Southern California’s Italian pioneers were mostly Northern Italians who hailed from the regions of Tuscany, Liguria, Piedmont, Lombardy and the Italian-Swiss republic of Ticino. At that time, the cost of the journey from Italy to Southern California was approximately 600 lira, or $120, which amounted to a year’s salary for the average worker. The expense of the trip and California’s remoteness made the region a destination attainable to only a small number of immigrants.
The first Italians arrived in Southern California in the early 1800s, when the region was part of Mexico. Sharing what can be described as a common “Latin” culture, including a similar language and the Catholic religion, Italian pioneers faced less prejudice in Los Angeles than their contemporaries elsewhere in the country.
North Main Street and the Plaza area in the late 1800s.
The majority of Italian immigrants entering California in the 19th century had agricultural backgrounds, and Southern California’s abundant land and Mediterranean climate, which was similar to that of the immigrants’ homeland, led many pioneers to pursue agriculture and viticulture as occupations. While their East Coast counterparts toiled in factories, Italians in California were able to continue in the trades familiar to them: farming, fishing, and wine-making. In this way, California helped ease many an immigrant's transition from peasant to urban villager.
Others were drawn to Southern California’s fishing industry. Approximately 10 percent of the region's Italian community lived in San Pedro, where the waters teemed with sardines, squid, and tuna. Using techniques they had brought from their homeland, Italian fisherman achieved great success in the region thanks to the paranzella, a trawling net that was dragged along the ocean floor behind a felucca, a narrow boat with a triangular sail that is designed to withstand rough waters and strong winds.
The city’s earliest Italian enclave was located at the Los Angeles Plaza, where Italians lived alongside the Mexican, French, Slavic, Russian, and Chinese communities. This 1890s view of Main Street captures the diversity of early Los Angeles. At the center of the photograph, a Chinese father and his children stroll through the Plaza in traditional dress. On the left is the Pico House, which was then owned and operated by Italian immigrant Giuseppe Pagliano. Belgian F.W. Braun's drug company, among the earliest in Los Angeles, is on the right.
Most of Southern California’s Italian pioneers settled in other parts of the country first and worked their way west. Others entered California via Central or South America. Frank Arconti arrived at Ellis Island in 1892 and reached Los Angeles the following year. After establishing a successful business, Arconti was ready to get married. A family from a neighboring village in Italy suggested he wed their 22-year-old daughter, Adele Bertoni. Bertoni made the long transatlantic journey alone, boarded a train in New York City, and arrived in Los Angeles ten days later to meet her husband for the first time.
Leandri married Maria Francesca Uribe, the daughter of a prominent Californio family. The Californios were Spanish-speaking people of Latin American ancestry who were born in California during the era of Mexican and Spanish rule. During this era, Italians and Mexicans intermarried more frequently than any other group.
The Leandris maintained a townhouse at the pueblo and a second home, seen here, at their rancho, which they named La Buena Esperanza or "the Good Hope." The twenty-mile trip from the pueblo to the ranch by horse was a day's journey.
When Mexican rule ended in 1848, Los Angeles entered a lawless period, and was known as the "toughest city west of Santa Fe." Leandri was appointed the pueblo's juez de paz, or justice of the peace, and was tasked with maintaining order.
At that time, Calle de los Negros, where Leandri had built a home years earlier, comprised the core of the vice district. Gunfights, murders and lynchings were so common that the Los Angeles Star once proudly ran the headline "No One Murdered in Los Angeles Yesterday."
While many ranchers lost their lands in the late 1800s due to fraud, drought, a decline in cattle prices, and other factors, vintners, including Pelanconi, prospered.
Olvera Street, one of the oldest streets in the City of Los Angeles, was originally named Wine Street because of the numerous wineries located in the Plaza area.
In 1866, Pelanconi married Isabel Ramirez, whose family owned large vineyard properties near present-day Union Station. Ramirez was a granddaughter of Francisco Avila, who came to Los Angeles when the region was part of Spain, served as the city’s fifteenth mayor, and owned Rancho Las Cienegas, which now comprises much of the Mid-City area. Fluent in four languages, Ramirez attended Notre Dame College and was one of the highest-educated women in Los Angeles at the time.
Antonio, Isabel, and their seven children lived across from the family’s winery on Olvera Street in what became known as the Pelanconi House. Built in 1855 by vintner Giuseppe Covaccichi, today the Pelanconi House is the oldest remaining brick building in the City of Los Angeles and a Mexican restaurant.
Neither wealth nor stature prevented tragedy from striking the Pelanconi family, however. In 1877, Antonio and Isabel’s four-year-old son Antonio Jr. drowned. Diphtheria, a bacterial disease that is preventable with modern vaccines, claimed three of the other Pelanconi children’s lives. Antonio died of heart failure caused by pneumonia at the young age of 43, at which point his son, Lorenzo, pictured here, became the Pelanconi family's patriarch.
In order to maintain the family’s business, Isabel married her late husband’s partner, Giacomo Tononi. At a time when women did not have the right to vote and possessed few opportunities outside of the home, Isabel managed the family’s complex business affairs. Today, there are various reminders of the Pelanconi-Ramirez family legacy in Southern California, including Glendale’s Pelanconi Park and Pelanconi Avenue, the Pelanconi House on Olvera Street, and downtown Los Angeles' Ramirez Street, which traces its name to Isabel's father.
Lured by California’s Gold Rush, Vignolo set sail for San Francisco in 1849, a journey that took three months prior to the construction of the Panama Canal and the transcontinental railroad. There he met his childhood friend Domenico Ghirardelli. After a few months in the gold fields, Vignolo and Ghirardelli discovered it was more profitable to sell provisions, including what became Ghirardelli's famous chocolate, to fellow miners. Established in 1852, Ghiarardelli Chocolate Company, is one of the country's oldest and most venerable chocolatiers.
Vignolo later founded the Italian Mutual Benefit Society, the city's first organization to assist Italian immigrants and their families in times of illness or in the event of a member’s death. Upon joining the mutual benefit society, members were given this two-sided ribbon. The red-white-and-green side of the ribbon was worn on festive occasions, while the black side of the ribbon was worn in times of mourning.
Vignolo’s niece, Isabel Vignolo, was among the first graduates of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Isabel became a teacher at Castelar Elementary School, where she introduced the Los Angeles Board of Education’s earliest classes for English-language learners. Established in 1882 in the area now known as Chinatown, Castelar Elementary School is the second-oldest continuously operating school in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
In 1903, Isabel Vignolo selected a first-grader who had recently emigrated from Sicily and spoke broken English to lead the school in the Pledge of Allegiance. It was an honor that the boy, whose name was Frank Capra, never forgot. Capra later became an Academy Award-winning director who created American film classics, including It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Through her work with charitable organizations, Vignolo raised tens of thousands of dollars for victims of natural disasters in the United States and Italy, the needy, and orphaned children. An ardent believer in the power of education, Vignolo facilitated the donation of thousands of books to Los Angeles libraries.
Desperate for a better life than his tiny town of Mombaruzzo, Italy, provided, Secondo Guasti immigrated to Panama at age 21. Unfortunately, he arrived in Panama during the height of a yellow fever epidemic and was forced to leave immediately. Guasti set sail for San Francisco before moving to Mexico, where he found employment on the railroad. After contracting yellow fever, he fled to Arizona, and, two months later, relocated to Los Angeles, arriving in 1883.
Guasti found work as a cook at Hotel Italia Unitá on Olvera Street, which was located in the Avila Adobe and operated by the Amillo family. One evening, Caterina Amillo requested that Guasti make one of her favorite Italian meals. Guasti responded that he would do so happily, in exchange for her daughter, Luisa’s, hand in marriage. While his request was partially made in jest, it proved prophetic. Two years later, Luisa married Guasti.
Originally the home of Francisco Avila, a wealthy ranchero and alcalde (mayor) of the Pueblo of Los Angeles, today the Avila Adobe is the oldest standing residence in the City of Los Angeles and a museum.
In search of inexpensive land, Guasti visited Cucamonga, a town sixty miles east of Los Angeles. Cucamonga was once the site of the Native American village Cucamongabit, which means “the place of many springs.” Guasti believed that water would be found under the rocky soil, and after digging 24 feet, it was.
Guasti promptly formed a partnership with several of his countrymen, purchased 2,000 acres of land in Cucamonga at 75 cents an acre, and the Italian Vineyard Company was born.
Guasti's utopian colony was organized around the values of work and family. The town's schoolhouse, railway, post office, firehouse, church, and workers’ homes, defied the era’s definition of a “company town.” The Italian Vineyard Company's famous vintages, including Zinfandel, Burgundy, Angelica, Muscatel, and Sauterne, were exported around the world. Soon, the Cucamonga region had 20,000 acres of vineyards, more than present-day Sonoma and two times more than Napa. At 5,000 acres, the Italian Vineyard Company was the largest in the world.
This Prohibition-era Guasti cookbook includes recipes for dishes popular at the time, such as Turkey a la King, each of which incorporates Guasti cooking wines and other Guasti products. Although the manufacture and sale of alcohol was illegal during Prohibition, Guasti received permission to manufacture cooking wines. Guasti also produced tonics, port flavoring, and other wine-flavored extracts to survive the ban on alcohol.
Until his death, Guasti served as the Italian community’s benefactor. For a 1909 fundraiser benefiting an adult school that taught English to immigrants, Guasti chartered a train to transport the 1200 guests to the event. Following Guasti’s passing in 1927, his son, Secondo Jr., assumed management of the company. The Italian Vineyard Company would change hands numerous times in the years that followed as Prohibition ravaged the industry and grape cultivation declined. The town of Guasti exists today between two of Southern California’s busiest freeways as a ghost-like testimony to the region's largely forgotten wine-making history.
Costantini’s wife, Maria, who was pregnant with their third child, had no interest in leaving her village and family to make the long journey across the ocean. Nonetheless, Costantini accepted Guasti’s offer with the intention of remaining in Los Angeles for one year before returning home. Known as “birds of passage," 73 of every 100 Italians who arrived in the United States from 1907 to 1911 returned to Italy.
Costantini settled in the historic center of the city, where approximately 2,000 Italians lived. He rented a room in an Italian boarding house on Aliso Street, a few steps away from the Guasti Winery's Los Angeles location, and faithfully sent money home to his family. Costantini soon received word that the child his wife gave birth to in his absence did not survive.
Four years passed, and Costantini grew accustomed to life in Los Angeles, where there were many opportunities for advancement. Costantini learned English and applied for United States citizenship. After learning of her husband's decision to stay, Maria and the couple’s two sons, Gioachino and Vincenzo, left for America.
Now reunited, the Costantini family moved to a larger boarding house in Little Italy and Maria supplemented the family’s income by doing laundry and cooking. She was known throughout the neighborhood for her exquisite homemade ravioli, risotto, and polenta. Two years later, Maria gave birth to a daughter, Maria Lucia, pictured here on the day of her baptism. Baby Maria died 46 days later from acute gastroenteritis, a stomach virus often linked to poor sanitation. In 1902, another daughter, Giuseppina Lucia, was born. Five-month-old Giuseppina succumbed to bronchitis and was buried next to her sister at Calvary Cemetery.
Los Angeles grew rapidly in the early 1900s, and many of the Italian immigrants living in the Plaza area began to leave in search of better living conditions. Maria Costantini, devastated by the death of a third child, was eager for a change in scenery. In 1903, the family relocated to San Pedro, a port district south of Los Angeles that was home to a large Italian community.
The Costantini's opened a market, the first of its kind in San Pedro to offer a variety of Italian specialty products. The Costantini market became an important gathering place for the Italian, Greek, and Yugoslavian communities of San Pedro, who often played bocce in the court adjacent to the store.
As the Costantini children experienced increasing prejudice and discrimination because of their immigrant status, the brothers Americanized their names, much to the disappointment of their parents. Vincenzo Costantini became Vincent Constantine. Gioachino became Joaquin "Louis" Constantine. On many official documents, the brothers listed the United States as their place of birth, especially as nativist attitudes intensified during World War I, and when the Red Scare began in the 1920s.
On October 1, 1910, a bomb exploded outside the Los Angeles Times building located at First Street and Broadway in Los Angeles. The explosion ignited a fire that killed 21 employees and injured 100 more. Louis Constantine, who had been on the force for only three months, was assigned the grim task of recovering bodies. James and John McNamara, the latter the secretary-treasurer of the Iron Workers Union, were arrested and convicted the following year for the bombing.
Content Author- Marianna Gatto
Design- Robert Checchi
Curation- Marianna Gatto and Robert Checchi
Video Projections- Christopher Sprinkle
Graphics- Robert Checchi and Clyde Crossan
GCI Videos- Francesca Guerrini and Robert Checchi
Images Courtesy of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles, El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, Buena Park Historical Society, California State Polytechnic University Pomona Library, Glendale Historical Society, Library of Congress-Detroit Publishing Co., Los Angeles City Archives, Los Angeles Fire Department, Los Angeles Public Library, Margaret Herrick Library, Pasadena Museum of History
Special thanks to Gloria Ricci Lothrop, Marsha Constantine Johnson, Elda Maga Pilj, the Arconti family, Vignolo family, Valla family, Fahmy family, Alyssa Gordon, Valentina Licitra, Caitlin Clerkin, and Marilyn Gonzalez.