Bill Cerruti and Patrizia Cinquini (Leaders of the Italian Cultural Society in Sacramento, CA)

Una grande organizzazione, un magnifico centro culturale, una bella storia da raccontare: benvenuti all'Italian Cultural Society di Sacramento in California

Feb 06, 2023 1867 ITA ENG

As is often the case in the United States, the capital of California is not the largest city, and in this case not even the second largest. Sacramento is home to the California government, and also to a very active center of Italian culture, really very committed to promoting every aspect of our country.

So, we welcome our guests in this new interview on We the Italians: Bill Cerruti and Patrizia Cinquini lead the Italian Cultural Society of Sacramento, and are also husband and wife. A perfect example of integration between an American of Italian descent and an Italian born in Italy and then emigrated to America. Then again, family is very important to us Italians, both here in Italy and around the world.

Hi Bill and Patrizia, please tell us about the story of the Carmichael Italian Center, the Italian Cultural Society 

Bill: The story of the Italian Cultural Society begins with my upbringing in East Sacramento, an area which was heavily populated by Italian Americans. Although my parents were both born and raised in San Francisco to Italian immigrant parents and did not speak English until they went to elementary school, I was raised in a household where my parents did not speak Italian. In fact, my parents never saw Italy.

I went to school with other Italian American kids in the 1950s, but we did not stick together despite our shared ethnic backgrounds. It was a period of post – World War II America and being ethnic was not the popular thing to be. That affected me and the other Italian American kids and our parents. As a result, while much of our home life was based on Italian American food, values and behavior, there was not an awareness that we were different from other Americans culturally other than their recognition of us as Italian. If anything, we wanted to be accepted and downplayed our ethnicity to avoid any stigma associated with Italians.

For the most part this worked for us even though there were still some negative criminal images of us that existed due to portrayals of Italian criminal organizations. But this was less of an influence on the West Coast and in California.

The result of this way of growing up was that we lacked an awareness of our heritage which was not being passed on. Our parents were mostly working class and not well educated.

As it turned out, things began to change in the 1960s when the larger numbers of Italian Americans began to go to college in numbers similar to the larger population. I was among that generation of college students.

Like so many I was from a family where I was the first generation to go to college. I later obtained a law degree.

It was also a time of upheaval due to the liberation movements of the 60s and the Vietnam war. I was forced to serve in that war after I graduated from college.

The racial movements of the era had an effect on me that caused me to look at how Italian Americans were being affected by the racial preferences that came with those movements. My consciousness about this issue was raised after I was directly turned down for legal jobs due to racial quotas.

By my mid – 30s I was taking more of an interest in finding common ground with other Italian Americans and began to join Italian American organizations. Unlike when growing up and I had run the other way, in my 30s I found that I was drawn to other Italian Americans and they to me at work and in my social life.

The local Italian American organizations I joined were social and charitable organizations. That was all that was offered. I realized something was missing for my generation as their activities did not fulfill my needs for purpose.

As I gained more contact with these organizations I found others who shared my desire and need to learn more about my Italian American heritage and for activities that reflected that need.

I began holding organizing meetings with people who shared my goals and took the lead in creating a new Italian organization based on a set of cultural goals. I incorporated the Italian Cultural Society in 1981 to establish a community organization that went beyond the club system or federations of clubs.

I had learned from experience that it was difficult to change the direction of the existing clubs who had their own programs of long duration and not able to change direction.

Within a year, I had assembled a group of interested Italian Americans, both older ones but a large number of younger ones in their 20s and 30’s. That first year we established an actual cultural center for activities in a rental space, started Italian language classes, an Italian film series, an Italian radio show, a lecture series, and social activities for a youth group that became a mainstay of the Society. The following year we established a community Italian festival and expanded the language program to include children’s classes. The Society added performing Italian Folk Dance troupes to its line up and currently sponsors both an adult performing group and a performing children’s dance troupe of some 2 dozen children between 6 and 16.

None of these programs existed in the Italian community until then, but the topics of those programs were not all new to the Italian community. For one thing, they reflected Italian traditions of the past that had existed in our community. Prior to World War II many similar programs had existed in the Italian community in Sacramento but had been eliminated by the wartime restrictions on Italian Americans in California and across the United States.

In a sense we recreated them to reclaim our heritage, lost during and after the war.

Over the ensuing years, The Italian Cultural Society became the dominant regional Italian organization in the Sacramento region.

In 2007, The Society built a new modern multi-million-dollar Italian Center in Sacramento after a ten-year fundraising campaign.

To preserve our history, the Society sponsored several exhibits to document 1) the history of the Italian American community of Sacramento, 2) the Italian American settlement of northern California during the Gold Rush of 1850, and 3) Italian Americans in the California State legislature from the Gold Rush to the present. These exhibits are on permanent display at the Italian Center.

The latest community achievement of the Society was obtaining recognition of the “Little Italy Historic District” in the East Sacramento area of Sacramento in 2021. The area once had a large concentration of Italians which had established a thriving community in the mid-20th century but has since lost much of its Italian identity.

It should be noted that when I told my mother that I was starting the Italian Cultural Society, she exclaimed “Billy, they are going to deport you.”

It was at that moment that I began to understand why we had downplayed our ancestry all those years. My parents had lived through the years of the prevailing discrimination against Italian Americans and deportations in the earlier part of the 20th nth century and through the war years when the Italians in California had been betrayed by the Government and declared to be the enemy. It was a time when they were considered to be disloyal although their only crime was being of Italian ancestry.

After the war it was not ok to be too Italian, as I learned later when promoting and sponsoring the “Una Storia Segreta” exhibit in Sacramento in the California State Capitol Rotunda. The exhibit portrays the internment, restriction and forced relocation of tens of thousands of Italian Americans in California during the War years.

It was only then that I learned that my mother’s father, who came to San Francisco in the 1890s and was a legal resident but was not a naturalized citizen, lost his contract to haul garbage for the City of San Francisco. In other words, he had lost his livelihood and he never recovered.

This was a time when Italian Americans dominated the garbage industry in San Francisco because they had been discriminated against in other occupations. Italian Americans were held back from joining trade unions in the City even up to the war years.

I only learned about my grandfather’s experience from my older sister when I was doing the exhibit at the State Capitol in 1994. My mom never mentioned it. I can only imagine what my mom felt that she feared I could be deported as late as 1981. I was raised an all-American kid so it was a shock to me that her experience had left her with such fear.

Which kind of activities are carried out by your institution?

Bill: In conjunction with the activity of the Italian Cultural Society as a cultural organization and as a voice for the good name and reputation of the Italians, I had established an advocacy organization to pursue legislative initiatives in the State government.

The California Italian American Task Force, chaired by me, was created by the California Legislature to promote the interests of the Italian American community at the State level. The Task Force has been responsible for sponsoring several legislative initiatives to promote instructional materials and the study of the Italian America experience in the school system.

The Task Force has also been the main connection to Italian American politicians to gain their support in our battles to save Columbus Day.

Today, the representation of Italian Americans in the legislature and political class is shrinking and our voice is no longer represented.

You also have an Italian Language School. How is Italian language teaching going in your area?

Patrizia: I am the Director of our Italian Language School. I am a native of Lucca, Italy. I immigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area and studied at the University of California in Davis. While studying at UC Davis I worked as a teaching assistant in the Italian Department. We started the Italian program in 1981 offering two classes each week. Bill and I met when I had just moved to Sacramento and he asked me to teach for the Society. I began teaching and took over our Italian language program in 1985, and then I began to grow and expand the program by hiring other qualified instructors. Over the years, we added a targeted children’s program called “Ciao Italia” and a Pre-School called “Ciao Piccoli”. We have taught Italian to many generations with many thousands of students enrolling in our programs over the years.

We offer an average of 20 classes each quarter at every level from Italiano Uno and Italian for Travelers which are our most basic levels to Corso Avanzato e Corso Superiore which allow advanced students to read and discuss Italian literature and reach near native levels of conversation. We offer four quarters each year and teach 48 weeks of the year. Traditionally all our classes were in person, but during the pandemic we began to offer online classes with excellent results. Today we offer a mix of on-line and in-person classes at various levels.

Our teachers are extremely well prepared, with advanced degrees and many also teach at the university level. We are very proud of our Italian Language Program, it is one of the largest in the United States and not does it provide excellent instruction, but it creates a community of people who love all aspect of Italy and its rich culture. 

At the Italian Cultural Society in Sacramento, you also have a “See Italy” program...

Patrizia: I also am the director of our “See Italy” program. For many years I have taught seminars and classes and I am a guest lecturer on Italy all throughout California. I also am the author of several travel books and articles including the popular textbook, “Buon Viaggio! A Travelers Guide to Italian Language and Culture”. In 2005 the Italian Government awarded me the Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana for my contributions to Italian culture and language and travel. I currently divide my time between my native city of Lucca, Tuscany and Sacramento, California. I think I have the best job!

Since 1988, I have hosted tours to Italy for the Italian Cultural Society. As an Italian who has studied, lived, and worked in Italy I know Italy as only a native can.

I personally plan and escort each tour. Having lived in the United States so many years I know what American travelers love and appreciate and I work hard to provide these experiences in each tour. Over the years I have developed strong professional relationships with select wonderful hotels, restaurants, local guides, drivers and transportation providers, winery, art centers and so many others in Italy and can provide truly amazing experiences not found on typical tours.

While in the past I hosted large tours, often taking two busloads or 100 passengers, today I prefer to limit my tours to small groups no greater than twenty travelers. I love the personal contact this offers and the special experiences I can include. I have hosted tours to almost every region of Italy from the Northern Lakes region to Sicily. When travelers ask me if I ever get tired of traveling in Italy, I say “Oh, heck no!” Italy is so incredibly rich in experiences, natural and manmade places that I don’t think a single lifetime is enough to explore them all. I live in Italy, in my hometown of Lucca, for part of each year, but still have so many places to explore. Italy’s treasures are so numerous and varied that I still have many new experiences awaiting.

Please tell us about your festival, Festa Italiana

Bill: One of the Italian communal activities of the past that had fallen away for lack of leadership was the annual Italian Picnic.

The Society picked up the role of organizing a community Festival where we could celebrate together and showcase all things Italian. The annual Summer Italian Food and Music Festival - Festa Italiana – draws crowds of thousands every year to the 2-day festival.

The festival features Italian Food vendors and non -stop entertainment at center stage for 2 days. All the singers and bands perform Italian songs and music.

Other features of the festa are an Italian car show, an Italian Marketplace, a children’s carnival, Italian Wine, beer and olive oil booths, and bocce playing.

The Festa Italiana event was discontinued due to the Covid outbreak and has not been reinstated. It ran for over 30 years as the largest Italian American event in the Sacramento region.

It is hoped a new generation of organizers will bring the event back in some form.

What is the story of the Italian emigration to Sacramento?

Bill: The Italians came early to California with the Gold Rush. Italian roots run deep in Sacramento. Italian Americans were among the earliest pioneers of the City and have been settling here since the Gold Rush.

They settled in many areas of the City. From the downtown area in the early years through midtown and then into the newer city neighborhoods in Oak Park and East Sacramento in the mid-century.

Up until WWII the Oak Park area was heavily Italian. But the largest concentration was in East Sacramento. With the building of St. Mary’s Church, an Italian National Church, in East Sacramento in 1948, many more Italians moved there where they established a Little Italy social and business district. The area had been a location for Italian truck farmers and their stone houses still exist in the area. By World War II many blocks were predominately made up of Italian residents.

St. Mary’s Church was an Italian National Church and was established in Sacramento in 1907. It was built by the Italian American community due to the discrimination they felt from the established American Catholic church. St Mary’s Church has served as a major community institution for the Italians. For many years its priests were from Italy and masses were in Italian.

The new Little Italy Historic District is more than 24 square blocks, but many more Italians live in the neighborhood surrounding it. Recently, Green, White and Red Signs have been placed at key intersections to mark the boundaries of the Little Italy district.

Perhaps the largest regional group to settle in Sacramento were the Lucchesi from the area around Lucca. Italy. Other immigrants to the area were primarily from the Northern regions of Italy including Liguria, Piemonte and Venice. Immigrants from the southern regions included Sicily, primarily the Arberesh (Albanian Sicilians) and Calabria.

Sacramento is not a destination for Italian immigrants anymore. Recent immigrants are here mostly through marriage to Americans. According to last Census there are about 65,000 Italians living in the County.

What about other Italian presences in your area?

Bill: In the Sacramento area the primary Italian American institutions are 1) St. Mary’s Church as a religious institution and located in the Little Italy neighborhood, 2) the East Portal Bocce Courts as an Italian American sports complex in the heart of Little Italy Historic district and 3) the Corti Bros Grocery Store, also located in Little Italy. Perhaps the most visible marker of the Italian American presence in Sacramento are the colorful Little Italy Historic District signs that reflect the Italian flavor of the neighborhood.

The Corti Bros Grocery store is an Italian American institution in Sacramento with its bustling deli counter, international wine market and made in Italy food items that cannot be found elsewhere.

There are several Italian social clubs that serve the Italians in Sacramento, and also several Italian restaurants and pizzerias in the historic area. There is room for more businesses selling Italian style products as the area goes through a period of revitalization.

I see that the Society is also active in defense of Columbus… it must not be easy in California

Bill: In our effort to reclaim our heritage and rebuild our community, the loss of Columbus Day as an observed State holiday in California and the removal of the Columbus statues in California has been a big setback for the Italian American community.

For most of us of my generation and even today’s generation, Columbus Day has been a source of positive identification with our heritage. And for many, our only source of a national Italian American identity. It was the one day of the year Italian Americans could be proud to be Italian as a people and express that pride across the nation together. It was part of our enduring and important part of our inherited cultural heritage. And generations of us took the holiday for granted.

We live in an era of a nationwide struggle based on identity politics and policies where every other racial, tribal and ethnic group is asserting their identity and demanding to have a place in the public space at the expense of Italian Americans. We have faced assaults on our Columbus heritage by all these groups.

At the same time, these various factions are tearing down Italian American monuments of Columbus and taking away the Italian American national holiday at the State and Local level and soon the Federal level. Already, our adversaries are imposing Indigenous People Day at the Federal level to replace Columbus Day. It took a nationwide grassroots effort by Italian Americans to save the national Columbus Day holiday in 2022 or it would have been gone and replaced.

There is no place for Columbus in the world of our opposition. No room for us to celebrate Columbus Day freely and openly, without threat of violence.  No space for any monument or statue of Columbus.

Columbus Day was and is a major building block of our national Italian American community. Italians from across every region of Italy who came to America joined together to celebrate one of their own and forge a national Italian American identity in a new country.

Columbus became a symbol of our Italian American identity and our most important symbol. Now that symbol, that building block of who we are is being taken away from us and erased.

The Italian Cultural Society has been at the forefront of defending Columbus Day in California for over 40 years. During this time, we have done battle at the State Legislature almost every year to protect Columbus Day as a State holiday. But while we had won every battle we only had to lose once and in 2021 the Native American casino tribes finally were able to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. A move supported by the legislature and the Governor.

The problem with Indigenous Peoples Day as a state and national holiday is that it represents a day of grievance against the treatment of Native and other ancestry groups in the past. In contrast, Columbus Day is a true day of celebration of the roots of the United States and its immigrant history. It is also the Holiday Italian Americans adopted to celebrate their American lives.

Italian Americans have not sought to oppose Indigenous Peoples Day, but they have fought it being used to replace Columbus Day or sharing it with the Columbus holiday. Unfortunately, the opponents of Columbus and the proponents of Indigenous Peoples Day, will not accept a separate holiday, only the replacement of Columbus Day.

For years, the Italian American community had fought to keep the statue of Columbus and Isabella in the California State Capitol Rotunda. We fought to have it returned to the Rotunda after it was removed decades ago for the renovation of the Capitol building. After a statewide campaign we prevailed. For the past 40 years there have been efforts to remove that statue and the Italian American community resisted that move. But in 2020, the Governor and the legislative leaders were able to remove this work of art despite the resistance of the Italian Americans. Our community even held a rally on the steps of the State Capitol to resist its removal, but state political leaders ignored our voices of protest.

During 2020, Columbus statues were removed statewide and Columbus holidays were removed by local governments and school.

The many statues of Columbus that were torn down or removed across the nation and California were mostly paid for and built by the Italian American communities of the past to honor Italian Americans. They were a source of pride, identity and unity to Italian Americans. They were also a symbol of the Unity of the United States.

It would be impossible to replace those symbols of pride and identity and national unity. The damage that has been done is permanent.

It is not likely the statues will be returned to their rightful place or that the Columbus Holidays will be restored. We have no heroes to replace Columbus that are acceptable or could be agreed on by us or other Americans. We cannot even figure out how to salvage the statues moved to storage. We are continuing to fight for the remaining statues and holidays.

In recent years, Italian American communities across California have been on a collision course with native American casinos and tribes. In most major cities across the State; San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose, Sacramento and Santa Barbara, the Monuments to Columbus have been removed. Los Angeles has even passed a Resolution that all vestiges of Columbus in public spaces must be removed. In each of these cities the conflict between Native Americans and Italian Americans came to a head and in each case Columbus Day was replaced by Indigenous Peoples Day. Because of Italian American resistance, most of these cities adopted Resolutions recognizing Italian American Heritage Day in place of Columbus Day to assuage their Italian American communities. These Resolutions reflect that Americans associate Columbus Day with Italian Americans.

Italians have created some national initiatives to fight the misinformation about Columbus and dispute the false representations of his story that are in vogue, but the educational institutions at all levels that are teaching a false history are resistant to us and are in league with our opponents to rewrite history solely from their point of view.

Changing the educational policies that are making this another painful episode in the Italian American experience is perhaps the most difficult challenge. We can spread the word to the organized Italian American community, but media coverage has not been supportive, nor have American educational institutions, universities and teacher unions.

We Italian Americans are faced with the dilemma of how we reconstruct the images and the symbols that are so important to our identity that have been lost.

But there is some hope in the rise of Italian American institutions as a buffer to maintain our cultural heritage. What has occurred in response to our loss of societal influence has been an expanding effort by our cultural institutions to fulfill our continuing desire to maintain and to pass on our heritage.

As a cultural organization with humble beginnings, the Society has risen to become one of the most important new regional Italian organizations in California. We have built a modern Cultural Center along with the wave of new Italian Cultural Centers and Museums being built across the nation by Italian American organizations. We have been part of a movement to reclaim and revitalize our historical Little Italy neighborhoods where we can link our more distant past to our immediate present. We have established advocacy institutions where there are few for a louder voice. And we have maintained our attachment to our roots through organized activities.

It has taken our institutions decades to reach this point of being able to make a difference. It has been a struggle and taken the hard-work and dedication of many talented leaders spread across Italian America. Our institutions have been sorely underfunded but have endured. They suffer from some of the same apathy that past Italian American organizations faced but have been working together in a more coordinated fashion due to the necessity for mutual support. Most of the major regional and national Italian American organizations that exist today were established in the 1970s and 1980s in response to the decline of the existing organizations created in the past that sought to serve the social needs of earlier generations.

The Italian Cultural Society has joined in a national coalition to defend Columbus. The Society also sponsors an annual Columbus Day Luncheon to keep that tradition of celebrating Columbus Day alive.

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