It is amazing to wander around the United States and discover that in places where one would think there were no traces of our country, there is instead a community proud of its Italian roots, people who are committed to celebrating and representing Italy. In the American collective imagination, Iowa is one of the states farthest from the populated cities of the two coasts: wide open spaces, an agricultural economy, no skyscrapers or subways. For the Italians who live in Italy, then, more or less know the only thing known about Iowa is that it is famous for being the state where the primaries for the presidential elections begin.
Instead, in the Hawkeye State there is Italy, our culture, our people. To tell us about it, on their behalf, we welcome Paolo Bartesaghi: a friend who is also the Ambassador of We the Italians in Des Moines, but above all the President of the Italian American Cultural Center of Iowa.
Paolo, first of all please tell us your story, from Lecco, Lombardy to Des Moines, IA
I was born in Lecco, located on the Lake of Como, but grew up in Milan. After completing high-school I consider these two cities my hometown; one family related and the other one work and friends related. In Milan, I worked in a travel agency briefly and then I began my career in the fashion industry where I remained for over 20 years. These were exciting times in Italy and the fashion industry was booming during this period. I had the unique opportunity to collaborate with some of the most prestigious fashion houses and accessory companies at the time, including Giorgio Armani, Luciano Soprani, Krizia, Sharra Pagano, Donatella Pellini, and others.
During my travels throughout the US I fell in love with Iowa and its’ friendly people. I returned frequently to this area many times before deciding to become an investor in this State. So many people asked, “Why did you choose Iowa?” and I always reply with, “Why not?” In 1997, at the age of 40, I moved to Iowa and opened a retail store in a historic area of Des Moines. From there, I had the opportunity to open two more stores. The store was originally selling only Italian women’s fashion and home accessories directly imported from Italy. A few years ago, I closed the stores and began dedicating my time returning to my first job in the travel industry by organizing boutique trips to Italy. Naturally, throughout these years I became involved with various community organizations and non-profits.
You have been a member of the Board of Directors for the Italian American Cultural Center of Iowa for more than 15 years and has served as President since 2016. Please tell us more about the history and the present of this wonderful organization
I became aware of the Italian American Cultural Center as soon as I moved to Des Moines. They held an annual Heritage Festival during my first summer here that I attended and enjoyed. Soon after I was asked to join their Board of Directors and willingly accepted. This Organization was started from a small group of proud Italian immigrants who wanted to show the community the importance of their Italian heritage and culture. Their mission to promote, preserve and provide education about all aspects of the rich Italian American culture to the Des Moines metropolitan area and the State of Iowa is as strong today as it was in the beginning.
The present Organization is very busy in creating a site that will attract people and businesses from all over the US. We plan to be the “go-to” place for all things Italian.
I am proud to be a part of this organization and help it grow in prominence and importance.
You also have a museum…
Yes, we have a museum. Our museum is large and varied and includes historical artifacts relative to the Italians who immigrated to Iowa to work in the coal mines and railroads, and early settlements that included Italian cuisine and lifestyle. One can see regional costumes, historic shoemaking machinery, sewing machines, and culinary artifacts. It also has newer items that showcase Italy’s world renown art. A proud moment of ours was a few years ago, when the Cultural Center hosted the Italian Ambassador from Washington D.C. He expressed how impressed he was with our museum and how it was just one of a few he had seen in the United States that so well represented Italian culture and the Italian immigration period.
With the purchase of our new building, we will expand our museum by creating interactive displays that will showcase our ancestors. We will also offer traveling museum displays. We will also be able to present more educational classes in art, cooking, and the Italian language. Our traditional Italian Celebrations will flourish.
Yes, the new building… recently the Italian American Cultural Center of Iowa purchased the building where the center will relocate… it’s a big step!
Indeed, it is a giant step for the Italian American Cultural Center of Iowa and one that will not only enhance the presence of ‘all things Italian’ in the State of Iowa, but bring a historical building back to life.
The vision for this project is three-fold:
1) Preserve Iowa’s history by preserving this historic building. Tours will be available for the public to appreciate just how unique this structure is and learn about Iowa’s history.
2) This mansion will become a destination point for the State of Iowa, opening its doors for public use. This building will feature two large convention/banquet halls, several smaller meeting rooms, a projection room, an education center, an art studio and an outdoor courtyard, that will attract businesses and people to Iowa.
3) Our mission to preserve and promote our Italian heritage will vastly expand with the opportunity to showcase an interactive museum featuring our Italian ancestors from all over Iowa and traveling museum tours, a vineyard, an educational center for language and cooking classes and an art studio to teach Italian arts. A store will feature Italian products, a café will offer Italian beverages as well as food prepared with Italian herbs and vegetables grown in our garden. The genealogy center will offer classes, Italian family histories and research sources.
How would you describe the Italian American community in Iowa? Are there places important for the community, or people who made the history of the Italian Americans in the Hawkeye State?
Italian immigrants began arriving in our State in the late 1800’s, with the majority arriving in the 1910 – 1920’s. Many arrived seeking labor work, but soon became pioneers in the business industry. Today, many Italians hold prominent positions throughout the State.
Currently there are three active Italian clubs in the Des Moines area.
Italian pride in our State runs deep. In addition to many local Italian-owned businesses, Iowa has numerous relationships with Italian companies that have their European headquarters in Italy. Barilla Pasta opened its US headquarters just 30 miles north of Des Moines. The State universities have various exchanges with Italy. Two of the major gasoline distributors in the Midwest are of Italian descent and they have their headquarters here. One of these had famed architect Renzo Piano design their headquarter building in downtown Des Moines. The Italian community is present in the past and also in the moment in its rejuvenation of Des Moines and Iowa.
How is Made in Italy in Iowa, is there room for more?
There is always room for more Made in Italy. When I first moved to Iowa, I found very little of “my Italy” present. Now, with the newer Italian generations arriving, this opportunity is growing all over the state. Naturally we need to thank our Italian ancestors for pioneering the way to make this happen with their vision and pride.
You have been for years the President of the Board of Directors of Iowa Sister States, and there is a program between Iowa and an Italian region, am I right?
I was involved for over 20 years with Iowa Sister States (not Cities). Iowa Sister States is one of the few states that has a signed protocol with nine countries around the world. The relationship that Iowa Sister States has is with the Veneto Region in Italy. This protocol was signed in 1998 by the governor and this has been active ever since. During most of my 20 years I was Chairman for the Veneto committee for Iowa Sister States. I was President elect for two years and then became President for two years of this Organization. The main purpose of Iowa Sister States is citizen diplomacy around the world.
There is a Christopher Columbus Monument on the south lawn of the Iowa State Capitol, and there’s people who want to take it down. Besides, Des Moines has a park dedicated to Columbus. What do you think about the attacks against Columbus, are they strong in Iowa?
Columbus Park is one of the original parks on the southside of Des Moines, an area where several immigrants purchased their first homes. Located next to St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, it was the site of annual Italian festivals and events.
The 1936 campaign to erect a Christopher Columbus State on the Capitol grounds was spearheaded by Anthony Sarcone, a prominent Italian immigrant from Crucoli, in the province of Crotone in Calabria. Mr. Sarcone was also publisher of the 1st Italian language newspaper in this area, Il Risveglio.
The Italian American Cultural Center of Iowa adheres to a policy to not express political opinion.
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