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A Collective Family Tree

A national project has inspired Theresa Ziegler to research her own past and share the findings on a Web site of American family stories.

August 22, 2000|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

These are the Zeiglers, a typical American family: Theresa's parents and grandparents emigrated from Italy to California by way of Colorado. Her husband Arthur's great-grandparents both came from Germany, married in Pennsylvania and settled in Michigan. The Zeiglers' three sons are native Californians.

Immigration is both an ongoing chapter in the story of America and a thread running through the family stories that have been posted on the Internet since the launch early this year of "My History Is America's History," a national millennium project.

"We feel like every American is a historian at heart," says William R. Ferris, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which is sponsoring the project, and these family stories are "a microcosm of the history of our nation."

It is a natural for the endowment, a federal agency that since its creation in 1965 has funded humanities programs including cataloging of presidential papers, preservation of historic newspapers, museum exhibits and projects encouraging the study of American traditions and cultures.

Among those who have posted their stories on "My History" is Theresa Zeigler, 70, of Rancho Santa Margarita, who, through the magic of the World Wide Web, has found a cousin in Illinois she knew nothing of, as well as "a whole folder full of people" with tenuous ties to her parents, the Pinamontis, or to their family home, Rallo, a northern Italian village that before World War I was under Austrian control.

Zeigler's story is one of about 300 posted thus far on the endowment's Web site (http://www.myhistory.org). She tells of growing up American as a child of parents from the "old country" who clung to old ways while embracing America. She writes, "I can remember . . . when a letter would come from Italy with a black border around the envelope. After opening it, my mama would be crying. After that would come days and months of Mama wearing black until a year was up. . . ."

Her papa, Carlo Pinamonti, she writes, came to America with his mother and two siblings in 1900, when he was 15. His father, Battista, had come over five years earlier to work in the Colorado coal mines. Father and son worked in the mines, eventually saving money enough to open a saloon in Radiant, Colo. Carlo married 17-year-old Josephina Valentini, who died a year later, having contracted blood poisoning after having an abscessed tooth pulled.

Mining camp life was hard. Wages were low, and living and working conditions miserable. Working only in the winter months, the mine laborers earned no more than $500 a year.

Josephina's death led to a nine-year correspondence between Carlo and his sister-in-law Carlotta in Rallo, who had been only 5 when he'd left. In 1920, she came over to marry him. Zeigler doesn't know whether it was an arranged marriage, but prefers to believe "that she was a romanticist" and fell in love with Carlo from his photograph and letters.

Zeigler knows that her mother "came over by herself, not speaking a word of English, and landed at Ellis Island," having accepted her father's long-distance proposal. They married in 1920 and set up housekeeping in Radiant.

As a saloonkeeper, Zeigler's father was well-known. He told her of director Frank Capra coming to Radiant to film on location and how Carlo was led to believe he would be hired as an extra. That night, "he went home and shaved off his [handlebar] mustache. Then they didn't want him."

By 1925, Carlo and Carlotta had three children. In pursuit of the American dream, they set out for Southern California. Along the way, all six slept in their 1924 Buick touring sedan. Carlotta washed the children's clothes and diapers in rivers and streams, hanging them to dry on tree limbs. She cooked their meals over an open fire.

At first, they settled near downtown Los Angeles, but Carlotta wanted to live in the suburbs. So, Inglewood it was. Three more children were born in California, including Theresa, the youngest. It was in St. John's Chrysostom Roman Catholic Church in Inglewood that she had her first Communion. She remembers her mother tying cloths made from flour sacks over every faucet in the house, just as her own mother had done, to remind the Communion child that she was to neither drink nor eat after midnight on her big day.

The Pinamontis were among the first Italian families in Inglewood, Zeigler recalls, and "people sort of looked down on us. One neighbor called me 'spaghetti.' " She laughs and says, "My mother didn't learn to make spaghetti until she came to this country," as polenta (cornmeal) was the staple in Rallo.

In 1927, Carlo and a partner opened the Open Air Midnight Market at the end of the trolley line in Inglewood. Prospering, they were bought out by the owners of a larger store. Then the Depression hit, the buyers went under and Carlo was left holding worthless paper. Although he had opened another store, and was doing well, he too went broke, as a result of extending credit to hard-hit families.

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