Italifornians of Note
The Third Wave
The Third Wave was part of In Cerca di Una Nuova Vita, a Museo Italo-Americano retrospective exhibition, the three waves of Italian Immigration to California since the middle of the 1800s. In Cera di Una Nuova Vita was co-curated by curators Mary Stainer, Alessandro Baccari, and Paolo Pontoniere. Paolo Pontoniere curated The Third Wave section of the exhibition. It retraces the experience of the last historical Wave of Italian Immigration to California, explores the contribution of Italian technology talents to the mystique of Silicon Valley, and the affirmation of the California Dream. Nowadays, a new wave of Italian immigrants, the 4th Wave, is arriving in California enticed by the immense potential for innovation and the technological IQ offered by the Greater Bay Area of San Francisco, and the digital lure of Hollywood.
SEXY BEFORE APPLE
This documentary was produced for Sexy Before Apple an exhibition that the Computer History Museum hosted in March of 2013 for "The Year of Italian Culture in the United States." Curated by Paolo Pontoniere with the collaboration of Alex Bochannek and Kritstern Tashev. The exhibit explored the Italian contribution to the creation of the Silicon Valley Mystique, and the rise of California's technological dream.
ITALIANS BY THE BAY
Italians By The Bay examines how immigrants' lives have changed from leaving their homes in Italy to moving to the Bay Area. With the current events in Italy and Italian being the fastest dying language in the United States, this documentary touches the cultural dynamics, motivations, and difficulties of uprooting their lives and starting anew. The rich history of Italian immigrants in the Bay Area is celebrated, looking into their astonishing contributions to our current society."
Film director Annalisa Siagura states, “This film weaves together the stories of Italians here who have pursued their dream and taken chances that may not have been possible for them back in their home country. The Italian spirit fully shines as our subjects takes us through their reasons of a new life in America, the difficulty of uprooting their lives and starting anew. I made this film because I wanted to offer fresh insights into the lives of Italian immigrants. I have done this by revealing their complex and inspirational stories as they create a more just world for themselves, their families, and people around them. Italians By The Bay offers a new angle on immigrants, finally feeling at home after taking enormous chances to start a new life.
PICTURES FROM OUR LIVES
A parallel photographic history of Italy and California
Is this a project? A game? A collective collage?... It is all three things put together.
Dear visitor, the photos that you will encounter in this section of the Almanac relate to salient historical events that took place in Italy between the last 30 years of the 20th century, and the first decade of the 21st. We aim to construct a parallel historical line, visually, comparing what life was like in Italy during those years and what it was like for the Italians who had migrated to California. We hope that this section will come together over time with your participation. Reader, please play with us…
Contribute images of what you, your family, your friends, your loved ones were living during the same years after your arrival here in the US and California.
The photos of Italy’s historical events contained in this section were kindly provided by Italy’s news agency ANSA to Paolo Pontoniere on the occasion of In Cerca di Una Nuova Vita and to be used for the realization of other exhibitions dealing with the Italian American epic like Sexy Before Apple.
Click photo to expand and read caption
Click photo to expand and read caption
Click photo to expand and read caption
The Fabulous Fior -
Over 100 Years in an Italian Kitchen
by Francine Brevetti
Here is a tale of cookery and passion, as lived by Italian-American immigrants in San Francisco from the Gold Rush through Prohibition, the 1906 Earthquake and Fire and world wars to the 21st century. It includes thirty classic recipes.
It was my aim to chronicle the lives of the immigrant families who created the Fior D'Italia, America's oldest Italian restaurant, I attempted to bring life to the difficulties of operating a restaurant during Prohibition, the trials of conducting business under the upstairs brothel, and the challenges of pleasing VIPs such as Richard M. Nixon and Luciano Pavarotti.
When the then Fior proprietors, Bob and Jinx Larive, commissioned me to write this book, they reasoned that they were not connected to the restaurant’s origins as previous owners had been.
This was why they wanted to write the history of this beloved eatery. “We didn’t want to lose all those stories,” Bob said.
This commission was a gift for me. I had been out of the country for many years, returning yearly only to visit mamma. But with this project I was immediately put back to my roots and my past, delving into the history my mother had recounted throughout my childhood. Oh the characters I met!
Thank you, mamma.
Click the cover to read or download this fabulous book
Sadly, I recently read of the passing of Diane Di Prima. She was a Poet Laureate in her adopted City by the Bay, San Francisco.
She was born in New York City, not in a melting pot, but a bubbling pot in the Italian neighborhoods of old Brooklyn. While coming from a relatively middle class Italian American stock, she was influenced by her Italian Anarchist grandfather to literally live her life her way. And she did, and quite brilliantly too. A fascinating biography of her life can be found, as written by Sam Whiting, in the San Francisco Chronicle, October 29, 2020, Section B2, for those who are curious about her amazing journey.
She was already on her literary career path when she moved to San Francisco in the 1960s drawn to the exciting artistic vibes of the unique San Francisco Renaissance. She literally became a voice for feminism by just being a major voice in a very male-dominated legendary "Beat Movement" centered in 1950-1960 San Francisco.
Interesting and maybe ironically, the heart of the Beat Movement was among the Italian neighborhoods of Old North Beach and upper Grant Avenue. Eventually, she even bought a home in the very San Francisco Italian neighborhood of the Excelsior District which was not really that far from her cultural roots in Brooklyn. Like North Beach, some of these East Coast neighborhoods were bastions of Italian Americana.
Even so, when I was a tyke and visiting family in North Beach, I was warned against visiting the beatnik area of upper Grant, which was only a couple of blocks from the old home. Of course, that is where my walks took me. North Beach at the time was also in transition and many of the inhabitants, including my family, wanted to move to the country, Marin, San Mateo, and Santa Clara County so there was that transition going on at the same time.
Reflecting now on the Beats, I don't think it was an accident that they became ensconced in our old neighborhoods. It always was a Latin Quarter settlement, full of clubs, bars, excellent restaurants, and social centers. It truly was an exciting urban village within The City. If it was not always welcoming, it was very tolerant of the diversity of the time with an a-live-and-let-live attitude that fostered and nurtured a very creative lifestyle. And that is Italian too.
Italian Americans were also well represented in the multi-cultural Beat movement too. Aside from Diane, the last holdout was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the owner of the legendary City Light Bookstore. Between City Light and the bar Vesuvio's, on Columbus Avenue (dare we use that name!) and across from the Tosca Caffe was a little bootblack stand run by my grandfather Luigi Borrelli,
My ramblings in North Beach took me to Caffe Trieste on Grant Avenue where I first tasted machine espresso, as opposed to the Neapolitan Style. I can still smell the coffee roasting establishments along Green Street. Some of the Italian American Beat exiles that found refuge in North Beach included Gregory Corso, Philip Lamantia (related to a part of the Lamantia clan of San Jose), Jay De Feo, Robert LaVigne, and (technically not a beat) Benny Bufano and of course Enrico Banducci and his place on Broadway not too far from the very wild Finocchio's. A little south was the old Barbary Coast, which was the limit of old North Beach and my meanderings. Most of the "beats," Diane Di Prima included, were beyond the box thinkers and even today, while we celebrate the Beat movement in the abstract, we still keep our distance from their social experiences.
As Italian Americans, there is a lot about our history that goes under the radar and Diane Di Prima's passing is a timely reminder of this observation. It also underscores the need to preserve and document our roots. You are not going to find these tales in any California history book unless we share them. "Omaggio a Diane!"
The 150th Anniversary of the establishment of the modern state of Italy has got me thinking lately about our own Italian American Heritage and some of the major differential experiences between Italians and Italian Americans.
Assimilation aside, the rich and varied Italian American experience has had some very unique outcomes which have contributed to the forging of a distinct Italian American character. Those dynamics share a commonality of process with every other group in this land of "e Pluribus Unum” (out of many one). What differs is the twists and turns of history and how the responses of each community impacted its members and their place in American society in general.
As American history relates to Italian Americans then, I want to highlight 3 crucial epochs and their influence upon the forging of an Italian American identity. Those epochs are: 1) The Age of Discovery; 2) The Volstead Act (prohibition); and 3) the World War Two years.
THE AGE OF DISCOVERY
While the general consensus is that Native Americans did not need to be discovered, (read for example, 1491, the national bestseller by Charles Mann) Italian Americans strongly identify with those sons of the Renaissance who hired out to the major western powers of the time, in their explorations in the new world. Columbus takes on iconic stature amongst many Italian Americans, but equally important was the role of John and Sebastian Cabot (Caboto), Amerigo Vespucci, and Giovanni di Verrazzano, amongst others. Fast-forward to the 1880s when the great Trans-Atlantic migration from Italy to the USA began the role of these larger-than-life Italian explorers became vital links and associations between the immigrant and their new homeland. Those times were very difficult for these new immigrants. Language, religion, cultural barriers, and misunderstandings created a very difficult social climate for many of our contadini ancestors, culminating in widespread discrimination and hostility.
Columbus et.al. were powerful reminders to the host country that at least as individuals, Italians were part of the founding and or development of the Americas. As a people there was some sense of being part of the tapestry of the country, and that our roots in the new world even predated the Mayflower. Ironically, today, 500 years later, regretfully, you would be hard-pressed to find very much content in a US history text about the contribution of Italian Americans to the development of the country -- save "the age of discovery", and the saga of Christopher Columbus.
THE VOLSTEAD ACT
The 18th amendment to the US Constitution prohibited the sale and distribution of intoxicating liquors. The legislation was froth with unintended consequences for Italian Americans, many of which we are still dealing with today. To say there was a major sociocultural gap between mainstream American and Italian American values regarding the use of alcohol is an understatement. The reaction by Italian Americans to the 18th amendment verged on incomprehensibility to passive resistance. Alcohol, especially in the form of wine, was an important part of our culinary traditions, and an easy leap into sharing and selling surplus wines and spirits to mainstream America. Italian American reaction to Prohibition, also spawned or reinforced a number of stereotypes about Italian Americans especially as it related to bootlegging, organized criminal activities, and gangsterism. All to the thrill and advantage to the emerging Hollywood film industry, along with grist for pulp novels and the media in general. While many other ethnic groups were equally opposed to Prohibition, the late 1900 s had large Italian American communities, which exhibited very little sympathy for the Volstead Act. As Italian Americans, the "gangster and Mafioso stereotype" created a strange niche for perceptions of Italian Americans for mainstream America. One major and serious unintended consequence for both sides of the Atlantic regarding prohibition was to make the sales of liquor very lucrative and provided an opportunity for petty criminals in many ethnic groups to accumulate large sums of capital and more effectively improve their criminal businesses and expansion. While much of mainstream America was also involved in the prohibition experience, Italian Americans definitely lost the image war! It was no accident that the clash in cultural values also saw the same Congress upon passing the Volstead Act in 1919, severely limit immigration (1921-1924) from Southern and Eastern Europe (but at least we had Columbus)!
WORLD WAR II
This is the last epoch to be highlighted. It created major conflicts between Italy and Italian American consciousness. Up until war was declared in 1941 between the USA and Italy, the community's opinion of Fascism and Mussolini's Italy was very divided. Navigating the political issues of the day became a very painful experience, especially for those with family in Italy, and remained so throughout the war years and beyond. Even local Italian American organizations could not transcend these divisive issues. Once war was declared, any perceived umbilical cord between Italian Americans and Italy was cut. Italian Americans were the largest single ethnic group serving in the US Armed Forces. The war also hastened the assimilation process, the migration out of the “old neighborhoods" and a widening cultural gap between Italy and Americans of Italian descent. One of the first victims of the gap was the use of the Italian language itself, along with Italian American media and institutions. Italian became the enemy's language, along with a general identity with things Italian. What became particularly important for Italian Americans was the extended family support systems and their rituals which became the building blocks of reconstructed institutions. The war years also saw many families with roots in Italy completely severed. During the post-war era of the 50s, newer Italian immigrants came to the US, from war-devastated Europe. Not necessarily sharing the same baggage (especially from the 1920s to the 1950s) that the pre-war Italian American communities experienced, they assimilated in a different way especially regarding their connectedness to things Italian and contributed in their own way to a cultural healing and promotion of a more modern Italian image.
Many of the areas we touched upon in this superficial overview of an Italian-American identity are the subject of research, dialogue, and many publications. Some of these issues are still not fully assessed nor understood. This article does not even assume to do this subject justice.
Hopefully, however, the article can engage your interest, and serve to increase your appreciation of Italian American life in all its complexities, as well as transcend some of the myths and stereotypes that have become part of mainstream Americana. I also want to point out that for the month of April, one small part of this saga, La Storia Segreta, the internment and sanctions against Italian Americans during World War II, will be highlighted in a special exhibit at the Martin Luther King Main Library and a discussion too at the IAHF on April 10, 2011. We encourage you to be a part of this ongoing dialogue and welcome your thoughts and opinions on this and similar subject matter of Italian American Heritage. Happy 150th Year Of Italian Nationhood and Italian American History!
-- Reprinted from IAHF NEWS, April 2011
"You know what,
two of the birds just died
Mi doli propriu u cori, amariceddi
(I can't tell you how sorry I feel, poor things)"
"Did the frost kill them?"
"No, they'd made it through
And then I went and fed them
You know, I made a salad
Used the inside leaves for us,
Washed and dried the ones outside,
(as I used to do all the time)
and gave it to them.
Some of the birds didn't want them,
but Gina and the canary ate them.
Next morning I found them
belly up dead.
Cu sapi quanti porcherii ci mentunu
(Who knows what kind of crap they put on it).
It was so sad...... the canary
had just started to sing,
and I can't get another one
'cause now they cost 90 dollars."
She told me this
Like it wasn't important enough
for her daughter with lotssa education
who wrote and taught things she didn't understand
and argued until she stuttered
about things that seemed extreme.
This she told me as we walked
through velvet green hills
on a path snaking away from the street
where 100 Sunday hikers parked their cars,
winding away from the wounds inflicted on the hills
where every day 1000s of tons of rock were drained
and turned into cement and gravel
for other cars to drive on.
Pina Piccolo, 1995, from the unpublished collection “Avatars in the Borderlands”
. . . . . . . . .
This story is based on my experience as an interpreter in the 1990’s in Northern California, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area. My work led me to become familiar with many aspect of working class Italian American life especially of people who had immigrated to the US from the 1950’s on because in legal or medical situation they required a qualified interpreter to translate the questions and answers of lawyers and medical personnel for official records. So I was privileged to have access to a wide array of the Italian American experience of that generation.
. . . . . . . . .
Pina Piccolo is a bilingual writer, translator, and cultural promoter born in California from Calabrian parents who immigrated there in the 1950’s. She has lived between Italy and California, spending big chunks of time in each country. She publishes poetry, essays and short-stories both in Italian journals and in English, internationally. Her Italian poetry collection "I canti dell’Interregno" was published in 2018 by Lebeg Edizioni and her unpublished English language poetry manuscript “Avatars in the Borderlands” awaits any sign of interest from publishers. She is editor-in-chief of the digital journal “The Dreaming Machine” and one of the editors of “La macchina sognante”. She blogs at pinapiccolosblog/ilblogdipinapiccolo
“Quick, stop her, don’t you see she is bringing him a cappuccino?”
Ma si può essere così sceme da entrare lì dentro con il vassoietto di cartone da due tazze, cosí in bella vista? Roba da commedia all’italiana e scena con garzone da bar, mica la giusta entrata di una competente seppur ancillare macchina converti-lingua, a cui non si chiedono moti cerebrali propri. Ed eccomi all’ingresso del lungo corridoio, costeggiato da carrelli metallici con vari oggetti di scena riposti sui ripiani, eccomi lí a scusarmi con l’aria da cervo accecato dagli abbaglianti: “Oh, he can’t drink it? I thought it would cheer him up, remind him of his country.” Questa mia apologetica affermazione con richiami alla nostalgia del proprio paese viene accolta con sguardi di commiserazione. Vade retro dilettante, lascia fare agli addetti ai lavori! Loro invece sí che la sanno lunga sui reconditi sentieri cerebrali, su quando s’ingarbugliano e ti portano per selve oscure, loro sì che sanno aiutare la gente a districarsi.
Comunque me la perdonano (vista anche la difficoltà a trovarne un’altra competente nei dialetti gallo-italici). Un’inserviente strappa dal vassoio una delle due tazze di carta e la rovescia nel cestino indicandomi l’uscita se voglio andare a bere il mio. Decido lí per lí di non arrendermi. Faccio cenno che esco a bermi il mio cappuccino, e trascorso un lasso di tempo credibile rientro con aria compunta chiedendo come stia John oggi. “The usual. At least he didn’t cry all day. Why don’t you go get him and walk him to his group?” Preparata da questo quadro poco allettante della situazione psicologica del “Cliente” dell’agenzia di traduzioni che mi ha assunto, mi avvio, busso e mi richiudo la porta dietro estraendo dalla borsa il cappuccino clandestino, “Ma u l’e’ freidu, ti m’e’ purtou in cappûcciu zeou.“ “Mi dispiace Giovanni lo so che il cappuccino è gelato, ma mi hanno intercettato, devo essere più cauta la prossima volta. E adesso bisogna andare a fare la terapia di gruppo’’. “Quella bagascia de mè cugna’, se nu mi nun saieva chi. Appena u l’e’ mortu mè frè, a nun vedeiva l’ua de liberase de mi.” Sempre la solita solfa, la sua situazione è colpa di “quella puttana” di sua cognata che non vedeva l’ora di liberarsi di lui non appena morto suo fratello. Gli sorrido e gli prendo il braccio guidandolo verso la sala della terapia.
Bella collezione, una specie di ONU della demenza, tutti i gruppi etnici rappresentati in varie fasi di “disagio”. Nel mezzo un biondino smilzo ed occhialuto dall’aria comprensiva e la sua giovane assistente cino-americana dallo sguardo dolce e rassicurante. Ambientino allegro, pieno di luce, morbida moquette giallastra, poltrone rivestite di tappezzerie dai colori vivaci, riviste tipo anticamera del dentista, qualche libro con fotografie di luoghi esotici. Poi un’infinità di locandine con orari degli autobus, programmi di palestre e piscine, attività dei senior center, le varie offerte dei Community College, le attività e i servizi delle biblioteche di quartiere. Alcune delle brochure sono in spagnolo e in cinese. L’hanno appena ristrutturato Herrick Hospital. Fino all’anno scorso c’erano i pavimenti di linoleum e la parte incerata andava fino a metà parete. Pare che venisse considerato più igienico. Più facile da pulire. A quell’epoca anche il personale sembrava più incazzato. Adesso invece perfino lo staff sembra rinato: hanno sguardi cordiali si muovono con dinamismo come trascinati da un élan vitale che elude i ricoverati, che invece si muovono con passi pesanti, inzavorrati dagli psicofarmaci. Forse sono ancora così pimpanti perché molti li hanno assunti da poco; dagli ancora qualche anno e vedrai…
Lo Smilzo solare scambia qualche battuta con quelli più svegli, poi, una volta raggiunto il quorum incomincia il suo lavoro*: “Good morning. Good to see you all. And now let’s see how everybody is doing… Jason, you seem cheerful today. I see you have picked up some schedules. Do you wanna tell us what you plan to do when you leave here?” Il ragazzo si guarda intorno impacciato, come se tradito in un suo piano segreto. “Oh, nothing much, Mr. Woods. You know I can’t drive with the medication. .. it’s hard to get around. My friends are all in school and my mom works”. Il suo vicino, un signore sulla quarantina dall’aria superiore bofonchia: “Why am I here? I don’t want to be in this group!” “Please be patient, Dr. Samuelson, we’ll address your concerns later. Rose, you are good at taking buses. Do you want to tell Jason how he can get around in Berkeley?” Poi mi fissa per vedere se sto facendo il mio lavoro. Io sussurro nell’orecchio di Giovanni, per non disturbare il resto dei partecipanti, ma so benissimo che è duro d’orecchi e per di più non gliene frega niente. Rose, una vecchina giapponese sorride. Si sente prescelta, lo Smilzo l’ha strappata alla sua invisibilità, la fa sentire utile. “Mr. Woods, I use to take rail everywhere. You know I live in Berkeley a lon time. Near where now Ashby Bart station, there was rail cars, Lorin station, you go everywhere: to Oakland, to San Francisco, to the bay. So fast. But when I come back from internment camp, you know I was there four years, I was 18 years old when I come back, station no more there, they put buses and then Bart, now the buses don’t work so good. You have to wai a lon time.” Una lezione sulla storia dei trasporti pubblici di Berkeley… per non parlare delle possibili polemiche su come avevano trattato i giapponesi. Non esattamente quello che voleva sentire, ma lo Smilzo non demorde. Nel frattempo una ragazza afroamericana si alza, non ce la fa a stare seduta a sentire queste chiacchiere insulse, con la scusa di fare pipì se ne va a fumarsi una sigaretta. C’è una stanza in cui è ancora possibile farlo, lì c’è anche il tavolo da ping pong, magari riesce a rimediare una partitina. Potrebbe ancora esserci Ramona se non l’hanno dimessa. Quella sì che è una in gamba. Era riuscita perfino a farsi portare del fumo da suo fratello. Difficile da mascherare quell’aroma. Allora Ramona, quella furbastra si era inventata di essere buddista e che per ricreare un’atmosfera consona alla meditazione doveva bruciare almeno tre bastoncini di incenso. Si erano divertite da matte la settimana scorsa, la roba era anche di ottima qualità, Mendocino Gold, al fratello di Ramona la forniva il postino che aveva un fratello coltivatore diretto nella California del Nord.
“So John, how are you today? I understand that Dr. Holbrook said you can leave next week after he speaks with your sister-in-law and your nephews. Have you thought about what you want to do when you get out? You are doing a lot better now.“ “Giovanni, il dottore vuole sapere se hai pensato a quello che vuoi fare quando esci da qui. La settimana prossima, dopo che vede tua cognata e i tuoi nipoti, ti dimettono perché adesso stai molto meglio”. Udite queste parole Giovanni scoppia a piangere. Ora interviene l’assistente. L’hanno assunta anche perché oltre a essere brava appartiene a una minoranza e “potrebbe quindi ottimizzare il rapporto con gli utenti” di Herrick, una buona fetta dei quali appartiene a gruppi etnici non caucasici. Infatti, mentre lo Smilzo parlava, si era messa a ripassarsi possibili approcci per gli utenti. Guardando John cercava di mettere a fuoco –Ma gli italiani sono una minoranza etnica? Loro sono un po’ in mezzo, in Ethnic Studies ci avevano fatto la storia dell’evoluzione del concetto di bianco, e secondo loro per molti anni gli italiani non ci rientravano, specialmente quelli del sud. Ah, sì tra le cose paradossali c’era il fatto che i contratti di affitto avevano condizioni diverse per immigrati italiani a seconda se erano meridionali o settentrionali. Ma Genoa dove diavolo sta: al nord o al sud dell’Italia?– Si avvicina al nonno e comincia ad accarezzargli le spalle e gli fa**,”But John, think how much better it will be out there. You can take walks. You can take the bus and go to Strawberry Creek, to the Botanical Garden. You live in the Temescal area, right? You know at the library they have all sorts of interesting programs. You know, the Colombo club is right there. Sometimes you can go and visit with your old buddies. And then, if you have a problem, you can tell your sister-in-law, she can help you.” Non l’avesse mai detto. Per quanto la scheda clinica ricordasse che “in seguito ai trattamenti effettuati, il paziente presenta un accresciuto deficit nella padronanza della lingua inglese”, quella parola – sister-in –law – è impressa indelebilmente nella sua mente. Giovanni reagisce, raccoglie quelle poche forze che gli restano e tira su dal profondo quelle striminzite parole di inglese che gli sono rimaste dopo la terza serie di “trattamenti”. “My sister-in-law, she hate me. I no take the bus. I fall. I no cook, I cry all time.” Lo Smilzo e l’assistente adesso mi guardano incerti. Vorrebbero che intervenissi, che lo convincessi che fuori è meglio, che ce la può fare. Ora dovrei smettere di fare la macchina converti-parole e trasformarmi in una specie di wonderwoman dall’eloquio suadente, per tirarli fuori dal pantano in cui si sono cacciati. Spiacente, cercatevene un’altra e auguri. Io sono paralizzata. Sono giorni ormai che non faccio che pensare a Giovanni chiuso in quello stanzino, le braccia e le gambe immobilizzate e gli elettrodi sulla testa. Cervello fritto e non siamo in cucina. Negli ultimi cinque anni gli hanno fatto ben tre “courses” di questa meraviglia tecnologica, unico prodotto del Made in Italy di cui avrebbe volentieri fatto a meno. Trattamenti necessari perché bisognava scuoterlo. Perché era sempre triste, non aveva voglia di fare niente. E pensare che, per quanto mi aveva detto “la cugnà” Irma, durante la sessione di briefing per l’interprete, si erano sforzati a portarlo qui da Genova. Gigi, il fratello maggiore aveva trovato lavoro in una cava a Pleasant Hill e lì avevano sempre bisogno di mano d’opera. Poteva portarci anche suo fratello, che forse non era un genio, ma era forte ed un gran lavoratore. Tutti i lavoratori della cava li avevano sistemati in un quartiere, a quell’epoca un po’ squallido di Oakland (ma ora ricercatissimo), il Temescal. Lì c’erano già tanti altri italiani. Tanto stavano bene tra di loro. Avevano aperto due o tre delicatessen dove potevano comprarsi gli alimenti da WOP (WOP cioè without papers = senza documenti, termine derogatorio appioppiato agli italiani immigrati, spesso alternato al termine Dago, di incerta etimologia). Prima della globalizzazione, per alimenti da WOP bisognava intendere le pallide imitazioni che si potevano ottenere usando ingredienti MADE IN USA, quindi il pane industriale tipo sourdough bread Colombo (che almeno aveva un minimo di crosta), il caffè bruciato denominato Medaglia D’Oro, la pasta fatta con la farina di grano tenero che si scuoceva subito. La mozzarella veniva dal Wisconsin e non era più un formaggio fresco. Del salame meglio non parlarne. Però erano le cose che più si avvicinavano ai loro sapori. Sempre meglio delle porcherie che mangiavano i “mangia-checcha” o “cake eaters” mangiatori di torta americani. C’erano due o tre pizzerie, ma in realtà ci andavano gli americani perché gli italiani mangiavano meglio in casa. Quei soldi che facevano se li mettevano da parte per tornare al loro paese. Ogni tanto magari potevano andare al Colombo Club, al club La Fratellanza, ma il guaio erano quelli di seconda o terza generazione, gli italoamericani. Una parola d’italiano non la sapevano e non facevano altro che bere. Ormai si era trasformato in un club per ubriaconi. E in tutto questo Giovanni che c’entrava? Aveva imparato l’essenziale, quel poco di inglese che sapeva gli serviva per farsi capire quando entrava nei negozi o prendeva l’autobus. Tanto sull’autobus per la cava di Pleasant Hill erano tutti paesani, piemontesi o genovesi, quindi era come essere a Zena. Il mare però non c’era. L’aveva fatto tutti i giorni, alzandosi alle cinque e mezza, per quasi trent’anni. All’inizio aveva abitato da suo fratello, poi con i soldi messi da parte si era comprato un appartamentino e viveva da solo. Ogni tanto sua cognata lo aiutava, gli stirava le camicie, o gli faceva le grandi pulizie in casa, ma lui si era abituato ad andare alla lavanderia a gettoni e a cucinarsi da solo. A sessantacinque anni era andato in pensione. Il quartiere nel frattempo era cambiato. Gli italiani che avevano i soldi si erano trasferiti nei sobborghi, terrorizzati dal crimine e dalla vicinanza dei neri con cui ormai dividevano il quartiere. Fino a quando Gigi era vivo le cose avevano in qualche modo funzionato. Quando gli prendeva la tristezza facevano una passeggiata insieme. Andavano al porto di Oakland o a China Basin, a San Francisco. Certo che lavorare 30 anni in una cava per gente di mare non è proprio il massimo. Ma quando erano arrivati loro non era semplice entrare nel sindacato dei portuali, e, visto che senza quella tessera non c’era speranza, avevano preso quello che passava il convento. I due fratelli, ormai pieni di acciacchi qualche volta andavano a vedersi le corse dei cavalli al Golden Gate Fields e se proprio gli andava bene, prendevano quegli autobus organizzati per pensionati e si facevano una capatina ai casinò di Reno, nel Nevada, non c’erano ancora i Casinò degli Indiani dietro l’angolo come ci sono adesso. Giocavano alle macchinette, per ore a inserire cinquini o quarters. Quando proprio gli prendeva la nostalgia si mettevano ad ascoltare i vecchi dischi di Carlo Buti e Claudio Villa e dopo un po’ gli passava. Il guaio era venuto poi, quando era morto Gigi, la tristezza non era piu’ andata via e la cognata disperata l’aveva portato dal medico per quelle cose di testa. Le avevano promesso che lo potevano curare, che con qualche scossa sarebbe tornato normale, (quasi nuovo insomma)…
A me invece la scossa arriva dalla voce dello Smilzo che mi riporta al presente, *“Ms Piccolo, please tell him that tomorrow morning we want him to come to the meeting with Dr. Holbrook and his family.” Per fortuna non aveva pronunciato la parola fatale, “sister-in-law”. Glielo comunico, Giovanni mi guarda e non mi vede, risucchiato nell’orbita della sua tristezza.
*Italiani, popolo assuefatto al doppiaggio, non temete, adesso vi aiuto con le didascalie così non dovrete arrovellarvi il cervello per capire le lingue del potere. Putroppo di questo servizio i malcapitati migranti non ne hanno potuto usufruire e si sono dovuti arrangiare capendo forse una parola su tre. Questo naturalmente ha poi dato pane a gente come me, italiane acculturate assoldate dalla legge per eliminare ambiguità e malintesi nelle interlocuzioni a sfondo ufficiale.
Dialogo a pagina 3:
Smilzo: Buongiorno . Sono contento di vedervi tutti qui. E adesso vediamo un po’ come vanno le cose. Jason, oggi mi sembri di buon umore. Vedo che hai preso delle brochure. Vorresti dirci cosa intendi fare quando verrai dimesso?” […] Ragazzo: “ Oh, non potrò fare molto Sig. Woods. Lo sa che non posso guidare dopo aver preso gli psicofarmaci… è difficile spostarsi. I miei amici sono tutti a scuola e mia mamma lavora” […] Signore distinto “Perché sono qui? Non voglio essere in questo gruppo!” Smilzo“ Abbia pazienza, Dott. Samuelson, più tardi prenderemo in considerazione il suo caso” […] Smilzo “ Rose, tu sei brava a prendere l’autobus. Vuoi spiegare a Jason come ci si muove in autobus a Berkeley?” Rose “Sig. Woods, una volta prendo tram tutte parti. Sai vivo a Berkeley molti anni. Dove ora c’è stazione metro Bart, una volta tram, puoi andare dove vuoi, a Oakland, San Francisco, baia. Velocissimo. Ma quando tornata da campo internamento , sai sono stata lì quattro anni, avevo 18 anni quando tornata, stazione non c’è più, messo autobus poi Bart, e ora autobus non buoni, devi aspettare tanto tempo.”
Dialogo pagina 5:
**Psicologa “Ma John, pensa a quanto sarà più bello fuori da qua. Puoi fare passeggiate. Puoi prendere l’autobus e andare a Strawberry Creek, all’Orto botanico. Abiti nel quartiere Temescal, vero? Lì in biblioteca hanno tanti programmi interessanti. Sai il Colombo Club è proprio nel tuo quartiere. Qualche volta puoi andare atrovare i tuoi vecchi amici. E poi se hai qualche problema, puoi dirlo a tua cognata, lei ti aiuterà.” John: “Mia cognata, odia me. Autobus non prendo. Cado. Non cucino, piangere sempre”.
Dialogo pagina 7:
Smilzo“Signora Piccolo, la prego di dirgli che domattina vogliamo che venga ad una riunione con il Dott. Holbrook e la sua famiglia”.
THE BRUSATIS' JOURNEY
In the following audio interview with the electrician Fred Brusati — an early 20th-century Italifornian -- he intertwines the history of his family, and his personal journey, with the history of the Italian community of Marin County, recounting labor struggles, community traditions, children games, and his work on the Golden Gate Bridge from 1934 to 1937. The interview is part of the recordings of the Golden Gate Bridge History Project creation of the Labor Archives and Research Center at San Francisco State University. The interview was conducted by Harvey Schwartz on April 28, 1987, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the building of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Interview Link
IBEW member Fred Brusati, pictured, worked on the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, including on the most disastrous day when 10 men fell to their death. Photo courtesy of Labor Archives and Research Center, San Francisco State University.
From copper mining to electrifying the Golden Gate Bridge
Giovanna Capone is a poet, fiction writer, playwright, and editor. She was raised in an Italian American neighborhood near The Bronx, New York, whose strong immigrant influence still resonates in her life. She has been living in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years. In 2014, Bedazzled Ink Publishing published her first full-length book, entitled In My Neighborhood: Poetry & Prose from an Italian-American.
Giovanna’s play Her Kiss, was produced and performed to sold-out audiences in San Francisco, California by Luna Sea Women’s Performance Project, in their first drama festival. She also co-edited Hey Paesan! Writing by Lesbians & Gay Men of Italian Descent. Recently she has co-edited an anthology of well-known and newly emerging authors, entitled Dispatches from Lesbian America: 42 Short Stories & Memoir by Lesbian Writers.
Giovanna lives in Oakland, CA where she has worked as a public librarian in city and county libraries. For many years she also taught poetry and creative writing to children and teens, through California Poets in the Schools.
In recent years, Giovanna has been working on a documentary film project, an exciting new direction in her life. The focus of her film is Italian social clubs in Oakland, and their significance in helping immigrants, their families, and their descendants retain their cultural identity in a new land. The film is entitled: Italian Americans in Oakland: Our Community, Our History. In the last two years, Giovanna has been working primarily on documentary filmmaking through her independently established company, Capone Productions: Making Films that Make Change.
For more information, please see: www.giovannacapone.com
A taste you just can't refuse.
My Uncle Lou is a fantastic cook
At 72 he started making and bottling marinara
It was the best old world pasta sauce you have ever tried
so sweet and fresh.
A business man’s brainstorm,
he used to sell vacuum cleaners and fine china
At 72 he turned his entire garage into a kitchen
with stainless steel counter tops
and huge vats of tomato sauce bubbling in olive oil and basil
No seeds or peels, he always said
He bought bushels of fresh tomatoes,
carrying them himself
and loading them into an old station wagon.
He hired a couple of young guys
to help him chop the tomatoes and puree them
in several blenders.
Mia Nonna Capone’s Old World Pasta Sauce
My brother the commercial artist designed the label,
and we sold bottles to friends and co-workers and neighbors.
It was a family affair.
Uncle Lou carried a black briefcase full of bottles everywhere
At my sister Lisa’s wedding
he displayed his goods while we were chatting and visiting.
The bottle showed my great grandmother’ s face
Maria Antonia Capone, 1866- 1942
She'd be so proud if she only knew.
Ma guarda un po’!
Luigi's making sauce!
-- Giovanna Capone
Ma guarda un po’! Look here! Or, Hang on a minute!
It would have been unlikely that living and reporting from the Bay Area of San Francisco, I wouldn't have met Ferlinghetti at one point or another. Many things would come to mind about Lawrence, but the thing I remember the most is the transparency of his eyes, they reminded me of the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. They were as limpid and as shimmering as the sea off the West coast of Italy during a hazy summer day. Here are two articles I wrote about him. The first on the occasion of a retrospective of his paintings, and another on the death of Fernanda Pivano.
- Paolo Pontoniere
NON SOLO BEAT GENERATION
SAN FRANCISCO Quando si parla di Lawrence Ferlinghetti, ben pochi sanno che il grande vecchio della San Francisco Renaissance, l' ultimo sopravvissuto della beat generation, è anche un pittore di fama internazionale. «I primi passi sui sentieri della creatività li ho fatti proprio con la pittura», ci dice Ferlinghetti, nel suo studio al Naval Shipyard di San Francisco, i vecchi cantieri navali della marina militare Usa, in occasione della retrospettiva che si terrà fino al 9 ottobre all' Istituto di Cultura Italiana di San Francisco. Ferlinghetti comincia a dipingere verso la fine degli anni Quaranta mentre risiede a Parigi dove sta studiando alla Sorbona. Di ritorno dalla Seconda guerra mondiale, Ferlinghetti è stato nel Pacifico, ha visitato Nagasaki meno di sei settimane dopo lo scoppio della bomba atomica, ciò che vede lo converte a una vita di spiccata sensibilità socialee alla desiderio di rappresentare la vita per quella che è e per il contenuto di luce e di bellezza che esprime. Così, dopo un breve flirt con l' astrattismo, le sue opere assumono un tono più figurativo. «È in quegli anni che Ferlinghetti sviluppa un apprezzamento profondo per le persone, per la luce che emanano e per la vita», afferma Amelia Carpenito Antonucci, direttore dell' Istituto di San Francisco. E infatti la mostra si chiama Drawings from Life, disegni di vita o dal vivo, circa 40 ritratti di modelle e modelli che sembrano emergere dalla carta prontia levarsi nell' aria e a danzare (per citare Giada Diano, autrice di Io sono Come Omero, un' autobiografia di Ferlinghetti che Feltrinelli pubblicherà prossimamente), in un cerchio di aria e di luce con i piedi per aria e la testa e il cuore ancora più in alto. In occasione dell' apertura della sua mostra, Ferlinghetti, suo padre era un italiano, riceverà anche l' onorificenza di Commendatore all' Ordine del Merito della Repubblica Italiana. © RIPRODUZIONE RISERVATA
FERLINGHETTI 'PERDO UN' AMICA'
SAN FRANCISCO - Sono profondamente rattristato. Non è solo una perdita personale, Fernanda era stata una grande amica, ma è anche una perdita per la letteratura internazionale", questo è il commento a caldo di Lawrence Ferlinghetti, il grande vecchio della Beat Generation, da San Francisco, alla notizia della morte di Fernanda Pivano. Ferlinghetti, nato nel 1919, durante gli anni cinquanta era stato una delle maggiori figure della San Francisco Renaissance. Da scrittore già affermato, Ferlinghetti è nei fatti il mecenate che dette la possibilità ai nuovi scrittori di esprimersi. Da Jack Keoruac a Gregory Corso e Allen Ginsberg, con Ginsberg finirà addirittura in tribunale per difendere la pubblicazione di Howl, era stato l' editore di tutti gli autori della Beat Generation. Ferlinghetti la Pivano la conosceva bene. Lo abbiamo raggiunto a casa sua. Cosa ricorda di Fernanda Pivano? «C' eravamo incontrati due volte a San Francisco, la prima volta era stata molto spensierata e felice, erano gli anni ruggenti della Beat, dell' underground di San Francisco. Lei era arrivata con suo marito Ettore Sottsass per conoscere questo fenomeno letterario da vicino. Io ero con la mia prima moglie, vivevamo a Potrero Hill, facemmo amicizia immediatamente: erano persone d' una intelligenza e d' una curiosità straordinaria. Fernanda voleva diventare la narratrice di questa nuova corrente letteraria e dello stile di vita che l' accompagnava. Devo dire che capì subito lo spirito e riuscì a trasmetterlo. Non solo la raccontava agli italiani ma diventò amica personale di tantissimi degli scrittori di quell' epoca. La seconda occasione fu più triste: lei e il marito erano in città perché Ettore stava ricevendo cure alla Stanford University per una malattia molto seria. Purtroppo lui morì poco tempo dopo». Qual è il suo ultimo ricordo di Fernanda Pivano? «Penso di averla vista per l' ultima volta una decina di anni fa. A Bergamo, su un palco in una piazza affollata da un pubblico così nutrito che sembrava un evento sportivo. Erano incantati dalla discussione, ci divertimmo un mondo. Purtroppo poi le nostre strade hanno preso direzioni differenti e ci siamo persi di vista». Lei a breve tiene una mostra sulla sua opera all' Istituto di Cultura Italiano di San Francisco, i suoi ritratti sono famosi, ha realizzato anche un ritratto della Pivano? «No, purtroppo. E questa è una delle cose per cui adesso mi dovrò rammaricare, ho fatto ritratti a quasi tutti quelli che ho incontrato in vita mia ma a lei no. Pensavo, evidentemente, che ci sarebbe potuta essere un' altra occasione».
Silvia Veronese, born and raised between Verona and Courmayeur, arrived in the States in the 1980s to work at the IBM research center next to Nobel Prize winners Murray Gellman and Benoit Mandelbrot, the inventors of fractal theories. After teaching applied mathematics and computational biology at the University of Utah, she moved to Silicon Valley where she founded several startups and became top manager in several companies, including Hewlett Packard. In 2018 Silvia has been nominated as 'one of the 30 top leaders to watch in Silicon Valley' and one of the 'Top 50 most influential women in high-tech'. Silvia has three beautiful daughters born in the United States, but Italianissime, passionate about gelato, true Neapolitan pizza, and the stories of Gianni Rodari.
“I BELIEVE THAT YOUNG PEOPLE NEED TO FOCUS ON THEIR EDUCATION. THEY NEED TO PURSUE THEIR DREAMS, AND HAVE THE COURAGE TO RISK EVERYTHING.”
- JANET NAPOLITANO
PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, FORMER SECRETARY OF THE UNITED STATES HOMELAND SECURITY
THE AMERICAN DREAM
Napolitano’s family have always had faith in the American Dream. At the turn of the 20th century her grandfather left his small hometown of San Marco, in the province of Foggia, in search of a better life with only a suitcase in his hand and few dollars in his pocket. A century later, Napolitano became the first woman to be appointed as Secretary of Homeland Security under the presidency of Barack Obama. In less than five years, Janet Napolitano made history. Her personal achievements are numerous and unparalleled, including a position as the president of the University of California, a center with ten campuses, five medical centers, three nationally affiliated laboratories and a government-funded program for agriculture and natural resources. Her list of accomplishments have the makings of an epic, achieved one after the other due to phenomenal courage and sacrifice.
“Years ago when I myself was going through my own naturalization ceremony at Ellis Island, I thought about him, my grandfather. He died when I was only six years old, and only through looking at photos of other immigrants, and hearing their stories, did I truly realize the courage he must have had to abandon everything he knew, not knowing what lay ahead of him, in the hope of a better life,” Napolitano recalls. The life that awaited him was that of a worker, moving from Chicago to the shipyards of California, and later to the Ford factory. “My grandfather took every single job that was offered to him. He found work wherever and whenever he could,” she adds. His sacrifice was not for nothing, and years later his son was able to study, earn a PhD, and finally become dean of the School of Medicine at the University of New Mexico.
“He is the personification of the American Dream: the opportunity for one man to change the whole destiny of his family for generations to come,” Napolitano points out. His story seems to have inspired hers, as little more than fifty years later she became the first in her family to choose a career in politics, a path which has allowed her to directly affect and influence the delicate immigration process and the Arizonan education system.
“I am proud of my Italian heritage, and I regret not being able to speak the language, but at home we spoke English," Napolitano explains. "Things were different back then." Still important, however, are the traditions, the music, the cooking and the art, as well as that Italian stubbornness which had a major part in Napolitano’s success. “My parents always supported me, instilling in me, above all, the importance of diligence and truly believing in what I do,” she recalls. This lesson is something she carries with her even today, both as a politician and as president of one of the most prestigious universities in the United States. “I truly believe that young people, especially these days, need to focus on their education,”
Napolitano explains. “To build a future, you need to actively pursue your dreams, even if it means risking everything to do so.” At the end of the day, success comes only to those who are stubborn enough to pursue it. “My interest in politics rose out of a fascination with the Watergate scandal,”she recalls. “There were some fantastic women involved in the hearings, and I was so inspired by the opening remarks made by Barbara Jordan, and the contributions of Elisabeth Holtzman, that I decided to pursue a career in politics.” Hardly an easy choice, considering the times, but Napolitano refused to give up. “I am convinced that women in politics can bring a different point of view to the table, a new way of understanding ideas of leadership and the concept of administration in general,” she emphasizes. Ultimately, the most vital task of a good politician is to lay the foundations for a successful society. “You have to know yourself to the core, and know how to communicate your ideas, but most importantly you need to understand the difference between leading and managing. It is only after grasping this that you can begin to inspire a more ambitious vision among your administration”. This is not always an easy feat: a politician faces many obstacles in their career, especially a female politician among a dwindling number of women working in the political sphere.
Women, Science and Silicon Valley
“SCIENCE IS FEMALE.” This was proclaimed on more than one occasion by Margherita Hack, one of the most renowned astrophysicists of the century, and an Italian, who made history in the field of science. Her story is legendary, a serendipitous succession of chances and opportunities. Hack graduated with a degree in physics during a historical period in which the sciences were viewed as a male domain, and she became director of the astronomical observatory of Trieste, catapulting her to international fame.
The list of women who have made science their life’s work is long and varied. “Marie Curie was one of the most important minds of the last century, and she was a woman,” Hack reminds us.
Silicon Valley is not far behind. There are still very few women in Silicon Valley, but the numbers are steadily growing, as is the mentality to demand change. In the Bay Area itself, 50% of women are doctors or lawyers, or have an MBA, or a PhD. Women are founding companies five times more often than men. However, these statistics do not accurately represent the reality of the power they wield in the world of Silicon Valley. Men still have a 60% greater likelihood of receiving funds, and represent the majority in the field of investments.
Women in the Bay Area constitute a wide spectrum of talent: from Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California to Maria Grazia Roncarolo, director of a research laboratory at Stanford concerned with stem cell research; from Cristina Dalle Ore who studies the surface of Pluto at NASA to Ermelinda Porpiglia who chairs Silicon Valley’s Association for Women in Science. In Italy, too, scientific history is speckled with stories of female success, for example, Rita Levi Montalcini, who received a Nobel Prize for her research into the development of cerebral nerve fibers. Other renowned female Italians include Fabiola Gianotti, the first female Director-General of CERN; Samantha Cristoforetti, the first female astronaut; Lucia Volano, the first woman to direct the Gran Sasso National Laboratory; Elena Catteneo, the biologist famous for her research into stem cells; and Caterina Falleni, who at just 30 years old, became internationally renowned for inventing a refrigerator which works without electricity. An army of names that is continuously growing and expanding, becoming, against all obstacles, a voice of shared experience which can inspire a generation of young girls.
For women in science the path to success has always been defined by struggle. According to a recent study published by the European Union, the gender gap in scientific research is still disturbingly large, and the European Commission has called for its member states to actively intervene and propose policies which will work to reduce it. There is also an economic rationale behind this proposal. The European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel, recently declared that bridging the gender gap in education and scientific research could lead to an annual increase in GDP of as much as 16 billion euro, just in Europe.
The disparity between genders in the field of science, as in other areas of productivity and knowledge, is not a linear problem with a universal and concrete solution, but is rather a condition which has roots deep in the cultural substratum of society. It is deeply embedded in cultural expectations of the woman’s role in the workplace and the home. Even if, on an academic level, the gender gap is slowly diminishing, and there is an increasing number of women pursuing degrees in scientific subjects, in research, or the labor market, the trajectory of a women’s career in science has still been defined as a ‘leaky pipeline’ by UNESCO in its World Science Report. This phenomenon of female scientists dropping out of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers is diverse and due to many factors, discussed by the physicist Laura Meda in a recent interview with Corriere della Sera. Maternity is a significant factor, but care of the elderly and the family are also key reasons why women, Italian women in particular, are still today forced to make certain choices. These choices too often prioritize domestic ‘obligations’ over a career. The cultural expectations and traditions surrounding the family have led to a lack of support services that a woman can turn to, according to Meda. In Italy, for example, the man often takes the lead of decision-making groups.
According to Meda, “this expectation is gradually being challenged in other countries where, for example, welfare services are far more developed than ours, and the working woman can depend on fundamental support systems, both in terms of maternity care and care of the elderly: two of the biggest threats to a woman’s freedom.” In Italy today, 51% of parents and 57% of teachers have an inherent gender bias towards girls, in regard to scientific subjects, according to a recent study by ValoreD. However, the fact that we are finally talking about these issues, and implementing effective interventions on a political and entrepreneurial level, is a clear indication that things are gradually changing.
“Silicon Valley is making progress, but we still need more women in positions of power,” insists Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, in her book ‘Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead’. The path towards a total elimination of the gender gap is now, perhaps more than ever, becoming clearer on both sides of the Atlantic. There is a changing attitude towards women in the media, which is acknowledging their achievements with an increasing amount of respect, transforming their stories into inspirational models to follow and replicate. Increasingly, huge numbers of international brands are centering their message around female empowerment, or ‘fempowerment’, while simultaneously furthering the global success of movements such as #MeToo, #YoTambien, or #QuellaVoltaChe.
We are experiencing a changing tide which has not only reconfigured the cultural points of reference for the next generation, but, more importantly, is giving young women the essential tools to access the world of science and research; to enter a laboratory of ideas which is surpassing gender differences, and in doing so, helping to lay the foundations of a new and improved society.
From hippy to hi-tech:
A Brief History of Silicon Valley
Outside 367 Addison Avenue, in Palo Alto, a bronze plaque commemorates the birthplace of Silicon Valley. The plaque stands in front of the garage in which William R. Hewlett and David Packard created the first audio oscillator in 1938. They were inspired by Professor Frederick Terman of Stanford University, who had encouraged the newly graduated duo to open their own business in that location, instead of going east where the big companies were operating. Thus, Hewlett-Packard was born. Two years later, William Shockley invented the first transistor at Bell Labs; in 1956 he left the company in order to found Shockley SemiconductorLabs in Mountain View. A year later, a group of employees, the so-called ‘Traitorous Eight’, teamed up with Sherman Fairchild to found Fairchild Semiconductor.
Some of these went on to launch the company Intel in 1968 in Santa Clara. The decade ended with the birth of the project Arpanet, part of the Stanford Research Institute, as well as the opening of the Xerox PARC Laboratories in Palo Alto. In 1971 the journalist Don Hoefler wrote a report on the thriving semiconductor
industry in the Santa Clara valley. He titled the report ‘Silicon Valley USA’, baptizing the area with that name once and for all; an area which today is regarded as the center of the world, in terms of high-tech giants and innovative startups.
Professor Terman’s vision came after having observed countless businesses run successfully by incompetent people, and wondering what graduates could be capable of. This intuition would give way to what is known as the first phase of Silicon Valley. This phase lasted from the 1930s to the beginning of the 1970s and witnessed the development of electronic technologies and the invention of integrated circuits.
The second phase, ranging from the 1970s to the 1990s, had Steve Jobs as its protagonist, and saw the birth of the personal computer. The third phase, from the 1990s to present day, has focused on the widespread diffusion of the Internet. These discrete phases are each completely enmeshed in their geographical contexts; so much so, that many have speculated that the birth and evolution of a region like Silicon Valley could not have happened elsewhere, outside California, due to the unique blend of circumstances which exist there.
The 1960s saw the proliferation of “hippie culture” all along the West Coast, an area which became known as the capital of “counterculture”. This movement symbolized the rejection of the mainstream culture of a state embroiled in a war with Vietnam, a war which had internally divided the country between supporters, pacifists, and large sections of the population who were engaged in civil rights struggles. Young people, unable to reconcile their beliefs with the dominant culture, went in search of alternatives. Embittered by society but powerless to fight, many ran away to communes, strengthened by the conviction that change cannot come from mass violence, but through collective consciousness. With a propensity for conflict so deeply entrenched in dominant culture, the communes offered an alternative ideal of life in harmony.
The interdependence between the hippie movement and the development of the technology industry has been investigated by the journalist John Markoff in his book 'What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry'. Markoff retraces the links between psychedelics and the technological world, beginning with the birth of a network, before the “network”. California has long been a melting pot of free spirits in which two apparently contradictory concepts coexist: individualism and communality. In this culture, creativity, enhanced by substances such as LSD, gave way to ideas - ones which predicted our future. Markoff explores one example, which epitomizes the bridge that had formed between the last breaths of a dying counterculture, and a cyberculture which was about to be born. In 1974, the Xerox engineer Daniel Ingalls, after having taken a tab of LSD, had a vision of the menu pop-up which is now used universally. In that moment, the modern graphics interface was born.
The essence of the story of Silicon Valley lies in the revolutionary thinking which allowed technology, something previously monopolized by the military, big businesses and universities, to become available to the masses, thus creating an alternative society. Those hippies holed up in their desert or forest communes needed to survive, and their savior came in the form of Stewart Brand, the creator of the 'Whole Earth Catalog'. Defined by many as “the book which changed the world,” it became the principal reference guide to the counterculture movement. It was a compendium, an encyclopedia of ideas about everything that the author believed to be relevant. A search engine on paper, with information about alternative energy, recycling, biological agriculture, computers, and technology. A guide for those living in communes to survive by constructing, inventing, and, most importantly, sharing. Defined as the “Internet before the Internet”, the guide was democratic and self-sufficient, and changed the way that we perceive information, how we exchange it, and how we interact with one another. In 1972, the Catalog came equipped with a HP-35 pocket calculator, the first calculator in the history of counterculture. In an era where the chip was monopolized by missiles, Californians re-appropriated it by putting calculators into the hands of the people. This encapsulates the Californian spirit: sharing technology in a convenient and nonconformist way, transforming it from the prerogative of the state into a tool for liberation.
At the beginning of the 1970s, the communes began to empty, and as Stewart Brand had predicted, computers took their place. His premonition, formed during a visit to the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Stanford University, stated that the new communes would be digital, and the new hippies would be programmers, fighting the revolution by night, but this time while playing the game Spacewar in a free and intangible community. In 1985, Brand became part of the project The Well, the precursor to social networks. Ten years later, he published a Time article with the headline “We owe it all to the hippies,” in which he declared “Forget anti-war protests, Woodstock and even long hair: the true legacy of the ‘60s generation is the computer revolution.”
The unique combination of circumstances which have led to the existence of Silicon Valley, have been summarized by Larry Sonsini in eight points. Grandson to Italian immigrants, and labeled by Fortune magazine as the most influential and well-connected lawyer in the American industrial sector, Sonsini graduated from Berkeley in the 1960s, and founded a law firm in Palo Alto with John Wilson.
The firm is credited with having brought, among others, Netscape, Apple, Pixar, Google, and Twitter onto the stock market. Sonsini selects his clientele predominantly based on entrepreneurial talent. This, again, defines the Californian spirit, summarized by the motto “fail fast, fail often”. The other ingredients which Sonsini recognizes as vital to Silicon Valley’s success are: a respect for personal freedom; the integration of many races and cultures; meritocracy; access to capital; a network of universities and research centers which are widely accessible to those who have talent; a work culture which encourages mobility; a government which invests in research and safeguards intellectual property. Only a place like Silicon Valley can boast all of these elements, a combination which has allowed the region, in its third phase, to witness the birth of tech giants which now dominate the valley, galvanized by the Internet revolution. Nowadays, we are in the midst of an evolution towards the fourth phase, with Apple Park, and the Google and Amazon villages; modern day resurrections of the communes of the past. These tech giants are infusing us all with the desire to break off, to turn away from society. This is leading many young people to move out of the cities, in search of something which is not yet there, but will one day come.
In the microcosm that is Silicon Valley, the Californian spirit still permeates: free, sensitive to change, created with a blend of creativity and ingenuity, and prepared to take risks. Those things which, combined, represent the only true way of achieving utopia.