Margaret Besso and her two sisters grew up in Carbon County, next door to the home of the parents of their father, Dominick. Margaret Besso's grandmother, Martina Besso, spoke only Italian to Margaret, who quickly came to understand the language.
At an early age, Margaret figured out how to learn what was going on in town. She'd listen on the party line while her grandmother talked to the other Italian-speaking women.
Margaret Besso's grandfather owned the cobbler shop, and her father worked in the family business, taking it over in 1939 when the older man had a stroke. For 73 years, the Besso shoemakers were a fixture on the main street of Price. Farmers had their boots made by the Bessos. Parents had their children's school shoes made there a little large for room to grow.
Their shop was often a gathering place for people who had been born somewhere else. Not just those who had been born in Italy but those born in Greece, Serbia or Croatia.
Besso's grandfather, James, had trained to be a priest and was well-educated. In his day, in Carbon County, many of the Italian-born miners couldn't read, so James Besso would read them their letters from home. He'd help immigrants fill out their applications for citizenship, too and even go to Salt Lake City with them for the swearing-in. Besso's father carried on the tradition of helpfulness.
Her father never charged a religious leader for shoes, Besso says. Catholic nuns, LDS missionaries, a Protestant minister they all had their shoes repaired for free. Others were charged reasonable prices. She remembers Dominick charging a quarter to replace a tap, 50 cents for a new heel.
Up until his death a few years ago, Dominick Besso made shoes. Margaret Besso says he still sold his boots to local farmers $25 a pair.
On Saturday, at the "Ferragosto," or Italian Festival, in Salt Lake City, Besso will show photos and documents and memorabilia from the cobbler shop. She has held onto these tiny pieces of what it meant to be a Besso in Price. She has seen that other people are interested in her family's story because it is part of a larger story about what it was like to be first- and second-generation Italian in Utah.
Besso's presentation will take place at the Utah State Historical Society in the Rio Grande Depot, 300 S. Rio Grande, where guest speakers will talk about the history of Italians in Utah. (See accompanying schedule.)
In fact, mementos like these tell the story of what it is to be American, says Joanne Milner, who is helping to produce a documentary film about Italians in Utah. A trailer for the documentary will precede each of the speakers at the Historical Society.
Whenever you learn about your ancestors, she says, it gives you a better appreciation, a better sense of self.
She hopes even non-Italians will be inspired by this year's Ferragosto, which is the third annual event. Thirty years ago, Alex Hailey's "Roots" sent many people searching for their own family's stories, Milner says. She hopes the historical displays this Saturday will be similarly inspiring.
Milner's grandfather on her mother's side, Antonio Furano, came from a small village called Savauto, to work in the mines of Carbon County. It was 1913 and he was 17 years old. He eventually found work in Salt Lake City as a chicken butcher for Hotel Utah. When he was 28, an older Italian woman played matchmaker, and he married Matilda Marani, whose parents were also from Italy and who was 15 at the time. By the 1960s, when Furano retired from the Hotel Utah he was the sauce and soup chef and had cooked for several U.S. presidents.
From the late 1880s through the early 1930s, more than 30 million people immigrated to the United States. Four and a half million of those were Italians, and the vast majority of Italians came before 1921, when new immigration laws set strict limits on the numbers that would be accepted from Eastern Europe.
In 1921, Milner says, there was a backlash against Italian immigrants. It reminds her of the kind of backlash we see against today's Mexican immigrants, who come to do the dirty work and the hard work.
Her Italian grandfather had been a farmer, not a miner, Milner says. He knew how to raise olives and oranges and vegetables. He knew how to butcher chickens and make cheese and wine. Yet he and his father and brothers found their first jobs in the mines, and it was exhausting and dangerous work.
The Motta family story is similar, says Elma Motta Uzelac. Her father, Stefano Cesare Motta, was born in 1888 in the Piedmont area of Italy, in the small farming community of Silvano D'Orba. He came to Utah at the age of 17, to live in Bingham Canyon and work for Utah Copper. Soon he began to go by the name of Steve.
Uzelac's brother, Dominick Motta, says their father was one of nine children. "They were sharecropping for the guy who owned the castle." Steve and his brother, John, knew that America needed workers, and so they came. For five years the Motta brothers worked double shifts in the mines and then they bought their first farm in Union.
The Motta brothers raised vegetables and sold them in Bingham Canyon. They'd load their crops on a horse-drawn wagon and set off at midnight to be in place to sell by dawn. In 1922, Steve returned to his village in Italy and married a young woman he had known only slightly, Veronica Rocca, and brought her to Utah.
Steve bought land where present-day Cottonwood High School is, and that's where he and Veronica raised their children.
Uzelac and Motta have both been widowed and now live together again, near the land where they grew up. When they remember the farm of their youth, they recall the first tractor their father bought. They remember their mother, a sweet and hospitable and religious woman, who sang and prayed all day long as she went about her household chores. She also worked in the fields in the summer when the workload was heaviest.
Uzelac loves being Italian because her parents loved her so well, she says. The heritage and language she never wants to forget include her mother's little sayings, such as this one she'd use when her daughter did a task or a favor, "Until you are better paid thank you."
The purpose of bringing family mementos to Ferragosto, and of the film Milner is helping to produce "is to tell the community our story, what the immigrants went through and how things have evolved," Motta says.
Frank Tremea believes the Ferragosto will draw Italians from Ogden, people whose ancestors, like his, came from northern Italy. Tremea tells his children that it doesn't matter that they don't speak Italian, it is still their duty to keep the heritage alive. He hopes they will become leaders in Trentini, an organization for Canadians and Americans of northern Italian descent. (Although, actually, Tremea adds, you don't have to be Italian to join, you just have to like things Italian.)
Before the Trentini, there was the Friendly Club in Ogden. Through the Friendly Club, Italians held parties and picnics and made new immigrants feel welcome and loaned each other money to buy land or start a business. Tremea was only 3 months old in 1937 when his parents helped start the Friendly Club.
Meanwhile, Michael Homer believes the Ferragosto might be an opportunity for Utahns who may have thought their ancestors were French, to find out they were really Italian. Homer's grandfather came in 1854, with the first wave of Italian immigrants. James Bertoch was 16 and came with four brothers and sisters, two of whom died on the journey across the Plains.
Bertoch was born in a small French-speaking Protestant community in the Piedmont region and was converted to the LDS faith in the 1850s, after Lorenzo Snow opened the Italian Mission in what was then the kingdom of Sardinia.
Last names such as Pons or Cardon or Bertoch may not sound Italian, but they are, Homer says. After 1861, when the Italian provinces were unified, people gradually stopped speaking French in Sardinia.
The later Italian immigrants came from southern Italy, Homer points out. They did not form a community with the Italians who were already here. Instead, they went to mining towns and formed their own communities.
Though many of the later arrivals were Catholic, the Catholic Church did not solidify the Italian community in the same way that the Greek Orthodox Church drew the Greek immigrants together, Homer says. There were so many Catholics from Ireland in Utah, and there were so many Catholics from Germany or other places. He welcomes Ferragosto as a chance to celebrate a common heritage with people he hasn't celebrated with before.
As for Margaret Besso, being Italian means honoring her father's kindness. She respects the memory of a man who was honest and worked hard and was incredibly proud that all three of his daughters graduated from college.
Besso still understands Italian, all these years later. But she never learned to speak it. She does, however, do a nice imitation of her father's accent.She captures something of his humor when she repeats the words he used to say every time someone asked him his age. Besso imitates his wry smile along with his accent as she says, "Tirty-nine, pretta soona 40."
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