The Swiss American Historical Society has just published a new book that was sent to all its members, “Emigrant Paths, Encounters with 20th Century Swiss Americans.” Among the people portrayed in the book is Maurice Perret, a French Swiss geographer from Neuchatel who was born in 1911 and died in 1996.
Perret, it turns out, spend most of his American years as a geography professor in Wisconsin, often writing about the German Swiss in that state. But due to the accidental circumstances of his being trapped in California at the beginning of World War II, Perret became the leading scholar on the Italian Swiss experience in that state.
In the summer of 1939, while still in Switzerland, he received a fellowship at the University of California at Berkeley to further his geography studies. He was to be awarded a masters degree at the end of his courses, but that required writing a master’s thesis (in English, of course), but what would a Swiss-educated geographer know about California? And then one of his professors suggested he study the Italian Swiss immigrants who had settled in California and still remained as distinct colonies within the state.
Perret jumped the opportunity, and spent several months travelling throughout rural California interviewing Ticinese dairymen and vintners on their experiences in America. He published a number of his findings in La Colonia Svizzera, the Italian language newspaper published in San Francisco from 1903 until 1958 for Swiss immigrants. And he also compiled a list of all the Italian Swiss names found in California at that time.
In 1942, he completed his 190-page master’s thesis, The Italian Swiss Colonies in California, and was awarded his degree. One of the most interesting things he did was to estimate the number of Swiss-born and first generation Italian Swiss living in each of California’s 58 counties, both in 1870 and in 1930. For this project, he used the United States Census for those years; but he would not have had access to the actual names in the census, rather he developed a formula to estimate how many Swiss lived in each county. His total for the 1930 census was 8,035 Italian Swiss born and 11,610 first generation Swiss Americans.
After the war, Perret returned to Switzerland and decided to pursue a doctorate at the University of Lausanne. His efforts were interrupted by several years of service to the Swiss Red Cross working on refugee matters in Palestine, but in 1950 he completed his work. His PhD dissertation was an expansion of his master’s thesis on the Italian Swiss in California; this time titled Les Colonies Tessinoises en Californie, and of course published in French. Perret expanded on his thesis by discussing what the emigration to America had meant for the Ticino villages, and also listing the home village of every Ticino name he had gathered in California. Eventually this was published as a 300-page book which has become the bible for anyone researching the Italian Swiss in mid-century America.
One of the advantages of his work is that Perret actually interviewed literally hundreds of Californians who were born in Switzerland and their first generation offspring. The great Ticinese migration occurred between the years 1855 and 1925, so there were large numbers of immigrants still alive. The Italian Swiss still lived in close knit colonies where the dialect or Italian was not uncommon. Most lived in the rural counties where their fellow farmers or customers of their products tended to be Swiss or Italians. Most went to Catholic Churches; ate old country polenta and risotto; their marriages tended to be with other Swiss, or Italians, Portuguese and Irish.
When Perret did his work in 1940, California had a population of six million. In the post war years, that population mushroomed and the old Swiss colonies disappeared, as their children and grandchildren joined the polyglot American culture. Fewer and fewer people now could speak the old dialect. So Perret’s picture of the Italian Swiss in California in 1940 captured a world that did not survive the war years.
For many years doing research with Perret’s dissertation proved difficult unless you could read French. Then about a decade ago, the late Rae Codoni of Modesto and Jay Grossi of Sacramento discovered that the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley had a copy of the master’s thesis in English. That has made it much easier to research Perret’s work.
Maurice Perret had a long and distinguished career as a geography professor. However, he seems not to have done any further research on the Italian Swiss in California. But his work remains a picture in time of an American immigrant community that has, like so many others, melded into the fabric of American life and thus lost many of the unique and interesting characteristics that Perret so ably catalogued.