Tell us about a bit about your strong identity with Italian-American culture. Why is it so important to you?
My first taste of Italian-American culture came in a very innocent way—when I was about five years old, my mother and I went out for dinner at a local Italian restaurant that just happened to have placemats with the map of Italy on the tables. Mom took one of the placemats home and sat me down at the dining room table. She took my hand and traced the boot, saying “This is Italy, my daddy came from there.” I never, ever forgot that. As I got older, I learned my grandfather’s story—he came to the US when he was about 11 years old and never made it home to Guardia dei Lombardi, which was his dream. I never knew him as he died eight years before I was born, but his dream became my dream. Every single thing I do in terms of celebrating and preserving Italian-American culture is in his honor. He is my hero and inspiration and my biggest regret in life is not knowing him, but my work in this field helps me understand what his life would have been like and it introduces me to an extended Italian-American family that I absolutely adore!
You have a very lively presence on social media—how integral has social media been for your writing, etc.
I am so thankful to my social media family because they really kept me going while trying to finish my most recent book. This particular book was quite difficult to complete, but every time I posted a request for help on social media, I was able to find exactly what I was looking for. Social media has also been helpful because it has introduced me to other people who are just as passionate about Italian-American heritage and culture as I am—this has helped inspire me and has made me want to continue pursuing this mission in life. The best part about social media is how it connects people and, in my case, it truly has.
You have a new book out: Italians of Lackawanna County–congratulations! This title joins others in which you blend history and photos of Italian-American communities in the county. How did you start this work?
This work quite literally fell into my lap! In 2004, I was at a crossroads in my life—what I had wanted to do after college graduation didn’t pan out as I wanted. I ended up at that year’s conference of the American Italian Historical Association in Washington, DC, where I was living at the time. There, I met Dominic Candeloro from Chicago and we struck up a conversation during which he asked me if I ever thought about writing a book about the Italian American community in Northeastern Pennsylvania, which is where I was born and raised. I laughed it off—I had always wanted to be a writer but knew it would be hard to get published. Dominic took my contact information and introduced me to the people at Arcadia and the rest is, quite literally, history! It is a great example of being in the right place at the right time and I can’t thank him enough for believing in me and encouraging me
What is the process of planning and writing these books? How do you obtain the photographs?
There is a lot of thought behind these books—I try to make sure each chapter has a specific theme based off of the photos I collect. In all cases, I launched an appeal via social media as well as traditional media to obtain photos and then I split into chapters based off of what I received. Unfortunately, a lot of stories couldn’t be told because either the photos were too low resolution or I received them after the deadline, but I always say that I’ll consider them for future works because you just never know. My goal is to tell as many stories as possible, so I accept whatever I can get from contributors. The most fun part of the whole project is, of course, writing and interviewing—I usually reserve that part for last, after I obtain all of the photos I need.
What has the reception to the books been like?
Absolutely wonderful. People love seeing the photos and reading the stories—it helps them understand the history behind the events that have come to be known as the backbone of our area’s Italian American community.
As a point of interest , do you care to tell us a bit about the Ancestry DNA test you have just taken and how it has impacted your sense of culture?
I took the Ancestry DNA test because I don’t know much about my father’s side of the family—he left when I was three and it was just my mother and me my whole life. In fact, the last name “Longo” is her maiden name—I legally changed my name when I was 21. As I’ve gotten older, though, I have wanted to learn at least something about his side—after all, it’s not my ancestors’ fault that he left! Ancestry DNA was eye opening, to say the least… I ended up 63% Eastern European and 22% Southern Italian! Both of my mother’s parents are directly from Italy, so it was shocking to see how DNA doesn’t transfer exactly. I always thought I was 50/50. I’m going to try to embrace whatever Eastern European traditions I can but, at the end of the day, I am always first and foremost Italian… Guardiese, of course.
You are curating an important culture—the culture of Italian-Americans in a specific geographical area and have published several books (amazing!). Why is this important to you?
To those of us who have lived in Northeastern Pennsylvania all of our lives, it is a bit of a forgotten area. When you think of our state, you tend to think of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg or Allentown. Scranton usually gets a clichéd response—like we’re 20 years behind the times or home of “The Office.” We are so much more than that here. NEPA is an amazing ethnic enclave—Scranton is the home of the third largest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the nation and the seat of the Polish National Catholic Church. Our Italian community is vibrant, with each town having its own take on the heritage. If we don’t preserve our heritage, it will be lost. We have seen this with the parish restructuring that took place in the Diocese of Scranton a few years ago—many ethnic parishes were either consolidated or closed. By working to preserve what I can, I hope I bring honor to my ancestors and honor to all of us who are proud of our heritage and proud to be from this region
Tell us about your work with Ovunque Siamo.
Out of all of my volunteer activities, Ovunque Siamo is my favorite! Michelle Reale is an inspiration to me—not only has she become a close friend, she is also someone I wish to emulate in terms of what it means to be Italian-American. Her passion is evident in her work. As book reviews editor, I get to read work by so many amazing Italian-American authors—this buoys me in terms of my writing because their passion feeds my own. This work has also helped me meet more members of our Italian American community—this gives me the chance to be exposed to other aspects of our culture and heritage and, like a sponge, I just want to soak it all up!
Read any good books by Italian-Americans lately?
YES… check out the reviews page on Ovunque Siamo! My favorite two so far have been Karen Tintori’s “Unto the Daughters” and Lou Del Bianco’s “Out of Rushmore’s Shadow.” I tend to focus the books I review on history/memoirs and these two have really changed my outlook on life and how our heritage is represented. I also absolutely loved Olivia Kate Cerrone’s “The Hunger Saint.”
What are some of your favorite things?
Besides reading, writing and all things Italian-American… I love gardening, painting, lighthouses, the Saint Lawrence River, Nashville and any kind of ethnic food I can try! (Lately I am into Thai and Mexican for some reason!)
You are a delight and you know I adore you! Thank you for spending some time in the Spotlight with us!