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

5 thoughts on “SPANISH EYES”

  1. To Mr. Constantine’s comment re: “Latin” people. Very true. And it’s also true that Columbus’s voyage led to the creation of such an ethnic group, once Indigenous peoples’ and Europeans connected.

    Also: A reader has pointed out that Eusebio Chini/Chino/Kino was more “German” than Italian. I did look this up before-hand. Some cites said “Italian,” a few “Germanic,” some “Swiss” (that is, Italian-German). But many still list his name as “Spanish.”

    In short, he represents just how muddled the subjects of ethnicity and history can sometimes be.

    He lived in Trent, now an Italian city (Trentino) which, at the time, was part of Austria. Even today, many modern Italians/Italian Americans from that area consider themselves both Italian and Germanic. The city’s roots go back to the Romans, however, which included the dispersion of the Latin language and Roman customs.

    1. @Bill Dal Cerro As an Italian (from Italy) I need to correct you, because you are confounding two different things. The region of Trentino-Alto Adige is divided into two provinces: Province of Trento and Province of Bolzano. The former province represents the ‘Trentino’ part of the region; the latter province the ‘Alto Adige’ part.

      Trentino — with its capital Trento — has always been an Italian region (that is, a region of Italian language, of Italian culture, and inhabited by ethnic Italians). It was never German; and no one from Trentino would ever describe themselves as “Germanic”. Indeed, Cesare Battisti, Antonio Rosmini and Clementino Vannetti would be stunned to learn they were “Germans”!

      Alto Adige — with its capital Bolzano — on the other hand has a more complicated ethnic history. This region, too, was ethnically Italian at one time, but towards the latter part of the Middle Ages it was settled by German families, while most of the Italic population — more specifically, Ladin — was forcibly Germanized (i.e., the native language banned; the population forced to speak German; surnames forcibly changed into German; you know, the usual practices that accompany benevolent German rule). It is in this part of the region that approx. two-thirds of the population today speak a South German dialect, while one-third speaks Italian. Hence it is only here, in Alto Adige, that some people identify as “German”* or “both Italian and Germanic” — not in Trentino!

      (* Although even in Alto Adige most of the German-speakers today would not describe themselves as “Germans”, but rather as ‘South Tyroleans’ or ‘Italians of German mother tongue’.)

      Moving on to Padre Kino…

      Padre Kino was born Eusebio Chini, in the village of Segno (belonging to the town of Predaia, in Trentino). His father was Francesco Chini and his mother was Margherita Luchi, both Italians. And at that time his birthplace was part of the Prince Bishopric of Trento — not Austria.

      After finishing his studies at the Jesuit college in Trento, he moved to Hall in Tirol near Innsbruck (at that time part of the County of Tyrol — not Austria), which is where we get the German version of his name. Later, upon entering Spanish territory, he changed the spelling to ‘Kino’, which is where we get the Spanish version of his name.

      But Padre Kino was neither Austrian nor Spanish. He born in an Italian village, in an Italian region, to Italian parents; and the name which appears on his baptismal record is ‘Chini’. There is no evidence that his original surname was “Kühn”, nor that his father’s real name was “Franz Kühn”. This is historical revisionism on the part of German nationalists. Here the Germans are trying to pull the same trick that has been pulled ad nauseam with Copernicus.

        1. Also, a shout-out to our own Bob Masullo, who pointed out that the song Spanish Eyes was originally called Moon Over Naples before being re-written. It was the version of the song with the new lyrics which became a Martino hit.

          Here’s a bit more from Wikipedia:

          Moon Over Naples is a 1965 instrumental composed and originally performed by German bandleader Bert Kaempfert and was the first track on his album, The Magic Music of Far Away Places for Decca Records.

          The earliest vocal version was recorded by Freddy Quinn in 1965 titled as Spanish Eyes; soon after its release, the single was pulled from the market when Polydor (Quinn’s label) and Decca (Kaempfert’s label) threatened to sue, claiming ownership of the song.

          A version by Sergio Franchi with lyrics by Charles Singleton was recorded in late 1965 titled Moon Over Naples, but did not chart. It would become a hit single in 1966 for Al Martino when a new set of lyrics were written by composer Eddie Snyder, now titled Spanish Eyes. (All subsequent versions used this title, and now listed both Singleton and Snyder among the credits.)

  2. I often politely ask my ‘Latino’ friends, when the occasion arises, ‘where did their Latin language originate’? . . . they are clueless. Then I kindly tell them ‘ROMA’ . . . the LATIN language began with the Romans and Spain was a Roman territory.

    Then again, I humbly state . . . ‘Italy has done more to influence our Western civilization than all the countries of Europe combined’.
    Reason why ‘ALL ROADS LEAD TO ROME’.


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