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Downtown Los Angeles Found a Gathering Place for the Italian Community: Meet Marianna Gatto, Executive Director of IAMLA (Exclusive Interview)

The Italian American Museum of Los Angeles (IAMLA) aims to promote understanding about a region and its history, representing a unique chapter of the Italian American Diaspora.

As an Italian American from California, I understand the feeling of lacking a cohesive ethnic community, like on the East Coast, that resembles the makeup of my own family and finding my place as an Italian American. So does Marianna Gatto. America Domani sat down with Ms. Gatto to discuss the integral role she plays as a historian and the Executive Director of IAMLA, the dynamic museum chronicling the history of Italian Americans in Southern California and the nation. Gatto’s research focuses on Italian Americans in Los Angeles and the west which is reflected in her own family’s immigration story. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

America Domani: Tell us about your Italian heritage

Marianna Gatto: I was born in Los Angeles. My father was born in Colorado and my paternal grandfather was from Calabria, near Cosenza. My paternal grandmother is Sicilian, she was born in Colorado to Sicilian immigrants. That side of the family immigrated in the late 1890s. They came through New Orleans and continued west to Colorado. At the time, the steel industry was recruiting many immigrants. In 1947, my family settled in Los Angeles and we’ve been there ever since. My mother was actually born in Italy and her family is from Mirano, Italy close to the Austrian border. I never knew my mother’s family very well. Some relatives were born in Italy and others on the East Coast. I feel most connected to my father’s side of the family - the Sicilian/Calabrese side. This side of my family really defined the Italian American experience for me.

Marianna Gatto

At the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles a recent program for children (Photo Credit: Marianna Gatto)

AD: How would you describe the Italian community in Los Angeles and the greater West Coast?

MG: In LA specifically, the community is very diverse. Many people don’t realize it’s the 5th largest Italian American population in the United States. The history spans nearly 200 years when Northern Italians began settling in the 1820s. Sometimes, you find their identity is perceived differently because they were a minority group. The groups from different waves of immigration are very distinct from each other. The 1950s and 1960s groups seemed more cohesive. Each immigration group does not always identify with each other. These groups within the Italian community like to see reflections of  themselves in the national dialogue of Italian Americans. The LA community is deeply rooted in tradition, particularly within the Catholic church, like celebrating feast days important to the Italian regions of large groups of immigration. You still see Italian immigrants settling in Los Angeles - they are more educated and more affluent. In some ways, diversity can bring complexity - there is regionalism in Italy to contend with and historically, there are different country influences impacted in Italy. For example, many Italians in Los Angeles who immigrated in the late 1960s are from small towns near Bari. Compare them to immigrants from Italy in an industry like fashion or hospitality and these two groups feel like they are from very different places. This is an example of the complexity to develop a cohesive Italian identity. 

There are certain identity markers of Italian Americans in the west but they are very regionally specific. Italian Americans in the west have a lengthy history. Some immigrants settled in the mid 1800s during the Gold Rush. One thing that the Italian American experience in the west teaches us is its diversity. It widens our lens to gain a richer understanding of the Italian Diaspora in the US - a minority group within a larger Italian American national group.

AD: As the Executive Director and Co-Founder of IAMLA, what makes IAMLA unique and sets it apart from other museums?

MG: The museum is located at a major tourist destination in Los Angeles and most of our visitors are not of Italian descent - about 80% of people are not of Italian ancestry. Were reaching a different audience from other Italian American museums and cultural centers. It's also a challenge that we face. We do our best at the museum to make everything interesting and relevant to different age groups and various parts of the world. One of the most rewarding things for me is walking through the museum and hearing visitors who aren't Italian saying, “this experience happened to us and our ethnic group” or “I didn't know that this happened to Italians.” IAMLA claims a unique audience. We are a technologically focused museum. Our permanent and temporary exhibitions can be accessed online. Since technology can be our friend, we've created virtual versions of past exhibitions that can live online as a resource for anyone. Because of the types of audiences we attract, we have to think about how to make our exhibitions relevant and what content are people drawn to without compromising our mission. A big part of who we are is being authentic to our roots as well as realizing the world around us is changing. If we want to be part of the national discourse we must craft our message in a way to be heard. 

Marianna Gatto

Receiving the Cavaliere Della Republica Italiana (Photo Credit: Marianna Gatto)

AD: Which exhibitions or events have been the most successful at IAMLA and why?

MG: Our Pinocchio exhibit, A Real Boy: The Many Lives of Pinocchio, was really picked up by the media. Also, two films about Pinocchio have recently come out which has certainly helped. Taste of Italy is our largest annual event. It’s a food and wine tasting event that takes place in the fall. About 2,500 people attend. It's like an upscale outdoor food festival - focusing on Italian food, wine and products. Italian food and wine are great cultural equalizers - it brings in a very diverse group of people and what a great way to have them to experience the museum. Our permanent exhibition is divided into 7 chapters. It's also presented in its entirety online - this allows us to track exhibitions. The anti-italianism chapter is the one people spend the longest time reading through and interacting with. I feel this is a positive because we're getting a story out there. These are very different aspects that are all part of the museum and who we are. 

AD: What do you hope for the future of IAMLA? 

MG: In a relatively short amount of time we've proved ourselves to be a contender on the local and national stage - from exhibitions and restoring this historic building in Little Italy to creating curricula for educators. I hope that our community, especially the most generous members who are able to support us, are able to realize this museum plays an important role in remembering the Italian American experience. We want people to make a commitment to keep it alive for generations to come. We are in the process of establishing an endowment for the museum. We want to continue to grow and our eye is on future collaborations, which increase our strengths. We are content creators. We create these exhibitions and after they close in the physical form they go into storage. We would love to continue to partner with organizations to share these exhibitions with them and let others use our inventory. 

Arianna DiCicco

Arianna DiCicco is an educator and writer from California, born into an Italian American restaurant family with strong ties to her grandparents’ home in Abruzzo, Italy. She has lived in San Francisco, Rome and New York City where she’s made deep connections within the Italian communities and gained new perspectives about her own culture. With a Masters in International Education, Arianna has a love and passion for learning and educating others about Italian history & culture.