Time To Toast Italian Americans In Merced County
By JONATHAN WHITAKER
March 16, 2017
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
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
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
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