Francisco's Italian Heritage Parade
More than Columbus' Voyage
by Julie Soller
For Immediate Release
August 28, 1998
San Francisco -- Two weekends of Italian Heritage celebrations
in San Francisco begin October 3 and 4 with ceremonies honoring La Madonna
del Lume, and culminate on October 11 with the 130th annual Italian
Actually one of the oldest ethnic celebrations in San Francisco, the
events used to revolve around Columbus Day. In 1994, San Francisco organizers
renamed the annual Columbus Day Parade, "Italian Heritage Parade."
"It makes sense to call it the Italian Heritage Parade because
it isn't just about an Italian sailor financed by a Spanish queen to
go out and find the New World. It's a time for Italian Americans to
celebrate their culture, just like Latino Americans celebrate on Cinco
de Mayo or Irish Americans on Saint Patrick's Day," says Tony Giovanzana,
Chairman of the Italian Heritage Parade.
More than any other West Coast city, San Francisco has good reason
to celebrate the Italians. As the original fishermen at Fisherman's
Wharf and exuberant inhabitants of North Beach (the "Little Italy"
of the West), Italian immigrants have helped create San Francisco's
indefinable magic and and magnetic appeal.
The colorful history and folklore of the early immigrants plays a large
part in the City's annual celebrations.
Legend has it that long ago, two fishermen were lost off the tumultuous
Sicilian coastline and in peril for their lives. In desperation, they
called out to the Madonna to save them. They caught glimpse of a light
on a rock and by this signal, gained the shore. Ever since this miracle,
the devotion to the patroness of fishermen, La Madonna del Lume (the
Madonna of the Light) occurs on the first Sunday in October in the town
of Porticello, Sicily, and in other fishing villages.
Cut to San Francisco, 1850. Italians are arriving in numbers, first
from the northern towns of Genoa and Lucca, then from the hot southern
reaches of Naples and Sicily. Like any other immigrants, they came to
escape harsh conditions in their homeland, bringing traditions, language
and cuisine with them. Their fishing boats were narrow, triangular-sailed
craft called feluccas, whose pointed bow and stern made them maneuverable
in the rough waters beyond the Golden Gate. Motorized versions of these
little boats, with telltale pointed bow and stern, are still berthed
at the Wharf today.
Many of these early Italian pioneers worked for large wholesalers,
and were paid not in cash but in fish which they peddled in wide baskets
along the city's streets, or at stalls they set up at the Wharf. Crabmeat
quickly became popular far and wide for its tenderness and distinctive
flavor. Since the early days, fresh crab has symbolized San Francisco,
along with the Golden Gate Bridge and the cable cars. Descendants of
those fish stalls, such as Alioto's, line the Wharf selling fresh Dungeness
crab, shrimp cocktail and clam chowder.
Italian food, wine and ingenuity flourished in the City. In 1855 the
first pasta factory opened, and by 1917, nineteen factories were sending
tons of dried spaghetti across America. Oaken casks in North Beach supplied
San Francisco with the holy beverage (sacramental wine) even during
Prohibition. A. P. Giannini's fledgling Bank of Italy financed much
of the City's recovery from the 1906 earthquake and fire, and later
became the Bank of America.
Since 1935, the little-known homage to the Madonna del Lume has been
celebrated in San Francisco with a memorial mass, a high mass in Italian,
and the Blessing of the Fishing Fleet.
This year, on Saturday, October 3, the Madonna del Lume Memorial Mass
remembers those who have died at sea. Anyone can attend the Italian
and English mass at the diminutive Fishermen's and Seamen's Chapel,
tucked away at the far west end of the Wharf behind Fisherman's Grotto
No. 9, in front of Pier 45. Afterwards, participants are invited to
sail aboard a Red & White Fleet vessel for the wreath ceremony below
the Golden Gate Bridge. An evening candlelight procession caps the day's
On Sunday, October 4, following high mass in Italian, a procession
of devotees accompanies the image of La Madonna del Lume from the Church
of Saints Peter and Paul overlooking Washington Square in North Beach,
all the way to Fisherman's Wharf. There, the Blessing of the Fishing
Fleet is celebrated, with the participation of singers, speakers and
a Sicilian folklorist.
The following Sunday, October 11, the 130th Annual Italian Heritage
Parade brings much merriment, dancing and singing to the streets. It
starts at 1:30 p.m. at Jefferson Street at Fisherman's Wharf and meanders
through North Beach. Generations of Italian Americans participate, chanting
Sicilian folksongs, dancing the tarantella, walking behind banners of
their fraternal organizations. Christopher Columbus still leads the
parade on a float of the Pinta, and a young Italian-American
woman is chosen each year to portray Queen Isabella. The North Beach
Chamber of Commerce always builds a wacky float, where students from
the local American Conservatory Theatre interact with the crowd. A vintage
Ferrari show put on by the Ferrari Club of America will display dozens
of the cars in Washington Square Park.
"If you're not already, why not be Italian for a day?" says
Giovanzana. One in ten Americans has some Italian blood, and the rest
of us are vicarious Italians whenever we enjoy cappuccino, fettuccine,
Armani suits, Verdi arias, Fellini films and, of course, sports cars.
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