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Eugene Weekly : Books : 11.12.2009

 

Italians in America Brings Images to Life

Pictorial history uncovers details and emotions

by Suzi Steffen

In this part of the world, unless they come from an Italian-American family, the only time people think about Italian immigrants is likely during protests around Columbus Day (known in certain ciricles now as Indigenous People’s Day). 

The Amato family of Portland. Courtesy Pelican Publishing Company.

But whether Eugeneans pack basil and garlic into pungent pesto or protest conditions for workers at the Gallo farms in California, we’re all affected by the impact of Italian immigration to the U.S. Local author and historian Vincenza Scarpaci, an immigration historian and Eugene resident originally from Brooklyn, shows this and much more in her more-than-a-coffee-table book The Journey of Italians in America

The book is filled with photographs, images that Scarpaci tracked down or was given by Italian American families across the country and Canada. Open the book to any page, and Scarpaci’s captions bring the photos to life. Not only did peddlers bring Italian produce (things that I’d rather not be without, like zucchini, artichokes, garlic, broccoli, broad beans and peppers) through non-Italian neighborhoods, but Italian figurine peddlers sold statuettes of famous Americans and historical figures. Italians settled in Alabama, Oregon, Illinois (and not just Chicago), Texas and basically everywhere. Journey of Italians illustrates everything from Italian farm towns in Missouri to soccer teams in British Columbia, grocery stores in California, the funeral of a midwife in New Castle, Delaware, and those who helped invent the Walla Walla onion in that Washington town.

“In Walla Walla, Italian Americans are about 25 percent of the population,” Scarpaci said in a phone interview. Who knew? Of course, Italian immigrants and Italian Americans settled in and influenced San Francisco (where Little Italy, though its inhabitants have changed, still has some of the best espresso in the country), but Scarpaci noted that they also settled in places like Seattle and Portland. Eugene, she said, doesn’t have a large Italian community, but there is a Sons of Italy lodge, and when she reads from or talks about her book, Italian Americans “come out of the woodwork.”

It’s easy to see why. A faded but powerful photo of immigrant Italian stonemasons shows Pacific Northwest drivers just how the Columbia River Highway (now I-84) got its beautiful start. Scarpaci writes, “These craftsmen also laid the foundation for Vista House at Crown Point, 725 feet above the river, without the use of cement or mortar.” Every page contains more information, visual and verbal threads that help weave the tapestry of U.S. and Canadian history and life today. Scarpaci doesn’t shy away from controversies ranging from unionization and Irish/Italian violence to WWII, Columbus Day and the depiction of Italian Americans as part of the Mafia — but she also shows the daily life of women and men who immigrated to North America with hope, desperation, love or need.

Vincenza Scarpaci gives a talk based on The Journey of the Italians in America at 2 pm Saturday, Nov. 14, at the Eugene Public LIbrary.