75 years later, Bay Area Italian Americans remember wartime restrictions, internment

Apr 18, 2017

 

“This is old Italian neighborhood,” Al Bronzini says. “That’s the house I was raised in, right there.” Al is showing me some of the places that were important to him growing up in East Oakland, almost 80 years ago. “Boy this is different,” he says. “Wow.”

He’s a little too uncomfortable to park the car, so he points things out from the driver’s seat. He slows down in front of a squat building. “Fruitvale Banana Depot is that blue building over there,” he says. “We used to unload the bananas in the back by the railroad tracks.”  

Today, the building is an auto body shop, but back in the 1930s it used to be his father’s fruit market. That was before the government designated his mother and father as “enemy aliens” and the family nearly lost everything.

Al’s parents, Clara and Guido Bronzini, came to the United States from a town near Pisa, Italy in the late 1920s after World War I devastated Italy: There were no crops, no jobs, no future, and the Fascists were gaining power.

Al remembers his mother telling him that Fascists came to her house when she was a teenager. “My grandfather, her father, he refused to fly the fascist flag,” he recalls. “So they tortured my grandfather.”

Clara and Guido left Italy as soon as they could. Once they arrived, America gave them everything that Italy could not. First, they bought a house in the Melrose district. Then, a refrigerator to replace the ice box, and a brand new 4-door Pontiac. Finally, they got a top-of-the-line Philco radio. Only a few families in the neighborhood had one.

Al says, “It could receive stations from overseas.” His dad played opera. “He loved beautiful opera music. Listening to that radio, life was good. Life was better than they could have ever thought possible.”  

Life was so good that Clara and Guido forgot about finishing the paperwork for their citizenship. It didn’t seem necessary. Italy and the United States had a great relationship. All that started to change in 1939, when Italy and Nazi Germany joined forces. Al Bronzini remembers his mother, especially, being torn between her love for Italy, and her love for her new home in America.

“She cried her eyes out,” he recalls. “She just couldn't believe what was happening. And the worst was yet to come.”

It came just two months after the United States entered the war, in December, 1941. Al was thirteen. He remembers he was eating dinner with his family when two policemen came to their home.

“They said, ‘Mr. Bronzini, we have to search your house. You are on the enemy alien list.’”

Clara and Guido were now two of the 50,000 Italian immigrants in California who were designated “enemy aliens.”

“They searched the house” Al says. “Found nothing. So they said, ‘We have to take your Philco radio.’"

Flashlights, cameras and short wave radios were considered contraband.

He remembers his mother pleaded with the police, “‘Please do not take my radio.’ And, as she was crying, and tugging and pleading, they carried it out the front door,” he says.

The government imposed a curfew, and placed travel restrictions on anyone labeled an “enemy alien.” Al’s parents couldn’t go more than five miles from home without a permit. Clara and Guido and the 600,000 other Italians labeled “enemy aliens” had to join a national registry and provide photos and personal information.

Al says, “They had to go to the library and have their little alien book stamped every Friday.”

Then, the military created prohibited zones. These were areas around strategic facilities, like the coast and oil fields. The family’s fruit market was in one of those zones.

“So, my father received a notice that his beloved Banana Depot was off-limits to him,” explains Al.

In a way, the Bronzinis were luckier than others. They got to keep their home. The prohibited zones forced almost 10,000 other Italian immigrants from their coastal homes in Pittsburg, Alameda, and San Francisco. The U.S. Navy confiscated boats owned by Italian fishermen. Without an income from the Banana Depot, Guido took work where he could find it. But the stigma of being an “enemy alien” followed him.

“A little bit of chatter and bingo, that guy’s an ‘enemy alien’. He's outta here,” he says.

For Al’s mother, the growing similarities between the life she escaped in Italy and the new restrictions in America became overwhelming.

Al says, “She used to say in Italian, ‘Non abbiamo fatto niente a nessuno. We have done nothing to noone.  Why is this happening?’”

It got so bad that Clara suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted into a hospital. “This was not a crazy woman,” he says. “This is a woman who has been stripped of her dignity.”

Al remembers one Sunday going to visit her with his father and brother. It’s still hard for him to remember seeing her like this. “She was sitting on her bed, in a straightjacket. A straightjacket,” he says, tearing up.

Within a year, the government lifted the restrictions on Italian “enemy aliens,” citing their loyalty to America. In the Bronzini family, Clara slowly recuperated. Guido reopened the Banana Depot. He and Clara did become naturalized American citizens. Al says it was one of the happiest days of their lives. “They never blamed the United States for the treatment they received,” he says. “They blamed themselves.”

Al says his parents also never spoke about what happened to them during World War II. Al, himself, didn’t talk about it for fifty years. “That was in the past,” he explains. “What good would it be to talk about it?”

Thousands of other Italian immigrants lost even more: their freedom. They were arrested, imprisoned by armed guards, held behind barbed wire in local detention centers.

“Wow. This is really tucked away here, isn’t it?” says historian Lawrence DiStasi.

He and I went to Sharp Park, about 20 minutes south of San Francisco. I’ve driven U.S. Highway One hundreds of times not knowing that I was passing by the site of one of those former detention centers.

DiStasi says, “This was for temporary detention mainly. There were Japanese who were kept here until they were sent to their regular internment camps. It was also for people who were arrested on various charges.”

He’s talking about immigrants from Italy and some Germans, Mexicans and Canadians, all labeled “enemy aliens.” Part of why I never knew this was here is because there’s nothing left of the detention center. Once, a ten foot tall fence surrounded this place, and barracks held up to 2,500 prisoners at a time. But today it’s just a flat grassy field surrounded by eucalyptus-covered hills.

“There’s a presence or something that's very hard to describe,” DiStasi says. “There were people behind barbed wire here. It's almost eerie, because now it's such a bucolic place, you know. It's all these beautiful trees. But at that time, it was not bucolic at all. It was pretty upsetting for people to be held here.”

 

 

The Ilacqua family shortly before Carmelo’s internment.
Credit Courtesy of Costanza Foran

Detention facilities like this were scattered throughout the Bay Area and the United States. Deeper inland, hundreds of Italian immigrants were held at internment camps, people like Constanza Foran’s father. She’s 82 now, but she was only six when the United States government arrested her father and sent him to an internment camp in Montana.

“What I remember are these strange men coming and taking my father away,” she says. “It was very quick. They just took him and left. My father was very calm. I don't think he was particularly surprised that something was going to happen because he was aware of what was happening in the world.”

Costanza’s dad was taken about two weeks after the U.S. entered the war, but for years before, the FBI had been secretly keeping track of people it considered “potentially dangerous.” The FBI put immigrants who joined Italian social clubs, subscribed to Italian newspapers, and taught in Italian language schools on a list. Costanza’s dad, Carmelo Ilacqua, was active in the Italian immigrant community and he worked for the Italian Consulate.

 

 

Carmelo Ilacqua’s Basic Personnel Record
Credit U.S. National Archives

“Many people in San Francisco were not even aware that this was happening because maybe they'd been here two or three generations,” Costanza says.

Her father was released and allowed to return home after Italy surrendered. Soon after, the U.S. Army contacted him, asking if he would teach Italian to their military officers.  

She laughs and says, “I mean my father really thought this was humorous. He said, ‘I've been saluting the American officers and now they have to salute me. I'm the teacher.’”

 

After the war, the government classified information about Italian “enemy aliens.” That means that generations of Americans -- including Italian Americans -- never knew what happened. “It's a secret story both to the people that went through it and to everybody else who knew nothing about it," says Historian Lawrence DiStasi. "Plus the government itself, who was in denial about it for fifty years.”

Then in the late 90s, Italian Americans, including Lawrence DiStasi, urged Congress to investigate the wartime treatment of Italian immigrants as a violation of their civil rights.

 

“We must ensure that these terrible events will never be perpetrated again," New York Congressman Eliot Engel said on the floor of Congress. "The least our government can do is try to right these terrible wrongs by acknowledging that these events did occur.”

 

They got legislation passed that made information about the wartime treatment of Italian immigrants public. Just last month, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, who represents Silicon Valley, introduced two bills: the first would promote education about the treatment of Italian immigrants during World War II. The second would apologize for that treatment.

People interpret history differently, however. During the Presidential campaign, while talking to ABC’s George Stephanopolous, Donald Trump introduced a plan to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., by referring to the very same restrictions on Italian Immigrants during WWII. Here’s a transcript of their exchange:

 

TRUMP: What I’m doing is no different than FDR--FDR’s solution for Germans, Italians Japanese.

 

STEPHANOPOLOUS: You’re for internment camps?

 

TRUMP: I mean, you know, take a look at what FDR did many years ago, and he's one of the most highly respected presidents by -- I mean respected by most people. They named highways after him.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: You want to bring back policies like that?

 

TRUMP: No, I don't want to bring it back, George, at all. I don't like doing it at all. It's a temporary measure.

Historian DiStasi says that what’s happening today is just as wrong as the treatment of Italian Immigrants during WWII.

 

“It was targeting people for who they were and where they were from,” he says. Not, he adds, for anything that they’ve done.

 

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My gratitude to Lawrence DiStasi for introducing me to Al Bronzini and Costanza Foran, whose stories were told in DiStasi’s books, Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment During World War II and Branded: How Italian Immigrants Became 'Enemies' During WWII, upon which much of the research in this story was based. I highly recommend his books to learn more about this history.

 

U.S. Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren sponsored the following legislation: