Ask someone walking down the street in New York where Little Italy is and the person will point the way for you, but ask the same question in downtown Los Angeles and all you’re likely to get is a puzzled expression. Historian, author, educator and advocate Marianna Gatto is determined to change this situation with the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles. As Executive Director of the museum, which is set to open in 2014, it’s Marianna’s goal to not only present and promote the contributions of Italian Americans and Italians, but also to make sure the voices of individuals whose experiences might otherwise be lost are kept alive.
The work of preserving these stories and the idea for the museum can be traced to the 1990s with the creation of the Historic Italian Hall Foundation, which raised funds to save the dilapidated building that was once the center of Little Italy from commercial development. Today, Marianna is working to open the museum as an interactive institution which will welcome millions of visitors a year. As part of the fundraising for the project, she is preparing for Taste of Italy on October 12th, an gastronomic event she created that features Italian food and wine.
Despite this busy schedule, Marianna continues to write, publish, speak and advocate for historic preservation in Los Angeles. Where, we wondered, does so much energy and passion come from? Since Marianna’s work is dedicated to ensuring the voices of diverse communities remain audible, we thought the best way to answer this question would be to let her speak for herself.
How did you develop such a strong passion for history?
I grew up in a home where schooling and academics were emphasized and in which watching television was frowned upon. As a result, I spent most of my time reading; I was what you would call a nerd! History was always my favorite subject in school. It was what turned the light on within me…
The idea of preserving other people’s stories, especially the stories of people who are commonly forgotten or overlooked, is what inspires me. My family hails from Southern Italy, where, at least at one time, there was the common belief that it is only when one is forgotten that they truly die. By keeping these memories alive, we keep part of the person alive … Working on this project for the last ten years, many of our community elders have said, “I thought my story would die when I died, but now I know that if I leave it with you it won’t be forgotten.” That, to me, is a sacred relationship. My grandparents were laborers who worked their tails off to give their children, and by extension, grandchildren, better lives. This is my way of ensuring that their struggles and that of our “collective nonni” were not in vain.
I liken it to many other cultures that have experienced similar immigrations. When an immigrant departs, s/he remembers the land left behind as if it was frozen in time. Of course, the place continues to turn with the rest of the world. The immigrant, meanwhile, also changes. Sometimes, s/he finds herself belonging nowhere, s/he is not a citizen of the former homeland nor is s/he a citizen of the new…
As for the Italian-Italian American distinction, I am very cognizant of it and recognize why the groups often feel they have little in common. This phenomenon is experienced by many “hyphenated Americans.” When Italian Americans state that they are Italian, they are referring to their ancestry, obviously, and not their nationality, which many Italians find odd. My American friends think of me as “so Italian,” (I was born in Los Angeles) while my Italian friends think of me as American. What is American? What is Italian? … What is Italian American? Italian American culture in and of itself is incredibly diverse. The West Coast Italian experience was different from the East Coast, or that of Italians in Texas or Colorado…
Over five years ago, at a board meeting, we were discussing organizing a wine and cheese reception for our members. One of our board members suggested inviting a few different wine producers and restaurants. I said something to the effect of, “This sounds like less of a wine and cheese event and more of a taste of Italy.” The name stuck.
The first year we had 500 attendees; the second year 1,500. The third year, 2,000, and so on. Each year, we strived to improve the quality of the event. At first, when we approached many of the more noteworthy Italian restaurants, they did not want to participate. During the third year, we collaborated with the Italy America Chamber of Commerce West, namely Letizia Miccoli and Lucia Peretti, two of the hardest working people you will ever meet. They secured the participation of restaurants awarded the Marchio Q, Italy’s highest culinary honor and seal of authenticity.
One of the central component’s of our Museum’s mission is education. Besides amazing food, wine and entertainment, we recognize Taste of Italy as an opportunity to educate the public about authentic Italian culture, expand people’s knowledge of contemporary Italy, as well as increase the visibility of the Museum, the history of Italians in the region, and the ongoing contributions of the community.
First, we look for quality and authenticity. Then we attempt to represent Italy’s diversity in terms of cuisine and wine production as well as style, from haute cuisine to street food. We also seek products that are interesting, rare, and just plain good! Currently we have a waiting list to participate. When we are approached by a restaurant, the first thing we do is look at their menu. Next year, we hope to work with a particular region of Italy to showcase unique, regional foods.