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Ashley Lowery, Deseret News
Joanne Milner shows photographs of her ancestors used in her film, which airs this week.

In 1979, Joanne Milner was a student at the University of Utah, and she also worked at a bookstore. She remembers that Alex Haley came to town that winter, to promote his newly released "Roots." She recalls that her job was to stand next to him during his bookstore appearance.

While he greeted his readers, Milner took one book after another off the stack and opened them and handed them to him to be signed. When all the customers were gone, the author turned to Milner and asked her about herself.

What were her roots? he wondered. On her mother's side, she said, she is Italian. "And have you written your family's story?" Haley asked.

Well, she had to admit, she hadn't.

Haley inspired Milner to take a tape recorder on one of her frequent visits to her 75-year-old grandmother. That conversation led her to interview other relatives and started her on a quest, the results of which can be seen this coming week in a documentary on KUED.

The title of the film is "Our Story: Italian-Americans in Utah." As Milner uncovered her own family's story, her appreciation for all Italian-Americans deepened. Her appreciation deepened for all immigrants, actually. "It doesn't take many generations for people to forget the sacrifices of their grandparents," she says.

So "Our Story," is not the story of her family, or of any one family. It takes the broadest possible look at the Italians in Utah.

Milner begins with Brigham Young University professor James Toronto talking about his ancestor, Giuseppe. Giuseppe Toronto was a seaman who was a convert to the LDS Church. He came to Nauvoo, Ill., just after the death of Joseph Smith.

Milner recounts the stories of the miners and railroad men, farmers and stone masons. She delves into Italian cooking and music, faith and family. Anyone who grew up in Utah will recognize at least some of the names in her documentary, such as Caputo, Siciliano, DePaulis, Pignanelli, Colosimo, Ravarino, Mariani and Motta.

Philip Notarianni, director of the division of state history, is interviewed prominently in the film. In fact, Milner structured her documentary around the outline he uses to teach his Italian-in-Utah history classes at the University of Utah.

There is far too much Italian-Utah history to be contained in a one-hour show, Notarianni says. He has spent his life working with Italian history, writing articles and chapters for books. He believes a film such as this is long overdue. The Italian-Americans in Utah have not been as well recognized as the Greek-Americans in Utah, or the Jewish Utahns, he says.

But the Italians have not been as cohesive as some of the other communities, Notarianni concedes. There were, and are, Mormon Italian-Americans as well as Catholic Italian-Americans in this state. When we think of the history of the Catholic Church in Utah, we tend to think of the Irish immigrants, he notes.

So to make a documentary about Italians in Utah takes special powers of organization, Notarianni says. "What Joanne did was bring all of the elements of the community together."

If you ask Milner if there were any difficulties, she'll smile. She says that not only do the LDS Italians and the Catholic Italians move in separate spheres, the Northern Italians and the Southern Italians each tend to think their stories are the best. But somehow, all of them were able to catch the vision of what she was trying to do.

And really, she says, her film is nothing special. "It is a home movie. Just simple vignettes." She hopes Utahns will look at it and say, "I could do better than that," and then go out and make a film about their own ancestors.

She hopes her film will stimulate thoughts and memories and send Utahns down to the basement or out to the garage to look through old boxes for their own family records. "We get too caught up in consumerism," Milner says. The true treasures in all our lives are the photos, the passports, the ship manifests that show when our ancestors came through Ellis Island.

When she began researching her family's history, Milner knew only that her great-great-grandparents were very poor. She did not even know their names, she says. She was touched to learn that she had actually been born on the same day as her great-great-grandmother, Rosa Carlino.

Milner learned that her great-great-grandfather, Paolo Carlino, and his son-in-law, her great-grandfather, Pasquale Mariani, had come to the United States in 1902 and 1894, respectively. Rosa Carlino and her daughter, Mariannina Mariani, joined their husbands in Utah in 1906. They all lived in a little home where the Salt Palace stands today.

Mariannina and Pasquale had eight children living when she died of complications of childbirth at the age of 39. He died four years later of throat cancer.

The orphaned children were raised by the oldest daughter, and the children remained devoted to each other all their lives, Milner says. In their old age, her great-aunts and uncles all lived next door to each other in a mobile home park.

Meanwhile Paolo and Rosa Carlino survived their daughter and son-in-law, and they did what they could to help the family. Milner says the records show that Paolo was a laborer on the railroad until he was 80 years old.

As Milner went about visiting the graves of her ancestors in the Mount Calvary Cemetery, she discovered that Paolo and Rosa Carlino did not have a marker on their burial site. She eventually had a marker placed there. Still she remembers well the day the sexton showed her the unmarked plot where they lay.

Milner says she stood at their graves and looked out over the valley and thought about the opportunities she had had. She thought about how she was able to go to college, able to serve on the Salt Lake City Council and even in the Utah State Legislature.

She says she grew up knowing she was Italian, knowing that her family's food and music was different from that of the other kids in her classes. But it took becoming an adult to realize the full extent of her family's story. It took going back to Italy with her parents and siblings, and meeting their cousins and seeing the beauty of the land. It took standing at the unmarked graves, she says, to be fully grateful for the struggles and sacrifices her ancestors had made.

If you watch

What: "Our Story: Italian-Americans in Utah," a documentary

When: Monday, 9 p.m., and Sunday, June 22, 3 p.m.

Where: KUED/Ch. 7

E-mail: susan@desnews.com