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Food and family are at the heart of Merced museum’s Italian exhibit

Lillian Dal Porto, 92, of Merced hangs a photo from a picnic at the Merced County Courthouse Museum on Monday, March 13, 2017. The Grazie America! From Italy to Merced County, an exhibit about Italian immigrants, opens Thursday.
Lillian Dal Porto, 92, of Merced hangs a photo from a picnic at the Merced County Courthouse Museum on Monday, March 13, 2017. The Grazie America! From Italy to Merced County, an exhibit about Italian immigrants, opens Thursday. tmiller@mercedsunstar.com

Food has been an important part of the Italian American household, and it forever connects those immigrants to Merced County, according to the designers of a new museum exhibit in Merced.

The exhibit, “Grazie, America! From Italy to Merced County,” opens at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Merced County Courthouse Museum, on N and 21st streets. A wine toast is set for 6 p.m.

It’s free.

Focusing on the lives of the immigrants and their American-born children from 1855 to 1965, this exhibit drew on the photo libraries of 104 families, according to Sarah Lim, the museum’s executive director.

The kids would work on the ranch, or the tomato field. They’d come home, clean up and go to school. After school, back to the farm.

Lillian Dal Porto, 92, of Merced

More than 4 million Italians immigrated to the U.S. from 1880 to 1920. It’s not clear how many made Merced County their home, but Italians in 1920 were the second-largest foreign-born population, according to Merced County historian John Outcalt.

Merced County’s climate was close to that of Italy and the American soil was good for growing crops, leading many Italians to relocate, according to Frank Muratore, who helped put the exhibit together.

The 82-year-old, who is a son of immigrants and a Merced native, said family gatherings always circled around food, which is why so many started as farmers. “The emphasis was always on having good food,” he said. “(The farms were) very labor intensive work, planting by hand.”

Tomatoes were the most common crop, but they also grew bell peppers, zucchini, sweet potatoes and grapes. Not all the small farms would survive, giving way to the massive farms that exist today, he said.

The emphasis was always on having good food. (The farms were) very labor intensive work, planting by hand.

Frank Muratore, 82, of Merced

The hard-working immigrants also put their children to work on the farm, according to Lillian Dal Porto, who also took part in the design of the exhibit. She did more than 90 of the some 135 oral history interviews with local Italian families.

“The kids would work on the ranch, or the tomato field. They’d come home, clean up and go to school,” the 92-year-old said. “After school, back to the farm.”

Born in Lucca, Italy, Dal Porto came to Merced with her family when she was 7. Many of the immigrants’ children, she said, would go on to open businesses in town and start up social clubs.

For example, the Italo-American Lodge as it came to be known in the 1950s, started as the Fraternita Italiana di Mutuo Soccorso.

4 millionThe number of Italian immigrants who came to the U.S. from 1880 to 1920

Lim said the exhibit celebrates the struggle, perseverance and triumph of Merced’s immigrant Italians and their families.

“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 in farming and community building,” she said in a statement.

In addition to photos, maps, artifacts and oral histories, the exhibit also features interactive multimedia presentations from Merced County Office of Education.

Transportation grants are available for school tours, Lim said. For more, call the museum at 209-723-2401 or go to www.mercedmuseum.org.

Thaddeus Miller: 209-385-2453, @thaddeusmiller

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