Paolo Battaglia (Author of the book and documentary "Italian American Country")

Benvenuti nell'"Italian American Country": un altro capolavoro di Paolo Battaglia

Jan 06, 2020 981 ITA ENG

What unites all the people I have had the good luck to interview is their relationship with an aspect of the marriage between Italy and America. Everyone experiences it from a different point of view, on this or that side of the ocean, and for We the Italians it is nice to meet people who are different in culture, sex, age, experience, tastes and values, with this common thread that links them to each other and to us.

Sometimes I have the pleasure of personally knowing the interviewee in person, as in this case, which is special to me. I met Paolo Battaglia a few years ago: he has the rare gift of combining curiosity and talent, humility and charisma, generosity and success. I have learned a lot from him about content and method, stubbornness and sacrifice, farsightedness and research. Allow me to have the special pleasure of welcoming and thanking him, here on We the Italians

Paolo, we met a few years ago, when you completed a historic and beautiful undertaking, culminating with the publication of the beautiful book "Explorers Emigrants Citizens: A Visual History of the Italian American Experience", also in the Italian edition entitled "Trovare l’America". It is a milestone in the literature that tells the story of the Italian experience in the United States. Can you tell us how it was born and what the contents are? 

“Explorers Emigrants Citizens” was one of those adventures that really makes you think that the USA still has something more to offer to those who have dreams. My dream as an Italian micro-publisher specializing in photographic books was to publish an illustrated story about the Italian presence in America. To make it a reality, I tried to aim high: I wrote to the Library of Congress in Washington proposing a joint research on everything Italian American they had in their endless collections. The surprising thing for those of us who are used to navigating between contacts and recommendations is that after a few weeks the offices of the Library of Congress answered me saying they were interested in my project.

After two years of work with their researchers, in autumn 2013 “Explorers Emigrants Citizens” was published, enriched by the contribution of Martin Scorsese who wrote the preface.

The book tells, with more than 500 images, the parable of Italians in America addressing, three major issues. It opens with "Explorers" that examines the first centuries of European colonization when the few Italians who arrived were travelers, soldiers of fortune, missionaries and fortune seekers. These are sometimes names that have entered history books such as Giovanni da Verrazzano, the first European to enter New York Bay, and sometimes lesser-known personalities such as Carlo Gentile, one of the first photographers to portray the natives of the Southwest.

Then we continue with the most consistent chapter entitled "Emigrants", which traces the decades in which hundreds of thousands of Italians arrived every year at Ellis Island; decades in which our countrymen in America had to fight against discrimination and, in some cases, the open racism of Americans, and in which the foundations of the Italian American culture were forged.

The book closes with the chapter "Citizens" which deals with the epoch-making passage in which the children and grandchildren of emigrants are fully integrated into American culture and society, becoming fundamental protagonists of American development in every field, from politics to culture and sport.

In this book you collaborated with Mario Mignone: a wonderful Italian American, a professor with a big heart, an Italian so proud of his roots, who unfortunately left us a few months ago. We ask you for a memory of Mario, whom many readers of We the Italians have known and appreciated

One of the most important legacies of the work done to achieve “Explorers Emigrants Citizens” is the extraordinary people I met during my research. Mario was certainly the person who, together with the co-author of the book, Linda Barrett Osborne - 100% Italian American in spite of her name - I felt closest to in these years.

His great experience, passion and sensitivity almost naturally led me to ask for his advice when I wanted to undertake some new project. And while he was always very committed to the activities of the Center for Italian Studies in Stony Brook, he was always available to offer advice and encouragement. Also last year, before facing the coast to coast that allowed me to conclude the project "Italian American Country", I had been his guest for a couple of days and, discussing with him, I was able to focus on some important aspects of this new work of mine.

We were supposed to meet last October at the end of my American presentation tour, but unfortunately the news of his sudden death reached me in California. I feel that I have lost not only a teacher, but also and above all, a good friend.

Your new work is called "Italian American Country" and it's both a book and a documentary (here the trailer in English, here the one in Italian). In my opinion it's another masterpiece, and it tells stories of Italians in the American regions, far from the big cities...

Thank you for calling it a masterpiece. I don't know if it is. But I'm sure it's a unique work, at least for the past century. It had been since 1905, when Italian Ambassador Edmondo Mayor Des Planches crossed the United States to visit the most isolated Italian communities since anyone bothered to see what it means and what it has meant to be Italian far from the great cities of the Northeast.

A fundamental part of this project was the journey: replacing the rails on which the ambassador's private carriage was travelling with the asphalt of the highways, I travelled for over 15,000 miles, meeting and interviewing over one hundred people and visiting dozens of places that have - or have had - a role in the history of Italian emigration. From Barre in Vermont, where the stonemasons from Carrara brought their art and their political ideas, to Pittsburg in California, where the Latin sails of the fishermen from Isola delle Femmine conquered rivers and oceans. From Valdese, founded by Piedmontese Protestants who moved their community from the Alps to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, to Denver, which is now a large city, but that in the late nineteenth century when the Italians began to arrive was still a frontier outpost. Another goal that I hope to have achieved with this work, especially with the documentary, is to finally give voice to the descendants of those who, for various reasons, instead of stopping in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, arrived in Paradise Valley, in the middle of the Nevada desert, or founded Tontitown, in Arkansas, after escaping the semi-slavery of the Sunnyside plantation.

A few days ago I received a beautiful compliment: somebody told me that they appreciated the documentary because it was not made to support a thesis. And that's right: the documentary was made to listen, not very fashionable today, I know, but certainly useful to try to understand experiences different from ours. To listen to the voices, the testimonies, the memories of those who are Italian in an America far from the big cities.

You have presented your new book and your documentary in different rural areas of the United States. What difference have you found, if there is one, between the Italians there and those in the cities where you presented your first book?

I believe that the substantial isolation from the rest of the Italians in America in which the communities in rural areas have lived has made them somehow more tied to the memory of Italy and its traditions than to the Italian American culture that has developed in the big cities. And it is perhaps for this reason that the welcome they have given me has always been extraordinary.

As I write in the afterword, I was struck by the “joy with which they had shared their stories with a perfect stranger, just because he had arrived with the promise that for once those stories could also be heard in the Old Country. There had been laughter and tears; there was humor, sadness, pride, but above all the desire to share with someone to whom they felt a natural connection for an innate sense of common Italianism that I discovered thanks to them.”

Can you tell us a couple of curious anecdotes you discovered during your new adventure?

In every place I have visited I have met people and events worth remembering here, but if I have to choose some, I will limit myself to those who have made me feel that the Italians have also been part of the history of the American border.

I continue to suffer that childish fascination born many years ago reading books and comics or watching movies about the epic of the Wild West, and therefore could not leave me indifferent to being in Paradise Valley, Nevada (a town that, according to its inhabitants, is still "at the end of the world") and finding myself interviewing Kevin Pasquale, who presented himself with the clothing and stage presence of John Wayne and, looking at the horizon, listed the ranches owned by families descended from Piedmontese emigrants like him.

Or the story told by the volunteers of the Tontitown Historical Museum in Arkansas, where the men who arrived in those remote places from Emilia Romagna, Veneto and Marche had been forced to face outlaws disguised as Indians, who had burned the first church of the Italian community.

Or finally, the arrival after twelve miles traveled on dirt roads - and a hundred and twenty on almost completely deserted roads - in the ghost town of Dawson, New Mexico, where the only company is that of rattlesnakes of which you are warned by a sign, and the only noise is the creaking of the gate of the cemetery where more than 100 Italian miners are buried, who died at the beginning of the twentieth century when the city was one of the most flourishing mining centers in the region.

In Italy we have a saying: "Non c’è due senza tre” (There is not two without three). Is there a third job about the Italian Americans in your future? We really hope so...

Obviously I would like to continue to tell other stories of Italians in America and I always find new clues and new tracks that should be followed. But as you can imagine, they are projects that are difficult to sustain for a micro-publisher like me, so a lot will depend on the results that we will be able to achieve with "Italian American Country".

On the other hand, I have already started another project, much lighter in its contents, which puts the American culture in contact with the Italian one. It's called "Foodball High" and it's inspired by my passion for American football: last September, I brought to San Diego a group of four young Italian football players - three of them also wore the blue shirt of the Italian team at the European Championships - with their coach who is also a cook in everyday life. Our goal was to start a sort of "cultural barter", football for food, between our boys and the student players of a high school. On the one hand the Italian boys would participate in the training of the football team, experiencing what it means to practice that sport in its homeland; on the other hand they would teach their American teammates to cook typical Italian recipes.

A project that, as you can see, is very different from the previous ones but that, beyond the recreational-sports aspect, has allowed us to reflect on how much our food culture, not only of what we eat but also of how we eat it and how we prepare it, is an aspect that always identifies us. If all goes well (fingers crossed) "Foodball High" should see the light as a documentary by mid 2020.

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