Italian American crooner Al Martino had a big hit in the 1960s with the song Spanish Eyes. He didn’t sing it in Spanish, which is in keeping with our American ways; that is, our provincialism, preferring everything in English. This contrasts to popular singers over in Italy such as Eros Ramazzotti and Laura Pausini, who regularly record CDs in both Italian and Spanish. Indeed, whenever Ramazotti and Pausini have concerts in America, there are often more Hispanics in the audience – and ex-pat Italians – than Italian Americans, showing you just how far our community has assimilated (to our detriment, I think—that musical bridge to Italian melodies has largely been disassembled).
Why am I bringing up the Spanish language? Oddly, this thought occurred to me after a friend sent me an email with the name “Felix Pedro,” asking if I had ever heard of him. I had not. I soon found out, however, that this name also relates to a line from the Roman writer Horace’s “Satires,” to wit: “Mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur“– which is Latin for “With the name changed, the story applies to you.” What story? Our historical Italian immigrant story.
We are all familiar with the legendary “misnamings” which took place via Ellis Island, where Italian, and other, immigrants had their family names Anglicized to make them more acceptable to the American public (the old “Joe Green” for “Giuseppe Verdi” joke). But are you aware that some Italian historical figures actually had their names “Hispanicized,’ for one reason or another? Felix Pedro, mentioned above, was not Hispanic; he was born Felice Pedroni in Fanano, Italy, near Modena. And he was the man who started the famous Gold Rush in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1902.
To quote that other non-Hispanic, Bart Simpson: “Ay, caramba!”
Don’t take my word for it. There is an actual historical marker on a mountainside in Fairbanks, noting his ethnicity. Pedroni, born in 1858, came to the U.S. in 1881, for the same reasons as other Italian immigrants did, looking for opportunities. After arriving in New York, he kept on going westward until he reached what would eventually become America’s 49th state in 1959. (It was made a U.S. territory in 1911.) As the saying goes, he found gold in ‘them thar hills,’ thus ushering in that state’s massive gold rush. Alas, he died only eight years after his discovery (1910). To this day, there is still controversy over his death. Was it a heart attack? Or was he poisoned by his American-born wife?
Anyone who has visited Arizona has seen statues of Father Eusebio Kino (1645-1711), the legendary priest who founded missions from the Grand Canyon state down through Mexico. He also has a statue in the halls of the U.S. Congress. This “Spanish” priest who spoke out against harsh treatment of the natives was actually born Eusebio Francesco Chini in Trentino, Italy. His skeletal remains are a source of veneration at his crypt in Magdalena de Kino, Sonora, Mexico.
Ever enjoyed a performance of Spanish “flamenco” dancing, with its passionate ladies in red dresses accompanied by their foot-stomping male partners? The man who popularized flamenco dancing in America was Jose Greco, so well-known that he did cameos in famous Hollywood movies such as Around the World in 80 Days (1956). This “Spanish” dancer’s real name was Costanzo Greco Bucci, and he was born in Brooklyn. His dance company, founded in 1949, is still run by his six children: Jose II, Jose Luis, Paolo, Alessandra, Carmela, and Lola—names that are Italian/Hispanic.
In a variation on this theme, if you want to bone up on your Spanish-speaking skills you can watch any of the programming on Univision, the national, U.S. based, Hispanic television broadcast network. Who turned it into a financial powerhouse in the early 1990s? The late businessman Jerry Perenchio, an Italian American from Fresno, CA.
And ever heard of some artist named Pablo Picasso? Check out this tantalizing tidbit from the website of the Picasso Foundation in Malaga, Spain:
The surname “Picasso” comes from Liguria, a coastal region of north-western Italy; its capital is Genoa. There was a painter from the area named Matteo Picasso (1794–1879), born in Recco (Genoa), of late neoclassical style portraiture, though investigations have not definitively determined his kinship with the branch of ancestors related to Pablo Picasso. The direct branch from Sori, Liguria (Genoa), can be traced back to Tommaso Picasso (1728–1813). His son Giovanni Battista, married to Isabella Musante, was Pablo’s great-great-grandfather. Of this marriage was born Tommaso (Sori, 1787–Málaga, 1851). Pablo’s maternal great-grandfather, Tommaso Picasso moved to Spain around 1807.
No doubt, there are mucho more examples of so-called “Spanish” people who have Italic blood in their veins. Further research will have to wait. I have just started re-reading Mary Shelley’s famous book, Frankenstein, where the “German” doctor relates how he was born in Naples and writes about his cousin, Elizabeth Lavenza, also born in Italy.
Mein Gott! -BDC