It was their belief in hard work and an unbreakable family bond that enabled the Italian immigrants to build a new life in America.
“Grazie America” (Thank you, America) is not only an exhibit that conveys their gratitude for such opportunity but also a testament that showcases the success of the America dream.
In the exhibit, looking at the faces in the portraits, you can almost feel the fear, uncertainty, excitement, and hope of these Italian immigrants about their new lives in America. Following the track marks of a beat-up old truck, you can almost hear the broken English spoken by an Italian truck farmer haggling over the price for his produce. Smelling the aroma through the crack in a kitchen door, you cannot help looking through the window of an Italian kitchen where a group of women in their favorite aprons are preparing a feast for a family gathering.
It was the search for a better life that led these Italian immigrants to leave poverty and hunger behind and come to America, the country of opportunity. More than four million Italians immigrated to the United States from 1880 to 1920. Many Italian immigrants were from southern Italy, mainly Sicily. However, the ancestors of the majority of the Italian-Americans in Merced County are from northern and central Italy, such as Piedmont and Tuscany.
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In Merced County, these immigrants worked at the Miller and Lux Ranch on the Westside, the Minturn Ranch in Livingston, the Crocker-Huffman in Merced, or for the already established Italian families such as the Stefanis, Marchinis, and Delfornos on the Eastside. Pooling their resources to buy a piece of land was the goal of many of these immigrants. A cluster of small farms soon developed into a large Italian community such as the Franklin and McSwain Districts, just outside of Merced, and Spaghetti Acres in Merced. Spaghetti Acres was an area from R and 16th streets to the banks of Bear Creek, according to Maryellen Mazzei, the granddaughter of John Pregno who lived and farmed in this area with his brother Pete.
Although a majority of Italian Americans were truck farmers who farmed on a relatively smaller scale and hauled their produce to large cities like San Francisco to sell, they, indeed, were the backbone of intensive family farming in Merced County in the early 20th century. Italian farmers introduced tomato farming in California along with the method of growing tomatoes on bamboo stakes. This kind of family farming eventually grew into a much larger operation like Live Oak or J. Marchini and Son. Joe Marchini introduced radicchio and other Italian specialties in America earned him the title, “Mr. Radicchio.” Joseph Gallo started a dairy in Merced County and formed Joseph Gallo Cheese Company in 1983. His cheese is now a popular product in grocery stores. After nearly a century, many of these Italian family farms continue to thrive today and make Merced County prosperous.
Despite facing the hardship of settling in a new country, mistreatment as “alien enemies” during World War II, and the many challenges of an immigrant family, these Italian pioneers contributed greatly to the betterment of Merced County. What bound them together, other than their families, through those difficult times were organizations like the Italo-American Lodge founded in 1933 with Valentino Bardini as the first president, Italo-American Women’s Club founded in 1940 with Anna Mondo as the founding president, and Italian Catholic Federation of California in Merced organized in 1932.
As the Italian immigrants passed the torch of success to their American-born children and grandchildren, the later generations are building a community that is full of possibility. Italian arts and culture are woven into our American fabric. Marie Moschitto, for example, was a talented singer who auditioned for San Francisco Opera in 1945 and for Horace Heidt Youth Opportunity Show in 1951. Many Italian Americans hold leadership positions in businesses, government, and organizations. Merced’s first Italian-American mayor was John B. Olcese, first Italian-American Superior Court Judge was James D. Garibaldi, first Italian-American County Sheriff was John Latorraca, and first Italian-American County Supervisor was Joseph L. Toscano. Borrelli’s Corner is well-known to Gustine residents as is the Mondo Building to Mercedians because they both commemorate the legacy of business leaders like Angelo Borrelli and Gene Mondo.
The “Grazie America!” exhibit that celebrates the struggle, perseverance, and triumph of over 103 families is on display at the Courthouse Museum through August 6. We are able to share these amazing stories and offer many other successful museum programs because of the generous donations and support from the community.
So please continue to support us by attending our annual tea party fundraiser on April 29. Our historic courtroom will be transformed into an Asian tea garden decorated with cherry blossom parasols and lanterns. “A Cherry Blossom Tea Party” offers several special new treats in addition to our traditional favorites such as Shrimp Sandwiches and Maureen’s Cucumber Sandwiches. We will have four seatings: 12:30 p.m., 1:30, 2:30, and 3:30. Each seating will last for 40 minutes. The 1:30 seating is already sold out. Please call the museum office at 209-723-2401 and reserve your preferred seating time early.
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at email@example.com.