All of a sudden, at the beginning of October 2014 Seattle has turned into the center of the communications in and about the Italian American community. What happened in the north western city that was so important to cause this?
The Seattle city council voted to transform Columbus Day in Indigenous Day. We are glad to be able to talk about this, and generally about the link between Seattle and Italy, to Randy Aliment, President of the Italian American Chamber of Commerce in the Pacific Northwest.
Randy, thanks for being with us. So, what happened?
The Seattle City Council approved, and the Mayor signed a Resolution, declaring the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day in Seattle. This day is the same as day as Columbus Day, a day widely celebrated by Italian Americans across America. In the opinion of many people of Seattle, the Mayor effectively told Italian Americans that our Italian heritage is less important than that of Indigenous peoples. Italian leaders in Seattle are now meeting and plan to fight back in coordination with Italian American national and international leadership.
The entire process which led to the adoption of the Resolution was unfair and gratuitously insensitive to Seattle's Italian Americans. The Resolution does not acknowledge the vibrant immigrant Italian community in Seattle. Instead, the Resolution recognizes that Seattle was built upon indigenous peoples' homelands but fails to acknowledge that our roads and bridges were built upon the backs of Italian and other immigrants who did the work that no one else would do.
How did this start?
The Resolution originated before the Seattle Human Rights Commission, an entity that has the legal duty to consult with and make recommendations to City Officials to promote equality, justice and understanding among all citizens. The Seattle Code of Ethics requires that city officials be independent, impartial, and responsible to the people. The Code also states that public office should not be used for personal gain.
Yet the Commission never considered the hurtful impact the Resolution would have on Italian Americans. The Commission and City Officials made no effort to reach out to and listen to the 25,000 Italian Americans of Seattle before the decision was made. When we learned about the Resolution through informal channels, we sought a meeting with the Commission and we submitted an alternative proposal.
Tell us about it: what do you suggest?
Our proposal which is similar to what is now done in San Francisco, provides: 1) the day now recognized as Columbus Day by the United States will be named Italian Heritage Day by Seattle; 2) Seattle will identify a day, other than our American Holiday, as Indigenous People's Day; and perhaps most important; 3) leaders of both communities will come together to jointly recognize and celebrate their cultures and heritage with this mutually beneficial message and resolution.
Naively, we assumed that Italian Americans had simply become an unintended victim. We put our faith in our City officials. We put our faith in legal process in Seattle. We were wrong. No meeting with the Commission was allowed and our proposal was rejected in less than 24 hours. Although I sent our proposal to the Mayor and City Council, it was never answered or acknowledged before the decision was made.
Is the Italian community in Seattle united on this topic?
Italian Americans in Seattle come from different families but we share a powerful bond that unites us with all Italian Americans. We were raised to love our families and respect our neighbors. We were taught the value of education and hard work. We were raised to love America and we aspired to achieve the American Dream. But we were also raised to embrace our Italian heritage. To Italian Americans everywhere, Columbus Day is when we honor and celebrate our heritage.
We were also taught to respect and honor other cultures, a value system that can be seen today in Perugia, Seattle's Sister City. In 2008, Perugia built a park that it named Seattle. Perugia and our local Italian American community commissioned a Native American artist to create a sculpture that would honor Seattle. The sculpture, Sister Orca, is the first non-Italian art commission in the history of Perugia.
The Mayor finally met with us. He did sign a proclamation to recognize Italian Heritage day. But he did so on a day other than our traditional day of celebration, Columbus Day, and he refused to reconsider the Resolution. We now intend to fight back in the name of our heritage, culture and the legacy of our ancestors.
You are the President of the Italian American Chamber of Commerce in the Pacific Northwest. Please tell us more about your organization
The Italian American Chamber of Commerce in the Pacific Northwest (IACC-PNW) was incorporated in the State of Washington in 2011 as a private, non-profit, membership organization with the mandate of promoting and enhancing business, trade and investment exchanges between Italy and the Pacific Northwest of America.
Our goal is to act as a catalyst between businesses and institutions in Italy and the Pacific Northwest by coordinating and hosting trade and economic missions, organizing the participation of delegations at international trade shows, and providing customized business solutions for Italian and American companies wishing to enter international markets.
In addition, IACC-PNW offers members exclusive networking opportunities through the organization of events in perfect Italian style, in which companies can build business partnerships. IACC-PNW promotes its members' interests, from young professionals to multi-national companies, offering a wide range of business-building activities like customized contacts, planning of dedicated events, implementation of business and corporate strategies. Our mission is to facilitate business between the Pacific Northwest and Italy.
IACC-PNW also counts on a strong partnership with the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Canada – West, an association like ours that has been promoting Italian's interests and economic opportunities in the western Provinces of Canada for the past 22 years.
In light of the fact that the Pacific Northwest is a very well-integrated market, we believe that Italian companies that want to develop their businesses on the American west coast should explore existing opportunities on both sides of the USA-Canadian border.
We know that the business activity in the Pacific Northwest is rapidly growing. Is Made in Italy growing too? Which are the main sectors of the Italian export in your area, and which of them will see important opportunities in the future?
Made in Italy has a steady share of business in Washington State. Italy has been exporting around $350 million of goods per year to Washington State over the past 5 years but I also believe that these figures can be improved. After all, Seattle was the fastest growing city in America in 2013 and Washington State boasts more international trade per capita than any other state in the United States of America. Business is truly booming in our part of the country.
As you might easily expect, a good share (in volume) of Italian exports fall under some of the economic sectors in which Italy has gained a worldwide reputation for excellence such as food, wine, apparel and design. However, Italian exports to Washington State related to industrial machinery have been particularly strong in recent years and Italian companies in the aerospace industry have established successful collaboration with some of the major players in our area such as Boeing.
In recent years we are noticing that more Italian businesses are focusing in the high-tech sectors and are looking with interest at the Pacific Northwest for new opportunities. I personally believe that industries such as digital media and biotech will witness the most interesting opportunities for Italian companies in the future.
I am the editor and co-author of a book, published a few weeks ago by the Washington State Department of Commerce and Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle. It gives some important information about how to get started in Business in Washington State. Your readers may access our book at: http://choosewashington.weebly.com/. I will speak at the Union Internationale des Avocats Congress in Florence, Italy on October 30, 2014 on the subject of Foreign Direct Investment.
Is there a program, a center or anything representing and promoting the Pacific Northwest area in Italy?
The Italian Chamber of Commerce in Canada – West has an office in Milan that takes care of marketing our activities among Italian companies and institutions. Both our organizations promote the Pacific Northwest as a single market and companies visiting British Columbia and Alberta on occasion of trade missions are always encouraged to also develop activities in Oregon and Washington State.
You are based in Seattle, WA and Portland, OR. Usually Italian Americans are the first constituency of Made in Italy brands. Is there a big Italian American community in these areas?
Yes there are and have long been large Italian communities in the Pacific Northwest. These communities typically get together in social clubs like the Italian Club in Seattle, several chapters of the Sons of Italy, Seattle-Perugia Sister City, Dante Alighieri and, of course, the IACC-PNW. These organizations promote several programs throughout the year including the upcoming 27th annual Festa Italiana which is a two week celebration of Italian heritage sponsored by the principle Italian organizations in the Pacific Northwest. It begins with a traditional Mass in Italian language and ends with a two day celebration at the Seattle Center. Your readers may want to check it out at www.FestaSeattle.com
Oregon has 1003 Italian Citizens registered, but there actually are 35,000/40,000 second-third generations Italians residing there. Italian immigrants have traditionally been the first customers for Italian products abroad and it is true that the communities of Italians abroad are a key driver to commercial and investment opportunities. Nevertheless, in today's global marketplace, I believe it would be short-sighted to only count on such communities to develop economic relations with Italy. In my opinion, Italians abroad can contribute more as promoters of Italian products and lifestyle than as consumers.
And what about the new Italian emigration: are there many Italians, maybe young professionals, who only recently immigrated to the Northwest States?
I do not have good data on Italian immigration in recent years. I have heard, however, that the University of Washington and the Biomedical and pharmaceutical industries are seeing an influx of Italian immigrants. This is true not only because our region is rapidly growing, it is also because we are an immigrant friendly part of America. For example, a recent census for Bellevue, which is near Seattle and the home of our high tech industry, shows that its population is 44% foreign born. And Seattle boasts the most diverse zip code, with the most foreign languages spoken, in America.
Washington State of course warmly welcomes also foreign companies. Boeing, Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, Nordstrom, Costco, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and countless other Washington businesses all demonstrate that a combination of hard work and good ideas can challenge conventional wisdom and pay great dividends to local and global communities.
Regarding Oregon, recent immigration is primarily composed by professionals: researchers working at Oregon Health Sciences University, engineers working at INTEL and other high-tech companies, and managerial executive personnel working in the athletic apparel industries like NIKE, ADIDAS and others.
Which places remember most Italy, either looking at the past or just at our present days, in the Pacific Northwest area?
There is a church, called Our Lady of Mount Virgin: it is the church where the Mass in Italian is celebrated during Festa Italiana. It is the most significant catholic church in town where the Italian community gathers. The church is in a part of the city called "Garlic Gulch": it is a neighborhood in south Seattle where many of the early Italians settled.
Many Italians, though, like my family, gathered elsewhere: just south of the "Garlic Gulch", in a town called Renton, in the Rainier Valley, where one of the earliest Boeing plant was built to manufacture their airplanes. My uncle, first generation Italian, was mayor of Renton in the early 60s.
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