Heritage is a precious thing. From our parents and grandparents, we learn who we are and why our cultural identity is important. Sharing family traditions and memories is crucial to forming a bond between old and new generations.
Unfortunately, the years pass and along with them go the people who hold the brightest memories, leaving us with only shadows of those experiences. As the generations move along, the traditions and family stories become watered down and ultimately forgotten.
This situation is precisely what drives ethnic organizations to exist – they offer an environment where people can share and strengthen their traditions and culture.
In 1980, after spending some months in Italy on a post college internship, Jeff Baffaro and his wife, Andrea, decided to gather their friends and explore the idea of starting a new Italian-American club. The group of young adults and families were looking for a club that provided a deeper connection to their heritage that included their beloved Italian-American traditions and history, as well as the language, history and culture of Italy.
The new group included a mix of native Italians and second/third generation Italian-Americans. They all agreed on their purpose, “to preserve and promote the Italian and Italian-American heritage, culture and history for the Italian-Americans of this community,” making it their formal mission statement. The next order of business was to decide on a name.
“The name, Amici d’Italia, was a unanimous decision,” remembers Jeff. “It communicated the group’s relationship to Italy past and present.”
Father Aldo, priest of St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church, the Italian National Parish of Portland, volunteered the church as a permanent location for club meetings and events. The original members expanded their numbers with friends, relatives and outreach through other local clubs, churches, and the Italian language program at Portland State University.
By 1981, the Amici d’Italia had incorporated as a non-profit organization with officers, by-laws and a stable residence, and the group set out to fulfill its mission of educating the community about Italy’s heritage, culture and history – and cuisine! The first major event was a ravioli-making lesson offered to the public. One of the members teamed up with Father Aldo – an accomplished Italian cook – and turned the church hall into a ravioli factory. Shortly thereafter, one of the native Italian members began teaching a basic Italian language course, complete with textbook. Then came a cascade of more cooking classes, mountain trips mushroom picking, and tastings at local wineries. One of the most successful events was the very popular “Night in Italy” wine tasting. Teaming up with a local distributor, the Amici offered an inexpensive way to enjoy and learn about regional wines, accompanied by Italian imported cheeses, bread and sausage.
“Amici d’Italia quickly became a medium to unite the generations of families as well as an effective means to introduce Italian Americans to their local native-born peers,” Jeff shares.
For many years, the Amici hosted an Italian conversation group called Il Circolo Italiano, which met once a month. Although not currently active, many have expressed an interest to bring it back.
Initially started by a younger crowd, the Amici have aged a bit over the years. In 2011, they celebrated their 30th anniversary by publishing “Amici d’Italia 1981-2011: Ricette e Ricordi,” a cookbook stuffed full of family recipes, memories and photographs. The celebration included a well-attended reunion dinner.
True to their name, the Amici have always strived to work with other Italian clubs. Club members continue to volunteer with the Festa Italiana Association and the Columbus Day Dinner Dance every year. In 2012, the Amici assisted the Tuscan Association of Oregon with their annual Festa della Befana. As a result, the two groups unite each year to present the annual event and the festa has become a beloved favorite, attended by more than 50 children and their families.
Regular meetings occur on the first Thursday night of each month. Other favorite events include the annual summer picnic and bocce tournament, the Italian community picnic at Club Paesano and the annual Christmas potluck in December.
Always looking for new ways to share Italian heritage, the Amici are spearheading an Italian memorial project at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, and are planning their very first St. Joseph’s Table celebration in March 2016.
“I came from a large Sicilian-American family in LA and arrived in Portland in 1978. My immediate family was here but my extended family was not, and I missed that Italian connection,” shares long-time member Julia Loyacano. “Someone suggested I call St. Michael’s to find an Italian organization, and that started something that became a very important part of my life. I met new friends that I had something in common with. The Amici has become my extended Italian family here in Portland and I have made many dear friends.”