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.

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