Festa Italiana celebrates Italian heritage in Donaldsonville

Michael Tortorich
Charles Geno Marsala, President of the American Italian Federation of the Southeast and producer of AWE.News, visits the Festa Italiana Saturday afternoon at the Frank Sotile Pavilion in Donaldsonville.

Common current Donaldsonville surnames like Sotile, Falsetta, and Pizzolato serve as an ingrained aspect of the area's Italian influence.

The first Donaldsonville Festa Italiana, held Saturday at the Frank Sotile Pavilion, reveled in the cultural impact Italian immigrants and their descendants have made over many decades in the area.

The festival included live music, a spaghetti cooking competition, vendor booths, and a historical display focusing on the Italian heritage of local families. Chuck Montero served as disc jockey in the earlier portion of the event, and King PaKaYea' Band performed later in the evening.

The City of Donaldsonville's Community and Economic Development Director Lee Melancon organized the festival. Sponsors included city government, Ascension Tourism, CF Industries, Republic Services, Elray Kocke Services, Cliff Ourso - State Farm, Sheriff Bobby Webre, and Representative Ken Brass.

Charles Geno Marsala, President of the American Italian Federation of the Southeast and producer of AWE.News, traveled from New Orleans to support the event.

"I was recently elected president of the federation," Marsala said. "We have a lot of chapters around the state of Louisiana and New Orleans. We want to know what they're doing, and use social media to let people know we have great events like this going on."

Marsala added that events like Donaldsonville's festival can draw attendees from throughout the area, and tourists who are looking for travel opportunities.

"If somemone is in a place like Morganza, maybe they would want to come to an event like this. What these guys are doing is great. Why not let people in places like Darrow and Gonzales know? My job is to help promote the Italian culture and the events that go on."

Existing local groups with successful traditions, like the St. Joseph Altar Society, can assist in promoting such events.

"Today I came to make some friends," Marsala continued. "I wanted to let them know that we have this federation to help share things we're all doing together."

Marsala, among others, raved about the food available at the festival.

"They've got fabulous spaghetti," he said. "On our web site, we'll let everyone know how awesome the food was. We interviewed a couple of the chefs who made it. Then we'll send the word out around the state that we had a great event. That way, if you are in Baton Rouge, or a little south, more regional, you'll get exposure. We can use social media like Facebook and boost. We can offer at the state level to all of these clubs. The clubs here, the other side of the river, and more."

Marsala told of a recent experience where a dinner was held in Bay St. Louis, Miss.

"They had four people from Virginia show up. They saw it on Facebook. They were in the area and wanted to see it."

Historically, many Italians immigrated to Louisiana through New Orleans, which was on the shipping route in the 19th century.

"Sicilians, mainly, have been in the area since the 1890s. So there are a lot of people here who are descendants of them," Marsala said.

Between 1850 and 1870, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated more Italians moved to New Orleans than any other American city. By 1910, after a large migration from Sicily, the population of the French Quarter was 80 percent Italian, according to the book "Italians in New Orleans" by Joseph Maselli.

Like many early ethnic groups, Italians experienced well-documented discrimination and were excluded from many organizations, as were Jewish and African American citizens.

The Dec. 27, 1879 issue of the Chief published an article by "Broadbrim" implying Italian immigrants were unclean, and hoping they return to their home country.

A particularly gruesome point in the history of Italians in New Orleans came in 1891 when 11 innocent Sicilians immigrants were lynched by a mob at the city jail. According to a History.com article, it was the largest lynching in United States history.

The mob became hostile following the murder of popular police chief David Hennessy.

None of the vigilantes were charged in the lynching.

Some newspapers and politicians at the time effectively applauded the mob murders.

Theodore Roosevelt, who was on the U.S. Civil Service Commission at the time, called the lynching "rather a good thing."

Nearly 5,000 lynchings were recorded in the country from 1882 to 1968. Most of the victims were African-American men.

Sicilians, at the time, were viewed as culturally backward and suspect due to their dark skin, according to historian Manfred Berg. They were suspected to have Mafia connections, and were closely watched by police, Berg wrote.

Some 128 years later, current New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell offered a proclamation of apology concerning the killings. She did so at the American Italian Culture Center on April 12 of this year.

"I want to say thank you to our Italian American community, who has made New Orleans what she is today – it's a fact," Cantrell was quoted as saying at the time.