Rosalba Maniaci (Italian Consular Agent of New Mexico)

L'Italia in New Mexico: molto orgoglio italiano in un'avventura a volte molto difficile

Dec 14, 2015 5394 ITA ENG

What comes to mind when you hear the words "New Mexico?" Perhaps it's Mexican food, or chili ristras, or Southwest adobe style – in short, something to do with Hispanic heritage. But not for Rosalba Maniaci who, since 2009, has served as Corrispondente Consolare for the Italian Consulate of Los Angeles. Instead when Rosalba thinks "New Mexico," she thinks Italian immigration, the NM Italian Film & Culture Festival, strengthening ties between Italy and the Italo-New Mexican community, and promoting Italian culture.

Since her arrival in 1973, Rosalba's focus has been on keeping her Italian heritage alive in the Land of Enchantment. Over the years, she has served as President of several Italian organizations and as prime mover of many Italian-oriented celebrations and initiatives. We sat down with her recently to learn more about Italy in New Mexico. Special thanks to Maria Arancio Berry for facilitating this interview. Maria is the Managing Director of the annual NM Italian Film & Culture Festival and the author of Italy in New Mexico, a monthly newsletter about all things Italian in New Mexico.

Rosalba, please briefly describe us the Italian emigration to New Mexico

Italians, and other Europeans, began settling in the territory of New Mexico in the 1700s. They were part of wagon trains moving westward toward the coast and fertile valleys of California. Some became travel-weary or stranded, while others simply liked the area and decided to stay. It was not until the arrival of the railroad in the late 1800s, however, that the Italian immigrant population burgeoned in New Mexico.

At that time, Italians came chiefly from Northern Italy, many from well-respected families in Lucca and the surrounding areas – familiar names here even today: Franchini, Bachechi, Giannini, Matteucci and others. They were merchants and entrepreneurs who saw a blank slate of opportunity to launch businesses like grocery stores, hotels and theaters. Family members soon joined them and, as word spread back home, others followed to escape a bleak Italian economy, especially in the south. They came in droves to work in the mines, to build the railroads – to do whatever it took to make their way in the New World. Their contributions to the development of this state were significant.

Please tell us something about the tragedy that happened in Dawson, NM in 1913 when 263 miners, most of them Italian, died in a horrible accident.

Dawson was the site of the second deadliest mining disaster in US history. On October 22, 1913, a dynamite blast ignited coal dust in one of the 10 Dawson mines, causing an explosion and fire that took the lives of all but 23 men working in Stag Canyon No. 2.

Of the 263 miners killed, 146 were Italians who had come to the boom town looking for work and a bright future for their families. Dawson is now a ghost town, but every two years scores of New Mexicans gather there and in nearby Raton for official day-long commemorative activities to mark the disaster. On the 100-year anniversary of the Dawson Disaster, the Italian Consulate of Los Angeles presented a plaque in memory of Italian lives lost. My colleague, Italian Honorary Vice Consul Cav. Lino Pertusini, and I will continue to represent Italy and New Mexico's Italian population at all future Dawson Days.

Let's talk about today. Are there many Italian Americans in your state? And what about the new Italians who have just recently arrived in New Mexico?

Census records say that there are approximately 40,000 New Mexicans of Italian heritage here today. The accuracy of those records, however, can't be confirmed. Over past decades, many Italians married into the dominant Hispanic population. Their surnames have changed and their future generations have been absorbed into the Hispanic culture. In questionnaires and surveys, they may not characterize themselves as Italian, so we just don't know for sure.

In talking about Italians in New Mexico, it's important to note that, while this is the fifth largest state in terms of territory, it is very sparsely populated, with only a little over 2 million residents. So, we can't really boast of a "New Mexico Italian community" per se. Distances between towns and cities are vast and Italian communities exist in pockets, scattered across the state, predominantly in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Rio Rancho, Gallup, Farmington and Raton. Those pockets of Italians, however, are close-knit and active.
Native Italians continue to arrive in New Mexico, settling mostly in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The new arrivals are chiefly professional people who come to work in the state's national laboratories, or to teach in the Universities. Recent arrivals tend to be well-educated; some are students, while others are medical professionals and engineers.

Are there places or personalities of special importance when describing Italian heritage in New Mexico?

Certainly the most renowned Italian American personality in New Mexico history is former Senator Pete Domenici, who served our state for 36 years. Across the state, buildings, institutes, roadways and courthouses have been named in his honor. There's also the late Honorable Gene Franchini, who from 1990 - 2002 served as a Justice on the New Mexico Supreme Court – and as Chief Justice for two of those years. Families of the early Italian immigrants continue to be prominent in the political and economic fabric of our state, proudly carrying on family names like Menicucci and Rinaldi. In fact, countless members of the Rinaldi family have, for generations, served the town of Bernalillo and Sandoval County as County Commissioners, Town Administrators, Superintendent of Schools and District Court Program Coordinators – establishing a Rinaldi Italian family tradition!

Concerning places of importance to our Italian communities, they are spread far and wide like the Italian communities themselves. They exist as buildings that house Italian American clubs, or bocce courts in public parks where Italians, and others, gather to play. There are currently no Little Italies in New Mexico and no Italian Cultural Centers. This is something that I've dreamed of and worked toward for many years – a central gathering place with facilities to show films, conduct meetings, hold events. Again, the difficulty arises from the huge distances between towns and cities.

One of the most important events regarding our country in your state is the annual NM Italian Film & Culture Festival ...

The NM Italian Film and Culture festival will celebrate its 9th year in 2016. It's a multi-day fundraising benefit for the University of New Mexico Children's Hospital. As such, it's a meaningful way for Italians and lovers of all things Italian to give back to the state while exploring and celebrating Italian cinema and culture. The festival is the largest, longest running Italian event in the state, always much-anticipated and extremely popular. 2015 was a record year for the festival in both attendance and its donation to the hospital – now at a cumulative total of more than $230,000. Its success attests to the widespread and growing interest in Italian culture in New Mexico.

Is there room for Made in Italy products in New Mexico? Are our products appreciated? Which ones in particular?

Absolutely, there is room and interest in Made in Italy products here, and they are greatly appreciated. I'm aware of some local initiatives currently underway to bring an array of Made in Italy products to New Mexico and other states via the Internet.

Traditionally, I would say that food products have been the most popular – things like imported pasta and cheeses. Recently, high quality Italian olive oil has moved to the top of the list; and Italian wines are rapidly gaining in popularity. Imported Italian coffee has long been a favorite all over New Mexico. Gelato shops are popping up here and there. There are specialty shops in Albuquerque and Santa Fe that carry Italian ceramics and kitchen items and glassware. Imported Italian moka coffee-makers are big-sellers everywhere, as are Italian espresso machines.

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