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Book recounts Italian immigrant story



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The newest book from the Richmond Museum of History recounts an important chapter in the city's early development.

"La Nostra Storia: Italian Americans in Richmond -- The Immigrant Generation as Recounted by their Children" brings a successful 2003 museum exhibition into book form.

Berkeley researcher Maria Sakovich of Immigration and Family History Resources compiled both the exhibition and the book that tells the story of people drawn to Richmond for its abundance of factory work and the entrepreneurial opportunities the young city offered.

The 80-page book gives a well-rounded look at Italian immigrants' daily lives at home and at work, social activities, hardships and the self-sufficiency that marked the city's largest immigrant population prior to World War II.

Sakovich, a descendant of Russian immigrants, came to family history research "relatively late in life" when she became interested in tracking the history of her own family. Already holding a master's degree in public health from UC Berkeley, she went back to school and earned a master's in history from Sonoma State University in 2002.

Doing the research for the museum exhibition (and subsequent book) required a crash course on the topic.

"Part of the process was learning the subject," Sakovich said. "I knew nothing about the city of Richmond. I hadn't done any reading about Italian immigrants. It was wonderful reading and learning individual histories and doing family interviews."

She said she was most struck by "how very hard they worked, and if they complained about it, that it wasn't remembered."

Self-sufficiency -- from growing food to making wine at home to making the most of the materials around them -- was another striking aspect of Italian immigrant life, she said.

"It's remarkable how far back the national attention to what we call recycling today was integrated into the garbage collection," Sakovich said. "Living in a tight economy meant management of the household economy, and that meant foraging, reusing everything. We could take some lessons."

Compiling the history had its obstacles. As with too much social history, attention was given to recording the Italian immigrant experience long after the immigrants themselves had died.

"Since there's no one left from that generation, we see the immigrant population through the eyes of their children," Sakovich said. "There's no firsthand accounts."

She said the lack of written records is "not unusual for working people and people that did not have a lot of education."

And while the book is rich with photographs, there were many aspects of daily life for which pictures simply don't exist.

"As I state in the introduction, social events were not recorded by camera. People didn't have cameras in those days," Sakovich said. "They were relatively poor people, so many family photos were portraits taken by professional photographers.

"Of course, women's work was seldom photographed," not to mention "all those bocce ball games."

Donald Bastin, director of the Richmond Museum of History, said the book is an important addition in telling Richmond's story, putting its focus on a population that quietly went about its business and heretofore received little attention in the historical record.

"I think it's in the same spirit as 'To Place Our Deeds,' (another book offered by the museum) which tells the story of the city's black population," Bastin said. "There was not a lot known or written about these communities, so it adds something."

Next up for the museum is a spring exhibition on the Latino community in Richmond, which Sakovich will begin to research in January.

"Who knows? Maybe that will lead to another book," Bastin said.

Reach Chris Treadway at 510-262-2784 or ctreadway@cctimes.com.

NEW BOOK

The book "La Nostra Storia: Italian Americans in Richmond -- The Immigrant Generation as Recounted by their Children" costs $20 and is published by and available at the Richmond Museum of History. The museum, located at 400 Nevin Ave. in Richmond, is open Wednesday through Sunday (closed holidays) from 1 to 4 p.m. For more details call the museum at 510-235-7387 or e-mail museum director Donald Bastin at donaldbastin@comcast.net.

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Copyright ©2004 Contra Costa Times. All Rights Reserved.

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