Peter Corona, a veteran superintendent of numerous school districts in California, was born in 1928 in San Diego’s “Italian Colony,” as Little Italy was first known. He grew up during the Depression and World War II, attending Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church and Washington Elementary School on State Street before further education began opening him to the rest of the world. In 1949, Corona went off to UC Berkeley, where he played varsity baseball and met his wife Yolanda, who was raised in Northern California.
The Coronas’ forebears came from opposite ends of Italy too, Peter’s from Sicily and Yolanda’s from Lombardy. I am speaking with them in a rear apartment on the old Corona family property on Kettner Boulevard, where Peter and his three brothers grew up in panoramic view of San Diego Harbor. Today, the apartment is the couple’s Little Italy retreat from their primary residence in Walnut Creek, California.
“When he first brought me down here, all I heard was people speaking Sicilian,” says Yolanda, who spoke a dialect of standard Italian. (Most language scholars think Sicilian is distinct enough from Italian to constitute a separate language.) “I would say to myself, ‘What country are we living in, anyway?’”
Peter Corona has written of his old neighborhood in a 398-page book called Little Italy: The Way It Was. Photos from the 1930s and 1940s fill the last 72 pages. The book came out in January 2010. San Diego’s Italian neighborhood was “different from the other Little Italys in the United States,” he writes. The Italians here “lived in a more confined geographical area, stayed mostly within that area, and rarely associated with people who were non-Italian.” And Italians moving to San Diego from other U.S. cities did not always appreciate it.
Take Rosalie Asaro, who came here from St. Louis. She is noted for complaining that “San Diego’s Little Italy was like living in a cocoon.” Asaro quickly discovered, writes Corona, that “she would be criticized for joining the Girl Scouts and attending the YWCA. [The question] ‘What will people say?’ became part of her relatives’ and family’s comments as it had been for the children born and raised in San Diego’s Little Italy.” Boys in the neighborhood were expected to follow their fathers’ careers, especially in the tuna industry. And “you were told what to say, when to say, and how to say it.”
Corona ascribes the closed nature of Little Italy society to economic realities. “In other cities, such as those on the East Coast,” he tells me, as we start on a walking tour of his old stomping grounds, “Italians most often worked in factories with other ethnic immigrants, such as Germans, Poles, and Irish. Here, especially before World War II, people had to make their living as entrepreneurs in small private businesses. Residents tried all kinds of ways to make money independently. Even us kids. We used to go around picking up old hubcaps and other pieces of metal to sell to the local junk man.”
But change was bound to come, although slowly. In his book, Corona describes the “most memorable sermon I heard at Our Lady of the Rosary.” It was given by Father Joseph Trivisonno in 1950. Charles Buddy, the famously autocratic bishop of the San Diego diocese, had practically forced Trivisonno on the parishioners, who preferred keeping an interim priest from Italy. In the sermon, Trivisonno told the congregation, “We have nice young Italian men in the neighborhood.… These boys do nothing on Saturday nights but just hang around the corner talking with their male friends.… You have lovely daughters at home; they need to get out. The boys are not allowed to date girls in the neighborhood. It’s time that you let your daughters go out with these boys.” After these words, according to Corona, “You could hear a pin drop in the church.”
Corona writes that he almost titled his book “Chi Saccio.” “Translated into English from the Sicilian, it means What do I know? or I know nothing. This was a common response when someone was asked a question and did not want to get involved or did not want to be quoted.” Several other words and phrases from Sicilian and Italian are mentioned as examples of the same tendency to push away people who are becoming too nosy. Corona tells me that since pursuing his education he has always tried to encourage his fellow Italians to “put that habit aside.” But stereotypes by their new countrymen did not always make it easy, especially those linking Italians with organized crime. Even a portrait by one of their own made residents of Little Italy uncomfortable. Lorenzo Madalena’s Confetti for Gino, for instance, a 1959 novel largely about the Italians in San Diego’s tuna fleet, was looked upon with suspicion, according to Corona. “I easily identified the people he incorporated in his story. The book received excellent reviews nationally and mixed reviews within the neighborhood.… Some citizens in the neighborhood did not accept exposing themselves and the San Diego Italian neighborhood to the outside world.… The youth of the community was more accepting because they saw in Lawrence a successful person who did something different and received recognition outside of the community for his accomplishment.”
The achievements of Little Italy’s residents, the good they have done in the world, are what Corona highlights. He ticks off the many professions they have entered in addition to tuna fishing and tells colorful stories of their home lives. Many young men from the neighborhood, including one of Corona’s brothers, died fighting in World War II. “I used the positive approach in my writing,” he tells me.
In the middle section of his book, the longest, he goes block by block in Little Italy, starting from his grandmother’s house, and tells who stayed there, what kind of living they made, and who their relatives were. Along the way he adds poignant details, such as the two men who were not yet American citizens and had to move from “the wrong side” of Kettner Boulevard. During World War II, noncitizens were not allowed closer to the harbor than the middle of Kettner, which constituted a “line of demarcation.” So Giovanni Canepa, who lived a block west of Kettner, moved his house and family to the boulevard’s east side, though he could not continue in commercial fishing until after the war. The other man, Sabastiano Di Maggio, was not so fortunate. He not only lived west of Kettner but worked in the macaroni factory on the west side of the street. So Di Maggio’s boss found him another job in a Los Angeles macaroni plant.