During my last trip to the US, thanks to my good friends Roberta and Robert DiBiase I had the opportunity to meet a wonderful Italian American woman, who is a true icon for the community in New Jersey: Gilda Rorro Baldassari.
I found very interesting and important to start this new year offering our readers the story of this proud Italian personality, former Italian Honorary Vice Consul in Trenton, NJ and now Corrispondente Consolare, nominated Cavaliere of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic by the then Italian Consul General in Philadelphia Franco Mistretta: because Trenton went from being under the Philadelphia consular jurisdiction to the Newark one, and now that Newark has been closed, under the New York one. She is also a fundamental part of the New Jersey Italian and Italian American Heritage Commission, the only State Commission dedicated to the Italian heritage in the whole United States.
Gilda, when we met you told me a few anecdotes that makes your life as an Italian American truly interesting and unique. Would you mind to share them with our readers?
I was born in Philadelphia, and I had relatives who came to this country from Italy. I saw what they had to go through to become Americans. They loved both countries, they worked so hard and they cared so much about Italy, and they were very family-oriented.
When I was very little, during the second world war, I started school and there was somebody calling me names because I was an Italian American. I couldn’t understand this, I just knew that being Italian American was not very popular. But, at home in the family, I just loved being Italian: I thought people simply didn’t know what a wonderful people I come from. It was great to see how they cared, they had no money but they led very rich lives because they were together. Not only they were dedicated to their families, but they helped other people in the community as well; if a neighbor was ill, no matter if he or she was Jew, Polish, Irish or whatever, they helped that person. The Italians were always giving all themselves.
My family always held a very high moral code for females. You had to be a good girl, there was no grey area, it was black or white: and we all wanted to be good, of course. There was always a preference for the males to be educated. Women could get through high school, but men were the ones who went to college, thanks to the family sacrifice. I was fortunate because my parents did want me and my sisters to go to school, and I had that opportunity: but I saw many women who were not given that chance. Fortunately, now things have changed.
An interesting anecdote in my life is about my meeting with the Pope. My parents took my two sisters and me in 1951 to Europe and to Italy. My father said he wanted us to see the town where he was born and meet relatives there, so we would know what our Italian heritage was about. We were in Rome and we managed to have a private meeting with his Holiness Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, in Castel Gandolfo. He asked me if I spoke Italian and I said “No, your Holiness. I’m American”. He said: “Oh, what a pity! Gilda, promise me that you will learn to speak Italian” and I said: “Yes, your Holiness! I’ll promise”. Still, I really didn’t know where to start to learn Italian, because it was taught nowhere in my school system. So I took Spanish, learned it, and then I took a book of Italian grammar and I tried to learn Italian, which is similar to Spanish. I had to keep the promise I made to the Pope!
That simple thing is what made me get where I am: I started teaching Spanish, then I got married, and when I got back to education I became an “English as a second language” teacher. Then I went to the Department of Education in the Equity Office: we were the civil rights office. I was in charge of all affirmative actions in New Jersey, and I started the multicultural education movement. That was back in 1988 to 1995. Then I left to become the assistant superintendent in the Trenton School System, which is a big inner city school district. That is before I became the Honorary Vice Consul for Italy. So, those experiences in equity and civil rights helped me to make sure, when we developed these lessons, that these educational materials would be diverse, relevant to every student, not just Italians or Italian Americans.
Please tell us something about “The Universality of Italian Heritage”
When I became a commissioner in 2002 I was asked to be the chairperson of the Curriculum development for all students, kindergarten through university level. I’ve been chair for twelve years now, and we are talking about schools throughout the State: North, Central and South; public, private, religious and charter. We started an Amicizia Program, an international exchange with Umbria and Sicily and other places, and this year we’re going to Matera, in Basilicata. We’ll get young people to live an experience, to visit Italy: but most importantly, this Curriculum is for all students, not just for Italians. The focus is on the Italian culture, but universalized. That’s why it is called “The Universality of Italian Heritage”.
In addition to all the activities based on the Curriculum, which can be found on our website http://njitalia.nj.gov/, we had major congresses recorded, which are one day event with several leading universities. At the end of 2014 we did one at Mercer County Community College, and we brought together all the major leaders of the Italian organizations in America. It was a wonderful event, and then I had a reception at my house with a hundred of people.
We want this to become now nationally known, because the New Jersey and Italian American Heritage Commission is the only educational institution in the United States that has developed this Curriculum. We feel that it also is instrumental in helping young people to learn the Italian language. We know about many young students from Korea, Bangladesh, China, Russia, Mexico, African Americans, Hispanics who said “we love the Italian way of life, we love the Italian language, we had the lessons and we want to learn more about Italy”. And the attendance to our classes actually grew and some high schools are as a matter of fact hiring new teachers.
Is this a direct outcome of the Curriculum?
Partially, it is. We teach the heritage, a little bit of language and culture. We talk about Leonardo da Vinci, but also about the Agenzia Spaziale Italiana, in elementary school, and about the partnership between Italy and the US in the space programs. Young people get very interested and they want to learn more about Italy, Italian life and so they take Italian language. So, it’s a very good thing!
What is the New Jersey Italian and Italian American Heritage Commission, and what’s your mission?
The Commission was formed in 2002, it is housed in the State Department of Education, and the mission is to develop education, to inform the world about the Italian American Heritage and to combat the negative stereotypes against Italian Americans in the media. It is very difficult: we have to constantly combat them and to go after programs that target Italians. I believe that is fundamental to maintain our heritage, or it will be lost: if we don’t maintain it in writing and teaching, it is going to go away. Most young Italian Americans don’t know their Italian heritage and roots, they don’t know the language, they don’t know what means to be Italian, they don’t even know where their grandparents came from in Italy. We have so much to be proud of, it’s amazing what Italians have achieved and continue to achieve today in this world, and most people think of us just as Mafiosi or as Jersey Shore’s cafoni … we have to fight so Italian greatness can be known and preserved and promoted.
You also have been for ten years the Italian Honorary Vice Consul in Trenton, NJ. We know that you approached to this role with a huge love for our country. What can you tell us about this experience?
Yes, I’ve been very proud to be Honorary Vice Consul for ten years. Then, when I was 70 they told me that a person cannot continue in this position after that age … so the then Consul General in Philadelphia asked me to continue but with the title of Consular Correspondent, which does not have the age limit. I’m happy to do it, I don’t gain money, I’m not interested in that: I just want to be able to contribute because my heritage means so much to me and I’m so grateful, I feel so privileged that at my age I can still help other people through the consular work and promote the Italian culture.
I started as a Consular Representative in New Jersey; now it is for Central and Northern New Jersey. Most of the things I used to do as Honorary Vice Consul has now been assumed by the Consulate in New York. What I do is to help people with papers, I give them information: I have two offices in the Trenton area, one is in my home and one at the Saint Joachim Church’s offices.
Is it hard to represent the Italian bureaucracy towards the American people of Italian heritage?
It used to be. I think that they’re improving and simplifying the process, and that’s a good thing: in the past it was more confused, too many papers. Sometimes it is easier to do things in the United States, but I think that at the Consulate in New York they are doing a very good job in simplifying the procedures and assisting people in a very dedicated and helpful way. Sometimes it is not easy for the people here in New Jersey: most of the people I serve are in their 70s or 80s and sometimes 90s, and for them to go to New York is not an easy thing. But the Consulate in New York has been very accommodating in letting us serve the people here as much as we can, without having them to travel to New York. So this collaboration is working well.
Are there many Italian Americans in New Jersey?
There are almost 2 million Italian Americans in New Jersey, we are about 20% of the population of the State. Where I live, in Hamilton Township, 58% of the population is Italian American. We have about 400 Italian organizations in New Jersey and most of them are very active. It’s amazing how many people really want to discover their roots and they want their children and their grandchildren to discover them too. It’s very gratifying.
What about the new Italians? Are they students or professionals?
Well, now is not very easy to come to America from Italy. We have students and we have very highly skilled technical people, people who are highly educated, at Princeton University. They are very different from the early immigrants, it’s another world. They do very well when they come, because they are so high skilled and their abilities are very much needed here; so you can’t really have a comparison between these generations and the one I have known in my childhood, it’s a very different situation.
Which are the most important places for the Italian American community in New Jersey?
We have so many monuments: even in Trenton we have got a statue of Columbus and Saint Lucy’s Church in Newark was built by Italian immigrants … and I’d like to think that the churches has been very important, they are the heart of the community. We have processions in Trenton too, at the church called Our Lady of the Angels: we celebrate the saints, the Madonna di Casandrino and the Madonna di Pierno. We had entire neighborhoods: Chambersburg was the Little Italy in Trenton and I loved it every time I went there … but now, even if we keep going there, have beautiful presentations on Garibaldi’s birthday and celebrate Columbus Day, it’s not the same as it was. But in many cities in New Jersey you will find churches, and statues of Columbus; clubs and organizations, parades.