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L’Italo-Americano had the opportunity to interview filmmakers Gianfranco Norelli and Suma Kurien, producers of Finding the Mother Lode, the new documentary on the history of Italian immigrants in California. The documentary premiered last Friday, November 8th, 2013, at the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco.
This comprehensive telling of stories about Italians in the Golden State took three years of work by the two producers from research and filming, to editing and post-production. The phrase “mother lode” is a metaphoric term, but extremely appropriate to describe the immense content of the film.
Describing over hundred and fifty years of Italian immigration in search of the American dream in California, Finding the Mother Lode relies on an unprecedented source of knowledge to retrace the process of the deep-rooted cultural integration of Italians in this area of the country.
This documentary is a follow-up to Pane Amaro (Bitter Bread, 2009) that depicts Italian immigrants’ life on the East Coast. What makes the experience of Italian immigration in California different from that one?
Gianfranco Norelli: “We made this film as a companion piece of Pane Amaro to describe the immigration experience on the West Coast, where we can observe a perfect match between the skills people were bringing from Italy and the opportunities that California offered.
“Specifically in California it was easier to claim and own a piece of land to live, to develop agriculture, wine making and other works to demonstrate that Italians were good workers.
“The main difference here it was the climate, the sea, the plants, the land where they could grow the same crops as in Italy. In the East Coast for instance it was different as the climate wasn’t as good.
“Another difference is that Italians in the East Coast found already a socially stratified reality, so that they had to start from the bottom. Here they arrived at the same time with other ethnic groups, enjoying more economical opportunities and upward mobility.”
Suma Kurian: “There is a big difference on how the community has developed here in the West Coast. While in the East Coast people lived in the city and mainly speak their own language, here more than forty percent of immigrants settled in the countryside, they didn’t live only within their own group but were working together with other groups. By the 1870s there were already congressmen and lawyers that were Italian.”
How were the seven Italian communities described in the film selected?
Suma Kurian: “These seven communities seemed the largest and oldest in California and in the U.S., the ones with a major impact in the country. In Sonoma for example, Italians came to develop wine production and they maintained it for a long time, as the fishing tradition in San Francisco and Monterey, the farming in the Central Valley and many related activities.
“Before that California it wasn’t a very populated state, and Italian people were welcomed as other European immigrants, while Asian groups like Chinese and Japanese were undesired by the society.
“They came initially for the gold rush but then they found opportunities to do many others works, that was a very attractive thing and they were able to do it in an industrial way.”
How much has the identity of Italian-American people changed through the years?
Gianfranco Norelli: “It is very important to look at the different generations of Italian-Americans today. Children now go to school becoming part of the mainstream American society: they speak more English and less Italian dialect compared to the past; this is a big difference in identity. Before, there were mainly regional identities, with different groups of Sicilian, Genovese, Calabrese, etc., but the following generations helped integration with all others immigrant groups within the society.”
What is the message that old and new Italian immigrants can enjoy today watching Finding the Mother Lode?
Suma Kurien: “This is a story of Italian immigration that is also relevant to others immigrant ethnic groups. The special message to deliver concerns also family relationships, stories between fathers and daughters, sorrow for leaving the homeland, desire of a new life and a new language, hope to repaying your own culture, as the great example of Simon Rodia with his Watts Towers in Los Angeles.
“What he built has a meaning not just for the Italian community, but for a large part of the society, where he brought his words and culture while embracing what others have to offer.
“This is a message for Italy as well, a nation where a lot of immigrants are coming right now. Italians sometimes don’t think what foreigners bring to the nation, that’s why we did Pane Amaro, but here in California there was a big group of immigrants that was overall positively welcomed.
“Hopefully, this film is a way for Italian people to understand that immigrants bring knowledge, culture, skills, and enrichment to the country.”
Gianfranco Norelli: “The film will be easily available on Amazon and we are hoping to broadcast it as well on PBS, as we were fortunate to broadcast Pane Amaro years ago on RAI television, but only dubbed in Italian. ”
Finding the Mother Lode was partly funded by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Central California School of Italian Language and Culture and the Italian Americans of Stockton.