A Time To Toast Italian Americans In Merced County

By JONATHAN WHITAKER
March 16, 2017

This week’s opening of the exhibit “Grazie, America! — From Italy to Merced County” celebrates the lives and legacies of Italian immigrants to this region, and their American-born children, from 1855 to 1965.
Opening night is this Thursday, March 16, 5 p.m., at the Courthouse Museum located on N and 21st streets in Merced. A wine toast is set for 6 p.m. And the festivities are free for all residents to enjoy.
What’s wonderful will be the unique opportunity on this night to share the experiences with many children, grandchildren, and extended family members of those Italians who risked everything by leaving their homeland for a chance to create a new life in America.
Ezio Sansoni and Sharon Spinardi — members of a committee that worked for 18 months on the project — were animated and excited earlier this week as they took the Times on a pre-opening tour of the exhibit.
Most of the very first Italian immigrants who settled in Merced County were poor, with few or no family ties to the area, and relied on farming skills to make a living, they said.
Spinardi held up a vintage portrait of her grandparents who came over from Italy and eventually settled in the Franklin-Beachwood area of Merced. She said Italians at the time would make a living in small dairies and truck farms — simple but multifaceted produce operations that supplied markets throughout the Valley and the Bay Area.
“There were a lot of things revealed as this exhibit came together that I never knew,” Spinardi said. “Now much of it has been recorded for others to discover.”
The exhibit features photos from the archives of more than 100 local families, and draws from 135 oral history interviews conducted by Lillian Dal Porto, a 92-year-old local resident described as an “Italian dynamo.” The exhibit also features video presentations, produced by Merced Educational Television, with descriptions by noted Italian-American locals such as Joe Marchini, Mary Ellen Mazzei, Nettie Descalso, and Frank Muratore, among many others. A book based on the exhibit and the testimonies is expected to come out later in the summer.
Sansoni said his father arrived in 1918 from the Lucca-Pistoia provinces of Italy, and his mother followed a few years later. They actually got married at St. John’s Cathedral in Fresno, he pointed out as he proudly held up a picture of the couple.
Sansoni, a Merced farmer who carried on the family tradition, along with his brother, Aldo, of Los Banos, pointed out that Italian immigrants worked hard and nurtured productive family members who went on to succeed in various careers, including owning many prominent local businesses.
However, Sansoni said, there were many trials and tribulations over the years. He said many Italian immigrants were looked down upon during World War II. He said his own mother, who never got her U.S. citizenship papers in order, was forced to live under a daily curfew and travel restrictions as the Allies fought Axis powers, including Italy and its dictator Benito Mussolini.
The many families featured in the exhibit represent regions throughout the entire country of Italy, though not every single province. Visitors will be taken on a path from the humble entry port of Ellis Island in New York to opportunity in the Central Valley — all with formal and informal photographs, artifacts and videos.
One fun display in the exhibit features an authentic table setting from the popular Antola’s Italian Restaurant — a mainstay of fine dining in Merced from the late 1950s to the early 1970s.
A menu, in perfect condition, lists a Chicken Cacciatora entree dish for $4.75., Lamb Chops for $6 and Filet Mignon for $6.95. A bottle of Inglenook Pinot Noir wine went for $5.
Overall, the “Grazie, America” exhibit has something for all ages to enjoy.
Actually, students from Joe Stefani School [another local Italian-American namesake] helped color some of the decorations in the gallery.
Also Sharon Spinardi, who works as a local educational consultant, created the entertaining history lessons for young students who are expected to tour the exhibit in the coming months.
Museum Director Sarah Lim points out that transportation grants are available for school tours. Call the museum at 209-723-2401 or go to www.mercedmuseum.org


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