Friday, October 12, 2007

Switzerland to West Marin (Part 7 of 10)

Ticino has found prosperity since war

By David Rolland

Directly east of Point Reyes Station's Green Bridge is the ranch of Harold Genazzi, whose father Fred Genazzi immigrated from the Swiss village of Maggia in 1896.

A century later, Maggia is still tiny (750 residents compared with 675 in Point Reyes Station), and its lord mayor is Elio Genazzi, a cousin of Harold.

Mayor Genazzi has never set foot in West Marin, but in describing his own town on a recent Wednesday afternoon he might easily have been talking about Point Reyes Station.

Vacationers -- typically Dutch, German, and Italian -- boost Maggia's population to 1,000 in summer, crowding the town and making some villagers unfriendly toward outsiders.

As is true throughout West Marin, strict land-use regulations maintain Maggia's traditional appearance but often frustrate property owners. Real estate prices have become exorbitant.

The tourist-based prosperity is only a fairly recent phenomenon. Life, for many Ticinese, generally began improving as the villages modernized after World War II.

Genazzis epitomize change

The Genazzi family itself epitomizes the change. Mayor Genazzi, 42, a bespectacled, soft-spoken man, noted that around the turn of the century, when virtually all Maggia residents were poor, the Genazzis were especially destitute.

"They were considered the poorest family in Maggia," he offered matter of factly. "Even today in Valle Maggia, people talk about what a terrible time my family had to survive."

These days, aside from being the lord mayor, Elio Genazzi works as an urban planner for the City of Locarno and has just been elected to Ticino's canton (or state) parliament.

"Boy, things have changed," exclaimed Evelyn Gilardi nŽe Genazzi of Point Reyes Station, when she learned from The Light how well her cousin was faring.

The mayor, who is also a cousin of Tomales rancher Romeo "Butch" Cerini, recalled with a touch of pride what family members who stayed in Maggia managed to endure 100 years ago.

"At that time it was important to have some land," Genazzi said through an interpreter. "But the only land that they had was right up in the Alps -- in the mountains -- the farthest away from their house."

A dangerous life

Work then was hard and dangerous. Transporting hay down from the Alpine meadows was especially tricky. At the time, men and hay descended the mountainsides in gondola-like slings, which were ridden at high speed.

On one occasion, Elio's uncle Ubaldo Genazzi had not yet reached the end of the line when Mayor Genazzi's father Marco sent a bale of hay careening after him. The hay plowed into Ubaldo and knocked him off the crude sling. He fell some 50 feet and broke both legs.

These days, cable cars have replaced the slings, making the task far safer. The post-war era

If life has improved, the improvements by no means have come free of complications.

A decade ago, after 40 years of modernization and an influx of wealthy residents, civic leaders in Maggia grew concerned about some very West Marin-style issues.

New residents were building modern houses or remodeling old ones, and the resulting loss of historic character and scarce open space prompted a wave of land-use politics.

"If we allow everybody to build where they want, future generations will find themselves with no land, no green open space," said Mayor Genazzi. "Today that's one of the biggest problems we have here -- to plan what to do with the land."

Genazzi acknowledged, however, that some property owners feel paralyzed by new zoning laws and building codes. "Now it's almost to the point that it's practically suffocating people," he said.

"There are so many rules and laws they have to conform with that people say there's no liberty anymore. But it has been necessary to make these laws."

Genazzi, who has been mayor for eight years, is particularly pleased by a recent architectural trend celebrating traditional stone houses.

Homogeneity lost

Some changes city planners can't stop. Historically, villages in Ticino were defined by the families who lived in them. Cevio was the home of the Respinis and Dolcinis. Giumaglio was home to the Cerinis and Sartoris. In Someo were the Tomasinis and Righettis. The Codonis and Scilaccis came from Corippo.

The automobile, however, brought an end to the villages' isolation. Outsiders have moved in and the townspeople themselves have been freer to leave. Communities are far less homogenous than they were before World War II.

"Up to about 1960 in Maggia, the Genazzi, Martinelli, and Garzoli families were the majority," the mayor said, "but today, those families are just a few. The new arrivals have nothing [historically] to do with Maggia."

Unclaimed estates

Intriguingly, the changing character of Ticino's villages may hold financial significance for some West Marin residents.

As many older Ticinese have died, their property has fallen into legal limbo. Under Swiss law, all relatives of a deceased person must be asked if they want to put in a claim for his or her property.

Among those with outstanding claims to property in Maggia are the Swiss branches of the Campigli, Martinelli, and Genazzi families, the mayor noted.

"The relatives that are here can't dispose of an estate until they know all the heirs," he said. "It creates quite a problem, [for] we know there are heirs in America.

"But those heirs are afraid to admit who they are because they fear that maybe in the inheritance there are some debts, and maybe they'll have to pay."

Some heirs don't realize they may have a claim to valuable land in Maggia, he stressed.

Lived in both locales

Eva Giubbini of the village of Intragna has lived for years in both Ticino and West Marin, and has watched both regions evolve along somewhat similar lines.

Giubbini was born in Intragna but grew up in Inverness. She returned to Ticino with her family in 1948 when she was 19.

While living in Inverness, "my parents always said [Ticino] was the most beautiful country in the world," Giubbini said,

Inverness in the 1930s was no less rustic than Intragna at the time. When her family arrived, "Inverness still did not have electricity whereas Intragna already had electricity," she recalled. (Electrical service finally reached the Point Reyes peninsula in 1939.)

"My mother for one year cried every day...she was that homesick."

Likewise, Giubbini's father missed Intragna so much he made visits home every few years, returning one time having bought an old post office in Ticino. During his visits to Intragna, "he always said, 'I want to come back here. These are my roots. I want to come back.' And he did," Giubbini said, "but for only six months, and [then he] died of a heart attack."

New prosperity in Ticino

Upon returning to Switzerland as a young woman, she found Intragna "awful quiet, but I didn't care because I was coming here, and it was a whole new world."

Nearby, the city of Locarno has grown to 15,000 residents, but right after World War II, it looked "like a small, sleepy, Spanish town with little activity," Giubbini recalled.

"I don't know how the change came about, but everyone seemed to be happy," she said. "Everyone started working again. You started building. Banks went into business. Shops opened ... This happens after every war."

As has happened in her childhood home of Inverness, many old houses in Intragna and other Ticinese villages have been converted to vacation lodging.

Giubbini herself rents out a couple of houses to short-term and long-term vacationers. A two-bedroom house rents for the equivalent of $900 a month.

Giubbini waited 10 years after resettling in Intragna before visiting West Marin. She said she was too busy experiencing Europe: "I had too much to do...

"I love going back [to West Marin, but] I think I have gained more by staying in Europe. It has broadened me more than if I had remained in Inverness or Point Reyes."

However, Guibbini said, "I still feel very American."

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Switzerland to West Marin (Part 6 of 10)

A reporter's Swiss notebook

By David Rolland

Swiss officials charged photographer Janine Collins and me a whopping 70,000 Italian lira ($42) to drive our rented Ford Fiesta across the border from Italy, and once again we worried that our newsgathering adventure was far too expensive for The Light.

Our mission was to interview residents of Canton Ticino about their links to families in West Marin. The focus of our research was immigration that began 150 years ago and ended by the time most people alive today can remember.

One of the first Ticinese we looked up was Rita Alberti, owner of Hotel International in Bellinzona (comfy plus great Italian food), and her husband Toce. Toce Alberti's aunt and uncle lived in Greg and Doris Ferrandos' house in Point Reyes Station before the Ferrandos.

Longing for California

Intrigued by our research, the Albertis introduced us to Renaldo Richina, who with his wife Angelina had ranched in Monterey County for 14 years and could compare Ticino with California.

Richina showed us nearly every house in his town of Robasacco and described their inhabitants. At first, we were overwhelmed by this hospitality, but when we reached Richina's own home, we saw how much he still misses his cowboy days in California. Hanging in the entryway to his home is a Great Western Savings poster of John Wayne.

Angelina Richina poured us a glass of red wine, as did everybody else we met in Ticino, while her husband told us over and over how California is most wonderful place on earth but that President Clinton is "too soft."

With great humor, Richina served up rapidfire opinions on communism, JFK, Ronald Reagan, Kirk Douglas, Turkey, and former French President Francois Mitterand, revealing as he joked a keen understanding of what California has meant to him and other Ticinese.

After showing us photos of himself in cowboy garb, his prizewinning bulls (highest-grade butterfat 1958, 1959), and his children, Richina proudly declared: "I am an American. My children are American."

But what about Switzerland, his birthplace and home? "Too many son-of-a-guns," he shot back.

Our mission revealed

The Richinas and our hosts, the Albertis, took us to dinner at one of Robasacco's small restaurants where a boisterous crowd was drinking and singing at a nearby table. Curious what the revelers were singing in Italian, photographer Collins asked Toce Alberti to translate.

They're singing about the Ticinese migration to America, Alberti answered. Collins and I were dumbfounded: what could be more perfect for our research?

The group's songleader was introduced to us as a journalist, Pier Baroni, who writes for Lugano's Couriere del Ticino. Once Baroni learned why we were there, he shouted the news across the room to his cohorts, and they again burst into song.

It was a song for me, and it was followed with one for Collins -- her name worked cleverly into the lyrics.

Baroni was amazed that anyone in the States would know about the Ticinese emigration to California -- one of the most important events in his canton's history -- let alone would travel all the way to Robasacco to learn more about it.

It wasn't the only time Collins and I received such an emotional response to our reporting.

Rodonis in Ticino & West Marin

Exactly a week later, we arrived in the town of Biasca to have dinner with the Cavaglieri family. Before she married her husband Claude, Amina Cavaglieri's last name was Rodoni.

Cavaglieri showed as a picture of her grandfather, Ferdinando Rodoni, a cousin of immigrant Julius Rodoni. Julius was the father of Point Reyes Station residents Sis Arndt, Fred Rodoni Sr., Julius Rodoni, and Pat Rodoni, who died in March. Then she set the photo down next to a picture of a young Pat Rodoni, and the resemblance was unmistakable.

It was less than a decade ago that she learned she still had family alive in California. With her son Michel acting as translator, she told us how she the two halves of her family made contact:

Pat Rodoni, his wife Nola, and daughter Yvonne visited Biasca in 1984 in search of relatives. One of the town's longtime residents took them door to door to some of the many Rodoni households in Biasca, but the search was fruitless -- that is, until one Rodoni suggested that it might be the Cavaglieri family that they were looking for. Unfortunately, luck was not with Pat, Nola, and Yvonne; the Cavaglieris were out of town.

Pat and his family left their West Marin address and phone number with people in Biasca, and Amina ultimately got it. She called Pat and Nola in Point Reyes Station, and the relatives began exchanging old pictures of family members and the relationship developed.

A Swiss Rodoni visits Pt. Reyes

The two families didn't actually meet in person until another of Cavaglieri's sons, Carlo, visited Point Reyes Station and in broken English asked the first man he saw how he could find Pat Rodoni. The cheerful man replied, "I'm Pat Rodoni."

How did Carlo react? we asked him. "I don't have words," he replied. "It's impossible to explain -- excitement, emotion."

Some months later, Pat's daughter Yvonne and her husband Antonio Paez returned to Biasca for a visit, and Amina used the opportunity to bring out more photos of people she couldn't identify; they had been tucked away in an old family album.

As Yvonne eyed the photos, she saw the images of her father and her uncles that had been sent to Switzerland from California more than 50 years ago. "If we didn't have this documentation," Cavaglieri said, "we could not have found the family of Rodonis in America."

As Cavaglieri told her story and listened to Carlo tell his, she at times appeared on the verge of tears. She had been overcome with joy ever since we walked through her door. Our visit was worthy, in their opinion, of a huge bottle of champagne that Michel had won in the town's Carnivale. They said they had been saving it for a very special event.

The celebration didn't end with champagne. Two friends, the Maggini Sisters, suddenly burst into the house and serenaded us with America America, Happy Birthday to You, and a risqué ditty titled Don't Touch My Breasts -- all played on saxophone kazoos.

Two weeks of encounters like these made the $42 border crossing well worth the price.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Switzerland to West Marin (Part 5 of 10)

Canton of Ticino neighbors help each other in Tomales

By David Rolland

Sometimes not much changes when families move thousands of miles from home.

For more than a century, the Cerinis and the Sartoris have been neighbors in the Swiss town of Giumaglio. Today, a Cerini is the town mayor, and a Sartori Quarry sits just north of town.

As it happens, the Cerinis and Sartoris are also neighbors in Tomales.

They are an example of how the first immigrants from a certain town established themselves and then helped townspeople who arrived later not understanding a word of English.

One such helpful immigrant was Tomales rancher Maurice Sartori, who in 1910 gave 16-year-old newcomer Giocondo Cerini his first job as a ranchhand.

Two weeks before he died on Feb. 14 at age 100, Cerini told The Light that upon arriving, he saw so many familiar faces that Tomales "was just like home."

Stone cutter back home

Sartori had been a stone cutter in Giumaglio before emigrating to Tomales in the 1890s. He became a landowner in 1903 when he purchased the Burbank Ranch from his brother Victor, who had immigrated before him.

Sartori's ranch is still in the family. Romeo Sartori -- Maurice's grandson -- his wife Kathleen, and their adult son Russ own the 645-acre dairy on the Tomales-Petaluma Road now.

And Sartori's generosity paid off for the Cerinis. Giocondo saved enough money to later buy the John Keys ranch in Tomales along with two of his brothers, Arcangelo and Romeo.

That ranch, which is located across Highway 1 from the Tomales gas station, has since passed on to Romeo's son Butch.

Butch's cousins Roy, son of Isadore Cerini, and Leroy, son of Giocondo Cerini, also own land in Tomales.

Last living immigrant

Before he died, centenarian Giocondo Cerini was believed to be the last living immigrant who had made the journey from Switzerland to West Marin.

Ironically, his sister Maria Genazzi, who had stayed in Giumaglio with two of their brothers, died in Switzerland only a month earlier at the age of 104.

Her daughter Laura Bono -- talking to The Light between loads of laundry at her home in Maggia, Switzerland -- noted that Maria Genazzi was too attached to Ticino to emigrate to West Marin with the six of her brothers and sisters who did.

So while her brothers began the long road to greater freedom and prosperity by finding work at Tomales dairy ranches, Maria Cerini moved from Giumaglio to Maggia. There she married Giacinto Genazzi and struggled to raise five children.

"Life was very hard, especially for the Genazzi family," Bono said. "With five children, it was a difficult life because my father passed away very young. "It was difficult to get some money in the early times here. The brothers and sisters in California...they saved some money. But she -- here in Maggia -- she was very, very poor."

Murdered over livestock

Nor could she turn to her own parents for help. Her father Giovanni also died as a young man, having been murdered in a dispute over a goat.

Although her brothers in West Marin did far better, two sisters who had also immigrated weren't so fortunate. Adela and America Cerini died of consumption (tuberculosis) shortly after they arrived.

For his part, Giocondo Cerini had a tough time making it from Ticino to West Marin. After boarding the SS Britannia in France, he and a friend, Alex Piezzi, traveled in different classes of the ship en route to America. The two got separated when the ship docked at the federal immigration station on Ellis Island, New York, and they searched for each other for days.

As it turned out, American officials had wrongly registered young Cerini as an Italian, and Piezzi eventually found his friend at the Italian consulate.

Cerini told The Light that all he could afford to eat on the week-long train ride from New York to California was salami and cheese washed down with jug wine.