Sedona CALLAHAN, Writer

 

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The Monterey County Herald
September 14, 1997
Alta Vista Gallery [Sunday Magazine]
Cover Story

Distrust at Home
The relocation of immigrant Italians during World War II

By Sedona Callahan

Sitting around the kitchen table, talking over coffee and just-made biscotti, is a familiar activity for Joe and Vitina Spadaro, and Vitina’s cousin, Anita Ferrante.

But this time, instead of comfortable family talk, their conversation centers on almost forgotten memories of their treatment during World War II, as first-generation Italians living in Monterey.

“It was so painful,” says Ferrante. “We felt ashamed because now we were the enemies.” “It really affected me,” agrees Vitina Spadaro. “It’s an experience I’ve never been able to completely forget.” Ferrante and Vitina Spadaro are speaking of 1942, when Italian immigrants and their families, living along the California coast from the Oregon border to Monterey Bay, were required to leave their homes and move inland because they were perceived as a threat to national security.

“While the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II is a well-known blemish on American history, few people are aware that from February through June of 1942 the federal government enacted a relocation program that forced thousands of Italian…aliens and their families living in California to leave their homes for so-called safety zones,” says Stephen Fox, author of The Unknown Internment: An Oral History of the Relocation of Italian Americans During World War II. “Regardless of their personal allegiance, those whose loyalty to their new homeland was deemed doubtful were detained and interned without trial. Law-abiding people who had lived in the United States for decades – some who had sons in the American army – were subjected to surveillance and harassment simply because they had never obtained U.S. citizenship.”

“My father was a citizen,” says Vitina Spadaro. “He came to the United States in 1920, already engaged to my mother. After working hard and saving money, he went back to Sicily to marry.” Vitina Spadaro’s father, Giuseppe Spadaro, was one of the many fishermen who had relocated to Monterey from Marettimo, an island of Sicily. “He fished for sardines and mackerel in the Monterey Bay from a small fishing boat.” She says of the father who died last year at the age of 101.

“My mother and I came together in 1935 or ’36, when he had a house ready for us,” she says. Giuseppe Spadaro’s acquired citizenship ensured his daughter’s automatic residency as a United States citizen, but Vitina Spadaro’s mother was considered an alien and had to apply for her citizenship. ‘My mother was going to school to learn English so she could become a citizen,” says Vitina Spadaro. “But when the war broke out, no citizenship was granted to aliens.”

According to Fox, after the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Washington officials reportedly believed that fifth columnists [suspected of subversion, sabotage and espionage, specifically of Japanese, Italian and German origins] had contacted enemy forces, who were in turn using the information given them to prey on West Coast shipping. On Jan. 29, 1942 the Justice Department announced that on the recommendation of the secretary of war, all enemy immigrants would be required to vacate specified areas of the West Coast by Feb. 24.

The Spadaro family, along with their relatives, friends and neighbors, was notified they must move, because of the mother’s alien status, at least 20 miles inland from the coastline. “Since my father was fishing in Monterey, we decided it was most convenient to move to Salinas, so he could fish during the week,” says Vitina Spadaro, who was 12 years old at the time.

Fox writes of the move: “Around Monterey Bay there was nothing gentle about the forced removal of families, friends, neighbors and relatives. The relocation order touched the lives of nearly everyone on the peninsula; the local newspaper estimated that between 2,500 and 3,000 had to leave. Moving and transfer companies did a land-office business.”

“Relocation broke up families, interrupted education, forced bread winners to find new employment and new homes [in many cases families had to maintain two residences], resulted in individual internment for petty violations, lowered the aliens’ self-esteem, and in general heightened their anxiety about what more lay in store for them since they knew what was happening to the Japanese,” says Fox.

Joe Spadaro arrived in Monterey from Sicily in 1939, just two years before the war began. “I was still working all the time to pay for my trip here,” he recalls. “I was living with my aunt and uncle. I was only 19 _ years old. It’s a good thing I had my relatives, otherwise I’d have been more confused,” he says of his relocation.

“I was still an alien, so I had to move. They wouldn’t let me fish. First we moved to Salinas where I worked loading trucks for a cold storage company. Then I heard there was a job in San Francisco. I was away from home for one and a half years before I could fish again. Finally, they gave us the okay, and I got an ID card with my picture on it. They must have got information we weren’t spies.”

Ferrante recalls the day she and her family had to leave their home. “My mother was not a citizen. She was busy raising a family, and didn’t have time to get the citizen papers. She left her statue of the Holy Family to protect the house we were leaving,” she says. “I remember turning the key and locking the house; the vans were loading up with furniture, with the chairs up on top. We had to move as a family. We couldn’t just ship the mothers off. It would have been devastating to the closeness of the family,” Ferrante says.

“As a child I found it very disturbing, and I was upset,” adds Vitina Spadaro of the order to move. “There was so much news going out that all the aliens were going to concentration camps. I remember leaving my schoolmates and saying goodbye to everyone, and looking for a place to rent. I translated for my parents and my aunt and uncle. As soon as they found out we were Italians from Monterey, we were refused homes because we were aliens. When one woman heard my mother speaking Italian, she called my mother an enemy alien.”

“Coming from Italy as a child, the word ‘America’ represented a country that was free,” Vitina Spadaro says. “At that time, it shattered my image of America. My father told me it was the time of war and there was a lot of confusion, but we hadn’t done anything. We obeyed the laws of this country. I had a fear of going to a concentration camp like the Japanese did. I was afraid when I came home from school, my family would be gone. When I went out to shop with my mother I had to whisper to her, because we weren’t allowed to speak Italian. I was always afraid of the unknown and what would happen to us.”

The Monterey fishermen’s livelihood was disrupted when the government confiscated many of their fishing boats, converting them to patrol boats. “The fishermen were told that the government needed their boats to patrol the Panama Canal and other areas. So all the fishermen were left without their boats,” says Vitina Spadaro. “But they had to make a living for their families. So my father, uncles and others went up to Seattle and rented boats. That meant another loss for the fishermen. They usually worked with shares; the boat gets so many shares. So when they rented from another company all of the profit went to them,” Vitina Spadaro says.

When the local fishermen were able to convince the government that the food they brought in was necessary for military survival, their boats were returned to them, sometimes in disrepair, and they were allowed to fish the Monterey waters again.

An undated wartime news article reports the return of one Monterey fishing vessel: “Pete Maiorana’s purse seiner ‘Diana’, one of the many Monterey fishing craft that ‘joined the Navy’ back in February, 1942, pulled into harbor here this morning in ‘civilian dress’ again ready to go to work Sunday night as a member of the food for victory fishing fleet here. Released by the Navy to resume the pursuit of sardines, the ‘Diana’ was the first of seven locally owned seiners expected to arrive here…to help start a new fishing season.”

“We told them the food we brought in was for the soldiers,” says Joe Spadaro. “After sardine season, I’d fish for tuna. We’d come in with a load of tuna and find security guards on the pier. We couldn’t bring anything home. They watched us as we loaded and unloaded.”

“In marked contrast to the government’s meticulous and voluminous record-keeping in the case of the Japanese, the archives are eerily silent about the experiences of Italian…aliens during the four to eight months they were removed from their homes and jobs,” says Fox. “From government records we learn only that on 15 and 24 February 1942, for reasons of ‘military necessity’, approximately ten thousand enemy aliens were prohibited residence and work in, or travel to, specified restricted zones along the coast; that on 27 June 1942, the government, realizing that what it had done in February was a mistake, permitted Italian…aliens to return to their homes and jobs.”

“We were proud to be Americans, and after that experience we felt ashamed to be Italian,” says Ferrante. “There was a hurt inside. A cloud was over us. It took a long time to regain our feelings of pride. Today, I can say I am proud to be Italian, but back then I wanted to hide this part of me.”

On June 26, of this year, both the U. S. Senate and the House of Representatives referred identical bills, titled “Wartime Violations of Italian-Americans Civil Liberties Act,” to their respective judiciary committees, ordering the preparation of a government report detailing the injustices suffered by Italian-Americans during World War II, and a formal acknowledgment of such injustices by the president.

© 1997 Sedona Callahan