Aliza Giammatteo

This month marks the one year anniversary since La Voce welcomed this Las Vegas newcomer by offering me a column to share my Italian heritage expertise with the community. And what a year it’s been!

The response from La Voce readers has been heartwarming. Not a week goes by that I don’t hear from a reader saying they were touched by a particular family story or inspired to learn more about their own history.

Some readers asked for help with their own family search. And the stories I discovered were as diverse as one might expect from a city like Las Vegas that’s full of newcomers. Here are two of those stories.

A “critical” mission (the Rosa Story)

Exactly a year ago, Paula Rosa picked up a La Voce newspaper while in Bambini’s Pizzeria and saw my first La Voce column sharing a moving family discovery that I made for a client. From that moment on, she knew what she had to do.

Since her husband Andy started having heart problems, his urge to know more about his Italian grandfather went from a mere curiosity to “critical”, as Paula later described it. So Paula saved the newspaper and as soon as Andy recovered from his heart surgery, she gave me a call.

And so our mission began.

Building a legacy

The Rosas were good at working with their hands. That much Andy knew.

Evidence of their handiwork can be seen all over Stamford, Connecticut. The tradition started with Andy’s grandfather Andrew who worked in a leather factory; it spread to his father, Joseph Andrew, who was a foreman and helped build everything from hospitals to high rises; and then to Andy himself, who was a Sr. Master Mechanic at the Clairol plant.

Andy’s father was a Shop Steward of his labor union. When he passed away in 1979, there was a two-day wake where hundreds lined up to pay their respects. Now Andy wanted to pay his respects in his own way.

The more he started thinking about his family’s legacy, the more it bothered him that he never knew where his Italian grandfather and namesake came from, so finding his grandfather’s hometown was our primary goal.

Andy Rosa, with a photo of his grandfather, Andrea, and the documents the author discovered revealing Andrea’s ancestral town.

Surprises…

The first surprise in Andy’s search was that his ancestral town was Avigliano in the province of Potenza, a lot further south than “somewhere around Rome”, as Andy had imagined.  He also learned that his grandfather “Andrew” was born Andrea.

The next surprise was that Andy’s last name “Rosa” was originally “De Rosa”.

“Priceless information”

There were other exciting discoveries, like: the street that his family lived on in Avigliano, his ancestors’ occupations, and siblings of his grandfather that he never knew existed. Thanks to those discoveries, Andy’s family could go to Italy someday and literally walk in their ancestors’ footsteps.

But I got the sense that, for now, having his health back and the joy of knowing where he came from was more than enough for Andy. His grandkids called a few months ago asking about their family tree for a homework assignment and the grandparents were only all too happy to pass along the “priceless information”, as Andy called it.

Andy could now tell part of his Italian story as well as his American story. The “Rosas” that helped build Stamford, CT were the “De Rosa” family of Avigliano.

The “critical” mission was complete.

“West Coast Italians” (The Illia Story)

Just as the Rosa family helped shape the cityscape of Stamford, CT, the Illia family helped shape the landscape of Sonoma County, California.

The Illias came from a small town called Samolaco way up in Northern Italy in the Lombardia region, near the Swiss border. And when they came to the U.S., they settled out west, as did many Northern Italians. They’re “West Coast Italians” as my client’s son Vince stated.

The histories of Northern and Southern Italy are as different as day and night, as are the histories of the American East and West Coasts, so it’s not surprising that these two family stories differ greatly.

California Dreaming

When I think of Innocente Stefano Illia, our client John Illia’s grandfather, the song “California Dreaming” comes to mind. Innocente left Italy in the winter of 1892 with sunny California as his final destination.

I say “final destination” because the determined, eighteen year-old had to make a heck of a lot of other stops before he ever set foot on California soil. His ship set sail from Le Havre on the Northern coast of France, so he had to travel to Northern Europe before he even set out to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Crossing Europe and then the Atlantic may seem like quite a journey—and it was, particularly in those days—but that was nothing compared to the next leg of his trip. When Innocente landed in New York in 1892, he still had to cross the United States to reach California.

The Panama Canal wasn’t built yet so he sailed all the way around South America to complete his journey. Phew! I’m exhausted just thinking about it!

Dreams can come true

Innocente’s long trek to California eventually paid off. According to the 1910 census, he operated a successful dairy farm, owned his home out-right, and even had two employees residing with him.

The 320-acre ranch he ended up acquiring, complete with cattle, horses, sheep, and chickens, was an amazing accomplishment. And to think that Innocente’s entire hometown in Italy only had a land mass of 17 square miles! Is it any wonder that he dreamed of the vast, open, country in California?

He knew that in order to achieve his ranching dream, he’d have to find bigger pastures. So that’s exactly what he did.

The Illia family ranch in California. John Illia’s grandfather, Innocente, crossed Europe, the Atlantic Ocean, and then sailed all the way around South America to make it to California in 1892.

Growing a legacy

John Illia never really expressed why he wanted me to document his family history. He already knew a good bit of information from family oral history and there wasn’t a burning question, like there was for Andy Rosa.

Maybe he was just curious to see what else I’d uncover? Maybe he wanted to get more of those delightful details that inevitably get lost after a century of passing a story down?

Or maybe, just maybe, John knew what I was soon to find out: Innocente wasn’t the first dreamer in the Illia family and he certainly wasn’t the last. I traced the line back 250 years and saw a pattern of unusually big dreams and some equally big successes. Dreaming was something of an Illia family tradition.

But no matter what other discoveries I made about other relatives, something kept pulling me back to Innocente and that land—the land that a determined, 18 year-old crossed continents to get to. John grew up around that land and maybe he felt that pull too.

Maybe he knew deep-down that more than livestock and produce grew on that land. Dreams grew there too. That’s where Innocente’s dream blossomed. And his legacy wasn’t so much the land as it was teaching his descendants to dare to dream.

What father wouldn’t want to pass that story down?

Our American Legacy

I started this article by telling two Las Vegas stories. But it turns out that these are not Las Vegas stories at all, or Italian stories, for that matter. They are American stories.

There were millions of Andreas and Innocentes who came from all parts of Italy. Many came with little else but a dream. And their stories are as diverse as the places they settled and the dreams they came with.

As each immigrant began their new lives here, there were trials and there were triumphs, all of which added a page to an important chapter in our history and helped shape the landscapes and cityscapes of America.

These are just two of their stories. Correction: This is our story.

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Originally published in the September 2012 issue of La Voce, an Italian American newspaper distributed throughout the Las Vegas Valley.