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May 3-9, 2006

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Talk 'Merican! Before public enmity was directed at Arabs and Muslims, there were the Japanese, Italians, Germans, Irish . . .

The Secret History

Remembering when being an Italian American was a crime

By Patricia Lynn Henley


At 11pm, a man answers his door while wearing his bedroom slippers. Three policemen are out front, another two around back. The man is told that, by order of the president, he must immediately go with these officers. He is not allowed to put on shoes, and so is escorted to jail still wearing his slippers. He is not allowed to contact his family, cannot consult an attorney, is never told the specific charges against him or even what evidence, if any, made him a possible threat to national security. After a brief hearing, he is quickly put on a train and shipped to Montana, where he is escorted to a remote camp ringed with barbed-wire fences. It is 17 degrees below zero outside, and he has no coat or warm clothing. He is still wearing his slippers.

Arrested on Dec. 7, 1941, the suspect is Filippo Molinari, a sales representative for L'Italia newspaper in San Jose, Calif. He never learns exactly why he was arrested, but he fit one of three basic profiles on an FBI-compiled list of potentially "dangerous" foreign residents: people who worked for an Italian-language newspaper or radio station; teachers of Italian in a school sponsored by the Italian consulate; or members of the Federation of Italian War Veterans, a social group for those who had fought in the Italian military in WW I as U.S. allies.

It is well known that some 100,000 Japanese residents, including many who were American citizens, were interned in the United States during WW II. But most of us are unaware that some 600,000 Italian citizens living in the United States—many who had been here for years and who had spouses and other family members who were U.S. citizens—had to register as enemy aliens. Perhaps most dispiriting, history may be turning that way once again.

"With the Patriot Act and the arrests of Arabs and Muslims and people being profiled for dubious reasons, there are a lot of parallels between now and what happened then," says Lawrence DiStasi, editor of a collection of personal essays by Italian detainees. Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment During World War II (Heyday Books; $21.95) features essays and fragments of stories told by these former enemies of the state—many of whom would just as soon forget—as they remember that dark era. DiStasi discusses Una Storia Segreta on Thursday, May 4, at the Marin History Museum as part of the Marin Stories series.

Thanks to efforts during the past decade by DiStasi and others, at least some people are now aware that, during WW II, a strict curfew was imposed, and many Italian residents had their movements severely restricted and were required to carry a special "enemy alien" photo ID at all time. About 10,000 were forced to move on extremely short notice out of homes along California's coastline. They were forbidden to own guns, cameras or short-wave radios. If a family member was a registered enemy alien, no one in their household could own those items, not even children or young adults who were native-born U.S. citizens. Police officers or federal agents would show up to search without warning or warrants.

More than 1,500 Italian residents were eventually arrested and given hearings at which no specific evidence was ever presented. Without benefit of legal counsel or other outside assistance, the accused simply attempted to convince the hearing board that he or she was loyal to America. About 250, like Molinari, were deemed sufficiently dangerous or were caught violating the curfew or other restrictions and were locked up in military camps for up to two years.

For DiStasi, this is not a bit of history that should remain hidden.

"We've had several programs where we've invited people from the Arab and Muslim communities, and the parallels are striking," he says. "People are arrested or brought in for interrogation for reasons they are not told. They're targeted, obviously, because of where they're from, not for anything they've done. And it's the same situation. There are no charges brought against these people, they are just brought in—and terrified."

In the early days of WW II, U.S. officials were doggedly determined to prevent potential security breeches by foreign residents who might secretly support their native country. The enforcement of rules and the attitude toward Italian and German "enemy aliens" varied widely depending on which government entity—the INS, the FBI or the military—decided an individual's fate. The resulting bureaucratic overlap sometimes created bizarre situations, such as a farmer being unable to legally cross the street to work in his own fields.

What eventually became the book Una Storia Segreta began in 1993 as a project by the American Italian Historical Association's Western Regional Chapter to raise awareness of what happened in WW II, particularly on the West Coast. What was expected to be a one-time-only show evolved into an exhibit that traveled all around the country and is still available for viewing. People who had never spoken of the hardships they endured, who had never admitted their shame, saw the show and began to speak out, to tell their stories. Families discovered that their parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles had been registered, relocated or detained, and had never said a word about it.

The Una Storia Segreta exhibit eventually led to the Wartime Violation of Italian American Civil Liberties Act, signed into law on Nov. 7, 2000, which officially documented the WW II actions of the U.S. government against all "enemy aliens"—actions that had been routinely denied for more than 50 years. DiStasi felt compelled to create his collection of essays about what had happened and the deep humiliation that caused most Italians involved to "forget" their secret history.

"Even people who were affected didn't know the whole story," he explains. "They just knew, 'Oh yeah, they came and told us we had to leave our home.' They didn't know that people were being interned. They didn't know that other people around the country were being arrested. They didn't know how many people were in fact affected."

Among those forced to relocate were Italian fishing families in the seaport of Pittsburg, Calif. The most memorable evacuee was a 97-year-old man whose children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were American citizens. He was taken out of his home on a stretcher and moved inland because he was a registered "enemy alien."

A young Pittsburg resident came home on leave from serving in the American military, only to discover his family home was boarded up and empty. He had to contact the local police department to locate his parents, who were longtime residents but not citizens. The relocation orders decimated such towns as Pittsburg as well as Monterey and the Italian communities in San Francisco, Alameda, Santa Cruz, Eureka and coastal areas from the Oregon border to Santa Barbara.

At one point there were plans for wholesale internment of all Italian and German alien residents, but those were never put into effect, in part because of the strong voting blocs these communities had back East, but also because of sheer numbers. It would have been a logistical and economic nightmare to tear millions of people away from their communities and jobs, and then maintain them in military camps. Perhaps no one wanted to be responsible for a mass-internment order which would have included rounding up the parents of baseball great Joe DiMaggio.

But the relocations, restrictions and internments that did occur created a fear of what might happen next, and in the long term had a chilling effect on Italian-American culture and pride.

DiStasi says. "There are still people who insist even today that the people who were interned must have done something wrong."


DiStasi discusses 'Una Storia Segreta' with an emphasis on what happened to Italians in Marin County and throughout the North Bay as part of the Marin Stories series on Thursday, May 4, at the Marin History Museum. Boyd Gate House, 1125 B St., San Rafael. 6pm. 415.454.8538. To read some secret stories, go to www.segreta.org.


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