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posted Nov 12, 2010, 12:06 PM by Vincenza Scarpaci   [ updated Nov 13, 2010, 6:57 PM by Tom Layton ]
February 15, 2009

By Randi Bjornstad

For an encyclopedic view of the history of Italians in this country — why they came here, where they settled, the ways they made a living and how they both assimilated into U.S. society and preserved their own culture — look no further than a new book by Eugene author Vincenza Scarpaci.

Published in 2008, “The Journey of the Italians in America” offers 319 pages filled with historic narratives and photographs gathered from the descendants of immigrants all over the country, from Giorgio Cataudella with his Harlem Macaroni Company truck in New York City to Dominic “Mingo” Parodi and his horsedrawn garbage wagon in Richmond, Calif.

The author (whose name is pronounced Vin CHEN Zuh Scar PA chee) will hold a book signing this week at Barnes & Noble in Eugene.

As her name reflects, Scarpaci comes naturally to her interest in things Italian. All four of her grandparents came from Sicily — her father’s parents from Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto, about 20 miles west of Messina on the island’s northeast coast, and her mother’s from Calatafimi-Segesta, about 45 miles southwest of Palermo, in Sicily’s western region.

It has taken a lifetime to come to some of the insights I have about being Italian and the descendant of immigrants from another country,” Scarpaci said. “As this book evolved, I realized I had to address some of these topics, and the book got longer. Even now, with it finished, I continue to get more understanding of the importance of this experience.”

For example, “If you identify yourself as a certain (nationality), such as Italian, what does that mean? If your background is mixed, do you honor all of those cultures, or do you ignore them?”

Scarpaci concludes that it’s perfectly fine not to identify with one’s own historical background “if you’re truly not interested in it. But if you don’t identify because you feel some kind of shame about where you came from, then you should look inside yourself and resolve that.”

In that sense, while it’s written specifically about Italian-Americans, she hopes her book can speak to people of any ethnic or cultural background whose forebears were compelled to leave their homeland, whether by choice or circumstance.

There are aspects of every ethnicity that inform those individuals’ view of the world, either positively or negatively,” Scarpaci said. “To me, it’s a combination of ethnicity and class. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, and that clearly informs the way I look at the world.”

While Italian culture dominated her social underpinnings, “We had a multi- national neighborhood not only of Italian but Irish, German, African-American, Jewish and one Asian person, a Chinese laundry man, that I remember,” she said.

I like people, and I liked living in a place where I was exposed to so many different cultures.”

It may have been that early exposure that aroused her interest in exploring her own background in book form. Scarpaci’s new book is her second on the subject. The first, published in 1982, was called “A Portrait of the Italians in America.”

That was a more standard pictorial history, but I still tried to use pictures to tell a story and follow a theme,” she said.

But the new book has many more pictures of families — it has a much greater level of intimacy that really brings the experience of these people more alive.”

The availability of the Internet made a huge difference in researching her new book, in terms of contacting people of Italian background throughout the country in a way that would have been nearly impossible before.

One thing that I found is that there are Italians everywhere — even in places like North Dakota and Idaho that are very different from their original homes,” she said. “There are about 24 million people in the United States today who identify with their Italian background.”

Like other immigrants, wherever they settled, the Italians adapted their own customs and habits to their new surroundings, as Scarpaci documents in her book. With a deep tradition of attachment to the land — “It’s always important to Italians to grow something,” she said — Italian immigrants had a profound influence on the eating habits of U.S. society as a whole.

I talked to one person whose family had no land, so her father grew crops along the railroad,” Scarpaci said. “It was the Italians who introduced asparagus, broccoli, broad beans, peppers and artichokes into this country — they grew the vegetables, and as peddlers they sold their produce throughout their communities — so those foods became part of the American palate.”

While her first book dwelt more on the chronological phases of Italian immigration, her second explores the complexity of that experience among Italians who settled in different parts of the country, Scarpaci said.

It’s not surprising that in areas where there are large concentrations of a particular ethnicity that people identify with their ancestry, but I was amazed to find that people in small towns all over the country, even when they’re not one of the dominant cultural groups, still identify themselves that way,” she said.

Above all, Scarpaci’s “The Journey of the Italians in America” venerates and celebrates those millions of Italians, from day laborers and skilled craftsmen to educated professionals and celebrities, whose lives are forever interwoven, sometimes as background and other times as splashes of brilliant color, into the fabric of the U.S. immigrant experience.