Sicula Italia

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Omaha’s Italian Community: A Culture of Social Engagement

by Rita Shelley

Most people can trace their heritage to the countries of their ancestors’ origins. For Omaha’s Italian American community, not only can many trace their lineages to Sicily, they can name the exact village, Carlentini. The connections between Omaha and Carlentini are strong – of approximately 60,000 Omaha residents who claim Italian heritage, two-thirds descend from Omaha’s late 19th and early 20th century immigrants from Carlentini.[1] Hence, Sheri Kanger, the third generation of an Omaha family that traces its roots to Carlentini, and Carmelita de la Guardia who immigrated with her parents from Carlentini when she was four years old, share a passion for their ancestral home. (Sheri’s Italian great grandmother was Maria Puglisi Ruma. Carmelita’s parents were Joseph and Maria Nanfito Troia.)

Since April 2021, Sheri and Carmelita have worked with other Omaha Italians Charlie Venditte, Todd Procopio, and Al Vacanti to establish the Sicula Italia Foundation, with a mission to “formalize a relationship and strengthen the long-standing bonds between the cities of Omaha and of Carlentini, Sicily.” In doing so, they join a tradition of organizing around Italian culture and community that was documented as long ago as 1938.[2] The author of that study, Alphonse Fiore, had a career that spanned teaching assignments at Creighton Prep and Creighton University. He went on to obtain a second PhD at the University of California and continued his professorial career at the University of San Francisco, where he is said to have welcomed Omaha visitors to whom he served Italian food at his San Francisco home. Fiore died in 1977.  

Fiore reported that many Omaha Italians from Carlentini were induced to leave their homeland behind for economic reasons. In an inventory of census records of Italian immigrants to Omaha, Fiore supported his assertion that the first wave of Italians who came to Nebraska between the 1880s and ‘90s were drawn here for its promise of employment. Opportunities came from railroads, the construction and smelting industries, and meatpacking. Of nearly 200 heads of households who he catalogued by surname, a preponderance found work as laborers and railroad workers. (Interestingly, more than 20 were fruit merchants.)

Fiore devoted an entire chapter to a discussion of the panoply of Omaha Italians’ social and cultural organizations. The chapter sets the stage by describing how Italian character uniquely contributed to organizing these efforts:

The bulk of Italian immigration in Nebraska … owes its existence to the fact that a number of prominent and influential Italian leaders in Omaha sought unskilled laborers from the home towns from which they, too, had emigrated. Naturally other immigrants, more or less closely connected with this stream of unskilled labor, either by ties of family relationship or of friendly association, felt the natural attraction of coming to Nebraska. Emigrating mostly from the same few provinces and towns, it was simply a question of “following the leader.” The movement in this case became simply contagious – it seemed that as one came to Nebraska so came the rest. Brother followed brother, father followed son, family followed family, and friends followed friends. (Fiore 17)

A list of local social and cultural organizations that welcomed or were started by immigrants after their arrival is exhaustive: seven mutual benefit societies that aided members and their families in case of sickness, death, or unemployment; Italian Fellowship Club; Ladies Auxiliary of the Christ Child Center; Italian American Alliance Club; a handful of veterans’ organizations and their auxiliaries; Italian American Civic League; Modern Italian Americans; Italian Federation Political Club; Italian Ladies Progressive Club; Santa Alfio, San  Bernardino, and Santa Lucia societies; Dante Alighieri Dramatic Society; the Italian Commercial Club; and the University Italian Club. Fiore’s list also includes the Cristofor Colombo Society organized in 1912, Happy Tribe (a women’s organization), and an Italian Fellowship Club.

Members of Omaha’s Sons of Italy lodge prepare and serve the pasta luncheons for which the organization is known locally and regionally. Omaha World-Herald, 25 January 1990.

Fiore further wrote:

The Italian’s intense social and hospitable nature finds expression, pleasure, and satisfaction in “frequently getting together”…. Ask an Italian in Omaha if his countrymen form organizations and invariably you will get the answer: “Our organizations are so numerous that you cannot count them.” (Fiore 123)

Throughout the 1940s and continuing into the present, activities of a broad range of organizations serving social, cultural, and political purposes were also reported in the Omaha World-Herald. Mention was made in 1948 that the Risveglio Italo American Club with its 700 members sponsored a letter writing campaign to their Italian counterparts, urging them not to vote for candidates sympathetic with Communist causes.  Also during the 1940s, Omaha’s Italian organizations led a voter registration drive. Organizations such as Modern American Italian American Club, United Italians of Omaha, Italian American Women’s Society, and North Side Italian American Citizens’ Club held annual officer elections and hosted events.

In 1990, an earthquake at Carlentini tragically caused deaths and injuries. Local church women’s groups organized prayers and a relief fund for earthquake victims. More than half of Omaha’s late 19th and early 20th century Italian immigrants came from Carlentini. Omaha World-Herald, 13 December 1990.

For Sheri and Carmelita, the motivations behind their work with Sicula Italia are to honor their Carlentini heritage, including by pursuing recognition of a formal agreement for Omaha/Carlentini Sister City designation. In the Italian heritage holiday display at the General Crook House Museum through mid-January, their work shares national pride, with two trees decorated in colors of the Italian flag, red, green, and white, and the Sicilian flag, red and yellow. The larger of the two trees represents Italy; the smaller represents Sicily. During a recent presentation to school children who visited the General Crook House Museum, Sheri also described five Italian Christmas holiday traditions celebrated in December and January. The celebrations begin with San Nicolo di Bari who can be thought of as an Italian Father Christmas. Additionally, observances are dedicated to Gesu Bambino (Baby Jesus), Santa Lucia, Babbo Natale (Santa Claus), and La Befana, a grandmother figure who brings gifts to children.

Italian immigration to America made an imprint on Omaha. That imprint continues today with the work of three core organizations, the Santa Lucia Festival Committee, Sons of Italy, the American Italian Heritage Society, and more recently, the Sicula Italia Foundation.

The General Crook House Museum holiday celebration From the Globe to Our Home: Douglas County Ethnic Traditions runs through January 14.

[1] Kanger, Sheri and Carmelita de la Guardia. Personal Interview. 29 November 2021.

[2] Fiore, Alphonse. History of Italian Immigration in Nebraska. 1938. University of Nebraska, PhD dissertation.

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