"Why not do an exhibit?"
In March of 1993, at a conference sponsored by the American Italian Historical Association's Western Regional Chapter, Una Storia Segreta had its inception. During that half day, a panel of speakers for the first time bore public witness to the ways in which the wartime restrictions had marked their lives. No one could hear what had happened to Italian Americans in those dark days without realizing that far more remained to be told. The question was, how? At the close of the conference, Maria Gloria, one of the participants and a longtime columnist for L'Italo Americano, passed on a thought: "Why not do an exhibit?" Had any of us suspected what this would entail, or where it might lead, Una Storia Segreta might have been stillborn. As it was, innocence prevailed, and we set out to try.
Initial attempts to raise funds met with little success. The California Council for the Humanities considered the project's appeal "limited" and its premises questionable. Many in the community remained distant, cautious. Yet with the encouragement of a handful of supporters, the dedication of several members, and the help of a few individual donations, the exhibit opened at the Museo Italo Americano in San Francisco on February 24, 1994 -- the anniversary of the fateful day in 1942 when thousands of Italian Americans had to evacuate homes and lives suddenly off limits to them. The press responded to the exhibit in an unprecedented way: cover stories appeared in the San Francisco Examiner and in several Gannett newspapers, and a report on CNN was broadcast worldwide. Crowds at the Museo were among the largest ever recorded there, culminating on March 27 with an Open Forum that played to a standing-room-only crowd.
Catherine Buccellato with her son, Nick. Like many others, Nick later came home on leave to find his house empty: while he had been serving his country, his mother had to evacuate her Pittsburg, CA home.
Due to prior commitments by the Museo, the exhibit closed in San Francisco on March 28, but its second life was about to begin. The Italian Cultural Society of Sacramento managed to secure the Rotunda of the State Capitol in Sacramento as its first travelling site. Thousands saw it there, the Governor signed a Proclamation attesting to its importance, and the Legislature passed a Resolution to the same effect.
Since then Una Storia Segreta had grown in a way that no one could have predicted. Donations to allow it to travel have come from each sponsoring organization on its 1994 tour: Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Pittsburg, San Jose, Monterey, and Oakland. In Monterey, it received its most significant improvement to date: The Italian Heritage Society of Monterey Bay donated funds so that each of the 18 foamcore panels (which were never designed to take the rigors of travel) could be trimmed and framed in black metal, and a wooden crate built for shipping. This has readied the exhibit to open in Los Angeles in 1995 and then to proceed to the East Coast for appearances in New York and other major cities eager to host it.
Joe Aiello came to America in 1886 but never applied for citizenship because he could not read or write. In 1942, he had to evacuate his Pittsburg home in a wheelchair.
Most importantly, the secret history whose outlines Una Storia Segreta helped uncover has continued to flesh itself out. This story has remained hidden for 50 years because of the silence -- first imposed by the government, then adopted as protective cover by those affected -- that has always surrounded it. Not only has the story been suppressed from historical accounts, but the Italian American community itself has remained largely unaware of its existence. With the exhibit, memories have been jogged, eyes have been opened, voices have been found. New stories -- always specific to each place, always imbuing the exhibit with the particular flavors of local experience -- have emerged in a steady, and steadily expanding flow.
We have learned details of the hardship borne by those who were targetted: in Pittsburg, evacuated families were so hard pressed to find housing that Bettina Troia, now 102 years old, had to live in a chicken coop; those named 'alien' were so suspect that Nancy Billeci's father, trying to visit her mother giving birth in the County Hospital, was taken in handcuffs to visit his newborn child; those who tried to keep their jobs were given humiliating choices, such as that offered to Angela Ardent's father-in-law at Mare Island Shipyards: "just drop the 'e' from Ardente," he was told; thus did the Italian 'Ardente' become the americanized 'Ardent' ever after.
In Monterey, we heard similar stories. Joe Sollecito told of Rosina Trovato, who learned one day that both her son and her nephew had gone down with the Arizona at Pearl Harbor, and the next day, she had to leave her home. Vitina Spadaro remembered how her evacuated family, relieved to have found a rental at last, was thrown into despair when the landlord learned they were Italian, and chased them away. John Mercurio related how naval officers appeared at his door two days after Pearl Harbor, ordered him and his father to sail their commandeered boat to San Francisco, and the ordered them to make their way home however they could. Other boat owners told the same story: U.S. citizens all, all were told flatly that their boats were confiscated for the duration, and were left to make do -- first with rented boats, then with their own boats returned in unusable condition.
William Ardente at age 21. He became an 'enemy alien' in 1942, notwithstanding his three sons in the service. To save his job, he Americanized his name, but lost the job anyway.
As such tales accumulated, we began to see the underlying significance of these events. Though 600,000 Italian Americans were branded 'enemy aliens' because they lacked citizenship, it was not just they who were scarred. Lelio Sbrazza, an American citizen, was living in Berkeley at the time; because of his name, his hunting rifles were confiscated and never returned, despite his ownership of them being protected under the Constitution. Frank Brogno, lived in Gary, Indiana during the war; his father, an American citizen, was visited by local firemen, who seized the Brognos' prized Philco radio -- and the 'contraband' of others in Gary whose Italian names made them suspect.
Most poignant of all may be the plight of the women. Neno Aiello first told us about the Cable Act of 1916. According to its terms, his mother, American-born, lost her citizenship when she married an Italian man. Though she managed to get naturalized before the war, others were not so lucky: Elaine Null, a postal employee, had to fingerprint her own mother as an alien -- and only at the Pittsburg Open Forum found out why. Having married an Italian immigrant, her American mother thereby lost her citizenship, and had to register as an 'enemy alien.' Hope Cardinalli of Monterey found herself in the same boast: an American-born citizen married to an Italian, she was ordered to evacuate from Monterey as an 'enemy alien.' She refused, hired a lawyer, and was able to stay, but the insult remained.
The sum total of this becomes plain: the prejudice that, in America, has long attached to Italian-ness concentrated its venom during the war. Many immigrants felt it as never before; their children felt it too. Their language had become the 'enemy's language,' their heritage one that was not only alien, but inimical to the American way. It seemed best to abandon both, and thousands did just that. The results are with us still.
Now, fifty years later, we who put together Una Storia Segreta are encouraged by the responses we have received, both locally and nationally. Apprehensive at first that people might be disturbed by what we had assembled, we have come to realize that the opposite is the case. Though some may quarrel with our perspective, and still others prefer that the past remained undisturbed and unstudied, most Italian Americans who see the exhibit are released by it, uplifted. It is as if now, with the larger story in place at last, with with the knowledge that others have spoken out, they too have the right to be heard, for their experiences have been publicly validated. Even this late, even absent the voices of those who suffered most, is this so.
Our hope is that the process will continue. Our intention is that it will, that what has begun here will complete itself, and that these long-buried events will take their rightful place in the true history of the homefront.