I'm starting to see a pattern, a wonderful, very interesting pattern, in discovering that very often behind a cultural organization that celebrates Italy somewhere in the US, there's a force of nature embodied by an American woman of Italian heritage, proud of being both Italian and American. Italian American women have always been celebrated less than their men, but as I can see from here, they did and still do a lot to keep awake and proud the Italian communities all over America.
This is why I am so happy to meet Sally Valenti, the Vice President of "Il Circolo - The Italian Cultural Society of Palm Beaches", an association that has been representing, promoting and celebrating the Italian culture in Florida for almost four decades now, and will keep on doing the same with passion and dedication.
Sally, according to every person I spoke to, you are the one who has made and still makes Il Circolo the successful organization everybody loves and recognizes in Florida. First of all, please tell us something about you
Well my mother and my father were born in a very small town in Sicily called Racalmuto, in the Agrigento province. They came here with nothing, like many immigrants did, married here and had four children: my father (who had grade education) and mother (who had no education) were dedicated to educate their children, which they did. The four of us have really been blessed with the American dream; my two brothers - who are older than I am - were the first two Italian ever graduated from West Point, the United States Military Academy. My sister, who is younger than I am, is a medical doctor and she was trained in Rome, and then had the practice here, in the United States. I'm a retired educator, I was also included in the Who's Who of the American educators, years ago. Family was very important to us, we were taught that we had to gain our own respect and this is how we grew up: family tied.
Did they arrive straight in Florida?
No, they went to New York, where they had other paesani, they helped each other and as we started to grow up my father wanted to move away from the little conclave because he wanted his children to be exposed to other cultures, to let them truly become Americans, even maintaining our Italian heritage. So, we did. We moved to Long Island and that is where we were educated. I went to Queen's College, for free, and then paid my own way to Colombia University for my master's degree. Then I wanted to get a PhD but I never really did, because I was a mother of three children and since my mother died at a very young age my father came to live with us. So, I was a busy lady with three children, a husband and a father living in our home. But I loved this.
When we retired in 1985 we moved to Florida because my husband loved greenery, flowers, food, the sunshine. You know how we Italians love the garden. We came to Ocean Ridge in Florida, which is along the ocean, we built a very nice home. We enjoyed having the grand children come to visit for many, many years; and then we moved to Boynton Beach, where I am now.
Unfortunately my husband passed away two years ago. But, we enjoyed the wonderful life, we made many, many trips to Italy, we went many times to Italy, our favorite place to go and he was very adventurous.
We would take a flight to Rome, just pick up the car and go, no reservations, nothing. And he always read about places he wanted to see. One time we were staying at Lago Trasimeno, he said "We're going to see Lamborghini. We're going to this little town called Panicale, in Umbria". So we took off, and it's just a little dot on the map. We drove and we pulled up to this place and there were these people picking grapes, and a helicopter on display. We saw a man coming down from the two story buildings, with a cigarette dying at the end of his mouth who said "Posso aiutare?". So I said "Cerchiamo Lamborghini", and he said "Sono io!", and he invited us in. We went and he took the key, opened the door to his private museum and just my husband and I looked at all the things he had designed and it was a wonderful, wonderful experience.
Another time we went to Agnone to see the how the bells are done in that city; or to Sperlonga, the beautiful beach outside Rome that no tourist know. So this is the kind of thing I enjoyed with my husband.
So, what about Il Circolo: are you the founder?
No, I'm not the founder; I've been a member for 30 years. I was on the flight coming to Florida and we met Dr. Peter Sammartino, who was very well known as an Italian writer and also the President of Fairleigh Dickinson University, where my sons went to school. He saw me on the flight and he said "You have to join this organization called Il Circolo". I said "Doctor, I'm sorry, I'm retiring. I'm not doing anything. I'm just go to retire". But he insisted, he said "No, no, please come just one time, you're just the kind of person we love to have in our organization. Please! Just come to the Christmas party!". So we went to Christmas party and from that on I'm still at Il Circolo!
30 years ago, that's fantastic!
Well, my husband loved the people we met: it was just like a big family and we have enjoyed so many wonderful friendships, so many! So, my husband and I became members of the organization, and anytime we had an event he would be the one that gets up and walks around and says hello to everybody, so no wonder about the title "The Ambassador of Il Circolo" they gave him.
Please describe us Il Circolo: your mission, the activities ...
It was started by a priest named father Nicolas Maestrini who was sent here to Florida. So, he started it in Palm Beach, 39 years ago, because he saw that there wasn't much going on about the Italian culture here. So, he found few Italian names, called these people and said "Why don't you come over to my house and we talk about Italian culture?" Well, he got a group to come to his house and that's the original founding group. and then it grew and grew and we are now over 400 members. Not all the members are Italians; the only requirement, the only thing you have to do is love Italian culture, the art, the music, the food. That's how it started; from then on the organization has grown and acquired the wonderful reputation it has now in the community.
We do support financially all institutions that have Italian culture as part of their program. For example we just gave 5 thousand dollars to Palm Beach Opera for the youth program, young people who will be studying opera. We also donate to high schools having Italian programs; we send some students to Italy to study in the summer, with FAU-Florida Atlantic University. The students then come back and tell us the experience they had, how they just learned about the Italian culture and want to continue. So, that's the kind of thing we do and we're very proud of that. We also have a close affiliation with the John Cabot University in Rome: one of our members, Barbara Ciongoli, was on their Board of Trustees. Even my grand-daughter studied went there, it's a wonderful university.
We are proud that our entire name is "Il Circolo - The Italian Cultural Society of Palm Beaches", because we do several cultural events, we don't do just food and wine. We have concerts, we have lectures about the Italian culture. Recently, through one of our publications, we brought to the attention of the members' community the stories of Livio Del Bianco, the Chief carver from Mount Rushmore, and of the Piccirilli Brothers, who did many artworks all over the US, from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC to the two very famous lions that are just outside the New York Public Library.
We know that you also have young very active members ... We the Italians is friends with a couple of them, Valerio Spinaci and Marco Capoccia
Yes, both of them are wonderful young Italians, I love them! They are two excellent examples of how young Italians are doing good in Florida at this time. They have a lot of passion! We are so happy that even the young generations are eager and committed to participate and give their contribution to our activities ... this way, we stay close to all kind of Italians, of any age, and keep on celebrating our beloved Italian culture.
Please tell us something about your gala
Every year we have a gala, at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach (which was done by Italians, and where the actual CEO is Italian). This year is the 39th and it is going to be March, 8th: and every year we select someone of Italian heritage who has done something for the Italian community and that's our Honoree of the Year, and we have a big, big, wonderful day of celebration. We celebrated many honorees, among them Louis Freeh, Dion DiMucci, Connie Francis. This year we're honoring Maria Lorts Sachs: we're honoring her because about 4/5 years ago she got certification for teachers of Italian language: and there was none in Florida, before her. And just last year she went to Tallahassee and got a proclamation issued by the State of Florida that forever more October will be celebrated as Italian heritage month.
Are you already starting to think what is going to happen in the 40th edition, next year?
Yeah, we're thinking about it. I've been having in mind for a long time to write a book or something about the history of Il Circolo, and I'm trying to see people who can be able to make it come to life. I have a lot of material on that, but I also have a certain age! But still, that's one of the things I'm hoping it will happen for the 40th because I think the community will love it.
If you do that, please tell me, because I want to read it and promote it through We the Italians in the whole United States and in Italy too. Another question: are there many Italians in Palm Beach, and generally in Florida?
Well, we just finished the Italian Week in Palm Beach, where we have been selected as the sole charity organization been represented: and it has been a very big success.
Last time I spoke to the Italian consul, Adolfo Barattolo, who is very supportive to our organization, he told me that in Florida the first immigration group is the Hispanic American, but the second one is the Italian American, We have a quite large Italian population in Florida, and at the beginning of June when the Consulate celebrates the Italian National Day in Miami, there's always a huge, very nice Italian crowd.
We have students from Italy, one of them we're supporting because he has a very bad family situation but he's a good student. We would like to have more, to encourage more Italian students to come to Florida, maybe we can work something together with We the Italians? Il Circolo can be helpful with that: we have lawyers among our members, and we would be interested in fostering the exchange of students.
That would be amazing, of course we would be happy to do it together with you. Every Italian student would love to go and spend some time studying in Florida!
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