Marianna Gatto (Executive Director - Italian American Museum of Los Angeles)

Il museo degli italoamericani a Los Angeles

Oct 09, 2013 3886 ITA ENG

Italian emigration touched many U.S. cities. If it is true that the majority of Italians settled on the east coast, for obvious geographical reasons, and that many of those who came to the west coast went to San Francisco, there were a few of our people who also settled in Los Angeles’ area.

In Los Angeles there’s a great project to commemorate the Italian and Italian American experience of the past and og the present in southern California, and to tell and educate about Italy of yesterday and today: the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles. The executive director and true soul of the project and of the many initiatives already underway is a young and passionate Italian, born in California and scholar of the Italian identity in the United States, and author of the book “Los Angeles 's Little Italy” : Marianna Gatto. We meet her on the eve of the most important initiative organized by the museum, which is already active but will officially open its doors in its final form next year. It’s the fifth edition of “Taste of Italy”, which is now a must for those who live in the City of Angels, no matter what their roots are.

Marianna, you are the Executive Director of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles, a wonderful project that is going to be opened next year. You are working very hard on this ambitious, important project. Please tell us a little bit more about the Italian emigration to LA and about the mission of the museum.

The Italian American Museum in Los Angeles project began almost 20 years ago. The museum is located in the Italian Hall, a building constructed in 1908, in what was once the heart of Los Angeles’s Little Italy. The Italian community used the building as a social and cultural center until about 1953, when the State of California purchased the building and many other historical buildings in the area to create El Pueblo State Historic Park. During those years, many of Los Angeles’ historic buildings were being demolished, in order to “pave the way for progress”. While the Italian Hall was saved, and soon thereafter, listed on the National register of Historic Places, the State never had the money to maintain the building. In the years that followed, the Italian Hall fell into severe disrepair.

In the 90’s the Italian Hall was slated to become commercialized, which would completely erase the building’s Italian history. A number of concerned community members formed a coalition to save the Italian Hall and develop a Museum. The group was able to secure the use of the building, and began to raise money to begin the restoration of the Italian Hall. In that period about a million and a half dollars were raised, and the work began to address the most critical deferred maintenance and historic preservation issues. Fast forward to the present, we are now in the last phase of the project, which is to develop the museum’s permanent exhibitions and reopen as a 21st century museum that documents the historic presence of Italians and Italian Americans in Southern California as well as the continuous contribution of Italians to the region.

We often say that this museum is as much about Los Angeles and Southern California as is about Italians. While Italians struggled here and faced discrimination, it was not as extreme as other parts of the country. The Latin, Mexican and Spanish heritage of the region is in many ways responsible. Sharing similar language, similar culture, values and religion, Italians were well welcomed here.  When Los Angeles changed from being mainly a Latin influenced city to an English speaking and Anglo city, Italians had already assumed positions of leadership and achieved great success. In 1891, the same year when Italians were brutally lynched in New Orleans in the largest recorded lynching on American soil, in Los Angeles an Italian was elected President of Los Angeles City Council.

You are of Italian heritage, right?

Yes, my family largely came from Sicily and Calabria, like many Italian Americans, they were motivated to immigrate for economic reasons. They came with nothing, and worked incredibly hard.  Their memory is in part my motivation for doing what I do, not only honoring the struggles of my “nonni” but for what I call our “collective nonni”, ensuring that their history is memorialized, so that their struggles were not in vain.

One of my key inspirations for writing the book “Los Angeles’s Little Italy” was to shed light on this tremendous, yet seldom explored and largely unknown history. There’s still so much to uncover; that is one of the reasons why I am so passionate about this project.

After Pearl Harbor, a lot of Italians were considered enemy aliens and some of them were sent to camps far from their home. In San Francisco that happened a lot: did it happen in Los Angeles, too? 

In Southern California, just like in San Francisco, many Italians were forces to register as enemy aliens; others were arrested, forced to relocate, and some were interned. While the wartime experience  was considerably harder on the Japanese community, the experienced led many Italians to distance themselves from their ethnicity, in order to avoid an association with the “enemy”. Propaganda posters of the time bearing the message “Don’t speak the enemy’s language” referring to Japanese, Italian and German, led many Italians to stop speaking their mother tongue. Many families Americanized their surnames, canceled  memberships to Italian organizations, did whatever they could to appear not Italian. And certainly, locally there were a lot of leaders in the Italian community who were arrested and sent to these camps. A local Italian newspaper destroyed its entire pre-war archive after its editor was arrested. What a loss.

Who is the most famous Italian in the Italian American experience in Los Angeles?

Well, it depends on the period. Italians contributed extensively to every aspect of Southern California, from agriculture to finance, transportation to entertainment. Italians established some of the region’s earliest banks; they introduced countless crops to the region and were heavily responsible for the development of the wine and fishing industry. They created artistic treasures, such as the Watts Towers, built by Simon Rodia. Superior Court Judge Alfred Paonessa outlawed the Ku Klux Klan in the State of California. In the entertainment industry Frank Capra was for sure among the first important Italians to achieve success. But there’s many more.

Taste of Italy is about to begin, on October 12: this is the 5th edition. As the previous years, it’ll be a huge event about Italy in Los Angeles. Can you please describe it to our readers?

Taste of Italy is the Italian American Museum largest event. It showcases the region’s finest Italian cuisine, wine and culture. This year we’ll have 35 of the best Italian restaurants of this area and a hundred different Italian wines. In addition to that there will be live entertainment: we have Canzoniere Grecanico, a music group which comes from Italy, who’ll be performing as well as an Italian American soprano, Elisabetta Russo, and many others. This all takes place in the Los Angeles’s historical Little Italy, in the shadow of the Italian American Museum, starting at 5 pm. Last year 2.000 people attended.

Taste of Italy represents our identity and mission, as Italian American Museum of Los Angeles, and highlights our historic presence here. Taste of Italy draws people from all over Southern California, all walks of life, all ethnic groups: we find that the best and the easiest way to share a little bit of our culture is through food. You don’t need to speak the language, you might not necessarily come looking for the history, but you definitively learn something along the way.

What’s the future of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles? How do you see this fantastic project, in five years from today?

Each year, 2 million people visit the area where our museum is, the birthplace of the city of Los Angeles, and the complex’s six other museums. 300.000 of those 2 million visitors  are students. This is a tremendous opportunity not only to share our history and our culture with other Italians and Italian Americans, but to share this story with the general public. We hope to shape the minds of young people, who oftentimes are exposed only to the negative stereotypes about Italians and Italian Americans: the mafia, the illiterate idiots on television.

Our last exhibition about the Italians of Los Angeles welcomed over 60,000 visitors in 9 months. In addition to raising awareness about the history of Italians in the region, we wish to contribute to the understanding of Los Angeles’s diverse roots.

We currently have about 4.000 artifacts in our collection pertaining  to the Italian and the Italian American experience, from photographs to citizenship papers, to enemy alien registration cards and movie scripts. Our primary focus is to be a historical museum, but we also will be hosting temporary exhibitions covering a very large number of topics. We hope to  partner with the Italian government and the different regions of Italy, to bring exhibitions from Italy to Los Angeles. The possibilities are endless.

We will be able to start presenting programs and exhibitions in the building in 2014. The Italian American Museum of Los Angeles will be an avenue to explore and enrich this cultural exchange.

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