Marian Paravano Grubor (President of the Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival)

West Virginia, dove molti Italiani arrivarono per lavorare, e oggi celebrano il nostro Paese

Jul 06, 2015 3404 ITA ENG

West Virginia has a long history of Italian emigration. In 1910 more than 17,000 Italians were living there, making up 30% of the entire foreign-born population of the State: Italy even had a consular office in northern West Virginia. The majority of the Italian immigrants came from the south: Calabria, Campania, Sicilia. In 1907, the worst mining disaster in US history killed in Monongah 171 Italian miners: some of them were children.

Years have passed, and now West Virginia hosts a huge Italian festival, in Wheeling: it probably is the second largest one of the whole USA, after the San Gennaro feast in New York City. It is called Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival, and we have today with us the President of the Festival, Marian Paravano Grubor.

Marian, you are the President of the Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival, which will be held from July 24 to July 26. In your website, we can read that it is estimated that over 150,000 people enjoy the Wheeling Italian Festival ... it is amazing, we would have never imagined to find in West Virginia the second-largest Italian festival in the United States. Please tell our readers something more about the festival

This is our 33rd year. Thirty-three years ago a group of Italian business owners decided to celebrate Italy and started the festival. Our Valley is very, very unique: we're a little finger between three States that border each other. There's Ohio, there's West Virginia and there's Pennsylvania: so, that's where you get the term Upper Ohio Valley, because it is on the Ohio River.

Our festival welcomes people from all the three States. In Clarksburg, West Virginia, there's a very, very big Italian area: that's where the founders of our festival gave birth to it for the first year, and they brought it to Wheeling. At that time they started giving scholarship for three hundred and fifty dollars: it was 1982. Now we're up to thirteen scholarships a year of a thousand dollars each.

Wheeling is really, really nice. It used to be this capitol of West Virginia, before Charleston. So people from all over the Valley come to this festival and what we've found is that people started to use our festival as a reunion. Every year they come back and meet the same people, from all over the area and actually some people travel from very, very far to come back to our festival because they use it as a family reunion or reunion of friends: because it's fun, a nice place to go. Besides, we're free: we do not charge the enter to the festival, while most of the other festivals charge something to get in, and some have a very high price.

What happens during the festival? Which activities do you organize?

I am in charge for the Cultural area. We have a very large space, where everything is Italian. We do all the Italian foods, and myself being a chef professor, I cook all the foods; we have a wine boot with Italian wines; we have Italian music, there's people singing the whole three days; we have a bocce tournament. We call our area "Little Italy".

There are a lot of other areas at the festival, with a Carnival atmosphere. We've been working with our local bishop to get a procession but we still don't know if that will be possible this year, but on Sunday morning the bishop will come from the diocese, which is in Wheeling, and he will say a Mass on the main stage.

The festival starts with Wednesday night, when we'll have a big Italian dinner celebration with about two or three hundred people, and we'll honor the Italian American of the year: a person that has contributed to our Italian culture and heritage here in the Valley. This year we're honoring an Italian surgeon who has retired from the medical profession. His grandparents were born in Italy while his parents were born here, and he has spent his life practicing medicine in the Valley: his name is Dr. Antonio Licata.

With such an audience, we wonder if more Italian products could have space in your festival ... which kind of Made in Italy would be more appreciated by your visitors?

The market is exceptional, but unfortunately we don't have many Italian producers. I don't know why not. I think we're considered a poor area so maybe they don't think the people would purchase their products, but they are wrong. We'd love to have traditional Italian food and wine; we would love to have Italian jewelry, Italian memorabilia that kind of things. We welcome them with open arms.

The story of the Italian emigration to West Virginia tells stories, sometimes tragic ones, about brave Italians who came there to work in the coal mines. Today, 60% of the population of Fairmont and Monongah has Italian heritage...

The Italians came to the Fairmont and Clarksburg area for the coal mines and for the steel mills: when the steel mills in Clarksburg closed, around the 40s of last century, many many Italians moved to work in the steel mills of Weirton and of Wheeling areas. West Virginia had a huge emigration, workers came here in huge number looking for jobs in these two fields.

Weirton, Follansbee and Worthington are three towns in West Virginia with a very, very large Italian population. My father was one of them, he worked for over 50 years in a steel mill: he was 12 when he began, because they just needed the money. That was in 1922, because he was born in 1910: in those days children started working very young because their families were poor, and they were a big family.

Are there many Italians recently arrived in West Virginia? And if so, who are they? 

No, not that I'm aware of. We have an Italian company that is lookingat one of our steel mill, but that's the only name that we have heard recently on the news. We're a very depressed area: West Virginia does not have a lot of industries anymore. So, I would say no, people don't really emigrate here. We are a beautiful state for tourism; we have mountains, we have rivers, it's beautiful, but not really to do business.

Which are the most important "Italian" places in West Virginia?

Follansbee, in West Virginia, would be the place which reminds most of the Italians: everything there has an Italian name, it's a very much Italian town.

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