By Jay Mason
“Volere è potere” – Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
One cannot tell the story of Gallup without mentioning the Italian families. You could write a book about their contributions, and several have already been written. It is generally believed that the first Italians came to Gallup with the railroad. They had immigrated to America in the 1870s and 1880s and followed the progress of the railroad in mining country – Trinidad, Colorado, Raton, New Mexico and then Gallup. All I hope to do in this article is tell a few stories of Gallup Italian families to whet your appetite about the richness of their heritage – see, it always comes back to good food – so mangia, mangia.
Vincenzo Noce came to Gallup as a surveyor in the 1880s. He had lived in a small town north of Turino. America was the land of opportunity, and he married and had two children in Gallup, Joe and Clara. Vincenzo started the Italian lodge (Principe Luigi Lodge) in 1898 and there were at least 20 charter members. The lodge’s main purpose was to provide a small life insurance policy for its members, many of whom did dangerous underground work in the mines. The lodge survives today and works to preserve the Italian culture brought to this country many years ago. A young man named Dominic Biava, who came to Gallup with Vincenzo, married Vincenzo’s daughter Clara. Dominic came from Vialfrè in the northern mountains of Italy and worked as a coal miner in the 1910s and 1920s in Gallup. His son John started a coalmine of his own, drove racecars and was on the City Council during his lifetime. His son Dominic started First American Traders and now his son DJ has joined the business. As a result, DJ’s son Dominic can trace his Gallup Italian roots back six generations!
One small town in the Abruzzi region of Italy, east of Rome almost to the Adriatic Sea, is responsible for much of the Italian heritage of Gallup. That small village is named Cansano. Listen to just some of the families that originated there: Alleva, Chioda, Colaianni, DiGregorio, DeSantis, DiPamazio, Digiannalardo, DiGiacomo, DiPaolo, D’Orazio, Fronterrota, Guadanoli, and more . . . On one trip to Italy, my wife Kitty and I were determined to visit Cansano where parents and grandparents of so many of the people we knew had come to America. We drove from Sorrento south of Rome and through the mountains to Sulmona. There a nephew of the DiGiacomos met us at the town center. He spoke English and Italian and said that his mother and aunt wanted us to come to their apartment for pranza. I said, “Piccolo pranza o pranza Italiano?” (A small lunch or lunch Italian style?) He said, “Pranza italiano.” Eight courses and two hours later, we had eaten so much good food we could barely walk. Nevertheless, we drove up the small mountain road to Cansano to meet Zia Stella, the aunt of Dr. Nick DeSantis. She had prepared another feast, and we begged to walk the streets of Cansano first before attempting to eat again. Every other house on the street had a Gallup surname attached to it; it was an uncanny experience to imagine these fathers, grandfathers and sometimes entire families leaving this small village in the mountains of Italy and making their way to Gallup, New Mexico. When we came to the local church, we saw the pulpit donated by miners from Gallup who gave back to their hometown even though they now lived so very far away. Some would never return to Cansano and yet many still visit it even today.
Many of the Cansanese who came to Gallup were miners, but not all. There was a 14-year-old boy who spoke no English who left Cansano and found his way to Gallup in the 1940s. He name was Modesto DeSantis. His cousin in Brooklyn gave him a $20 bill and put him on the train to Gallup. When he arrived in Chicago, he waited patiently in the huge Union Station. He was hungry, so he walked up to a newsstand, which rose high above him and held up a Hershey candy bar to woman clerk. It cost a nickel, and he handed her the only American money he had – the $20 bill. With a look of disdain, she disappeared, and he thought she was satisfied. He sat down to enjoy the chocolate, and twenty minutes later, she returned with nineteen one-dollar bills and 95 cents in change. He looked at the money in disbelief and thought to himself, “America, what a country.” He made it to Gallup, served his country in the armed services, got married and raised a family. He was a successful businessman and cooked delicious Italian food all his life.
Most people know the story of the DiGregorio brothers who came to Gallup in the 1920s and worked loading coal in Gamerco. In 1938 Basilio DiGregorio moved his bride Oliva to Gallup and began a family. He left the coalmines and started a small grocery story on West Coal, which he called California Market. He continued to expand and partnered with Dan DiPomazio. Later his business grew into a multi-million-dollar operation. Not bad for a migrant worker who used to win coal shoveling contests with his brother in Gamerco for the grand prize of ten dollars.
Similar stories of hard work and sacrifice are cherished by the many Italian families of Gallup – Rollie, Zecca, Brentari, Cattaneo, Caretto, DePauili, Masci, Porcario, Vidal, Marra, Piano, Pintarelli, Rainaldi, Ferrari, Nechero, Bernabe, Balocca, Menini, Bonaguidi, Martinelli, Boggio, Bertinetti and many more. When I came to Gallup over 35 years ago, the Italian families that I met showed gracious hospitality to a stranger. As usual the best Italian food is Gallup is made at home, and I have done my best to sample the food in the kitchens of the many Italian cooks in our town. America offered these immigrants a new beginning and sometimes a great opportunity. Many left the coalmines of Gamerco and Gibson and started successful businesses of their own. With hard work they have contributed greatly to our community. Grazie mille per le famiglie Italiane di Gallup.