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San Francisco's Italian Heritage Parade
Celebrates 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 Heritage Parade.

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 solemnities.

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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