985, I married Michael Carabini and that account was used to buy furniture for our new home. But my dream lived on and Michael and I scheduled annual trips to Italy always including visits to my family in Rocca di Mezzo and Agnone.
In 2003, we were fortunate to purchase a farmhouse in Sarteano located in southern Tuscany. We did not even know that the home came with 5 acres of olive trees. Our first harvest was a learning experience but produced incredibly syrupy, smooth green extra virgin olive oil. We have become contadini, farmers, picking the olives with my Italian cousins and friends, taking the olives to the local frantoio to watch our hard work turn into liquid gold. We put the oil in cans and bring it back to California to share with family and friends bridging our two countries.
Education is important in promoting the Italian culture. You are Chair of the Italian Studies Council at Chapman University. What can you tell me about the learning of the Italian language in your area?
It has never been a better time to learn Italian in Orange County. There are Italian classes for individuals and groups, adults and children. In fact, on weekends, Fondazione Italia has a language program for children and adults on the Chapman campus. The Italian Studies Council at Chapman University has also spearheaded programs that unites students learning Italian with community members through evening events called “La Serata” where special guests are invited to speak about various subjects.
In addition, for the past three years we have hosted an event entitled “An Italian Perspective”. We have covered business, music and cinema and this year we will cover Science. This event brings together students from many other colleges and other programs along with community members to learn about the different disciplines and to learn how to build bridges between Italy and the United States.
The Italian Studies Council would not have been possible without the amazing drive and determination of Dr. Federico Pacchioni who was born and raised in Emilia Romagna and is an internationally renown author and speaker on Italian cinema. He continues to think outside the box and welcomes input and discussion. Without his unrelentless drive to teach students and promote Italian culture, the program would be non existent. It does not hurt that the current President of Chapman University is Dr. Daniele Struppa from Milan and the past President is Dr. Jim Doti, a passionate Italian American, writer and professor.
The campus boasts a Piazza in front of the Leatherby Library which houses the Italian Archives and the recently constructed the “Musco Center of the Arts” built with funds by the philanthropic efforts of Paul and Marybelle Musco. The Musco’s also host Paul’s Pizza Party for the entire campus to celebrate Columbus Day.
Another important tool of promotion of the Italian culture is art. You have been on the board for the Italian Arts Council at Bowers Museum, where right now there’s a very interesting exhibition called “Knights in Armor” with more than 90 pieces of armor, including full suits, helmets, corselets, shields, swords and paintings on loan from the Museo Stibbert of Florence…
Last year I retired my position on the Italian Arts Council at Bowers Museum. I continue to help them in their community outreach especially now with the Knights in Armor exhibit. This is an amazing collection of art from the Medieval and Renaissance ages to the Romanticized Medieval revival of the 1800s.
To have the pieces of armor on loan from the Stibbert Museum in Florence is quite a feat. The museum in Florence features many costumes, jousting flags and even ceramics from the medieval to contemporary period. We are beyond excited to have this exhibit in Orange County. There is also Cinema Italiano at the museum the third Sunday of the month.
Another interesting activity for you is the Orange County Italian Meetup Group. You’ve got almost 1000 members! Please help our readers understand what you do and how does the Meetup work
The Italian Meetup has grown expedentially. It is a social gathering in a restaurant where those interested in speaking or learning to speak Italian can gather around a table and practice speaking. All levels are welcome to attend and enjoy speaking Italian in a comfortable atmosphere. A glass of wine generally helps the conversation soar!
Many newcombers include transplants from Italy eager to meet locals and speak their native language. Many become tutors while others share where and how they grew up and the traditions that they miss. Those from Orange County listen and learn and in turn invite others of Italian descent or Italophiles to join the group.
Can you please tell us something about the history of the Italian emigration to the San Juan Capistrano area
I did not move to San Juan Capistrano until I was an adult but grew up in the San Fernando Valley. My grandparents came from the Abruzzo and Molise regions and all four met in Los Angeles where the largest emigration of Abruzzesi/Molisani began in Southern California. Orange County was mainly farmland and as Los Angeles grew many moved south for more affordable housing and business opportunities.
It wasn’t until I was named Ambassador to Capestrano, Italy that I learned that in 1776 Fr. Junipero Serra, now St. Serra, established the 7th Mission which he thought would be the ‘jewel’ of all Missions. He named it after his favorite saint, San Giovanni di Capestrano. Because it was a Spanish Mission, it was given the name San Juan Capistrano. I believe that was the first Italian ‘connection’!
It seems that there are a couple of aggregators of Italian associations in your area: “Italian Clubs of Southern California” and “Federated Italo-Americans of Southern California”. Is there really room for two aggregators?
The Federated group is truly the umbrella of Italian groups in Southern California uniting clubs from Santa Barbara to San Diego. They host events in Los Angeles at the Casa Italiana and connect well with the Italian Consulate and Italian Cultural Center in Los Angeles and Westwood respectively. Most Italian clubs were in Los Angeles or San Diego. The Sons of Italy Renaissance club was the most active but was in the City of Orange quite far from the south county residents. More clubs started to attract more members but the clubs did not interact and were not able to increase membership. I started a newsletter via email from sign up sheets at the many Italian events I coordinated. Soon my list had close to 2000 names! All from different groups, cities, native Italians, Americans of Italian descent and Italophiles.
That’s when a friend of mine decided I needed a Facebook page to include the information in my newsletter. This has allowed these clubs/organizations to interact, attract new members but most importantly to promote Italian culture. Unfortunately for those in Orange County with traffic it has become almost impossible to travel north for events in Los Angeles except on weekends. My goal is to encourage the Italian Cultural Center and Italian Consulate to bring events that are held in their Westwood location to Orange County where I can easily locate places to hold events.
What are the main successful products “Made in Italy” products in your area? Is there room for improvement?
We are in dire need of Italian products here in Orange County. Our readily available food products are at either the big box Costco store or Trader Joes that carries some Italian products like packaged pasta, sauce, meats and cheeses. If you want real Italian products we have two delis in all of Orange County. To shop, smell and taste foods one must drive to Los Angeles or San Diego.
Successful “Made in Italy” products are those in the fashion line as major department stores carry a wide variety of clothing, bags and shoes. Major brands like Max Mara, Armani, Bottega Veneta, Brunello Cucinelli, Dolce & Gabbana etc. have stores in the high end fashion malls.
Are there many “new Italians” in Southern California?
I find myself meeting new Italians quite often now that we have created avenues for people to connect through word of mouth, online searches and social media.
Recently the Los Angeles City Council abolished Columbus Day. What is your position about Columbus, and what do you think the Italian Americans should do?
When politics get involved it gets very difficult to turn it around. I feel and have always felt that our Italian culture and the significant contributions that Italians and Italian Americans have made should be celebrated. To replace a national holiday with Indigenous Peoples day the same day as Columbus Day was not only disheartening, it was a slam to all those that contributed to our society in every walk of life. Everyone now walks on egg shells not willing to mention Christopher Columbus including the local Renaissance Club who have their Columbus Day event this month calling it instead ‘Italian Heritage Day’!
We are at a terrible crossroads in this country where history is being wiped away because of people’s feelings. I do think we should have an Indigenous People’s Day. I just think the City of Los Angeles could have picked one of the other 364 days of the year to celebrate their culture.
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