Michael Bonasera (Co-founder History of Italian Immigration Museum)

L'Italia a Philadelphia: nasce l'History of Italian Immigration Museum

May 28, 2014 4073 ITA ENG

Philadelphia is not only a fundamental historical place for the history of the United States, but also one of the most important American cities for the Italian community in America. Actually, the whole Pennsylvania has been the point of arrival for hundreds of thousands of Italians.

Now, on june 1, on the occasion of the celebrations for Italy's national day, Philadelphia will see the inauguration of a very important place: the History of Italian Immigration Museum, a fantastic project that will celebrate and represent the Italian experience not only in Philadelphia, but in the whole US. We are very pleased to announce this beautiful event, talking to one of the co-founders of the museum, our good friend Michael Bonasera.

Michael, please tell us something about the History of Italian Immigration Museum. Who had the idea, and when?

The idea of creating a museum was originally thought by Dr. Pasquale Nestico and Dr. Ernesto Milani who is also a member of Filitalia International Italian Chapter as well as an historian of immigration, very interested in getting more information here in United States.

So, the thought to create a museum was then approved by Filitalia International Board of Directors in November of 2012. The History of Italian Immigration Museum (HIIM) is a 501(c)3 under the Filitalia Foundation with this vision: Celebrating Italian roots and American dreams! Is to be in concert with the mission of Filitalia International: "to promote, protect, and preserve Italian heritage, language, culture & customs throughout the world and encouraging the study of Italian language"

What is Filitalia International?

Filitalia International was formed in 1987 under the leadership of Pasquale Nestico and Michele Giampaolo. We have 26 chapters between the twelve in the US and then Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, and we are growing. We have our center of language and culture where we offer Italian Language lessons for children and adults, with certified teachers; we organize exhibitions of Italian American artist, cultural events, wine contest and other culinary events; we have an exchange program for members and a number of academic scholarships from grade schools, high schools and graduate schools, and we are working with our Italian council to help promote the Advanced Placement (AP) program where high schools seniors can take college credits courses, and earn credits for their future college curricula. Everybody can visit our website www.filitaliainternational.com to learn more.

Is Filitalia international in the same building where the museum will be?

Yes, the location of the museum is at 1834 East Passyunk Avenue, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is in the heart of Philadelphia, in a very historic and predominantly Italian American part of the city.

We have started with humble beginnings in the basement of the home of my wife Wanda and I .... in concert with Filitalia's motto: Umiltà – Giustizia – Onestà (Humility - Justice - Honesty). Our founders started with humble beginnings when they first came to America with little more than what they could carry on the boat.

Which activities will be happening in the museum when it will be open?

The museum has been formed to inform the history of Italian immigration, so we start from the earliest times of the New World with Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Giovanni da Verrazano, John Cabot and others: they were the explorers and discoverers of the regions of the western atmosphere. We proceed to tell some stories about the early colonial period, when we had our founding fathers: two of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were of Italian descent. We will then move go through the mid of Nineteenth Century finding some many important personalities such as Constantino Brumidi, who was called the "Michelangelo of America", who painted frescos of the US Capitol dome ... we want to highlight the cultural accomplishments of these early Italian Americans, because they help built this country in their way, and helped broaden American knowledge of the wonderful Italian culture, their arts, skills and trades, that they brought with them.

So from there we will talk and show about the great arrival, when millions of Italians immigrants came to this country, predominantly from Sicily and the southern Italy, and then dispersed throughout the Unites States and found a home. We will describe many of trades and skills those Italians showed and used to survive: they were tailors, carpenters, barbers, leather cutters and all of them had the desire to create a new home and a better life for their children ... this is their story!

And then finally, as we move out into the Twentieth Century, we will focus on the War World II effort, to the people who served in the forces, to family members who stayed at home and participated to the War effort. So these are all important legacies that they bring, but of most importance we want to celebrate and highlight their accomplishments: they have contributed to the American society in so many ways, in the field of science or entertainment, music or art or architecture, there are so many wonderful examples.

For instance, among the permanent collections we'll have, one I'm proud to advise to your readers: an entire complete barbershop from the 1950s and 1960's, complete with all the artifacts, as it was at that time. We were blessed to have a member of our organization who is now 76 years old, Sal Rosati, he had this barbershop many years ago and fortunately he preserved it exactly like it was.

This story is interesting because he came here as a young boy, maybe 15-16 years old, in 1953: and he was already an American citizen, because his father was born here. The grandfather raised his family here and in 1918, three of his children died due to the Spanish influenza. So, as they were very concerned about the disease, the family moved back to Italy. Later when Sal Rosati came to Philadelphia in 1953, he was already an American citizen. Sal told us the story of how his grandfather help built the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, that goes from Philadelphia to Camden, New Jersey. He spoke that due to the bitter cold of winter over the river, his grandfather wore 3 coats just to keep warm. When the bridge was completed, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. This is only one of the thousands and thousands of stories about the Italian emigration to Philadelphia and to the US.

I have seen that you'll also have a Family History & Genealogy Center...

Yes, in fact one of the things that is very important to our members is that many of them here in the United States are first or second generation Italians: so as many of them are aged and they have a story to tell, we have an obligation to try to capture those stories while they are still with us, and document them in ways that could be preserved. It would be a tragedy to not be able to capture them while they can tell us these stories in their own words.

Can you tell us something about the story of Italian immigration to Philadelphia? Where they were coming from; when they came; who was the most important one, if there was one.

Yes, but first of all let me point out that after many years of failed attempts by others before us, while ours will be the first Italian museum in Philadelphia, it is not just about the Italian immigration in our city. It is a celebration of emigration of Italians from every region of Italy to the four corners of the earth.

There were so many of them, from all over Italy, and I think that was one of the beauty of this challenge of telling their stories. In the early Twentieth Century emigration in Philadelphia was predominantly from southern Italian and Sicily, obviously from the poorest regions. What I have found is that there are many clubs and groups who came from a specific town or region of Italy and continue nowadays to meet and socialize through Philadelphia: Calabrese's clubs, Sicilians' Clubs ... even one from the small town of Montecilfone, Province of Campobasso. There are so many, I think hundreds of clubs.

Another important thing is that some of these organizations may have only 20 or 30 or 50 members, and they probably don't have a web site, but they have the same passion and love of the other major ones. I'm hoping, particularly, that the establishment of the museum here in Philadelphia would encourage members of these smaller clubs to tell us their stories, and become a permanent part of the HIIM Family History and Genealogy Center.

We certainly have had a number of prominent Italian American people in many ways: for instance here in Philadelphia in the 70's we've had a beloved mayor of Italians descent, Frank L. Rizzo. Also, located in the center of Philadelphia, the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, the largest Catholic Church in Pennsylvania, was largely interior decorated by Constantino Brumidi.

What does it means for you to be an Italian American?

Well, I am getting goose bumps ... so many thought had rushed through my mind! I am a proud Italian American and I think it is because I have been blessed first of all with having a wonderful heredity thanks to my grandparents who came to this country and worked so hard to start a new life – and succeed! And thanks to my father, Trentino, who instilled in me his love of art, music, and for teaching me the value of learning on so many levels: I am very proud of having Italian culture.

The Italian culture is so rich and so beautiful, of all the countries that I know. I am extremely proud to be of Italian descent: beyond words. My name is Michael Angelo Trent Bonasera, so even my name recalls me of our art and the beauty that was committed and realized by Italy in the renaissance that is amazing: and Michelangelo was only one of many masters that make the Italian culture and the Italian heritage so great.

We the Italians all around the world have a lot to offer and a lot to share: and a lot of the Italian culture comes from a history of its numerous middle and small towns. So sometimes if I happened to hear something like: "If you are not from my town you are not my paesano". I think it's difficult to have all Italians unified in a community with a common cause that starts from our great common heritage. It is my hope that the museum will be helpful with this hope to get the Italian community more unified: we will be more powerful together, with the goal to help make the job easier, perpetuate our causes, protect our heritage and share its riches with the world. Please tell your readers to join us in our quest and become a member of History of Italian Immigration Museum visiting our website www.filitaliainternational.com.

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