Gino Serra (Italian Honorary Vice Consul in Kansas City)

L'Italia in Kansas: Caravaggio, una storia di emigrazione e un nuovo progetto per far crescere gli scambi commerciali

Jun 22, 2015 5296 ITA ENG

"I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore" used to say Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz". Well, today we actually are: we're in Kansas City, shared between Kansas and Missouri, where we meet the guest of our interview. Gino Serra is the Italian Honorary Vice Consul here.

Even in the Midwest area, Italians left their mark and continue to do that, as we'll see. Now, together with other professionals, Gino has founded a new Italian Chamber of Commerce, in Kansas City. We thank him for his work, and his kindness in answering to our questions. We do are in Kansas!

Consul Serra, which are the activities of your Honorary Consulate, and which are the areas covered by it?

I'm the Vice Consul for the state of Kansas, but practically speaking I also cover western Missouri, because there is a vice consul in Saint Louis who covers the eastern part of Missouri, and then I also cover adjoining states like Nebraska and Oklahoma. People who use our services are either American citizens who are going to visit Italy or Italian citizens.. The closest General Consulate is in Chicago, and I think it's the one which covers the highest number of States among the Italian Consulates in the United States: a very broad area.

I do a lot of students' visas, particularly this time of the year. There are many students who want to study abroad, in Italy, and the Italian Consulate makes it very easy for them to come to a Vice Consul, which means for many of them driving to Kansas City and not flying to Chicago: they sign the visa application in front of me and I apply the Italian Consul's stamp and so they don't have to travel to their consulate, they can just send the paper work, including the passport, and then it comes back with the visa stamp. In some other cases it is more difficult: for example, in certain situations, when the request is for a work visa, they have to go to Chicago.

Then, I do a lot of certifications, legalizations, just basically confirming that those in front of me who are signing a document are actually who they say they are. There is a wide variety of areas where this can happen: somebody who receives an Italian pension every year have to certify that he or she is alive and doesn't have other source of income; somebody who inherits from Italy; those who are pursuing Italian citizenship; those who want to get married in Italy, for which there's a whole process to go through; general assistance to Italian citizens who happen to be in our jurisdiction, whether if they live here or they are just passing through. An example: if somebody from Italy rents a car and is driving here and gets stopped by a police officer, when he says "I need to see your drive license" they present an Italian drive license. The police officer doesn't understand the document, maybe he thinks that it could be a case of illegal immigration, and that's when I have to call and talk to the police officer and explain that they are temporarily allowed - as visitors - to use their own drive license here.

Last November the Italian Ambassador to the US Claudio Bisogniero travelled to Kansas City. It was the first time in over 50 years, the Consul general from Chicago Adriano Monti was also here, and I assembled all, organized all the visits, to cultural institutions, businesses, associations: this is the part of representation of Italy. I am in the Consular Corps, here in Kansas City we have 25 countries represented. So, those are our general activities. It's a Honorary Vice Consulate, not a paid position: it's something that I just volunteer for. It takes a little time each week but I'm happy to do it. I started in March 2010, my father was the previous Vice Consul and when he reached the mandatory retirement age he asked me if I wanted to do it and I said yes: so I went to Chicago to be interviewed, attend a few meetings and then they agreed to appoint me.

Are there many Italian citizens in your area?

It's always difficult to answer because Italian citizens are required to register with AIRE at the relevant Consulate, but not all do. In terms of Italian citizens there's two groups, essentially: those older, who have been here for a long long time; and then the younger citizens, who have come here recently, for work or because they've married somebody from this area. But, my sense is that probably it could be between a hundred and two hundred, maximum.

About the Italian Americans that's a way larger number, because Kansas City and St. Louis were two very large destinations for Italian immigrants for hundred years. So, the Italian American population is big, but we're talking about third, maybe fourth generation Italians, who in some cases have lost their connection with Italy. I would say at least 250,000 people of Italian heritage live in Kansas and Missouri.

What's their story?

Just like other cities in the United States, Kansas City and Saint Louis had many Italians arriving during the big waves, late 1800 and early 1900, then between the wars, and then after World War II: pretty much the immigration stopped in the 1960/70s.In Kansas there are different industries, it depends on which city you went to. Kansas City was a big meat packing distribution area; Chicago was the largest, but for a long time right behind it was Kansas City. Nowadays we also are the second largest commercial rail hub in the United States. We have every major rail line coming through here, and used to have a lot of livestock brought to market here. So, because of that there were a lot of stockyards and slaughter houses, and the meat packing business was huge.

So, Italians came and worked in the meat packing industry and in the rail industry. A lot of Italians came to work in those industries. Then there was southeast Kansas, places like Pittsburg, where there was a lot of immigration from Italy because of the numerous coal mines: these coal companies went all over Europe, especially southern and eastern Europe, to recruit mine workers. Entire villages were basically emptied out and brought to the US, some of them in Kansas. They had come to the United States and so in Kansas you had Italian mine workers not only in the deep shaft but also a lot of surface mining.

Are there places that remember the Italian presence in Missouri and Kansas?

In Kansas City and in St. Louis we both have Little Italy neighborhoods, just like other cities. In Kansas City it's the north part of downtown, called "The North End". Historically it was where the Italian community lived: but then, as happened elsewhere, a lot of highways were built around downtown. They essentially destroyed this neighborhood by putting a highway right in the middle of the city. The Italians didn't have the power nor the money to fight this, so around the 40s or the 50s they started shifting outside the city center, north or north east, into the suburbs. So, that's where Italians are now. The North End is still very active these days, but the vast majority of Italian American population has spread everywhere.

Is there an anecdote that you'd like to tell to explain one aspect of the relationship between Italy and your area?

I'm going to tell you a few of them. We have the largest World War I Museum in the world, here in Kansas City. It honors all of the combatants, not just from one particular country. It opened in 1921, soon after the end of the war, and that was the first time that all the allied generals teamed together in the same place, including General Armando Diaz, who travelled all the way from Italy to Kansas City.

Another story is about 1955. Alberto Sordi visited Kansas City and he received the honorary citizenship, because of his character in "Un americano a Roma", who always told people "sono di Kansas City" (I am from Kansas City). So he came, there's a video where he has a cowboy hat, he's waiving his gun around, and we made him honorary citizen.

Something more recent: we have a collaboration between the University of Missouri and the city of Rome, the Musei Capitolini in Rome: they have shifted over to Missouri dozens of crate boxes filled with hundreds of thousands of artifacts dating back to the start of the Roman Empire; the collaboration is called "Hidden treasures of Rome". As a result of the Italian unification in 1870 large parts of Rome were being tore down to make new government buildings and other public work projects. So, they found mass of quantities of archeological material, and there was no time to go through everything, so everything was just boxed up, literally for a hundred year and put in a warehouse. They never had the time or the money to go through everything, so they came upon the idea to collaborate with the University of Missouri which had a large archeological program, and said "we will provide you with all this stuff if you agree to have your students study, catalog and restore them. So, that's what is going to happen for the next few years, everything is already being shipped and so now we have this large project in Missouri, going through all the hundreds of thousands of artifacts.

We have other examples of the connection between this area and Italy ... there's a lot of architecture in Kansas City, a large number of Italian immigrants came with amazing artistic skills. So, there are a lot of old buildings here, and you often time find that it was a group of Italian that worked as stonemasons there.

We also have a wonderful art museum in Kansas City, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, with so many works from Italy. My favorite is Caravaggio and his Saint John the Baptist, which is outstanding. Then, we have a wonderful new Performing Art Center and this fall the Chicago Symphony, directed by Riccardo Muti is coming in.

We have important Italian companies represented here, like Finmeccanica and Enel, and they are very active in this area; they are the ones who sponsored the programs with the University of Missouri, and they also have a large number of wind farms in Kansas.

You also are in the board of the recent established Italian American Chamber of Commerce of Kansas City: it is incredible how our being Italian never stops to give birth to wonderful projects like this, confirming how much room there is all over the US to improve the promotion of Italian products, and not only in the main cities on the two coasts. Please tell us something more about this.

Yes, the Chamber of Commerce is a very new institution. Besides me, the founders are Giorgio Antongirolami, Emilia Carlson, Maria Cristina Pilla, Antonio Soave, Stefano Radio and Paola Ghezzo. We have a big history with Italy, for sure, but because we don't have a large current flow of Italians, the connection with Italy can get lost. Places like San Francisco don't have the problem because I think every young Italian says: "I'd love to go work in California". They know the two coasts, but they have no idea of what's going on in the middle of the country and most of the immigrants tend to go where there are others like them. So, they may go to New York, they may go to Boston, Chicago, they may go to Miami and then they jump all the way to California.

Our idea is to create a bridge between this part of the country and Italy, renew those ties and promote this part of the country in Italy. There are a lot of opportunities here, there's a support system, and an Italian American community that needs to try to rekindle the connection, and make Italy relevant in the daily life of the younger generation through the language, the culture, the business. There have been probably hundreds of Italian American organizations over the last 100 years. Every little town, every little area of Italy – especially from the south - that sent their immigrants to Kansas started up an organization. The vast majority no longer exists; now we probably have just 3 or 4. They are at risk by now, as their members are getting older and their sons and daughters are not there, they are not getting active. Other organizations are essentially dedicated just to the social aspect, which is important: but for somebody 20 years old it may not be enough, to maintain the connection to Italy. They maybe want to learn the language, they probably want to travel to Italy, they want to reconnect to their relatives in Italy, they want to go, work and study in Italy. Things like that.

There's another aspect we are thinking about, to increase interaction between the recently arrived in the Italian community and the Italian American community that is already present here. As you know, sometimes these groups may not see each other as connected. I think there needs to be more connection between these two worlds. This is one of the most important ways for the Italians American community to reconnect with modern Italy, not just with the Italy that they maybe remember or the one their grandfather came from.

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