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A Tourist Visits Italian in California

A Tourist Visits Italian in California

Joseph Sciorra (November 16, 2010)
Joseph Sciorra
Caffe Trieste, San Francisco, July 2010.

In recognition of co-blogger, Laura Ruberto, who intelligently expounds on West Coast iterations of Italian America, I offer my touristic encounter with things Italian in the Golden State.


This summer I spent the family vacation in California visiting relatives and a host of sites. Along the drive from San Diego to San Francisco I casually checked out examples of Italian America on the Pacific Coast.

I encountered the full range of the cultural spectrum, from high to low, from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the historic to the fantastic. 


My first notice of the Italian presence was a poster in San Diego’s Hillcrest neighborhood advertising “Ferragosto” with a “When in Rome” theme. The poster listed local entities such as the Little Italy Association, the Our Lady of Rosary Catholic Church, and Amici Park, signs that Italian had been historically mapped on the Californian landscape. Yet the event’s offer to “EXPERIENCE THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMICI PARK INTO THE ROMAN FORUM FOR A NIGHT” suggested a complicated and post-modern sense of Italian identification. The image of Saint Mother Cabrini advertising the punk band Kilslug at a music store offered a not too dissimilar estrangement to the complicated work of cultural identity. I never did make it to India Street, the city’s counterpart to New York’s Mulberry Street.

Heading north along the coast, we skirted the sprawl of Los Angeles and stopped at the Getty Villa in the city’s northern Pacific Palisades area. O
il tycoon J. Paul Getty modeled this building on the first-century Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum to house his extensive collection of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman art. Opened in 1974 on his 64-acre property, this is a wealthy elite’s—not an immigrant’s—appropriation and reconstitution of Italy in the West. I was drawn to the esquisite mosaic work found on the East Garden fountain which was a copy of one found in Pompeii

The Getty Museum’s problematic collection history has resulted in the Italian govenment’s successful repatriation of scores of “looted” antiquities.
I was familiar with Monterey’s rich Italian-American fishing history, so a stroll through the tourist trap that is the city’s “Old Fishermen’s Wharf” was obligatory (and a welcomed digestive after the sumptuous meal had at the Monterey Fish House). Amidst the cacophony of barking seals, I encountered statuary commemorating the Italian, and, in particular, Sicilian fishers.

The final tap on the California tour was San Francisco, where the city’s Italian is all too evidentI couldn’t help but compare North Beach with Manhattan’s Little Italy, given its historic Italian significance, its proximity to a Chinatown, and its commodification as a tourist destination. At Mission Dolores, I came upon the nineteenth-century tomb of Francesco and Petrona Ruffino. 

Beniamino “Benny” Bufano’s statue of St. Francis welcomed the roaming tourists with open arms to the tacky theme park that is Fishermen’s Wharf. I got a kick from riding not the city’s quintessential cable car but one of Milan’s orange trams that runs along Market Street that I remembered fondly from my stay in that northern Italian city during the 1970s. 

I returned to California last month to participate in the conference entitled, “The Watts Towers Common Ground Initiative: Art, Migrations, Development.”  Organized by folklorist Luisa Del Giudice, the two-day event brought together American and Italian scholars, museum curators, art conservators, and community activists to explore the life and work of Sabato “Sam” Rodia and his lasting contribution to Los Angeles and world culture. 

For me, it is this unique creation by a semi-literate, southern Italian laborer—more than A. P. Giannini’s “Bank of America” or the wineries of Napa Valley—that constitutes a testament to Italian in California and in the United States.

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lruberto's picture

Italy in California

Wow-what a tour! It's nice to see a New Yorker's take on these ItalAm cultural/consumer layers found up and down the west coast....But I wanna know-- what about the people? Did you hear any Italian? See any "Jeff Spicolis” (you know, SoCal "Guidos")? Run into any of those tourists from Italy who look lost on Market Street amid the summer fog? –all a part of your “cultural spectrum” …. Evviva Italian California & of course thanks for the shout out! -Laura Ruberto

I think Laura asks the $64K

I think Laura asks the $64K question here. No doubt, some Italian immigrants have left their mark on the California landscape, as you illustrate in this great blog post. But, as an Italian American (also from NYC), I like to seek out the Italian American community wherever I go, and I am inevitably disappointed. California was no different for me. I spent extended time in both San Diego and San Francisco (as well as surrounding Bay Area), since I have cousins living in both cities. Perhaps it's the Mediterranean climate that dupes me into thinking, ah, yes, an Italian American community must thrive under such glorious environmental conditions; but, no, it's just not the case. Unlike my neighborhood here in Brooklyn, where Italian and various southern dialects are spoken by the staff in virtually ever Italian store (by people of all ages, and sometimes by people who aren't even Italian; many Mexican immigrants in the area are proficient in basic Italian and there's even a Chinese-run 99 cent store which notes "Parla Italiano" in the window); I also only heard Italian in one spot in San Francisco and that's it. I never heard it on the street as is so common here. But beyond language, there is an ethnic community here in New York, with all the complexities and layers that one would expect in a community (not something marked only by food or restaurants). I didn't find anything remotely like any of the many Italian American neighborhoods we have here; not with Italians and not with many ethnic groups. Overall, California seems to me decidedly non-ethnic and really very white (like blizzard conditions white). My two cousins who live there suggest to me that there is not an Italian community and few people who even identify themselves as IA; and further, my cousin in San Diego tells me he is taken for Mexican every where he goes in that town! Anthony S.

lruberto's picture

ubiquitous italian americana.....

No, Anthony, YOU are the one who has got it right. California is so curious when it comes to its ethnic Italian side. It’s everywhere and no where! As you have seen, there is no decidedly Italian California identity and this is so odd— not just because the state is full of all-things Italian (from the big names that need no blog post to the countless unknowns) but also because of the impact of Hollywood itself. The general explanation often given is that because of the state’s high number of immigrants from Asia and Central/South America, Italian immigrants on the one hand “became white” quicker as a counter to those more exploited groups and at the same time Italians also “blended into” the latino population more broadly. Then there are those who make regional arguments, given some high number of California Italians were from the north (totally ignoring the siclian fisherman for instance, or the southerners who did a second migration from NY/Chicago out west) and suggesting northern Italians lost their ethnic idendity faster....I’m not sure it’s all so simple but….

Also, I suspect certain simple truths also can explain why Italianita’ feels more present on the east coast: Italy is closer to the east coast than the west coast & the east coast seems to have seen more influx of Italian immigrants in the postwar decades than the west coast (thereby renewing linguistic ties, among others).

Nevertheless, there are plenty of Italian American communities in California, but you are right, they remain more under the radar rather than a ubiquitous part of the landscape. --Laura Ruberto

You’re rendering it

You’re rendering it interesting and you carry on and care for to remain it realistic.

While not wishing to

While not wishing to simplify matters, I do believe you are correct in noting that a main reason for a stronger Italian American identity here in New York is due to the immigration of the 1955-1975 period. The neighborhoods that received a lot of that influx had a renewed or continued Italian identity, while those neighborhoods, previously Italian American, that did not receive substantial immigration have ceased to be Italian or are less "genuinely" so. I don't believe that there is much of a future for many of these communities, since even the post-war migration is well into its 3rd generation now. The trend of moving to the suburbs, Americanizing, marrying people of other ethnicities, etc. seems even more aggressive than among the children of the great migration immigrants. Without physical communities, can this culture continue to exist? I tend to think not. So, California might show us now what our near future will look like. I'm curious about the Latin American blend-in, since it has always seemed to me like the logical progression. I have always wondered why some pan-Latin or pan-Mediterranean identity has never taken root in this country. At any rate, regarding the assimilation of Italian immigrants in California, I found this very curious article from 1923 (written in striking contrast to the negatives you would have found in an article of that period in, let's say, the New York Times - actually, I was quite shocked by the positive nature of this article; is it typical?):

sciorra's picture

post-WWII immigration

Hello Anonymous, The history of post-WWII Italian immigration to the States in all its socio-cultural manifestations has yet to be written. Stay tuned! Joe

sciorra's picture

la gente italiana

i did hear one man speaking Italian con un accento meridionale on Columbus, near Green Street in SF. that's it. it was startling for me--provincial NYorker that I am--to hear dark haired/big nose IAs in Monterey restaurant NOT speaking in an east coast accent. next time, i gotta meet la gente italiana di California! joe

You covered a lot of ground!

You covered a lot of ground!

my two spicciuli

So I'm an Italian-American rapper from Oakland CA. for those who don't know me. I work in an italian deli with central/northern origions while I'm from southern roots(with light hair/eyes/skin) So everyone thinks I'm either northern or irish. Anyway, In the east bay northerners reign. I relate more with my mexican relitives than a northern italian. After returning to my roots, to have pride in the tricoloro is only a surface scraper(not like the car u sai?!) BUT, I've met other southern italians who moved here within the last few years who only associate with latinos due to the lack of gringos understanding their culture. So after never knowing any actual terrone my whole life in the east bay, I go to one party which is a mix of random people walking about... and small crowd of napolitani, standing around a fire pit speaking only napolitano, sporting wife beaters, smoking pagghia dopo pagghia, drinking cheap red wine and telling their wifes to take care of it themselves...I had just returned to `o regno `e duje sicilie. Not to say any of the people I know in the south are like this, but this was a cinematic experience more than real life to me. On another note, I try to speak as much italian/sicilian to my picciriddi as possible and when someone in public asks what I'm speaking they actually think I'm speaking french or german...but when I speak with italians or southern italians in the bay area they swear I speak better than they do and they are scared to attempt dialect in my presence...I think I suck though. Peace out e statt'bonu. C'O PS - I play southern italian music at my store all damn day long and anything cu na ciaramedda or u viulinu is assumed irish by my customers despite the southerner singing in dialect over the track..."Mammalucch'" as they here in Oakland.