Dreams of Gold

by Kathleen Dunn

With a $15,000 grant from the Foundation in 2001, Sogni d`Oro: Dreams of Gold set out to document the Italian-American experience in the communities of Leominster and Fitchburg by creating an oral history CD and an accompanying presentation. The project delves into both the cultural changes and the lingering traditions the communities have sustained from the early immigrant period onward.

Almost 300 people attended the debut presentation of Sogni d`Oro this past May, held at Fitchburg State College and sponsored by the College`s Center for Italian Culture. The evening celebrated a year`s worth of research and over one hundred hours of interviews with three generations of Italian-Americans, many of whom were present in the audience. A team of twelve people, the Oral History Committee, guided the project; all were present and several took part in the presentation.

The format consisted of a slide show presentation, incorporating photographs, maps, and text, accompanied by a dual audio component that included both recorded segments of the interviews and approximately ten live presenters. The show was organized by the topics of Family, Faith, Community, Progress, and Identity, and its underlying purpose was articulated with precision:

Our intent is to stimulate a public dialogue about the experience of being Italian-American in Fitchburg and Leominster. We want you to think about how people explain themselves and their experience. What does it mean to identify oneself — or to be identified by someone else — as Italian-American? What does the experience of our narrators tell us about life in Fitchburg and Leominster — and in America — in the twentieth century?

The first Italian-American Mayor, Peter Levanti, was elected in November 1949 and served as Mayor from 1950 to 1956.The community was not at a loss for answers to these questions, and the Committee`s humanistic perspective proved a useful tool in linking the varied responses. According to the grant proposal, "in 1885 there were seven Italian immigrants in the city of Fitchburg. At the time of the 1990 census, 13-18 percent of the population of Fitchburg-Leominster area was of Italian descent." Working from census figures, baptismal records from area churches, and city directories, and in cooperation with members of local Italian-American organizations, project personnel interviewed 45 people and collected hundreds of photographs.

Many aspects of the changes in the communities` quotidian life were chronicled, starting with the neighborhoods themselves: "the Patch" in Fitchburg and Leominster`s Lincoln Terrace. Previously populated by the Irish and the French, these areas were home to immigrants from nearly every region of Italy. Early generations with a strong sense of Italian regional distinctions lived and socialized in groups, as demonstrated by the proliferation of social clubs, all organized by homeland region. In the 1930s, there were as many as 12 such clubs on Lancaster Street in Lincoln Terrace. Today, both neighborhoods remain diverse, though Italians are no longer the predominant ethnic presence.

As the presentation focused on these two Italian communities, the broader scope of the twentieth century immigrant experience remained in clear view. Personal stories were retold within a socio-historical context. For example, recounting a playground rumble at his Irish/Italian elementary school, a man remembers his father`s advice on standing up to a group of bullying Irish kids: "You go tell them you`re no wop — you`re the skinny little guinea with the ravioli eyes!" The story poignantly reflects on the politics of language, and the reappropriation of racial slurs as a small but demonstrable victory on the immigrants` journey towards class ascension.

Cattel family when the mother and children were still in Italy in 1915 just before they came to US by boat.This is but one example of the deeply humanistic issues Sogni d`Oro put under the microscope. A wide range of societal themes were explored throughout the presentation, including the role of the entrepreneurial spirit, from communalism to individualism; progress and loss (do financial gains compensate for the cultural losses of traditional language, food, and other familial focal points?) and the differing notions of ethnic heritage: pride and shame. The list goes on, as it should when the subject of investigation is as expansive as this one.

As project director Mary Chapin Durling reported to the Foundation in July, the Sogni d`Oro project continues to evolve, due in no small part to the community`s enthusiastic engagement. Many audience members have contacted the Committee since the May 11th presentation with thanks, praise, and suggestions for improvement. Several people felt that important themes were not sufficiently explored, such as the complexity of the first generations` wartime experience. In response to the unexpected amount of feedback, Durling and the Oral History Committee have broadened their plans and are now producing not a CD, but a CD-ROM and a VHS cassette, both of which will incorporate the visual aspects so essential to the May 11th presentation`s success. Once completed, both formats will be available at Fitchburg State College`s Library.

Lincoln Terrace map, drawn by Louis Charpentier in the late 1920s or early 1930s.In other developments, the Committee has scheduled a presentation for the joint meeting of the Leominster and Fitchburg Sons of Italy Lodges to take place on November 12th at the Leominster Italian Center. Durling also hopes to make the program available to area historical societies. Project humanist J. Michael Moore has plans to establish a Sogni website, with hopes that it may be used both as a research and a curriculum development tool.

The Fitchburg-Leominster area remains energized by Sogni d`Oro`s undertaking. La Banda Regione d`Italia, originally formed in 1910 and today known as the Leominster Colonial Band, performed an all-Italian music program on July 23rd at The Italian Center in Leominster. Segments of the concert may be included on the Sogni website. The Leominster Credit Union, with a long history of patronage from the Italian-American community, has also contacted the Oral History Committee with plans to contribute to the project. In many respects, Sogni d`Oro: Dreams of Gold has surpassed its own goals, establishing a public dialogue, rallying community involvement, and bringing research — and ideas — to life.

©2002 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Fall 2002