Michele Fazio told the audience a story about how, as a child, she would sit by her mother when extended family gathered for Sunday dinners.
On occasion, the women at the table would start talking Italian. Fazio remembers that she wanted them to speak English, and on at least one occasion, she told them so.
They told her that if they wanted her to hear what they were saying, they’d speak in English.
Fazio, who grew up in Massachusetts and is now a literature professor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, long ago learned the topic of the women’s clandestine table talk.
That topic is largely the subject of her new exhibit, “A Neglected Legacy: Reclaiming a Radical Past.”
This past Sunday, Fazio opened the show at Lawrence Heritage State Park & Visitor Center with a lecture.
The exhibit’s photographs and narratives will remain on display through Oct. 31, in celebration of Italian American Heritage and Culture Month.
It’s Fazio’s hope that other Italian Americans — at 18 million, the fourth largest ethnic group in the United States — will reconsider parts of their history.
Recognizing not only their contributions to American food and film culture, and fidelity to family, but their roles as builders of cities, professionals and activists.
And she hopes that people reflect on current day worker issues, as well as the restrictions that prospective immigrants face and the mounting pressure to conform that new citizens must navigate.
On Sunday, Fazio recounted her grandfather Vincenzo Fazio’s and his brother Raimondo Fazio’s history of pro-worker, radical dissent and how they had weathered FBI raids and even assassination attempts.
Some 35 people, including family members, were at the talk, based on research she began decades ago.
Michele Fazio has interviewed relatives — some of whom told her to abandon her investigation — dug through family attics and basements, sifted archival records, and read books about Italian American acculturation.
Her search of archival records led to an eye-popping discovery — 1943 photographs of Vincenzo and Raimondo’s families, images used to support the U.S. war effort during World War II.
They were taken by professional photographer Marjorie Collins of the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information, published to present “real” Americans to viewers on the homefront and abroad.
One of the photographs serves as the exhibit’s centerpiece.
It’s a staged dinner table scene that presents Vincenzo Fazio’s Long Island, New York, family in a mainstream, middle-American light.
Indications that the photo is posed include the stack of sliced bread on a saucer.
Those familiar with big Italian family dinner tables from the era think: Where’s the Italian bread?
The photograph is an anomaly, and it poses a curious question: Why would the Fazio family allow themselves to be represented in a “whitewashed” way?
Michele Fazio suspects that their willingness was spurred by the pressure to conform at a time when the country was on a wartime footing, and the family felt a real threat of violence.
Raimondo was a journalist for a leftist publication. Vincenzo was a union dressmaker and activist. The brothers had backed landmark strikes, including the 1912 Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, and were close to pivotal figures in the union movement, including Carlo Tresca.
Tresca opposed the Italian fascist Benito Mussolini, Russian Communist Joseph Stalin and the Mafia’s influence in American union efforts.
Tresca was assassinated in New York City in 1943, the same year that the Farm Security Administration took photos of both Raimondo and Vincenzo’s families.
Raimondo was invited to speak at Tresca’s funeral, Michele Fazio said.
This is the third stop for Fazio’s exhibit. Previously, it was shown at the American Labor Museum in Haledon, New Jersey.
Jim Beauchesne, supervisor at Lawrence Heritage State Park, said that Fazio’s family history exhibit addresses assimilation, suppression and hidden history.
“All of the above are of great interest to me and the Lawrence Heritage State Park,” said Beauchesne, referring to the city’s long-held reluctance to recognize its American labor history, including the 1912 strike.
Among the family members at Sunday’s talk were Michele Fazio’s mom, Lena, of Taunton; sister Marlene Souza, of Berkley; and nephew Adam Souza and his family, of Methuen.
Adam Souza said that he was surprised to learn about the family’s hidden history and how one version of it, a force-fed version, had persisted for so long.
Michele Fazio’s mom raised seven children, including two sets of twins.
“I am very proud of Michele; she’s doing great work,” Lena Fazio said.
The talk was supported by a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
IF YOU GO
What: “A Neglected Legacy: Reclaiming a Radical Past”
When: Through Oct. 31. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: Lawrence Heritage State Park, 1 Jackson St., Lawrence
How much: Free admission
More information: 978-794-1655 or www.facebook.com/FriendsofLHSP
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