Thomas Gambino (Vice President of the Friends of Italy Society of Hawaii)

Anche alle Hawaii, essere Italiani è "cool"!

Mar 30, 2015 7021 ITA ENG

One of the personalities I recently interviewed asked me if I wanted to look for Italian traces in every one of the 50 States. I answered that maybe I would have, and started to think about the one State where maybe it would have been more difficult to do that. Maybe Hawaii, I thought. But then no: Italians have been and are everywhere in the world, Hawaii included, I said to myself.

And so, here we are with my good friend Thomas Gambino, a very proud Italian American of Sicilian descent who lives in Honolulu, is married to a Hawaiian woman and is the author of the book "The Scattered Italians: Reflections on a Heroic Journey". Thomas will help us know how even Hawaii have something Italian in their history, in their architecture and in their lifestyle.

Thomas, what's the story of the Italians and the Hawaii?

Well, Umberto, it's a long story, even if not many people are aware of that. I'll just throw a few names.

In 1542 an Italian navigator, Giovanni Gaetano, sailing for the Spanish spotted the Hawaiian Islands while on his way to the Far East. It took 230 years before the next European, the famous captain Cook, saw our islands. We are sure about this, but the historians say that this has still to be certified before it becomes official.

Another story to be certifies is the one about Giacomo Gastaldi, a gifted Genovese cartographer who in 1561 conceived and produced the first world map to be distributed widely. On it, printed clearly was the Los Bolcanos and La Farfania islands as Hawaii was called in the 1500's. This too, happened more than 200 years before the Englishman Captain Cook discovered the islands. Some oral traditions indicate that Cook had a copy of a Gastaldi map among his many sea charts when he made his trip to the islands.

Going beyond that, and this has already being certified, we have Paolo Botta (1802-1870), a traveler and writer from Turin. He landed on our shores during his epic trip around the world. He stayed for 2 months and recounted in a book, published in Italian, of his Hawaiian experiences. It was one of the first publications in the world that detailed Hawaii.

We move along to another factor, in 1862: John Owen Dominis, whose father was from Trieste, married Princess Lili'uokalani and was appointed as Governor of Oahu. When his wife became Queen of Hawaii, he became the Prince Consort and thus part of Hawaiian royalty. He is the only non-Hawaiian buried in the Royal Mausoleum located in Nu'oanu Valley. They lived in a house built by John's father, called Washington Place: the official residence of the present Governor of Hawaii was built by an Italian! Washington place is one the most visited places in the Islands, people go there. It's like the White House of Hawaii.

Fast forward to the XX century: in 1913 an Italian-American engineering genius, Henry Ginaca, invented the pineapple peeler and coring machine. You may think that this is nothing, but in reality this piece of ingenuity gave birth to the Hawaiian Pineapple export industry that brought economic wealth to the islands while introducing the Pineapple to the world.

A Sicilian, Domenico Moro, led the Royal Hawaiian Band from 1941-1955. His leadership was renown throughout the islands and his wonderful music helped to lift the people's spirits during the early war years, which were very very hard, as you can imagine. His leadership and his talent helped many people, it was very touching.

A very interesting guy, one of my favorite is Frank Fasi. The longest serving mayor of Honolulu (22 years, from the end of the sixties on) he was an Italian-American born of Sicilian parents in 1920 who had an extraordinary ability in getting things done. If ever you travel over Oahu by The Bus you should thank Frank. He was a kind guy who came from the East Coast, and as a mayor he simply revolutionized transportation for the common man: I believe that today it's one of the best bus systems in the country. I worked directly with him: he was the one who helped to start the very beginning of mass travel to Hawaii from Italy. Up to that point it was limited to very rich people that knew the world.

An important issue is with no doubt the one regarding the Italian POWs. Please tell us something more about it

During World War II 5,000 Italians prisoners arrived to Hawaii: it's an enormous number. They were captured by the Americans and the British in North Africa in 1943 and brought to the US, the majority was send to mainland, but 5,000 of them were brought to Hawaii, to a place called Sand Island.

They were all sent back to Italy after the end of the war: but I found out that four of them passed away while they were here. During the time the Italians were here, they built things. So there's a beautiful fountain they built in Fort Shafter, it's just lovely. They built statues throughout the Islands, they also built a church which unfortunately was destroyed when it was decided to build a highway.

Then in 1943 Italy switched side and was no longer an enemy to the United States. Italians and Americans were not at war against each other anymore, and so it was decided to bury the four Italian soldiers. Many of us Friends of Italy go and honor these tombs and bring flowers. They are not forgot.

Let's talk about today. Are there many Italians in Hawaii? Organizations? Maybe people who recently have come there?

Well, I am the Vice President of the "Friends of Italy Society of Hawaii". To be part of our organization people don't need to be of Italian heritage: the important is to be in love with Italy. It's a social club, nothing political, and we organize several events regarding Italy and the Italian culture in all its different aspects: food, wine, cinema, language, arts, travel, history. We also edit a seasonal information instrument called "Il Gazzettino".

We have some Italians studying here, and of course we are really happy and proud of them. As for the Italians who live here, one of the most charming family here is Prince and Princess Vittorio Alliata di Montereale. They're both lovely people, very appreciated. Vittorio's title dates back to the Holy Roman Empire. He's been living here with his wife for 15, maybe 20 years. They could live anywhere in the world, having no financial problems, and they chose Hawaii. When I asked "Why are you living in Hawaii, Vittorio?" he answered me "It's because it's such a lovely place, such a healthy lifestyle". The Princess, his wife Dialta, is from Firenze: she used to be in the movie business and she misses it. So they bring here every year films from Italy and they organize a big gala, like in Cannes, with many famous actors and actresses who come here and celebrate cinema. We have numbers of people doing good films in Hawaii.

In Hawaii, you're the furthest Italian Americans from Italy, right?

Absolutely, we're in the middle of the Pacific Ocean! It's literally on the other side of the world, it takes 23 hours of flying from Hawaii, at least. I generally fly from Honolulu to Tokyo, and then from Tokyo I go to Rome. Sometimes when I come back I do another route and pass through New York. The downside of this is that you cannot spend with your family the time you would like to the family. I have a family in New York, but it's a long way from Hawaii, too and I don't see them as much as I'd like. That's ok, because you do ok with your friends ... but as an Italian American, you don't have the family to get together on Sunday, like many Italian Americans still do ... so things change.

My wife's family is wonderful to me and I love them. Besides, I have a son who's studying at John Cabot University in Rome, he's getting his degree just in a few days.

Your family is from Sicily. Is there something that makes Sicily and Hawaii similar, because they are both islands?

I think there are some similarities. Sicily is much bigger than Hawaii, and is more ancient in terms of history and culture. But the climate is similar, people are into food and music, both have volcanos and of course beautiful beaches, the population is good looking and also healthy looking ... yes, definitively there are similarities with Sicily.

Is Made in Italy appreciated? Are there sectors better than others, fashion, cars, design, food?

Let's start by saying that is very cool to be Italian these days. I mean, I don't want to sound presumptuous in any way, but it always happens to me to be noticed because of course I look different than the majority of the Hawaiians, who have an Asian heritage ... and when they know where I come from, everybody always say "Oh, you're Italian! I love Italy, please tell me about Italy".

We're very proud that Ansaldo Honolulu is designing and building the rail cars for the new Honolulu Rail Transit Project.

Italian food is very popular here. We have a five stars shopping center, very elegant: all the big Italian fashion names are there. Italian design is a must: when people wants to be at the top, they look for Italian design. We have a large Fiat dealer: I have a Fiat 500! Being Italian is very cool, not only in Hawaii but in general in USA. Actually, I think that happens in the entire world. The Italian culture is getting more known and appreciated in the mainstream, especially thanks to the food.

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