I have been to California several times, partly in search of documentary evidence of how 27,000 Ticinesi adapted to a new way of life in a new land, partly to hear the real-life stories of some of the settlers.
This is a chance for me to mention only a very few of the many great characters I have met. Arturo Tognazzini has remained so attached to Ticino that he returns almost every year to his beloved Valle Maggia. But in the area between Santa Maria and Guadalupe he has created one of those farms which, more than any historical document, explains the attraction of the American model for peasant farmers from the Alps.
The adventures of the Cerini family of Tomales form a saga spanning the whole of the 20th century. Romeo, the eldest, who emigrated from Giumaglio as a poverty-stricken lad, was the life and soul of the local Swiss Club for half a century. He would recall the founding of the local branch of the Swiss-American bank, which took care of the extra dollars the ranchers earned churning butter overnight in time for market early next morning. And his account was enlivened by details of the damage caused to the ranches of Ticino folk by the 1906 earthquake. Having built up an estate worth $10 million, he left $1 million to the Tomales High School when he died – one of the many examples of the migrants’ commitment to public education.
His brother Isidoro began a new career in the early years of the 20th century, when the Ticinesi ranchers of West Marin had their automobiles repaired at his garage. At that time, the carriage drivers of Lugano were still asking the government to prohibit the use of the new-fangled machines throughout the canton.
Alex Vosti of Hollister was wounded on the French front during the First World War, shortly after taking out a big loan to purchase his ranch in the Salina Valley.
Filippo Respini, the patriarch of Marshall, told me the success of the “Swiss” dairy products sold in San Francisco was due to the quality of the grass, which stayed fresher longer on the hills of Marin and Sonoma – thanks to the Pacific Ocean, which comes roaring in between the Point Reyes lighthouse and the National Park. Here an admirer of the naturalist John Muir has realised his dream of saving a few acres of the west from speculators.
Have you ever seen an American-style wedding between the children of immigrants? The ceremony provides a vignette of their success. Imagine 300 guests in a splendid park on the fringe of Petaluma, where you can still hear snatches of Ticino dialect in the intervals of the 14-course banquet, featuring a full range of different meats served and ten of the best wines from the Napa Valley. In this one setting, a sociologist could identify almost all of the ingredients that have made America such a great country. The clothing and style of the guests exude the sweet smell of success… and of the mighty dollar. There is a strict yet frivolous ritual involved in order to occupy one of the reserved seats in church and at the wedding feast. They are the outward signs of a society which is supposedly classless, but has created new classes based on the power of money, here generously used to celebrate the love of two young people. The pair are resplendent in their traditional costumes: black formal dress, with tight breeches, gold buttons, a top hat and gloves clumsily hiding the calloused hands of a farmer clearly unaccustomed to the sophistication of a tailcoat; skilfully arranged crinolines white as milk (the real stuff squeezed from the gigantic udder of a black-and-white Holstein) in the case of the bride, demure in an ample snowy-white veil.
And the group photograph will take its place in my album as proof of their successful assimilation into wealthy, liberal and democratic America – a land whose values, rituals and myths, with all their limitations, have been forged by the hard work of millions of immigrants.