I often refer to myself as a nomad, never as an immigrant. My choice to relocate to Los Angeles didn’t stem out of an economic need or, at least, it wasn’t the by-product of poverty. I never think of the generations of Italians, especially Southerners, who made the gruelling trip because all other choices had been exhausted – yet, they walked where I walk, they paved the way for my integration, they overcame difficulties I will never know. Their grandchildren hardly speak Italian anymore because, if it’s cool to head from Italy now, the land of great food, clothes, style and dolce vita, less than a century ago to be Italian was no badge of honor. How do we keep on forgetting that racism, the same one now directed towards many Muslims, is always directed to the newest immigrants and that all our forebears – if we exclude those of English descent – were the target of it at some point in history?
There is no Little Italy as such anymore in Los Angeles. But there was. Italian immigrants came West after reaching New York or travelled North if Mexico was their first port of call. Los Angeles might have been attractive because the Hispanic culture was closer to ours or maybe the climate was the big draw. Either way, the first Italians to settle here did so around what is now Olveira Street, downtown Los Angeles. What is now the epicenter of Mexican culture used to thrive with Italian restaurants, grocery stores and modest lodgings all around it. In typical Italian fashion, grapes were planted and wineries soon followed. So, it wasn’t Napa after all that pioneered wine-making in California. Who knew?
If Italians were referred to as “Eye-Tyes” in no affectionate terms, the racism towards our compatriots spiked with the advent of Mussolini. I had no idea that many Italians were also arrested, for no good reason other than their country of origin, and sent to internment camps alongside the Japanese for the duration of World War II. Apparently Congress formally apologized in 2000, with California following suit 8 years later. It’s no surprise that people would seek full integration by ridding themselves of their accent, by anglicizing their names and neglecting to teach their offsprings their mother tongue.
Unlike New York, where, at least for tourist reasons, a walk along Mulberry Street gives us glimpses of San Gennaro parades of old and of a life that has moved on but has left some traces, we cannot do it here. Small glimpses have to be dug up downtown and in San Pedro – the establishment of an Italian American Museum will not bring back what has been lost but, at least, will preserve in images, photos and documents of what once was.
I never felt much of a connection with the wave of emigration that took place between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th but as I am getting ready to send off my application for American citizenship, it might be good to be reminded that I come from a brood of immigrants. Or, as they are now called, nomads.
Thanks to Mariann Gatto whose book “Los Angeles’ Little Italy” and her presentation were the inspiration for these lines.