By Tom Cesarini
The Convivio Now and Again Series comprises oral histories from Italian-community members. In this excerpt from an interview with Marianna Brunetto, she discusses some cherished remembrances of her time growing up in Little Italy and the impetus that led her to take a leadership role with the Little Italy Association.
Without question, Marianna Brunetto’s family has had a vital impact on her life. Her dedication to her family, especially her bond with her grandparents, remains at the core of who she is. She fondly recalls a memory of her great-grandmother, one that perhaps serves to highlight her connection to and affection for her great-grandmother.
She said, “We always remember my Nanna. She loved Coca-Cola; she would drink a liter of soda almost every single day. But it was always flat. She never refrigerated it. She never put the cap on; she always had this piece of foil over it. And so as kids we hated it, because it had no taste, it was flat, and it tasted horrible. But she would have that glass of soda for us, so it was kind of like, ‘Well, we have to chug it down— Nanna wants it.’”
Marianna’s mother’s side of the family resided on India Street, while her father’s side lived on Columbia Street. She chuckles as she recalled, “I remember playing in the wine cellar… I miss those times where you’d cram 60 people into this teeny-tiny room at my Nanna’s house and we would eat, and we would talk, and we would laugh.”
Growing up her best memory she was of “our fat family gatherings, and I was very fortunate because it wasn’t just the holidays that we got together; it was every Sunday,” Marianna said.
Marianna’s introduction to the Little Italy Association was serendipitous. While attending San Diego State University, Marianna began to work for San Diego National Bank. There she would meet Louis Palestini—manager for the North Park branch and board member of the Little Italy Association—who would take her under his wing, especially as he already knew many of Marianna’s family members.
“When I started working for the bank, I went full time, after I stopped going to SDSU, and I just had a desire for more. I wanted to somehow get involved. My family contributed so much to what this neighborhood was, and I felt like I grew up and I enjoyed it. I really took pride in it. I was happy to grow up and be Italian American—all the values and the traditions that I grew up with. At that time I felt like, ‘Okay, well, what’s my responsibility to carry this on? My grandparents and my parents aren’t going to be alive forever. I feel like they have their legacy in this neighborhood—what’s going to be mine?’” Marianna said.
“So I started talking to Louis because I knew he was involved in the Little Italy Association. I wanted to make sure that this neighborhood was something in 20, 30, 40 years. And he sat down and told me the board is the backbone of this community, and they needed younger people to get involved. But more importantly they needed people that have heart in the neighborhood and had ties to the neighborhood to get involved. So I came with him to a board meeting, and I loved it from the first one, because I felt like it was more than just a board,” she said.
Marianna contends that the neighborhood itself, as well as the changes it has undergone, influenced her idea of what it means to be Italian American. Moreover, the neighborhood is the foundation for her desire to preserve some of its more salient history.
“I want to make sure that the element of what this neighborhood was doesn’t get lost. And I was fortunate to grow up here, and I love listening to stories. And that’s why this needs to be documented, because those memories and those stories are what need to be preserved. As modern as this neighborhood is becoming, we need some sort of way to preserve what it was and the people who built it and the people who made it this,” Marianna said. “Unfortunately, with redevelopment some of the old is going to go, but I think it’s very important that not only the board supports redevelopment, but they also support historical preservation, and we have some sort of way of documenting everything that this neighborhood was way back when.”
The idea of leaving a legacy has always been important to Marianna, as she emphasized, “Growing up, I wanted to work towards building that legacy, and I wanted to somehow make my mark into this world, and those are two huge things for me.”
And while she said that she still doesn’t know entirely what that mark will be or how the desire will evolve in the future, Marianna does assert, “I feel my involvement with Little Italy is where that’s supposed to be. My heart is in this neighborhood.”
— Tom Cesarini is the executive director and founder of Convivio and also serves as the Italian honorary consul in San Diego. Convivio cultivates community and fellowship, advances Italian cultural identity, and fosters multicultural awareness across myriad disciplines through education and research, social enrichment, and innovative programming. Visit: conviviosociety.org | Follow: @conviviosociety (Facebook / Instagram / Twitter)