Italy continues to send our best diplomats to the United States, to represent our interests and excellence in the various American cities where there is an Italian Consulate.
We are always happy and proud to meet the Consuls who are appointed by the Foreign Ministry here in Rome, and in this interview we meet the Italian Consul in Detroit, Michigan. Allegra Baitrocchi is competent, personable and enthusiastic. We the Italians thanks her for her activity and Italian-ness, and for her courtesy in answering our questions.
Consul Baistrocchi, you have been in charge of the Italian Consulate in Detroit for less than a year. Did you choose Detroit specifically?
Let me start by saying that Detroit was my first choice of posting, which is saying a lot when you have almost the whole world to choose from. And why Detroit? Because I did my homework and found out that Detroit has a lot to offer. It is a super vibrant city in which you can find anything cultural at any time: from great street graffiti to the Detroit Institute of Art (one of the best museums in the country, and not just for their collection of Italian masters or for their incredible exhibits, like their most recent one on Artemisia Gentileschi and the women painters of the 1500-1800); you can find amazing small concerts of jazz or rap or go to the Detroit Opera House or the Detroit Symphony. Detroit is effervescent but often overlooked.
Then there was the business aspect. Great Italian companies represented here and an incredible business community that comes with the territory. There are strong economic ties between Michigan and Italy, we are their second European partner in terms of trade. Investment wise, from data collected by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the average investment of Italian companies between 2017-2021 was 26.9m$. So there is already a strong presence, but there is also huge potential to increase these ties exponentially.
And with this already fortunate assignment, I am also able to learn from the best: Ambassador Mariangela Zappia, a trailblazer that has broken ever single glass ceiling and presently the first woman to serve as Ambassador to the USA.
What idea have you had of Italy in Michigan in these months?
I have yet to meet someone that doesn’t love at least one aspect of Italy: the food, the wine, the landscape, the art and the antiquities. It is one of the – if not THE - preferred tourist destination of the Michiganders that I have met. However, if you look beyond the business community to the broader public, many still don’t know how technological and innovative contemporary Italy is.
I always ask people “do you equate Italy with space?”. I then go on to explain that 40% of anything present in the International Space Station is Made in Italy. And I continue in other sectors “did you know that the world’s largest player in renewable energy is Italian and we are the first circular economy in Europe?” … “did you know Italian companies spend more in R&D than any other European country?” … “Did you know that of the top 100 luxury brands, 24 are Italian”… And although many did not know, they are starting to now, and that is why I love what I do…
What are the other States that are part of your Consular district, and what differences have you seen between them?
The jurisdiction of the Consulate of Italy in Detroit is obviously Michigan, but also Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. Kentucky and Tennesse I have yet to visit, so I cannot speak to those States yet. One thing that I have however seen is the outstanding pride that the Italian and Italian American communities have for our Country. So rather than a difference, that is a unifying fact.
As far as differences go, I think it is more relevant to pockets within States that as a whole. I can give the example of Ohio. Cleveland has a longstanding Italian immigration, a wonderful “Little Italy”, and they have estimated 110,000 Americans of Italian descent in the Cuyahoga county along. I went to Cincinnati and there is a much more recent immigration there, doctors and researchers in the medical field, as well as a younger business community involved in Italian companies tied to automation. So very different communities, but very proud of their origins, whether they be recent or going back generations. And since all of them are incredibly “Italy proud”, I’ve called upon all of them to act as spokespeople to what Italy not only was but is and will be!
The history of Italian emigration to the United States tells us that many Italians settled in the areas under the jurisdiction of your Consulate. Who were these Italians, where did they come from and where did they go in “your” areas?
It is estimated that from 1880 until 1940, over 4 million left Italy for the United States. The growing industry and opportunities of the Great Lakes states and the midwest began drawing many Italian immigrants to the region. Michigan became home to many Italian miners in the Upper Peninsula as well as industrial workers in the burgeoning industrial growth of the years at the close of the 19th Century and the early years of the 20th Century. Ohio cities also became home to tens of thousands of immigrants from all regions of Italy, and the areas that go from Cleveland to Akron to Youngstown are estimated to be 40% of Italian heritage. Northern Kentucky became home to significant numbers of immigrants, as did Tennessee and Indiana. These migrants were largely from Sicily, Abruzzo, Campania and Sardegna.
By the later 20th Century, Italy had achieved its’ economic miracle. Italians no longer were emigrating in large numbers to the United States. Indeed, some Italian Americans were migrating back to the land of their ancestors. As trade and business have become global, many highly skilled and well-educated Italians are resident in the United States as representatives of their business or professions. These individuals are engineers or professionals who are stationed at their company’s American outlets, usually on a temporary basis. Thus, the ties between Italy and the United States have become tighter.
In the 21st Century a large number of young Italians are enriching America by contributing their skills and culture to the betterment of American business and society. This later type of immigration is much more varied, having all regions represented, and with a higher percentage of individuals coming from the northern regions, especially from Torino, giving the strong links with the automotive sector that the city of Detroit holds.
How is Made in Italy doing in the areas of your competence? Is there room for new products and new Italian companies?
Did you know that Detroit is the only UNESCO city of design in the United States? The links between Italy and Detroit are just beginning to see the potential and I am very much focusing on Made in Italy. There has been a recent trend from Italy focusing on Detroit: Bottega Veneta had their global fashion show here last October; Gucci is about to open their flagship downtown; other brands which I cannot name are also coming to town… And where fashion goes, others follow.
We knew of the great interest that Italian products have here and decided that our Italian Design Day in March would feature world renowned Architect Roberto Palomba, who is also a designer of some of the best products to come out of our Country by brands such as Poltrona Frau, Kartell, Foscarini, Flos, etc etc. Instead of 1 event we had 5, each geared to a different audience. The response was outstanding. From students to members of the local elite, everyone has asked us for more. And that is what we are going to give them in September.
The Italian language is fundamental in the narration of the culture but now also of the commerce that comes from our country. I know that in Michigan there is a chapter of the Dante Alighieri Society that is very active...
Let it be known that Italian is the 4th most taught language in the world (it is only the 6th in the US, so we could do a little better on this front). This fact alone is incredible considering our Country is only 0.5% of the global territory. So why is that so?
Italy has always been the cradle (today we could say the “incubator”) of an amazing creativity, a great passion for life and for its aesthetic celebration: the majestic beauty of ancient Rome and the Florence of Dante, Michelangelo and Raffaello; the peculiarities of landscapes shaped by centuries of collective work, which have brought the goodness of Italian cuisine and wine, the birth of opera and classical music, the art in the production of design objects and artistic crafts. The Italian language is integral in being able to understand all of this. But moreover, it is an incredibly beautiful language.
And as we all know, and has been extensively documented in the literature, cultural proximity has a remarkable influence on bilateral trade flows. Language and culture are tools for commerce. This is why I place so much emphasis on cultural promotion.
I am so proud of our Michigan Chapter of the Dante Alighieri Society. They are truly an incredible group of women (there is a lot of “girl power” in Detroit!) lead by President Lia Adelfi. I call them my “partners in crime” in all things Italian, because they really do so much in terms of initiatives and cultural promotion. So a big “grazie” to them for all that they do!
I also have a wonderful NOI Foundation, through which the Italian government funds the promotion of the Italian language classes in over 30 schools (at a high school and middle school level). This is especially important to those 2 and 3 generation Italians, allowing for grandchildren to speak to their nonni in their native tongue and reconnecting them to their roots.
The last two and a half years have been terrible. You came to Detroit in the middle of the pandemic, and I imagine it wasn't easy. Are usual activities and what we use to call “normal life” starting up again, or is it still too early?
The Consulate in Detroit never closed during the Pandemic, even during the lockdown, so the Consulate was able to assist and support where necessary, especially in the most difficult moments. Having started my tenure on September 1st, I was fortunate to arrive when many of the restrictions had been lifted, and there was a genuine interest of people to reconnect in person. I think that it was vital for me to meet relevant officials, institutions, companies and members of the community, because it is through these relations that my job can be carried out. But it’s a “new normal”, with protocols in place, to help balance on the one hand the desire to gear up interactions, and on the other hand to limit potential exposures amongst staff.
What plans are there in the future of the Italian Consulate in Detroit?
To continue what we do best. The Consulate’s essence is divided in two, on the one hand to provide services and assistance to the Italian community, and on the other hand, to promote Italian culture and business. Luckily, the staff at the Consulate is absolutely outstanding, which allows me to focus more on the latter of the two. This year we have 25 events in the books, everything from concerts to literature to cuisine by ways of cinema and art. But the project I am most proud of it: Love IT Detroit (and you can have a sneak peek at www.loveitdetroit.com). It will be a platform through which to convey the more contemporary idea of Italy that I mentioned before.
For the whole month of September we will have a fabulous installation designed by Architect Palomba in the premier space in downtown Detroit (1001 Woodward, generously granted to us by Bedrock). It will be populated with some of the most incredible Made in Italy products, and we will have sectoral events with speakers from Italy as well as local stakeholders. In parallel to the event to be held in Detroit, there will be a highly engaging virtual exhibition - where the virtual and real world interact.
The Love IT Detroit Metaspace, created by Wedoo (an international innovation company with offices in Turin and Rome, but also here in Michigan), will be a digital twin of the physical environment and is built using a platform developed in Unreal Engine (the same technology used for famous video games such as Fortnite), which will allow guests to "live" an immersive and interactive experience, exploring the key underlying themes. With 24/7 access, visitors will be able to visit the virtual space, interacting with the exhibitions and brands at their own pace, and at the same time this will make the event truly global and accessible to all.
It doesn’t end there. We have a lot more in store. We want to see more @ItalyInDetroit (that is our social media handle, and I would love it if all your readers could follow us to find out more about what we have in store) but it’s also very much about more Detroit in the world. Let’s build more bridges, in highly experiential, collaborative, passion fueled, multidimensional, multisensory, extraordinary ways!