If you’re a regular reader of this column, you’re probably well aware that I went back to school to pursue a degree in history. Studying at Cal State Long Beach has really been a fabulous experience, and I have been extremely fortunate to work with professors and take courses that are helping me become a better historian for San Pedro. When possible, I’ve taken classes that specifically help me understand our community. I took a history of American cities class that explained some of the developmental growing pains San Pedro went through in the early years, and last semester I focused on Eastern European history to understand what went on around Croatia. This semester I found a class with the best name I’ve ever encountered, “Mobsters, Mammas, Mafias and Migrations.” I found it hiding in the Italian language major.
When I’d tell people what classes I was taking, their interest was definitely piqued by the mobsters and mafias in the title. Judging by some of the projects my classmates presented, a lot of them were attracted to the class for the same reason.
I wasn’t there for any fascination with organized crime; I simply wanted a better understanding of the Italian American experience. The irony is that the first thing the course teaches you is that Italian Americans are considered one of the most mythologized ethnic communities in the United States because of this stereotyped connection with the mafia. It is poetic justice to use people’s preconceived notions to attract them and then dispel the myth once you’ve got their attention. The sad part is that this perceived association with criminality really runs deep, so much so it literally limited careers. Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, for example, was told, fresh out of law school, to take the vowels off the end of his name if we wanted to work on Wall Street. His feeling constrained by the prejudice against Italian Americans was so strong, it was the sole factor that kept him from running for president.
Most of our classwork involved watching documentaries and reading a lot of immigrant stories. My favorite was Mario Puzo’s The Fortunate Pilgrim. The one thing I noticed about these sources that we consumed was that they were very much centered on an East Coast immigrant experience. It was as if all Italian Americans came through Ellis Island and never went west of Chicago.
The Italian American community in San Francisco got a few minutes in a documentary, but John Fante’s short stories were the closest we got to hearing about any Italian American experience in Los Angeles. It was extremely disappointing, but sometimes the lack of material is the most illuminating. That’s why I made sure to focus my papers and projects on showcasing Italian Americans in San Pedro, so my professor and classmates can know that there was something missing in the course.
I don’t want to discount the value of learning about the East Coast Italian American experience; I really did learn a lot. However, the biggest lesson I took away from the class was just how important it is to document the San Pedro Italian American experience because of how unique it is. People are always accusing me of thinking San Pedro is special; now I know for a fact that it is.
The families that helped found the fishing industry are still here. The vowels at the end of last names were never stigmatized; they were celebrated – having a vowel at the end of your last name is literally the second thing on Steve Marconi’s list of qualifiers that make you a “Real San Pedran.” This community’s deep connection with Italy exists because our pioneers felt like they had found a second Gaeta and Ischia in America, so they spread the word and the wealth. This doesn’t happen everywhere, not even in Los Angeles proper.
You know a class was worth it when you feel grateful for the wisdom imparted on you and excited about applying that knowledge. I finished the semester with a greater appreciation for San Pedro’s Italian American community, and I am absolutely energized about the work we’re going to do documenting their stories through the San Pedro Heritage Museum. Andiamo! spt
San Pedro Heritage Museum’s Heritage at Home events for June:
June 3 – Who’s Who in San Pedro Streets
June 10 – Ask Romee
June 17 – San Pedro’s Founding Fathers
June 24 – San Pedro Show & Tell
For more information about these events, please visit sanpedroheritage.org.