Remember When Italian-Americans Were 'Enemy Aliens?'
The Bronzini family: Guido, Clara, Lorenzo (seated), Al (standing), 1934-1935 Oakland. (Courtesy of Al Bronzini)
Clara and Guido Bronzini came to the United States from a town near Pisa, Italy, in the late 1920s, after World War I devastated Italy. There were no crops, no jobs, no future. And the Fascists were gaining power. Al Bronzini remembers his mother telling him that Fascists came to her house when she was a teenager.
“My grandfather, her father, he refused to fly the Fascist flag,” he recalls. “So they tortured my grandfather.”
Clara and Guido left Italy as soon as they could. They settled in an Italian community in Oakland. Guido opened a fruit market called the Banana Depot. He worked hard and earned a good income. They bought a house. Then, a refrigerator to replace the icebox, and a brand-new four-door Pontiac. Finally, they got a top-of-the-line Philco radio.
“It could receive stations from overseas,” Bronzini recalls. His dad loved listening to opera music. “Listening to that radio,” he recalls, “life was good. Life was better than they could have ever thought possible.”
Remember When Italian-Americans Were 'Enemy Aliens?'
Life was so good that Clara and Guido forgot about finishing the paperwork for their citizenship. It didn’t seem necessary. Italy and the United States had a great relationship. But that all started to change in 1939, when Italy and Nazi Germany joined forces. Bronzini remembers his mother, especially, being torn between her love for Italy, and her love for her new home in America.
“She cried her eyes out,” Bronzini says. “She just couldn't believe what was happening. And the worst was yet to come.”
It came in February 1942, just two months after the United States entered the war. Bronzini is 88 years old now, but as we sit in his dining room, he says it feels like yesterday when he was 13, having supper with his family, the night two policemen came to their front door.
“They said, ‘Mr. Bronzini, we have to search your house. You are on the enemy alien list,’ ” Bronzini recalls. Clara and Guido were now two of 50,000 Italian immigrants in California who were designated “enemy aliens.”
“They searched the house,” Bronzini says. “Found nothing. So they said, ‘We have to take your Philco radio.’ " Flashlights, cameras and short-wave radios were considered contraband.
He remembers his mother pleaded with the police and pulled on an officer’s sleeve. “‘Please do not take my radio.'" he remembers her saying. "And as she was crying and tugging and pleading, they carried it out the front door."
The government imposed a curfew, and placed travel restrictions on anyone labeled an “enemy alien.” Bronzini’s parents couldn’t go more than 5 miles from home without a permit. Clara and Guido, along with 600,000 Italian “enemy aliens” nationwide, had to join a national registry and provide photos and personal information.
Bronzini remembers going with them every Friday to have their “little alien book stamped.”
Then came Executive Order 9066, which created prohibited zones: areas around strategic facilities like the coast and oil fields.
Some 120,000 people of Japanese descent -- two-thirds of them U.S. citizens -- would be removed to internment camps further inland. Ten thousand Italian immigrants were forced from their homes in the Bay Area, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Los Angeles and the coastal areas in between. The Bronzinis could keep their home, but the family’s fruit market was in one of those zones.
“So, my father received a notice that his beloved Banana Depot was off-limits to him,” explains Bronzini.
Without an income from the Banana Depot, Guido Bronzini took work where he could find it. But the stigma of being an “enemy alien” followed him.
“A little bit of chatter and bingo, that guy’s an ‘enemy alien.' He's outta here,” Bronzini says.
For Bronzini’s mother, Clara, the growing similarities between the life she escaped in Italy and the new restrictions in America became overwhelming.
“She used to say in Italian, ‘Non abbiamo fatto niente a nessuno. We have done nothing to no one,' " Bronzini recalls. " 'Why is this happening?’ ”
It got so bad that Clara suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted into a hospital.
“This was not a crazy woman,” Bronzini says. “This is a woman who has been stripped of her dignity and she just wasn’t handling it.”
He remembers one Sunday going to visit her with his father and brother. It’s still hard for him to remember seeing her like this.
“She was sitting on her bed, in a straightjacket. A straightjacket,” he says, tearing up.
Eight months later, on Columbus Day 1942, President Roosevelt lifted the restrictions on Italian enemy aliens, citing their loyalty to America. Historians believe Roosevelt needed the support of Italian-Americans for the invasion of Italy. In the Bronzini family, Clara slowly recuperated. Guido reopened the Banana Depot. He and Clara immediately enrolled in classes and became naturalized citizens before the war ended.
Al Bronzini says his parents never talked about their time as enemy aliens.
The U.S. government wouldn’t talk about it either. Information about Italian enemy aliens was confidential until 2001. Then, a grassroots effort urged Congress to pass legislation making these wartime injustices public. In 2010, the state of California apologized.
United States congresswoman Zoe Lofgren recently sponsored legislation that would formally apologize and fund education about the treatment of Italian-Americans during WWII. Al Bronzini says he doesn’t blame the government for what happened to his mother and father.
“He was a good man. He suffered a lot and so did my mother and so did many others,” Bronzini says. “But freedom isn't free. And don't take your freedom for granted. You think it can't happen today? Ha! You kidding me?”
Acknowledgment to Lawrence DiStasi for introducing me to Al Bronzini, who first told his story in DiStasi’s books: "Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment during World War II" and "Branded: How Italian Immigrants Became 'Enemies' During WWII." Both book were valuable resources for understanding this history.