Every year in the fall the Marlborough chapter of the Italian heritage organization UNICO, holds an Italian themed essay contest for 7th and 8th grade students. The two winners are honored at a special dinner at the Ship Lantern Inn in Milton, with each receiving a $200 prize and a commemorative plaque, while second and third place winners receive cash prizes.
Seventh grade winner Mia Russo wrote about Amerigo Vespucci [1451-1512], an Italian merchant, explorer and navigator from Florence, Italy.
Russo’s essay was in the form of a letter as if written by the explorer. Vespuci recounted his many voyages, starting with his first in 1497 that landed him in Central America and later his discovery of Venezuela a year before Columbus.
Vespuci returned to South America in 1499, discovering the Amazon river and Cape St. Augustine. In 1501 he undertook a voyage to Cape Verde and also discovered Cape Sao Rogue and Patagonia at the southern tip of south America.
Vespuci concluded his ‘letter’ by pointing out that, “my discoveries have greatly impacted exploration to the New World. In effect to my discoveries, new explorers now have an easier route to the New World. Due to my navigational skills, explorers from all over the world can figure out their longitude at sea. All of these components make me the best Italian explorer. After all, America did get its name from me.”
Eighth grader Kathem Fakhoury wrote about immigration from Italy. He noted that although by the 19th century Italy was brought under one flag, “there was still violence, social chaos and widespread poverty, with many feeling hopeless to change their individual situations.” He wrote that many Italians began to find it, “increasingly difficult to resist the call of L’America.”
Fakhoury estimated that between 1880 and 1920, four million Italian immigrants arrived in the United States. The situation was particularly dire from 1900 through 1914 when many fled Calabria, Basilicata, Abruzzi and Sicely due to their faltering economies.
Fakhoury documented the dire living conditions for Italians who remained in their country, many living in one room houses with no plumbing or privacy. Many were also isolated because of a lack of roads in the rural parts of the country.
Fakhoury wrote that those who came to America faced daunting challenges of overcrowding and living in inadequate housing, trying to become part of a new culture and country while working in unfamiliar industrial centers.
Fakhoury concluded by writing that, “Italian immigrants had a difficult time assimilating into American society due to their hesitance and unwillingness to abandon their culture and values. Italian-Americans today hold on to values and beliefs that are contrary to the values and beliefs dominant in American society.”
Fakhoury said Social Studies teacher James Ventriglia made the essay a mandatory assignment, “and when I herd about it I was very excited because I know he has a lot of high standards for me and I really wanted to meet those standards. I did the best that I could and with a lot of his help I was able to come here.”
Fakhoury said he found learning about Italians fascinating.
“I had a good time and I learned a lot,” he said.
Fakhoury said it was a, “very big honor and it really humbles me that I am able to be here among UNICO’s National President. It was a very great experience.”
Mia Russo also heard about the essay contest from Mr. Ventriglia and became interested in entering the contest because, “my family is Italian and I got to write about my Italian Heritage.”
The students had done some research prior to writing their essays, which took them about 3 hours to complete.
UNICO National President Steven Pelonero attended the dinner, saying there are about 100 UNICO chapters with 5,000 members across the country. He said they are an all volunteer organization and whatever they take in goes right back out to help a myriad of causes. UNICO promotes education, literary sciences, supports cancer research and mental health, provides scholarships, reaches out to help military personnel and assists local food pantries, just to name a few.
Pelonero joined UNICO 22 years ago and remains a member because, “they are a total service above self organization and celebrating our heritage; I love it.”
Long time head of the essay contest, Nick Johannets said it is good to be back with an in-person celebration honoring these students. This year they judged 33 essays that were submitted.
Marlboro Social Studies chairman Geoff Pesano assisted in reading and grading the essays. He looked for historical accuracy and an ESL teacher helped with grammar issues.