Anna Marra (Teacher of Italian language and culture in New Hampshire)

L'Italia nel New Hampshire, tanta storia e tanto amore

Jul 13, 2021 1175 ITA ENG

Italian emigration to the United States came, of course, initially to the East Coast. Then the Italians spread throughout America, but many remained on the Atlantic coast. Not all of them, however, settled in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut. Some went north and stayed in Rhode Island, others further up Massachusetts, others even continued north to New Hampshire. 

New Hampshire, the Granite State, is the protagonist of this interview, another stop on our tour of Italy in America. We are joined by a dear friend, who is also the Ambassador of We the Italians in this state: Anna Marra is a young Italian who is very committed to teaching Italian language and culture, and to researching the history of Italy in New Hampshire. We welcome her and thank her for what she does for our country.

Anna, first of all, please tell me about yourself. Where are your origins in Italy, and when and how did you come to the United States?

I am from Cervignano del Friuli, a town near Udine, in the North-East part of Italy. I moved to the U.S. in 2012 because I was accepted into the Ph.D. program in Italian Language and Literature at Yale University. I completed my dissertation titled Dante and Meditation and fell in love with documentary filmmaking. After spending some time teaching at the University of Connecticut, I joined the University of New Hampshire, where I now teach Italian language, literature, culture, and cinema.

You have been working in New Hampshire for only two years, but you clearly care about the promotion and diffusion of Italian culture. Can you tell us about some of the ways in which you do that through your work?

I am convinced that one of the secrets to living a rich life is to stay connected with the land – where you come from and where you live. Teaching gives me a wonderful opportunity to meet students interested in exploring their Italian heritage and their love for Italian traditions. As soon as I started my job at UNH, one of my top priorities was to create a collaboration between students and members of Italian American Societies in New Hampshire. These members cherish their Italian identity and their mission is to share and preserve Italian culture.

For my Italian American Lab, students were involved in hands-on research within the community in order to investigate the implications of being Italian American as it relates to several broader topics, including gender, culture, and politics. Along with my colleagues, I designed a project called Italian American Foodways. As part of this project, I am directing and producing a short documentary exploring diverse and underrepresented facets of Italian American identity in New Hampshire. This involves the active participation of Italian American Societies. This fall, the Italian Studies Program will participate in an event sponsored by the Consulate General of Italy in Boston. We will host a short Film Festival as part of the Rassegna del Cinema in New England 2021. And while on the subject of cinema, I want to mention the work of two of my esteemed colleagues - Amy Boyle and Nicole Gercke – who have been organizing the Cinema Ritrovato on Tour for the past three years.

Please tell us about the “Italian American Roots”: it’s a magazine you created with your students, right?

Last spring, I had the privilege of teaching a research seminar to a group of very talented students. During the semester, we worked on a collaborative project: the creation of an online magazine, Italian American Roots. Each student contributed with his or her expertise, time, and energy, exploring a lesser-known aspect of Italian culture and how it shaped the culture of New England. They wrote different articles covering a variety of topics related to Italian American identity. These topics included: family, history, art, food, and society.

The mission of Italian American Roots is to study, share, and document the legacy of Italy as it continues to flourish on U.S. soil. We hope that as a result, readers will gain a greater appreciation of Italian American culture and the underrepresented facets of its distinctiveness. Finally, I am currently working on creating a website with the same title – Italian American Roots – in order to host our magazine and further collaborations between students and Italian Americans in New Hampshire.

Please tell me more about “Italian American Foodways”

This is an exciting project created in collaboration with all of my colleagues - Amy Boylan, Piero Garofalo, Nicol Gercke, and Anna Wainwright - and the support of the UNH Center for the Humanities. The New Hampshire Italian American Foodways Project aims to dig deeper into the past and present of Italian food in the United States, and particularly into the Italian American foodways of New Hampshire. Through research, interviews, hands-on workshops by well-known N.H. Italian American chefs, public panel discussions, and a documentary film, this project will help preserve Italian American food traditions in New Hampshire for future generations.

To kick off our event calendar in the spring, I organized two events: a talk by the beloved chef and TV host Mary Ann Esposito titled “There is no such Thing as Italian Food” - I am proud to say that more than 350 people signed up for the event - and a cooking demonstration with Chef Johnny Paolini. During this second event, Johnny, the owner of the restaurant Piccola Italia in Manchester (N.H.), taught the participants how to cook some of the most famous dishes from his menu. We are organizing many more events in the fall. Finally, I want to mention that the project received funding from the New Hampshire State Consul on the Arts and their Folklife and Traditional Arts grant program.

I understand that with your students, you are also creating a website about some Italian Americans in a specific field, right?

This summer, thanks to the New Hampshire Humanities Collaborative-Mellon Grant, I was given the opportunity to work on a new project I really care about: creating a website that documents the often-overlooked history of Italian immigrants who fought for social justice and human rights. The project intends to shed light on these forgotten heroes and recover their writings, teachings, and stories so they can inspire us anew today. To complete this project, I am working with two talented interns - Melanie Watts and Katlynn Read.

Through this website, we seek to engage the public in a dialogue about the diverse experiences of immigrants and their fight for social justice in the U.S. This is a work in progress, so if any of the readers of We the Italians are interested in contributing to this project, they can email me at anna.marra@aya.yale.edu.

Let’s talk about Italy in New Hampshire. Who were the Italians who arrived there? Are there any places or people that have been or are still important to the Italian American community in the Granite State?

Although there are few studies on the presence of Italians in New Hampshire, according to the New England Historical Society, “New Hampshire ranks as the seventh most Italian state in the country. Nearly 11 percent of its residents say they have Italian ancestors.”

Portsmouth, a city on the Piscataqua River, had its own Little Italy called “North End” on Russel Street. Many arrived in the city searching for a job in the shoe and button factories, construction trades, or the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The North End neighborhood was destroyed in the early 1970s during urban renewal projects. What remains today of that Little Italy are just a few documents and pictures (preserved at the Portsmouth Public Library and the Strawbery Banke Museum), the memories of those who lived there, and a commemorative bench.

When it comes to important personalities in the area, I would like to mention Mary Ann Esposito. She is the author of 13 cookbooks and the creator and host of the PBS series Ciao Italia with Mary Ann Esposito. The program is America's longest-running television cooking series. In addition, she created The Mary Ann Esposito Foundation to support culinary students. For her tremendous role in sharing traditional Italian cooking and history with audiences worldwide, she received the title Cavaliere dell'Ordine della Stella d'Italia (Knight of the Order of the Star of Italy) from the President of the Italian Republic and won the Premio Artusi (Artusi Award).

Are there Italian or Italian American Associations?

There are four important Italian American Associations in New Hampshire.

The Bedford Italian Cultural Society, whose mission is “to preserve and promote Italian culture, language, history, cuisine, and traditions,” was started in 1995 by Dora Hastings and Joyce Traskler. Its members still meet today at the Bedford Library. They have a monthly meeting as well as a weekly conversation hour in Italian. To learn more about this society, one can read Jennifer Barbuto’s interview with Richard Floreani and John Caruso published in Italian American Roots in the spring of 2021.

The New Hampshire Lakes Region Italian Cultural Club is based in Laconia. Sometimes they meet at the club, but they also meet at other venues, such as a winery or museum in Boston. Club members get together monthly over dinner and usually invite a guest speaker who presents on subjects related to Italian culture. Occasionally, they run a community-wide event to promote Italian culture or the club.

Finally, there are the two Lodges of the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy in America – one in Portsmouth and one in Rochester – that are part of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. I recall that We the Italians published an article on the history of this national organization in 2019 on the 104th anniversary of its foundation.

Is “Made in Italy” famous in New Hampshire? Is it hard to find Italian products? Is there room for improvement?

I think that “Made in Italy” in New Hampshire is mostly manifested through the flavors and smells of the kitchen (the one made famous by Mary Ann Esposito). Italian food and wine are still the soul of what is perceived as “Italianness.” As the book The Milk of Almonds (edited by Edvige Giunta and Louise DeSalvo) has shown, the stories of Italian families and traditions are often associated with food and recipes. New Hampshire is abundant in Italian markets that offer well-known Italian products such as olive oil, cheese, and pasta, as well as more regional ones.

A good example of a successful marketing business is “Tuscan Market” with locations in both Portsmouth and Salem (the most Italian city in New Hampshire) and three others in Massachusetts. Just like the more popular Eataly, it makes both authentic ingredients available for sale and freshly-prepared foods, and it acts both as a restaurant and as a market. Improvement? It is always possible. Especially because the Granite State - with no sales tax or income tax – is the perfect place to start a business.

 

 

 

 

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