When researching for my Italian story, I wanted access to a community where I could soak up the flavors and sounds of Italy without the expense of an overseas trip. I’ve been to Italy several times and adore the country, and knew I could rely somewhat on memory. But for me, nothing beats walking the terrain of my story, hearing accents, inhaling aromas, or taking my own photographs.
I took a trip to San Diego’s Little Italy and learned how the community was originally settled. While there, I spoke with many people in search of answers and one market owner directed me to a small book, Images of America, San Diego’s Little Italy, by Kimber M. Quinney, Thomas J. Cesarini, and the Italian Historical Society of San Diego. Of course I bought it, and referred to it often. Much of the book contains black and white photographs contributed by local community members, and each photograph tells its own story. In my contemporary romance, with an Italian-American heroine and hero, the photographs helped me to imagine what life was like back then, and what might have shaped my H/H’s lives.
Setting always plays a big part in my stories and I have to hold myself back, keeping a light hand as I brush those strokes of color through the pages. History always appeals to me and even though I might not use any of the material I research, somehow it helps to infuse a tone. As did, putting in the CD titled “Say it Right in Italian,” and listening as I pedaled away on the indoor bike. Listening to the words said by the Italian male, in Italian, then in English but with the trace of a wonderful accent, and then repeating the phrases and trying not to fall of the bike with laughter, really helped me to get into the mood. I literally wore out a CD of Dean Martin singing his Italian ballads. Mama Rosetta’s favorite song became, Mambo Italiano.
In San Diego, I learned that many immigrants arrived in the 1870’s, but it wasn’t until the 1900’s that a large number of Italians migrated down the coast from San Francisco, following that city’s earthquake and fires of 1906. Many of the Italians who moved into what was then known as San Diego’s “Italian Colony” came from two Italian towns, Porticello, in Sicily, and Riva Trigosa, in Liguria. Most everyone arrived in San Diego knowing someone: a sibling, a distant cousin, a friend of a friend. The colony, situated slightly north of downtown, ran along India Street, bordered by Date Street, Kettner Boulevard, and to the west, the Pacific Ocean. By the 1940’s it held around 6,000 families and was known as “Little Italy.” Originally, the economic foundation of the area was fishing, mostly for sardines and tuna, and that or course spurred the opening of canneries, boat building industries, retail stores, and restaurants. There were strong ties to the mother country, adherence to tradition, and everything revolved around the church, and everyone spoke Italian. A journalist from the San Diego Tribune commented in the 1930’s, “Even the dogs speak Italian—and some won’t answer if spoken to in English.”
By the early 20th century, there existed a strong new identity—the Italian American identity, which exists today. I had the best cappucino at a small outdoor café, and don’t get me started on the amazing breakfast. It was wonderful to sit in the sun and hear the Italian language spoken freely, and yet be an hour and a half away from my own small American town. I purchased pasta, and amaretto cookies, and little trinkets at the market above, and they allowed me to take photos, and there were so many wonderful things to look at and think about. There’s an annual Italian festival held in San Diego’s Little Italy in the fall, and I hear the accommodations fill up quickly. With a little pre-planning I think I’ll be taking another trip soon.