Lorenzo Ortona (Italian Consul General in San Francisco)

San Francisco, una città molto italiana

Jul 16, 2018 3297 ITA ENG

San Francisco has always been an important location for the Italian emigration. History is mixed with innovation, and both tell the story of how Italian hard work and creativity are rewarded by the entrepreneurial spirit that finds a perfect welcome in San Francisco and its surroundings.

Consul Lorenzo Ortona heads the Italian Consulate General in charge for Northern California and other areas of the American West. We thank him for his availability and we welcome him with friendship on We the Italians.

Consul Ortona, you have been serving as Consul General in San Francisco for almost two years now. We met in Rome even before you left: our question is, what exactly is it about San Francisco that has confirmed your expectations; and what, if anything, was a surprise that you discovered?

As far as the first part is concerned, I can mention an aspect that my predecessor had also described to me, and that has been absolutely confirmed even beyond my expectations: the dynamism of the Italians in the San Francisco bay area, and at the same time, the deep and ancient roots of the Italian American community in the territory.

These are two extraordinary worlds that coexist in this part of the world, which the Consulate tries to put together, also creating important synergies.

On one hand, we have an Italian community that, since the 1970s, has contributed in building  what is now the Silicon Valley, with numerous brains and high-level people. Let's not forget that the Olivetti Innovation Centre operated here, representing a great school for many Italian engineers who, once it disappeared, set up several successful companies helping to shape what is now actually the global innovation centre. It is a particularly dynamic community that can count as well on organizations such as BAIA or the Silicon Valley SVIEC.

On the other hand, we have the historical community that has been here since the Gold Rush era, since the mid-nineteenth century , in particular the communities of Lucca and Genoa and, later at the beginning of the last century; the Sicilians, the Calabrians and others. In this community there are families still very attached to our country, with historical associations very active throughout the bay area that help, and very often support, the programs that are carried out by the Consulate, the COMITES or other Italian institutions.

These two components have gone well beyond my expectations, which were already high: representing Italy while interacting with such a community is a great honor, and a great pleasure.

On what I did not expect from the Bay Area I would mention a positive aspect and a less positive one.

I knew I was coming to the global innovation capital, but I didn't think I’d find such an extraordinary wealth of actors in the Silicon Valley ecosystem. In such a relatively small territory for the United States, about 80 square kilometers, you can find not only the best universities in the world, not only the best high-tech actors such as Google, Apple, etc., not only the largest concentration of venture capitalists in the world; but also national research centers of the highest level. I am refering to entities such as SLAC, the Stanford Accelerator; Lawrence Berkley Lab; NASA's Ames Centre.

The less positive aspect I did not expect is the homeless crisis, and, in general, the citizens who are not doing well. We know that San Francisco has always been a city with a traditional warm welcome and very open, which goes to its credit, defending the reputation of its name: but it is certainly a human drama of by now very great proportions that I did not expect in such depth, and it has to be managed in some way. It is no coincidence that the election campaign for the new Mayoral elections focused precisely on finding possible solutions to deal with this aspect, which is before our very eyes every day.

Italian emigration to San Francisco has a history of hard work and success, with some common stories to that on the East Coast, but some that are very different. As the institutional representative of our country, what are the traces, the inheritances, the contributions of our fellow countrymen that can be touched by hand in San Francisco? Are there places, or people that represent its history - apart from Amadeo Giannini, who is the most famous?

I would say that the whole city of San Francisco and the bay area “talks” Italian, historically speaking. The city was truly built by our emigrants. It is no coincidence that on every corner you find a name that recalls Italy, starting with North Beach which is, if you will, the largest Little Italy in the United States. And also the Golden Gate Bridge, the symbolic work of this city, which celebrated its 80th anniversary last year, that was born thanks to the will of two Italian American citizens. The political decision to build the bridge was taken by an Italian American mayor, Angelo Rossi; and the funding for its construction came mainly from Amadeo Giannini, founder of Bank of America. In my opinion this says a lot: this city could not exist as it is without the contribution of the Italian Americans.

Speaking of bridges, I want to remember an Italian American less known than Amadeo Giannini, Alfred Zampa: the engineer to whom, among other things, is dedicated the Zampa Bridge, which connects San Francisco to the city of Vallejo. It is a very important bridge. Zampa is known in this part of the world not only for being an extraordinary engineer and building wonderful bridges, but also for his sensitivity towards construction workers and to safety in the workplace. He was a person who gave the city a great deal: not only from an engineering point of view, but also by protecting workers in the workplace.

If instead I have to think of a more recent example of Italian excellence, I would cite La Scuola International School, directed by Valentina Imbeni. It is an educational start-up, a school that draws on the Reggio Emilia philosophy, a type of teaching that is increasingly successful in the United States, especially for kindergarten and elementary school. It is an extraordinary school, also recognised at BA level, and the process is underway to be equalized with the Italian school system. It is an example, a model of great importance, because it attracts not only Italians and Italian Americans, but mostly American families who have no ties with Italy, but are attracted by the Reggio Emilia way of teaching and by our culture. I often meet parents who don't speak Italian, but tell me how happy they are that when they visit Italy with their children, they are the ones who guide them!

Speaking of the diffusion of the Italian language, I believe that this school is a very interesting example to take into consideration because it is a driving force for our culture, but in a new, different way. I believe that this example shows how Italians who arrive in this part of the world have in their spirit this innovation, this way of facing new disciplines - in this case education - in a new and interesting way. This approach also attracts new Italian arrivals, who often come here with conflicting feelings towards our country: on the one hand they continue to love it, on the other they regret having to leave the country to find a job. So finding a school that is not the traditional Italian school, but that brings together several components and that is so well integrated in the bay area, is something that attracts them too. It is a very interesting model and, given that it is less than ten years old, it is certainly an example of recently arrived Italian excellence.

Your consular district is actually much larger than San Francisco alone: it includes northern and central California, (except for some counties under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles Consulate) Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Washington and several islands. Is there one (or more) Italian peculiarity in these places that you like to remember?

This is the largest territorial consular district among those represented by the Italian Consulates in the United States, and also covers little-known realities where there are many dynamic and active compatriots. Obviously, the interview would be very long if we were to cover all the States of this consular  district: I will take two places as an example and explain why, but of course it is not a choice that wants to favor one place over another. The two areas I will take into consideration are Washington State and Hawaii.

Washington State in particular because of Seattle, which has become a complementary city to Silicon Valley, an extension of it. By now, if you want to understand the phenomenon of global innovation, you should not only come to the Silicon Valley, but add Seattle. The city is now the global center for artificial intelligence and big data: and the planes here are always full of electronic engineers who every day fly up and down between San Francisco, San José and Seattle. There is a steady increase of fellow Italians in Seattle who go to work for large high-tech companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing.

I was able to experience a great dynamism in the Italian community: I met Italian start-ups acquired by Microsoft or Amazon, dynamic young people full of hopes, and an in-the-making city where there is an extraordinary desire to get thing done, absolutely comparable to the Silicon Valley, with the difference that Silicon Valley is already a little more established, because it has been already in this race for innovation for a quite a few years now. So Seattle is becoming for us, for the Consulate, an increasingly important city, where we try to be more and more present and where we try to support the local Italian community that is growing at a great speed, giving a great contribution, but that also relies on a historically not secondary presence, thanks to Italian engineers who have been working for a long time for Boeing or companies such as UMBRA Group, a company from Umbria that is an exclusive supplier of some parts for Boeing.

In Hawaii there is another very dynamic community of more than 500 Italians registered at AIRE that is involved in different sectors, from medicine to catering to fashion: in the latter sector, Honolulu has become over the years an important showcase from which new trends are starting for the Asian market. A very dynamic community that is trying, with the support of this Consulate, to create many more opportunities for Italian culture in Honolulu. For example, last year many Italians and Italian Americans got together, thanks also to the Italian Honorary Consul, to give life to the "Italian Feast", an event that attracted hundreds of people from all over Honolulu. They are also working to establish  a week of Italian cinema, they want to be more and more visible and connected, despite the distance. And this is something that touched me very much: they are on the other side of the world but still manage to represent Italy with this passion. In Hawaii there is also Ansaldo Hitachi, which when it was still Ansaldo Breda won the tender for the construction of the carriages of the new metro in Honolulu. I went to visit the construction sites and there too are a lot of Italian engineers who are creating the future of Honolulu's mobility. A reality of great interest, growing very fast and, despite the distance, very much linked to Italy.

What is in the future of the Italian system in San Francisco, which together with your Consulate, also has several associations like the school, a dynamic Cultural Institute and one of the most active COMITES?

We always work together with the Italian Cultural Institute, the Comites, the Committee of Italian American Associations (CIAO), the Museo Italoamericano and the Leonardo da Vinci Society to carry forward the Italian System. Also with the high-tech associations we talked about earlier, BAIA and SVIEC, and the ISSNAF Bay Area Chapter with the leadership of our Embassy in Washington D.C.

Perhaps not everyone knows that we are among the very few Consulates in the diplomatic consular network that host in the structure of the Consulate an official who deals exclusively with attracting investments towards Italy. In fact, there is an ICE Agency desk with a representative who comes from an experience in the corporate world, in order to interact in the best way with venture capitalists: the desk has been here in the Consulate for less than a year and we are working very well together. Italy has traditionally always given support to companies and export, and this naturally continues and is fundamental: but the issue of investments is more reent in the panorama of support for the Italian economic system, and it is very important. As we said before, here there is an extraordinary concentration of venture capitalists and very large funds: therefore, having a desk dedicated exclusively to attracting investments towards the opportunities we have in Italy is fundamental.

Thanks also to the support of the Consulate, a new Bay Area chapter of ISSNAF (Italian Scientists and Scholars in North America Foundation) was created. It was born in December 2017, and there are already over 100 researchers enrolled: the President is Pierluigi Zappacosta, co-founder of Logitech. Together with them and COMITES we have already organized two events, and we are counting on strengthening the network of Italian researchers, which is extraordinarily rich. We have numerous Italian researchers and academics in Stanford, Berkeley, UC Davis, Santa Clara, UCSF and other institutions. On the one hand we are trying to better connect them through ISSNAF; on the other hand the final goal would be to have a more usable database to interact with the Italian system, so that even companies that are possibly doing research on their products can know if there are Italian researchers in that sector, here in the Bay Area. Today we are more and more present, with the scientific attaché of the Consulate, to facilitate the interface between the Italian academic world and Silicon Valley: in coordination with the Scientific Office of the Embassy in Washington we are trying to rationalize the huge presence of Italian brains and help more and more the Italian system to interact with this extraordinary reality.

Finally, the most complex project is that of the Italian Innovation Centre, which has received a funding  from Cassa Depositi e Prestiti in recent months. The idea is to create an Italian innovation hub in San Francisco, as other countries already have, in order to help both small and medium enterprises to accelerate the process of digitization 4.0 in Italy, the largest companies that want to have an antenna in Silicon Valley, and the Italian start-ups who want to come here to Silicon Valley. This is an important project born in collaboration with Talent Garden (one of Italy’s top innovation platforms and network of co working spaces), so it is a very important public-private effort that we hope will develop in the coming months. Of course, it will also have to interact with all the local actors who are already present here.

Obviously these projects are not born from nothing, but from a story that many Italian actors have already carried on over the years: we have already mentioned the BAIA and SVIEC Associations, we should not forget the great success of “Mind the Bridge” by Marco Marinucci and Alberto Onetti. For years, therefore, the Italian community has been working here to maintain the Italian presence at a certain level. We hope that all these actors, together with this Italian government effort, will also be able to create this Innovation Centre. I believe that this is important because there has indeed been a great increase in visits and requests from our country, which would require an even more structured Italian presence on the ground.

I see very well, therefore, the future of the country system here: Italy is continuously more receptive and more sensitive to innovation, and I believe that the  Silicon Valley is increasingly on the map of Italians, much more than a few years ago. Now we need to work to strengthen this presence and make it even more effective in the eyes of US investors.

The last question concerns Columbus Day, which was recently cancelled by the Board of Supervisors of the city to be renamed Indigenous Day, and then later the same city organ decided to merge in the second Monday of October also a new holiday; the Italian Heritage Day, after protests by the Italian American community. What can Italy do to defend Columbus, often accused - and unjustly, in our opinion - of terrible atrocities?

Indeed, these last months have been difficult for the Italian American community here, because initially the municipality of San Francisco had taken the decision to abolish Columbus Day without first hearing the most representative Italian American associations. Subsequently, thanks to some of the Supervisors of the city, in particular Katherine Stefani, it was possible to reopen the debate and the municipality of San Francisco then recognized in a decree all the great achievements of the Italian American communities of the Bay Area and the role of today by the citizens of Italian origin in this city.

It was therefore decided to share the new holiday of the "Italian American Heritage Day" with the Indigenous Peoples Day. For the Italian American community this was undoubtedly an important sign. As for the historical figure of Columbus, the important thing is to be open to analyzing and discussing. It is good that the Italian Americans from here are open to explaining the historical figure of Columbus, in particular by underlining the figure of the extraordinary navigator and discoverer.

Columbus continues to represent for the Italian Americans the bridge between their country of origin and the new world, America. This has always been the perception of the Italian Americans here, they never thought of Columbus as the conqueror of the natives, but as the great navigator, the brave Genoese discoverer who connected the ancient world with the new. And this is the spirit in which Columbus must be explained, obviously with the sensitivity that we must have for those who have a history of suffering. I believe that this is the only way to rehabilitate Columbus: to discuss, to be open, to examine in depth. Explain that by choosing the figure of Columbus there has never been a desire on the part of the Italian Americans to do harm to other communities, on the contrary. Of course it takes time.

This year we celebrate 150 years of the parade which is now called the Italian Heritage Parade, no longer the Columbus Day Parade: it is the oldest running parade in the United States. We Italians know more about Columbus Day in New York, but in San Francisco it was born 150 years ago. This will be a very important year to celebrate and remember the 150th anniversary of the date when the Italian Americans began to celebrate their roots with pride.

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