Articles by: Laura e. Ruberto

  • Life & People

    La Ruota della Fortuna, Niki de Sainte Phalle's take on an Italian Garden

    Reflections of  color and light sparkle from intricately patterned glass, mirror, and ceramic mosaics.  Otherworldy playful creatures provoke children to skip around gleefully. Hidden passages, curvy staircases, precarious balconies, and comfortable benches overlook falling water.

    The carnivalesque retreat, Il Giardino dei Tarocchi (the Tarot Garden), made by Niki de Sainte Phalle, is strangely beautiful—and sometimes oddly suggestive of the grotestque. Together the peaceful space—inviting in its vibrancy as it is isolated geographically on an undeveloped stretch of hillside—evokes a migrant identity gently informed by an Italian artistic sensibility and an appreciation for the craft of skilled labor.

    Niki de Sainte Phalle (née Catherine Marie-Agnès Fal de Sainte Phalle , 1930-2002) was born in France and lived part of her childhood in various U.S. cities (including Princeton, Boston, and New York). She moved to Italy in the 1970s, living within what would eventually become part of her Tarot Garden (in the province of Grosseto, in Tuscany). There she constructed over 22 sculptures, fountains, and installations covering a large hillside about 12 miles from the seaside. Towards the end of her life she moved to La Jolla, California, leading a rather secluded existence.

    (In fact, I first became aware of her work while living in San Diego in the 1990s. The University of California, San Diego, has a Sun God sculpture that greets folks as they enter the campus, and San Diego’s Balboa Park is speckled by fantastical mosaic de Sainte Phalle animals, creating an intriguqing juxtaposition with the park’s more famous live animals in the ciy’s zoo.)

    Back in Tuscany, de Sainte Phalle lived inside one of the most awe-inspiring pieces, the Imperatrice (the Empress), the bountiful, dark-skinned goddess that protects over much of the garden. The Imperatrice, as well as other parts of the Garden, so clearly evoke the neoclassical style common in Italian villas. By exaggerating the female body and adding so many layers of color and shape, de Sainte Phalle is able to overturn the basic elements of female objectification cemented into the more traditional examples of the female body-used-as-public art.

    The artist was well connected to a number of European and American twentieth-century artists—a brief look at a bio starts to read like the index to a textbook on contemporary art. But in addition to connections to the likes of Salvador Dali, Robert Rauschenberg, Antonio Gaudi, and dozens of others, de Sainte Phalle spoke of other inspiratations.

    At the entrance to the garden (opened to the public in 1998), she listed some of the Italian sites she found inspiring. She notes the Sistine Chapel and the Last Supper, as well as the fountains of Villa d’Este at Tivoli. She writes about the sacred aura of churches and other religious spaces and she describes the respect she has for their builders. (Such references remind me of Walter Benjamin’s descriptions of aura in religious art before the era of mechanical reproducibility, a sensibility de Sainte Phalle seems to want to evoke in her constructions.)


    There are other spiritually suggestive places from which she seems to have gathered insight. For example, de Sainte Phalle was also influenced by at least one Italian American site-specific construction as—in 1962 she made a special trip to visit Simon (Sabato) Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles. Her work’s reliance on mosaics, especially her use of broken pieces of tile as well as the grand scale of most of the sculptures, speaks to Rodia’s creation. (I am not doing justice to the other influences on her work but my focus here is to comment on how the hybrid nature of her work comes from both a migrant’s sensibility and an Italian one.)

    As Teresa Fiore wrote in a review of Niki de Sainte Phalle’s work, the artist had a particular connection to Italy and Italian culture. Even though she had lived long portions of her life in France and the U.S., she came to see Italy as her second home. As Fiore argues: “ Il suo rapporto con l’Italia e` viscerale” (“her relationship to Italy is visceral”).

    I visited the park with three children, all under 10. They were immediately comfortable in the space and yet it was nothing like a playground or other child-centered public construction I’ve seen. As Fiore concludes, this dual ability to be both playful and suggestive of something more is central to her style: "Perche` quest’artista ha sempre concepito l’arte come un gioco, ma un gioco serio” (“Because this artist has always conceptualized art as a game, but a serious game”). And it is within this see-saw between the joy of bright color and the layers of artistic history that the garden comes to represent the hybrid identity of an Italian migrant as well.

    (Teresa Fiore's article was published in America Oggi, December 27, 1988. Thanks to the author for sending it to me.)

  • Among Roman Ruins, the Italian Communist Party’s School

    La Scuola di Frattocchie, The Frattocchie School, was a political school connected to the Italian Communist Party. Everyone who was ever anyone in the Italian Communist Party from the end World War II until the early 1990s spent time there—from Togliatti to D’Alema.
    Situated along the Via Appia, about 25 kilometers from Piazza Venezia, made famous by Mussolini’s March on Rome (as a point of orientation), and a few minutes from the Pope’s “summer home,” Castel Gandolfo, the Frattocchie School today is a large, though rather unprespossessing house, with a few smaller buldings and a garage nearby, all painted red.

    Indeed, it is only the color of the house that seems to evoke its past. In fact, the house was never marked with a sign. As one of my uncles told me today when I asked him how to find it—look for the sign that says KM 21 along the Appia, go a little futher ahead, and it will be on your left. Sure enough, there it was, and sure enough, online memoir-blogs about the school explain how folks used to find it with a similar reference to the kilometer marker.
    As with much of the Italian Communist Party, it remains in Italy today but merely a shell of its former self.

  • Life & People

    Remembering Maria Margotti (1915-1949)


    The image that leads this post contains the following text:
    May 17, 1949:  all of Italy’s farm laborers have already been striking for a few days, striking against poverty and exploitation by the landowners. The mondine of the Po Valley are in the front ranks, the landowners attempt to stem the forces by organizing scabs. The mondine confront the scabs, speak with them, and convince them to return to their homes in the mountains.
    In Molinella there are five women on an embankment near the road: a motorcycle passes by, a voice orders the women to leave. Then a shot is heard, one of the women falls. Maria Margotti dies, a 34 year old woman, six years a widow, who, with her exhausting work as a mondina has raised her daughters. A woman heroically dies, a woman who, along with her female comrades, was only trying to defend her right to work, her right to give bread to her two daughters.
    Today, in her name, all of the mondine of Italy continue their battles to defend those rights for which Maria Margotti sacrificed her young life.
    (Found in “Per te mondina” a Cgil-funded insert for rice workers, published shortly after Margotti’s death. The translation is mine.)
     per te mondina
    Margotti, a mondina (female rice-weeder), participated in a 37-day strike that included workers from all parts of Italy; the action ended when the first national contract for agricultural workers was signed. Because of her heroic stand for workers’ rights, Margotti was publically eulogized by various leftist organizations in Italy.
    In 1982, the road on which she was killed, between Molinella and Argenta (near Ravenna), was named after her. There have been a handful of events and websites that honor her, but for the most part today she has been all but forgotten.
    The same year she died, 1949, Giuseppe De Santis’s blockbuster film Riso amaro (Bitter Rice) was released. A little neorealism, a little Hollywood, the film narrates the moral decline of one mondina, Silvana Melega (played by the starlet Silvana Mangano), as it details some of the starker realities of the lives of rice workers (see my previous post on the film). The history of these two women—one real, Maria Margotti, one fictional, Silvana Melega—encourage us to see the way gender, sexuality, and the representation of women’s labor is understood within postwar Italy.
    A great part of what we know about Margotti today is due to the work of the writer Renata Viganò, best known for her World War II resistance novel, L’Agnese va a morire. In fact, Viganò and her husband, Antonio Meluschi, both penned newspaper pieces about Margotti at the time of her death, and for the dozen or so years that Viganò wrote for the feminist journal Noi donne, the paper yearly commemorated Margotti’s death. Further, Viganò dedicated her collection of journalistic essays on the women rice workers, Le mondine (1952), to Margotti and thereby forged a series of important links between Margotti’s labor activism and other kinds of activism.
    Le Mondine, dedication     
    Viganò's dedication of Le Mondine to Maria Margotti 
    For Viganò, Margotti became an instant martyr for agricultural workers and labor activists, not only because she was a young, hardworking widowed mother, but also because she had been a partisan during the second world war. Although Margotti died as a rice worker, wearing her “fazzoletto bianco da mondina” (“white mondina  scarf”), Viganò makes clear that she lived her life as a partisan (Viganò 20). In fact, Viganò explains that she had met Margotti during the war, while they were both involved in the partisan movement, where Margotti went under her battle name, Maria de fiol ed Battesta.
    In writing about Margotti’s life and death, Viganò strengthened Margotti’s link to other workers and at the same time discursively created a historical figure, albeit one that got buried by sexier versions of mondina history, like Bitter Rice.
    At the same time, the mondine themselves found ways to keep Margotti’s story a part of the narrative of their lives. Rice-worker work songs, themselves a significant form of self- and community-expression, have immortalized Margotti in the song “La morte di una mondina” (“The Death of a Mondina”):
    Se non ci conoscete                                                                 If you don't know us
    guardateci negli occhi                                                            look us in the eyes
    noi siamo le compagne della Maria Margotti        we're the comrades of Maria Margotti
    Maria Margotti era una grande mammina           Maria Margotti was a great mother
    Ella è caduta per la pace e il lavor                               She died in the name of peace and work
    Lei sarà sempre la più grande eroina                       She'll always be the biggest heroine
    dei nostri cuor, Maria Margotti                                    of our hearts, Maria Margotti
    (Nota bene: In writing this post, I’ve lifted quite liberally from my own work. See my chapter on the rice workers in Gramsci, Migration, and the Representation of Women's Work in Italy and the U.S., 2007)


  • Op-Eds

    The Invisible Victims of the Abruzzo Earthquake

    The news this past week from Abruzzo has been devastating, but like so many tragedies it has inspired solidarity across cultural, geographical, and national boundaries. Of relevance here, as i-italy has noted so well, is the work of the Italian American community, which has come out in force to support the victims of the April 6 earthquake. This immigrant-inspired act of unity leads me to think about the plight of Italy’s contemporary immigrant population in relation to the disaster.
    The Italian American response to the earthquake is very much in line with similar historical cases —most notably the 1908 Messina earthquake and the 1980 Irpinia earthquake. I was a kid at the time of the Irpinia quake, whose epicenter in Conza was only one town over from my father’s village of Cairano. From the United States my parents became involved with other Italian Americans in Pittsburgh (PA) who wanted to help. In particular, a family friend, Sal Patitucci, who hosted (and still does) an Italian radio program, successfully raised thousands of dollars for the earthquake victims through a series of fundraising broadcasts. It was a wonderful example of how technology and the media can help create a global community out of the individualized experiences of immigrants.
    To point out the relative lack of reporting on the earthquake’s effect on immigrants is not to knock in any way these transnational acts of solidarity, either past or present. Indeed, for me they bring to the surface the cultural complexity of Italy and remind us to consider the entire population living and working in Abruzzo today.
    Most sources describe Abruzzo’s immigrant community as mainly hailing from Macedonia, Romania, and Albania. There has not been much attention paid to this group of victims, and some have begun to question what efforts are being made both to document their deaths and to care for the ones still alive. Many suspect that a high number of the still-unidentified bodies are non-registered, undocumented immigrants.
    Although mainstream media outlets have noted in passing that determining the number of quake casualties is complicated by the high number of undocumented workers, it is not clear what is being done about this at an institutional or even grass-roots level. At the same time, a handful of “feel-good” pieces remarking on heroic and selfless acts made by immigrants are circulating.
    Watch this short video made by actor-director, Michele Placido, interviewing Macedonian immigrants, where he comments on his own families’ history of emigration.
    I’ve also come across a growing number of smaller media sources—e.g., blogs, immigration rights sites (see list of links below)—that have editorialized about the problem of undocumented victims of the disaster. Collectively, such sites give voice to these silent victims.
    At least one online source suggests that the number of dead may reach upwards of 1000 if documented and undocumented immigrants are considered along with others, such as those who are currently in critical condition. While that number may seem like a radical fabrication, the general idea behind it is not. It seems that upwards of 90% of the city’s apartments in the historic center were rented, often off the books—as is common throughout Italy—in great part by immigrants.
    As the story of Italy’s most recent natural disaster unravels, the country’s past and present narratives of migration remain woven within it.

  • Art & Culture

    Italian American Romance in the Era Before Roe v. Wade


    Last month the Sacramento Italian Cultural Society screened the 1963 film Love with the Proper Stranger. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Natalie Wood’s portrayal of Angie Rossini, the young Italian American woman who finds herself pregnant after a one-night encounter with Rocky Papasano (played by Steve McQueen).
    The film’s exposition quickly gets to the drama at hand: Angie, a sales clerk at Macy’s, goes looking for Rocky on her lunch break at a New York City musicians’ hiring hall, and tells him frankly:
    I’m gonna have a baby…..Don’t worry, I’m not gonna cause you any trouble, all I want from you is a doctor, an address, you know.
    The film comes the closest I’ve seen in a pre-Roe v. Wade era to showing an illegal abortion. Even more interesting is the sensitive way it handles the challenging decision faced by Angie as she courageously leaves her overbearing family and wrestles with the possibility of single motherhood.
    It has long fascinated me that director Robert Mulligan and writer Arnold Schulman placed Italian American characters at the center of this narrative, a story with a very controversial topic, not to mention a ghastly visual image of the set up for a back-alley abortion. (I first watched the film in 1999 after I heard about it at the American Italian Historical Association’s Annual Conference, where Marina de Bellagente La Palma presented a paper juxtaposing Love with the Proper Stranger with Saturday Night Fever.)
    French Movie Poster

    The film makes use of Italian American characters to give shape to a narrative that in great part is simply about generational rifts within immigrant families—marked most prominently by a bohemian tendency in a young man who doesn’t want to settle down and a young woman’s growing sense of independence. But what makes the film particularly noteworthy is that it does so without a single gangster in sight. Although some of the supporting characters are drawn in stereotypical fashion (e.g., nagging mothers, protective brothers), the two protagonists—Rocky and Angie—come across as complex, layered characters.
    In no way does the film shy away from marking the protagonists and their immediate families as Italian American—from bocce and vino to vegetable peddlers and exchanges in Italian. As Marina deBellagente La Palma puts it, the protagonists “are meticulously authenticized as Italian-American through names, accents, neighborhoods, mannerisms...” (unpublished paper).
    La Palma offers an astute reading of the film, calling it, for one, an “inverted Romeo and Juliet story,” where the families would love for them to get together. For La Palma, the character’s “italianicity” is a great illustration of ethnic stereotyping for the sake of easy story-telling. In other words:
                in the strict economy of commercial cinema, it has served as a kind of compression: to
                quickly make a working class character recognizable to large urban audiences….
    Moreover, the film, for La Palma, is emblematic of the larger generational “gulf between immigrants and their Americanized children”: by making the characters Italian the film addresses “quintessentially American themes of upward mobility and the importance of individuation, the Italian family provides an apt and ready-made foil.”
    Belgian Movie Poster
    There have been a few other academic readings of the book, mostly having to do with the film’s sympathetic portrayal of Angie—the decisions she faces and the actions she takes in this period where sexual mores were looser but before abortion became legal in the United States. In these analyses, Angie and Rocky’s ethnicity is usually just noted in passing.
    Theresa Carilli, however, in her “Still Crazy After All These Years,” suggests a reading that counters La Palma’s and argues that the film “failed to present . . . multidimensionality of character” and goes on to say that
    some of the family interaction, which had a seemingly comic intention, was overplayed and made the characters appear like unsympathetic whiners. (119)
    This overplaying is certainly part of the broad strokes with which some of the characters are drawn, especially, I’d argue, Angie’s brothers (wonderfully played by Herschel Bernardi and Harvey Lembeck). However, they fail to win our sympathies not so much because they are caricatures—which they are—but because they refuse to accept Angie as a fully-individualized woman.
    My reading of the film favors La Palma’s take. Angie and Rocky are thoughtful and sensible even at their most ambivalent; further, Wood’s and McQueen’s performances are human and real.
    The film ends predictably, with the two opting for marriage. Angie rejects her other options—a dangerous abortion, single motherhood, or a loveless marriage (her well-intentioned suitor, played by Tom Bosley, would have never been able to fulfill her full desires). It’s an ending that could fairly be read as reactionary and, at the least, like any old Hollywood light drama.
    The film does not have the artistic flare of, say, Morris Engel’s 1958 Weddings and Babies—another film that situates Italian American assimilation in the hands of the smart and young. But Love with the Proper Stranger gives us a glimpse into some of the conflicts between Old World Ways and New World possibilities--conflicts that suggest the likelihood that tomorrow some lovers might find a hybrid, or just plain kooky, way of making it all work out.
    (Mille grazie to Marina De Bellagente La Palma for sharing her unpublished essay with me.)

  • Facts & Stories

    Fabricating Women’s Histories

    International Women’s Day (IWD) is March 8. As I noted on this site last year, it’s a day that is not celebrated much in the U.S.; however, a great part of how March 8 is remembered today is mostly due to the experiences of immigrant women in the early part of thetwentieth century in New York—most notably, in the tragedy that has come to be known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

    Many narratives exist about the development of IWD; together they create a series of crazy twists and turns caused by ideological choices, cultural memory, and personal narrative. In the case of Italy, a country that has long embraced la festa della donna—to sometimes nauseatingly consumerist levels—some of these twists seem particularly curious.
    Here’s one of the online versions of IWD history I came across while preparing this post:
    The Italian Communists invented the most colorful rationale of all in the 1950's, claiming that a hundred striking women factory workers in New York City had been murdered in 1910, and that the holiday was proclaimed at a women's conference in Copenhagen later that year as a result of a proposal by the German Communist Clara Zetkin. No such massacre took place, although there was a March horror in New York City the following year, on March 24th, when 134 workers of both sexes were burned to death when emergency doors failed to open and an emergency staircase collapsed during an accidental fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Nor did the Copenhagen conference proclaim Women's Day. In fact, it was the American delegation to the Copenhagen women's conference— not the German Communist icon—that proposed the establishment of an International Women's Day, but the conference declined to act on the proposal. (“Women’s Day Fantasies," Alessandra Nucci)
    This version of events intrigued me—why would the Italian Communist Party fabricate and disseminate a story about immigrant women’s exploitation and death when they had a perfectly dreadful and indisputably true story in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of March 25, 1911?
    Triangle Fire
    Bodies of women who jumped from the Triangle Fire, 1911
    I started surfing for more information. I found it, for the most part, only in Italian-language sources—like the notoriously unreliable Wikipedia:
    L'origine di questa giornata è stata oggetto di strumentalizzazioni; una di queste riguarda in Italia il settimanale "La lotta", edito dalla sezione bolognese del Partito Comunista Italiano, che nel 1952 pubblicò una storia rivelatasi poi un falso storico.[3] Il settimanale comunista sostenne in un suo articolo che l'origine della festa sarebbe risalita ad un grave fatto di cronaca avvenuto nel 1908 a New York: alcuni giorni prima dell'8 marzo, le operaie dell'industria tessile Cotton iniziarono a scioperare per protestare contro le condizioni in cui erano costrette a lavorare. Lo sciopero proseguì per diversi giorni finché l'8 marzo Mr. Johnson, il proprietario della fabbrica, bloccò tutte le vie di uscita; lo stabilimento venne devastato da un incendio e le 129 operaie prigioniere all'interno non ebbero scampo. Questo falso ebbe ulteriore seguito nella stampa comunista: l'Unione Donne Italiane nello stesso 1952 distribuì alle iscritte libretti con un resoconto dell'incendio. Nel 1954 "Il Lavoro", settimanale della Cgil, aggiunse un fotomontaggio di Mr. Johnson con la bombetta che si fa largo tra la massa di donne tenute dalla polizia.[4] In realtà non esiste alcun documento storico su questa fantomatica industria Cotton e sul suo incendio.
    The online references to a fire in either 1908 or 1910 at a place called the Cotton Factory owned by a Mr. Johnson exist almost exclusively in Italian (even the above-quoted English-language description by Alessandra Nucci appears originally in Italian).
    Moreover, all of the references linking the fabrication of this story to the Italian Communist Party (Pci) and/or Udi (Unione Donne Italiane) and/or Cgil (the Italian General Confederation of Labor) seem to stem from Vittorio Messori’s book Pensare la storia.
    Messori is by some accounts “the most translated Catholic writer in the world" (Sandro Magister). Although many of his books are available in the U.S., his Pensare la storia is not part of the collection of my local university library, the Bancroft Library at the University of California Berkeley. I tried unsuccessfully over the last ten days or so to find someone—even via email and Facebook—who has a copy of the book so that I might confirm the story. Online, I found this passage from his book:
    In Italia è molto diffusa una storia che fa risalire l’origine della festa ad un grave incidente avvenuto negli Stati uniti, l’incendio dell’industria tessile Cotton. Questa storia è un falso storico accertato che fu elaborato dalla stampa comunista ai tempi della guerra fredda.
    (Vittorio Messori, “Una ‘festa’ inventata,” Pensare la storia. Una lettura cattolica dell’avventura umana, Paoline, Milano 1992, p. 107-108)
    This is the story that interests me. Women’s everyday lives and work experiences have long gotten a raw deal in dominant cultural narratives. At the same time, much of feminist theory reminds us of the power of the personal; that is the importance of what we might consider subjective memory in the reconstruction of history.
    Assuming Messori’s version is accurate, we’re compelled to ask why the Pci would bother to make up a workplace horror story when it already had a real-life historical incident ideal for propaganda purposes? Why choose a narrative that echoes the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire? Was it sloppily written, knowingly falsified, or innocently passed along from another (most likely Soviet) source?
    And what does it suggest about Italy’s history of leftist activism to place the creation of the fake story, as Messori does, in Bologna—la rossa, la grassa, la dotta—of all places? On the one hand, the city’s communist intellectual history makes Messori’s assertion perfectly logical. On the other hand, the tidiness of the account—the too-convenient association between communism, labor, and Europe’s reddest university town—makes me suspicious.
    I emailed or spoke to over twenty academics working in Italian and Italian American Studies, both in the U.S. and Italy, about Messori’s account. Many people sent my question on to others. (Mille grazie a tutti!) A few knew of the competing stories surrounding IWD in Italy, but no one could corroborate or debunk the Bologna-Pci/Udi/Cgil aspect of it. In short, the communist-fabrication connection was news to everyone.
    Poster for the 1970s era Movement for the Liberation of Women (Mld)
    Edvige Giunta of New Jersey City University offered me part of a story she had started writing about the two historical accounts of IWD:
    In the 1970s I was one of the many Italian women who, every year on March 8, filled the streets and the squares of Italian cities. We marched, chanted, raised our left fist, held our hands high, fingers connected in the symbol of womanhood. We marched hoping for a different future of gender justice and equity and we remembered the women who had come before us. One of the catalysts for International Woman’s Day was the memory of a fire in a factory in the United States where, at the beginning of the twentieth century, over one hundred women died. Those American women were our sisters, and the grief and hunger over their unnecessary death vibrated in our collective memory and pushed us forward.

    What I did not know as an eighteen-year old Sicilian girl, and what I would not learn until my late thirties, was that the fire did not occur on March 8, but on March 25, 1911, and that those women were our sisters in more ways than one. About one third of those factory workers were Italian immigrant women and girls.
    Similarly, Margherita Heyer-Caput of the University of California, Davis, who also knew of the two versions of the story, evoked La Societa Italiana delle Storiche in reminding me of what she described in an email as the “volatility of capitalized History.”
    History’s power and its fragility has been of concern to feminists for quite some time. In thinking of this particular case, it made sense to me to turn to the radicalized voices of Italian feminists. From the 1970 Rivolta Femminile’s evocative manifesto we read:
    We consider incomplete any history which is based on non-perishable traces. Nothing, or else misconception, has been handed down about the presence of woman. It is up to us to rediscover her in order to know the truth.
    (in Bono and Kemp, Italian Feminist Thought, 39)
    Earlier today, Clarissa Clò of San Diego State University responded to my query with a link about a recently-published book and documentary—8 Marzo: Una storia lunga un secolo (the trailer to the dvd leads my post), by Tilde Capomazza and Marisa Ombra. The story, it seems, is still unfolding.

  • Life & People


    This year, 2009, marks the sixtieth anniversary of the first patent for a “self-propelled ice resurfacing machine”—what most readers probably know as a Zamboni.



    The inventor, Frank Joseph Zamboni, Jr., and his famous machine have found their way into countless cultural references. Charles Schulz, who owned the Redwood Empire Ice Arena in
    Santa Rosa, California
    , had resurfacing machines in his Peanuts comic strip in the 1960s and started naming them Zambonis in 1980. The alt-rock band the Gear Daddies (with Italian American bassist Nick Ciola) had a hit with their “Zamboni.” And Frank Zamboni is the only Italian American to appear in the Capstone Press’s Graphic Library series of Inventions and Discoveries, though no mention is made of his Italian background.



    The man whose last name is practically synonymous with ice-skating was born in Eureka, Utah, on Jan. 16, 1901, but grew up mainly on a farm in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho (near
    ). His parents were both immigrants (his father, Francesco Giuseppe, from what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; his mother, Carmelina Masoero, from Avigliana, in
    Piedmont). At age 19 he moved with his family to
    Southern California. He joined his brothers in various business ventures, eventually turning to the business of ice—first refrigeration, then production.


    In 1940 they opened the Iceland Skating Rink in Paramount, just south of
    Los Angeles
    . The rink first was uncovered, but that caused the Zamboni brothers all kinds of troubles because of the hot, dry weather, and so a dome was built on the rink. The rest is history. Frank—who had been working as a mechanic since he was 15—came up with the idea of a machine that would resurface the ice quickly, evenly, and efficiently. What better place than So Cal’s Mediterranean climate to conceptualize the need for such a contraption?


    There are plenty of details missing in my account, but in telling the story of the Zamboni machine and its inventor I don’t intend to proselytize about yet another “famous-but-forgotten” Italian American. Rather, I’m curious to think about what, if anything, his Italian American background—the child of immigrants from Northern Italy who grew up in one of the
    U.S.’s coldest regions—might suggest about the work he took on in his life.


    The connections are clear to me. Snow and ice were woven into his life history. Immigrant resourcefulness goes hand and hand with the farm life with which he was surrounded as a kid. Southern California in the first half of the twentieth century was packed to the brim with an entrepreneurial (not to mention heavily mechanized) sensibility (the first McDonald’s opened in 1940 in nearby San Bernadino), a world of glitter and glamour (think Hollywood!), and amazingly distinctive fabrications (Sabato Rodia’s
    Watts Towers
    in nearby
    Watts). Zamboni fit right in.


    In 1956 Frank Zamboni took over Berkeley
    Iceland, situated just west of the UC campus. I only recently discovered this fact even though I drive by the now-closed rink each day on my way to work (it closed in 2003).



     iceland, berkeley



    Outside the Berkeley Iceland as it looks today.





    Barbed wire surrounds the rink today.


    Frank Zamboni died in 1988. Italy and
    California informed his life, his work experiences, and, no doubt, his creative outpourings.


    (Stay tuned for a post on another famous Zamboni, Anteo, teenage anti-fascist martyr in Bologna!)


  • Life & People

    The Eternal City of Champions

    Sunday the Pittsburgh Steelers play the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship. As most people who know me know, sports isn't really my thing. But it’s impossible for me to pass up this particular blogging opportunity.


    I grew-up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s. The steel mills were closing. The local economy was hurting. But Pittsburgh was the City of Champions. The Steelers. The Penguins. The Pirates. I knew about these teams—I might even go so far as to say I was proud of them. (I’m not forgetting the Spirits, but they were around mostly in the 80s, and champions they were not.)
    The 1970s was also an era of high-profile ethnic pride in the U.S. (e.g., “Kiss me, I’m Italian” buttons). My post-WW II-immigrant parents were members of the local chapter of the Dante Alighieri Society and had a large circle of Italian friends, many of whom were also postwar immigrants. So I was even prouder when public figures or current events coincided with my growing consciousness of my Italian American identity.
    For example, even as a shy, pigtailed kid, I sensed a curious importance given to one particular football player, Franco Harris.
    Outwardly, Harris seemed black to me, but of course I noticed that he was also publicly embraced by Italian Americans for his Italian background. I certainly wasn’t aware of the racial and ethnically-loaded issues surrounding the creation of “Franco’s Italian Army” and his “Immaculate Reception,” but the images stuck with me. (Read Nicholas P. Ciotola’s great history of Franco Harris and Italian Americans in Pittsburgh here.)
    Italians-Pittsburgh-American football: I understood this triad.
    So recently when my brother, Fabio, sent me a link with a short video about a Steelers bar (La Botticella) in Rome, I had to pause. He was well aware that I would recognize that this spot would mean more to us than your run-of-the-mill Roman tourist trap. Rome, after all, may signify caesars and La dolce vita to most, but for us it’s Mamma’s hometown, the city she left when she emigrated to Pittsburgh, and the city my siblings and I, in many ways, came to see as our second home. To discover a way that these two seemingly unrelated municipalities—the Iron and Eternal Cities—were connected beyond our family tree was exciting.
    Giovanni Poggi’s Terrible Towel-strewn bar, just a short walk from Piazza Navona, is one of those cultural locations that points to the unexpected results of transnational migration and global tourism. (I haven’t been able to uncover Poggi’s full story, but it seems that he spent some part of his teen years in Canada—why he’s not a fan of a Canadian Football League team is another mystery.)
    In early 2006, when the Steelers last headed to the Super Bowl, my brother, with his creative and skilled hands, built an enormous lighted sign and hung it on his garage in Western Pennsylvania. (See the pdf attached below for a short piece about the sign in a local paper, The Butler Eagle.) Made from half-inch steel tubing—electrical conduit—the lit sign filled the night sky.
    Steelers Logo Sign, Ruberto, 2006
    Invoking the Steelers “working class roots,” as the team’s website describes, both its name and logo come from the Steelmark logo of the American Iron and Steel Institute, the sign is one of thousands of displays of fans showing support. But for me, it’s another way that Italians, Pittsburgh, and American football come together.
    Go Steelers!

  • Op-Eds

    I’ll Have Some Pancetta with My Mob Reference, Please

    Barely 24 hours have gone by since president-elect Obama named Leon Panetta to head the CIA, and already I’ve come across a handful of curious (and at times rather questionable) references to his Italian background.


    Panetta was born in Monterrey, California, the son of Italian immigrants. He served as Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff and was a nine-term California Congressman. There has been a lot of criticism about this particular choice—concerns about how his experience would be useful to the CIA—but my interest here lies purely in how his Italian roots have been alluded to.

    A few blogs and other online sources have commented on the similarity between his last name and delicious Italian bacon, pancetta—a little comical, a little stupid, but rather harmless. 
    And then there is the Times story regarding Panetta’s Italian connection. It’s a personal piece, with quotes from one of his cousins, Domenico Panetta, of Siderno (Calabria), commenting on, among other details, the fact that Leon Panetta speaks Calabrese. What disturbs me though, is that the article ends with this:
    Calabria is home to the 'Ndrangheta, a Mafia network said by Italian police to be even more powerful and wealthy than Cosa Nostra in Sicily thanks to its control of drugs trafficking.
    Calabria is home to many, many things, the ‘Ndrangheta being only one. This information had no direct relationship to the rest of the story about Panetta.
    For the most part, I tend to disagree with the Italian American anti-defamation position that posits mafia images as a hurtful way of representing Italians. In this case, it seems clear that it is (Southern) Italy's and Italian Americans’ continued (assumed) association with organized crime that first comes to mind, even within respected international journalism circles.
    Oh, and I know an Italian American academic who went to college with Panetta’s son—should that Italo-connection make the papers as well?!


  • Facts & Stories

    The Rocks of San Francisco: Authenticity, Ethnic Neighborhoods, and Going Blog Crazy


    In broad terms, this is the story of the granddaughter of a Sicilian immigrant who visits Italy, becomes inspired by the religious aura and art of a sacred place, and puts all of her energies into building a replica of that place in her hometown. That this woman is Angela Alioto—of the Italian American political family—that the sacred space is the Porziuncola Chapel, that the replica cost $2.9 million, and that the city is San Francisco (named, of course, after the humble friar), suggest that this is far from a simple bedtime tale.
    The replica of the Porziuncola sits in San Francisco’s old Italian neighborhood, North Beach, housed inside a space adjacent to the St. Francis National Shrine. The St. Francis Church was originally built in 1849, rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake, and closed in 1992. In 1998 it reopened as a National Shrine to St. Francis. The shrine is less widely recognized than the other neighborhood Catholic Church, the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, which stands just a few blocks away on Washington Square (and made famous by Joe DiMaggio).
    I first read about the Angela Alioto-led construction of the Porziuncola Chapel in the San Francisco Chronicle back in September, a few weeks before it opened to the public. I finally went to visit it on Saturday and realized it was constructed in the building that used to be the church’s thrift store. It is an exact—albeit three-quarter scale—replica of the original chapel, with materials and workers imported from Italy.
    Angela Alioto, attorney, former San Francisco supervisor, and daughter of San Francisco mayor Joseph Alioto, devised the plan and led the fundraising and construction. The Alioto family continues to be a prominent San Francisco family.
    Molinari and Alioto
    (Posters of Joseph Alioto Jr's support of neighborhood commerce
    speckle today's North Beach)
    And for the Alioto family that public status has come with all kinds of gossip (like when Look Magazine alleged mob ties to the family in 1969). Just today, as I was in Genova Deli in Oakland, I started talking to an Italian American man who happened to play a prominent role in the reconstruction of the chapel (I’d tell you his name, but there’s no lamp post around) and even he started alluding to all kinds of dirt.
    And speaking of dirt, Alioto brought 35,000 pounds of marble and 300 rocks from Assisi in order to render a more faithful recreation. The chapel was built to look as it does today—meaning, for instance, that the frescoes were copied in their now-imperfect, worn state. (Although I snapped a few photographs out front, I was kindly asked not to take any photographs inside and told that the shots of the exterior “were not allowed”.)  

    Alioto and Newsom

    (I found this snapshot of the interior on the web--Angela Alioto and Mayor Gavin Newsom at the official opening celebration.)



    Francesco Rocks--North Beach

    (Francesco Rocks, the gift shop associated with the Shrine, sits in a former hardware store 1/2 a block away, catty corner from another San Francisco Italian American institution, Caffe Trieste.)
    inside Francesco Rocks
    (In some kind of cross-over merchandising that I don't quite understand, Caffe Trieste coffee can also be bought inside the St. Francis gift shop.)
    Authenticity is a curious term to throw out when talking about place-making. Toss in architecture, public art, religion, politics, and immigration, and things get downright messy. Immigrants and their children (Italian immigrants being no exception) again and again take everyday experiences and customs from home and turn them into a sometimes fascinating amalgam of their lived multicultural existence. As such, authenticity is in the eye of the beholder—and as portable as an embroidered handkerchief or a treasured family jewel. (I’m riffing quite liberally from various cultural critics here, Arjun Appadurai and Steven Hoelscher to name two.)
    In the case of the chapel, it’s tough to imagine this particular replica of a sacred space as a kind of authentic ethnic construction of Italian American identity (as I and others have done on this very website in talking about the construction of folk art, for instance). In all seriousness, if I’d been walking about North Beach and come across some old Italian guy who’d carefully recreated in his backyard the Porziuncola Chapel out of discarded crab shells and broken tile, I’d be going blog crazy. Magari…