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From baseball to boxing, figure skating to gymnastics, and as managers and coaches, Italian Americans have excelled in the world of sports. Joe Montana is considered the best quarterback in the history of the NFL, while Joe DiMaggio holds the Major League Baseball record with a hitting streak of 56 consecutive games. Angelo Siciliano, who changed his name to Charles Atlas, was a trailblazer in bodybuilding and fitness culture. Gymnast Mary Lou Retton, whose original surname was Rotunda, won gold, silver, and bronze medals at the 1984 Olympic Games.

Baseball legend Lawrence “Yogi” Berra, world heavyweight boxing champion Primo Carnera, champion figure skater Linda Fratianne, quarterback Vince Ferragamo, and Afro-Italian American Roy Campanella—who was among the first to break the Major League color barrier—are just a few of the sports figures who served as larger-than-life heroes to generations of youth.

Sports have played a critical role in the acculturation of immigrants. Boxing, in particular, served as an important vehicle for Southern California’s Filipino, Mexican, and Italian American youth. While the majority of their ethnic counterparts struggled with poverty and marginality, boxing allowed for individuals from immigrant backgrounds to overcome their disadvantages and achieve icon status while maintaining aspects of their ethnic identity.

The son of Italian immigrants, Olympic gold medalist and flyweight champion Fidel LaBarba was raised in Los Angeles’ Little Italy. When LaBarba was nine years old, his mother died. His father accepted work in various parts of the state, leaving LaBarba and his siblings largely responsible for themselves. LaBarba, who was barely five feet tall, learned to fight while competing for a spot on street corners, where he sold newspapers.

LaBarba began boxing at age twelve, and he was discovered two years later. At that time, LaBarba owned only one pair of shoes, which were badly torn and worn, and was embarrassed to meet the promotors who wished to recruit him. During his amateur career, LaBarba won flyweight division medals and became a regular at the Los Angeles Athletic Club and the Olympic Auditorium in the 1920s. On average, LaBarba earned $35 per fight; it was more money than he had ever known.

LaBarba won a gold medal at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris; two years later, he claimed the World Flyweight title. LaBarba retired from boxing in 1927 to attend Stanford University, where he earned a degree in journalism. He made over $400,000 as a boxer—the equivalent of $5.3 million dollars today—though he lost most of his fortune during the Depression. In his later years, LaBarba became a professional writer, working for Collier’s and Esquire magazines and 20th Century Fox Studios.

Italy’s love affair with motorsports began at the turn of the twentieth century, when the Italian automakers Fiat, Lancia, and Alfa Romeo introduced their first vehicles. By the 1920s, auto races such as the Grand Prix and Mille Miglia—a 1,000-mile race through the Italian countryside—had become extremely popular. Italian Americans, many of whom were immigrants themselves, would also demonstrate a passion for racing. Raffaele "Ralph" DePalma, born in Puglia, Italy, won the 1915 ‘Indianapolis 500’ and over 2,000 other races during his career. Dario Resta, an Italian immigrant who settled in Bakersfield, California, won the Vanderbilt Cup and the Indianapolis 500, among other races.

Among the most successful drivers in racing history, Mario Andretti is one of only two drivers to have won Formula One, IndyCar, NASCAR, and World Sportcar Championship races. He wore this suit at the 1974 Monza race in Italy, which he won for Alfa Romeo. At the 1977 U.S. Grand Prix West, in Long Beach, California, he became the first American to win a Gran Prix on U.S. soil. Andretti’s autograph can be found on the right side of the suit.

Although the careers of racecar drivers such as Luigi Chinetti, Nick DioGuardi, and the Andretti family are well known, little attention has been focused on women of the racing world, such as Joan Newton Cuneo—the first female racecar driver in the United States—who set speed records and defeated many male drivers.

In 1909, the American Automobile Association instituted a ban on women in sanctioned competitions. Women were limited to privately sponsored, gender-segregated races. The region’s first-known female-only race took place at Ascot Park, a one-mile track in Los Angeles. Ten thousand spectators gathered to see the seven women, known as the “Speederettes,” race in what the Los Angeles Times referred to as a “big girlie show.”

One of the Speederettes was 28-year-old Nina Vitagliano. News articles of the era claim that Vitagliano learned to race in her native Genoa, Italy, where she had been born to a family of “noble stock,” none of which was true. Vitagliano was a Los Angeles native, whose father, a fruit peddler, had settled in the region during the late 1800s. Vitagliano later married Italian-born Stefano Torre, a prominent steamship agent. She dreamed about racing, and hoped one day to pilot airplanes.

At Ascot Park, Vitagliano drove a Roamer, which was marketed as “America’s smartest car.” Vitagliano’s cousin, Margherita Buletti, rode alongside her. After a series of speed trials and qualification sessions, Vitagliano finished second in a five-mile handicap race.

One month later, in March of 1918, the Speederettes travelled to Stockton, California, for the “world championship of women auto racers.” Anticipating Vitagliano’s win, Stockton’s Italian community purchased a silver trophy cup. Vitagliano allegedly drove renowned auto racer Earl Cooper’s famous #8 Stutz.

During the second half of the race, Vitagliano’s tire reportedly exploded as she drove around a curve. Her car was propelled through the air and collided with a tree before crashing through the fence where the spectators stood. Vitagliano died instantly; her mechanic, Robert Currie, died two days later, along with a four-year-old child.

The media’s reaction to the death of Vitagliano and women’s racing culture in general provides insight into the era’s attitudes toward women. World War I would end eight months later, but women would not gain the right to vote nationally for almost another two years. Many publications lambasted the female racers, stating, “While men are answering the call [to serve in battle] America’s meddlesome women are entering the lists of daring sport.” Vitagliano’s death led to further bans on women in racing. Women would remain prohibited from major competitions until after World War II, and they would not re-enter the sport—which remains largely dominated by men today—until the late 1970s.

Born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, to immigrants from Abruzzo, Italy, American baseball icon Thomas “Tommy” Lasorda showed promise as a left-handed pitcher, and he was signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1945. After a brief big-league playing career, Lasorda became a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers and, in 1976, a manager of the organization. During his twenty-year tenure as manager, the Dodgers won nearly 1,600 games, as well as four National League pennants and eight division titles. The team celebrated two World Series appearances and, in 1981, a World Series championship.

The Dodgers retired Lasorda’s uniform number, 2, when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997. During his career, he managed several Major League Baseball star players, including Fernando Valenzuela, Mike Piazza, Hideo Nomo, and Raúl Mondesí. He also managed the gold medal-winning 2000 U.S. Olympic baseball team.

Tommy Lasorda wore this jersey during the 1996 season, his last as the Dodgers’ manager. Lasorda’s autograph, and the inscription “H.O.F. 8.3.97,” which refers to the date on which he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, can be seen on the jersey on the base of the number 2.

Innovators and Luminaries
Success, for Italian immigrants, rested upon the pillars of work, family, and education, though the latter was a luxury afforded primarily to the children of immigrants. Italians perceived and pursued the “American Dream”—a complex concept generally defined as democracy, equality, freedom, prosperity, justice, and upward social mobility—in a variety of fashions. 

For some, freedom often meant being one’s own boss. Consequently, many Italian Americans became entrepreneurs. Embracing the adage chi ha prato ha tutto, or “whoever has land has everything,” property ownership was considered vital to one’s success. Through hard work, perseverance, initiative, and, at times, luck, immigrants achieved success in their adopted country.

As laborers, financiers, and entrepreneurs, Italian Americans played a significant role in shaping Southern California’s landscape. The Sterpa Group, D’Egidio Brothers Enterprise, Macerich, Angelus Block, Curci Companies, Superior Gunite, Cusumano Real Estate Group, Frank De Pietro and Sons, and Caruso Affiliated are just a few of the Italian American companies pivotal in the creation of the modern Southern California Metropolis.

Whereas some Italian Americans achieved success by building cities, others found fortune demolishing them. Andrea Pansini, the “father of the parking lot,” arrived in Los Angeles in 1916 with eleven cents in his pocket. There were approximately 95,000 cars in Los Angeles at that time, and the automobile’s popularity was growing rapidly. Pansini recognized that the demand for parking would increase significantly in the future. He located a vacant lot in downtown Los Angeles and created a sign that read “Parking 5¢.”

After six days, his first customer drove in, and what is believed to be the world’s first parking lot was born. By 1930, Pansini owned thirty lots in Los Angeles. In search of more land on which to build parking lots and garages, Pansini purchased and began leveling buildings. In total, he demolished 83 structures, some of which would be considered architectural treasures by contemporary standards. In 1942, Pansini built the world’s first subterranean garage at Union Square in San Francisco. When asked how he made his fortune, Pansini often responded, “It started with a nickel.”

Kleenex. Jell-O. Xerox. Band-Aid. Jacuzzi. Few other brands have come to occupy as significant a place in the nation’s vernacular. Jacuzzi, the company that invented the whirlpool bath and transcended a brand name to become synonymous with an entire line of products, began with a family of Italian immigrant brothers at the eve of World War I.

Fearing they would be conscripted into the Italian army, Giovanni Jacuzzi sent his seven sons to the United States. After arriving in New York, the Jacuzzi brothers traveled west. In 1915, Rachele Jacuzzi, who had studied aeronautical engineering in Italy, developed an airplane propeller known as the “Jacuzzi Toothpick.” The U.S. Government promptly offered Jacuzzi a military contract to manufacture the propeller, which now stands in the Smithsonian Institution.

Following the war, the brothers designed the Jacuzzi J-7, the first airplane with an enclosed cabin built in the United States. They then turned their attention to agriculture and developed a pump capable of extracting groundwater more efficiently than any pump of its time. In all, the brothers held nearly fifty patents.

In 1943, Ken Jacuzzi, the son of Candido, the youngest Jacuzzi brother, contracted strep throat. Antibiotics were not widely available at that time, and Ken’s infection developed into rheumatic fever, which left him with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a syndrome that causes persistent joint pain and stiffness. Ken’s doctors recommended hydrotherapy—or the use of water for pain management—as part of his treatment.

To help alleviate his son’s suffering, in 1956 Candido developed a hydrotherapy pump that could be placed in an ordinary bathtub. Hospitals and schools became the first to purchase this device. The family later introduced larger bathing units with built-in heating and filtration systems that could accommodate groups of bathers.

This original model of the Jacuzzi J-300 portable hydrotherapy pump inadvertently gave birth to an American icon. Although cultures throughout history have embraced the therapeutic power of hot baths, the Jacuzzi family is indelibly linked with the invention of whirlpool baths, which became fixtures in homes worldwide.

John Paul DeJoria, pictured left, the co-founder of Paul Mitchell®, was born in Echo Park, a neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles. His mother, Yvonne, immigrated to the United States from Greece, while his father was born in Iowa to Italian and German parents.

DeJoria’s mother instilled in him the value of hard work and the importance of helping others. At age seven, DeJoria, seated right, sold handcrafted flower boxes to contribute to the family’s support. By age nine, he peddled greeting cards and awoke before dawn to sell newspapers. Despite their limited means, Yvonne would often say, “Remember, boys, in life, no matter how little we have, there’s someone who needs it more.”

DeJoria attended John Marshall High School in Silver Lake, a neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles. On one occasion, he was caught passing a note to his friend, Michelle Gilliam, in class. His teacher instructed DeJoria and Gilliam to stand and face the class. “Take a look at these two people,” the teacher said. “They will never succeed at anything in life.” Michelle Gilliam later became Michelle Phillips, a founding member of the folk rock group The Mamas and the Papas.

DeJoria joined the U.S. Navy, and while serving on the USS Hornet and traveling the world, he gained a new perspective on life. Following his discharge from the Navy, DeJoria struggled to make ends meet. He worked as a janitor and sold encyclopedias, life insurance, and medical supplies to stay afloat.

By age twenty, DeJoria had married and become a father. Prior to his son’s third birthday, however, DeJoria had become a single parent. After losing his apartment, DeJoria lived in a car near Hollywood. He took several jobs, from collecting discarded bottles to a sales position in the beauty industry. Despite his tireless work ethic, DeJoria and his son would experience homelessness again before their lives changed.

In 1980, DeJoria met hairdresser Paul Mitchell at a hair show in Miami. Mitchell, who had very little business experience, told DeJoria that he wanted to start a hair product company. At that time, inflation was at a staggering 13 percent. Despite the grim economic climate, DeJoria borrowed $350 from his mother, and with Mitchell’s investment of $350, the two launched John Paul Mitchell Systems.

DeJoria and Mitchell sought to create high-quality products that would be sold only in salons. Their first product line consisted of two shampoos and a conditioner packaged in black-and-white bottles because they could not afford colored ink. To sell the products, the duo knocked on thousands of doors and visited an untold number of salons.

By the late 1980s, with the company’s iconic black-and-white bottle as its signature, Paul Mitchell had become a household name. It was also the first professional beauty company in the United States to publicly oppose animal testing.

Coinciding with the company’s 25th anniversary, this silver-plated bottle of Paul Mitchell Sculpting Lotion is the 100,000,000th bottle of product that the company produced.

The company would later expand its product offerings to include styling products, professional hair color, styling tools, and a line for pets. Today, Paul Mitchell® is the largest privately held salon haircare company.

In 1989, DeJoria’s entrepreneurial spirit and love of tequila led him to co-found Patrón, the first ultra-premium tequila. Glass artisans craft each Patrón bottle by hand—presented as a unique piece of art, using mostly recycled glass. A reverse osmosis system and state-of-the-art compost machine adds to the tequila’s sustainability.

Committed to the principle “Success unshared is failure,” DeJoria has donated millions of dollars to causes that range from environmental protection, hunger, and education to water conservation, underserved youth programs, and human rights. In 2010, DeJoria also founded Grow Appalachia, an organization that supports families in the poverty-stricken region of the United States by helping them to grow sustainable, nutritious food. The following year, DeJoria signed The Giving Pledge, a commitment to donate the majority of his wealth to philanthropic causes.

Since the mid-1800s, Italian Americans have held leadership positions in Southern California. Francesco Sabichi, the son of an Italian pioneer family, was elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1870 and later served as its president. California Senator Joseph Pedrotti and Assemblyman John Badaracco courageously voted against Prohibition, foreseeing the economic ruin that the ban on alcohol would cause the state.

In 1923, Assemblyman Badaracco introduced bold anti-Ku Klux Klan legislation, which forbade Klansmen from wearing their hoods in public. At that time, Oakland, California, boasted 2,000 members, while San Diego was home to an astounding 10,000 Klansmen. Klan members had been elected to various powerful public offices throughout the state, including county sheriff.

The youngest of eight children whose Italian immigrant parents manufactured pasta before losing everything during the Great Depression, John Ferraro served in the Los Angeles City Council for 35 years—longer than any other council member in the city’s history—from 1966 until his death in 2001. Ferraro was instrumental in bringing the 1984 Olympic Games to Los Angeles and in establishing the Staples Center, which encouraged the downtown renaissance. He also helped attract the 2000 Democratic National Convention to the city.

In 1966, Los Angeles resident David Roberti, pictured second from left, made history when, at age 26, he became the youngest person to be elected to the California State Legislature. In the years that followed, he would become one of the state’s most prominent lawmakers. Among his greatest legacies are the passing of California’s landmark waste management legislation and the Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989—a law that forbade the ownership and transfer of over 70 models of semi-automatic firearms classified as assault weapons—and the humane treatment of animals.

In 1921, Roberti’s father, Emil, immigrated to the United States, after fleeing the rise of fascism in Italy. He settled in Denver, Colorado, where he married Elvira Ligrano. Ligrano was thirteen years old when her father, Rocco, a prominent tailor in Carbon County, Utah, was murdered. Anti-Italian sentiment was rampant in Utah: Catholics as well as Italian and Mexican immigrants were the primary targets of hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Rocco’s wife had just given birth to their seventh child at the time of his murder. His death was never investigated.

In 1936, the Roberti family moved to Lincoln Heights. Emil purchased a dry-cleaning business and was later offered a job as a tailor at MGM and Paramount Studios, where he worked on films such as Singing in the Rain, starring Gene Kelly. During World War II, the FBI visited Emil to question him about his political views and activities. The fact that Emil had fled fascism did little to persuade the agents of his commitment to the United States and its principles.

Education was a cherished value in the Roberti home. David attended Loyola High School, Loyola University of Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California School of Law. He was elected to represent the 48th Assembly District in 1966; four years later, Roberti served as a senator in the California legislature and as president pro tempore of the California State Senate for thirteen years. His accomplishments included establishing programs that reduced the production of hazardous waste and that created housing for homeless and low-income people. He also played an instrumental role in establishing the Museum of Tolerance.

On July 18, 1984, a deranged man—armed with a semi-automatic pistol, an Uzi, and a shotgun—entered a McDonald’s restaurant in San Ysidro, California, and opened fire. Over the course of 78 minutes, this man, who had informed his family that he was “going hunting humans,” fired nearly 250 rounds of ammunition. He murdered 21 people and wounded 19 others. His eldest victim was 74 years old; his youngest was an eight-month-old baby.

Following the San Ysidro shooting, Roberti introduced legislation that would regulate assault weapons, but it proved unpopular. In 1989, a gunman armed with a semi-automatic rifle entered the playground of Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California. In three minutes, he fired over one hundred rounds of ammunition, killing five schoolchildren and wounding 32 others.

The national news questioned why an individual with an extensive criminal record had been permitted to purchase an assault weapon and criticized the sale of weapons that “have no purpose other than killing human beings.” The killings generated considerable public outcry and support for the regulation of assault weapons. Later that year, Governor Deukmejian signed the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act, and it became law.

In the months leading up to, and for years after, the passing of this law, Senator Roberti’s life—and the lives of his family and staff—came under repeated threat. The senator was the subject of an assassination plot, he received an abundance of hate mail, and his offices were burglarized. In 1994, the gun lobby launched a recall effort against Roberti. Whereas the recall was unsuccessful, it compromised Roberti’s bid for the office of California treasurer. Senator Roberti had no regrets, however. The Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act helped shape the nation’s attitudes on the regulation of assault weapons and established California as a state sensitive to the proliferation of such weapons.

As the author of California’s controversial legislation to ban assault weapons, Senator Roberti received death threats and was the subject of an assassination plot. One group produced this “political pig hunting tag"—modeled after a legitimate hunting tag—with Roberti specified as the animal to be hunted. This card is a facsimile of the original, which was retained by the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Courtesy of Loyola Marymount University Department of Archives and Special Collections Library

As educators, Italian Americans have contributed extensively to the social, cultural, and economic health of our nation. Today, California is home to nearly 500 Montessori schools, which embrace the educational philosophy of their namesake—Italian physician, educator, and feminist Maria Montessori, pictured right. In the early twentieth century, Montessori’s observations of children led to the Montessori method, an approach that proved revolutionary in the field of early childhood education by fostering children’s natural desire to learn and supporting their holistic development.

The son of immigrants, Leo Buscaglia entered elementary school in Los Angeles with little knowledge of English. His limited use of language was confused with an intellectual disability, and he was placed in a special education class. The experience led him to become a public school speech therapist and later an author, superintendent of special education, and a special education professor at the University of Southern California.

In the 1970s, Stanford professor and population geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza was among the first to suggest that studying human populations would help mankind to trace the origin of modern humans and to learn how humans had populated the earth. His work challenged the assumption that significant genetic differences exist between human races.

Andrew Viterbi, a professor of electrical engineering and Qualcomm co-founder, invented the Viterbi algorithm, which is widely used in DNA analysis, in satellite and deep-space communication, and in mobile phone technology for speech recognition and error correction.

From the war in Vietnam to the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X, the 1960s were an incredibly turbulent era in the nation’s history. The decade witnessed the passing of the Voting Rights Act, the creation of the National Organization for Women, and the moon landing, as well as the Cuban Missile Crisis, introduction of the birth control pill, Watergate scandal, and Watts rebellion. Today, LGBT pride events often take place at the end of June to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which took place in 1969—and which are considered the most important event in the modern struggle for LGBT rights in the United States.

In 1964, Mario Savio, an Italian American student at the University of California, Berkeley, joined Freedom Summer, a campaign that aimed to register African American voters in Mississippi. Freedom Summer activists and their local allies faced brutal violence. While walking in Jackson, Mississippi, Savio and two others were attacked, but they survived. Weeks earlier, James Chaney, an African American activist, along with Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, Jewish American activists from New York, were arrested by a sheriff who was also a Klan member. Following the men’s release, they were abducted and murdered. Savio later became an important figure in the Free Speech Movement.

One of the least-studied civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the Chicano Movement, or El Movimiento, sought to achieve educational, social, and political equality for Mexican Americans in the United States. Southern California became an epicenter of Chicano activism. In 1968, Chicano students staged walkouts across the city, protesting academic prejudice and educational inequality in public schools.

As Mexican American women activists demanded that the male-dominated movement address issues such as sexism, birth control, and equality in the home, the Chicana Feminist Movement was born. Chicano and Chicana activists gravitated to social movements, including La Raza Unida, a national political party that viewed political empowerment as critical to social change. In Los Angeles, La Raza Unida’s leaders included Raul Ruiz, Fred Aguilar, Marshall Diaz, and Charon D’Aiello.

Born to an Italian immigrant father and Jewish American mother, D’Aiello, pictured here at age seven, was raised in El Sereno, a predominantly Mexican-, Italian-, and Anglo American working class neighborhood northeast of downtown Los Angeles. In her early childhood, D’Aiello often accompanied her father on his ice delivery route. Her Italian-Jewish heritage figured prominently in her upbringing, and like many of her contemporaries, she embraced the car subculture that had become inextricably intertwined with the city’s personality.

In 1960, D’Aiello entered California State University, Los Angeles, as a business major. As the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War increased, D’Aiello frequently saw the names of young men from her neighborhood listed among the dead and missing. In 1967, D’Aiello’s younger brother and only sibling, Michael, pictured here, was deployed to Vietnam. One evening, while her parents were celebrating their wedding anniversary, the doorbell rang. A military officer greeted D’Aiello and reluctantly delivered the grim news that her brother had been killed in combat.

Michael D’Aiello, age 21, had died while saving the lives of other members of his platoon. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for his selfless acts of bravery.

Michael’s death devastated the family and proved a particularly life-changing moment for D’Aiello, who began to question the nation’s involvement in the war. Through her activism, D’Aiello, pictured here, became acquainted with the diverse voices that comprised the peace movement, including African American civil rights groups, organized labor, educators, members of the clergy, and the Young Workers Liberation League—an arm of the Communist Party, which she initially joined.

D’Aiello favored the grassroots La Raza Unida party because it addressed the issues that resonated in her community, such as discrimination and the disproportionately high death rate of Mexican American soldiers in Vietnam. La Raza Unida sought to empower the community by registering minority voters and organizing campaigns to elect Chicanos to political offices.

In 1977, D’Aiello, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at California State University, Los Angeles, was selected for the position of affirmative action director at the university. During her 17-year tenure, D’Aiello enacted policies and created innovative programs that resulted in the hiring of more ethnic minority and female faculty and administrators. Meanwhile, D’Aiello’s husband, David Sandoval, directed the university’s Educational Opportunity Program, which provided a myriad of support services to historically disadvantaged students.

On June 12, 1992, D’Aiello’s 16-year-old son, Ochari, was tragically murdered while participating in a summer program at Morehouse College in Georgia. The couple had encouraged Ochari, whose biological father was African American, to attend the educational program in order to experience being African American in the South. Since their son’s death, D’Aiello and Sandoval have remained committed to educational justice and community empowerment. They have established several scholarships that enable students to attend college and support young activists in their academic pursuits.

Through the creation of new iconography and symbolic language, Chicano visual artists shaped the movement’s ideology and articulated its objectives. However, in 1970, despite the Chicano Movement’s momentum, few cultural institutions or galleries exhibited Chicano Art. That same year, an Italian American nun, Sister Karen Boccalero, co-founded a community art center in East Los Angeles that, in addition to becoming an epicenter for Chicano Art, fueled the Civil Rights Movement that reverberated across the nation.

Born Carmen Rose Boccalero to an Italian immigrant father and Italian American mother, Karen Boccalero was raised in East Los Angeles. She studied under renowned artist Corita Kent at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, and earned a master’s degree in fine art at Tyler School of Art in Rome. After returning to Los Angeles, she joined the Order of St. Francis and chose arts education as her vocation.

In response to some of the community’s most pressing challenges, including poverty, drugs, and violence, with a used printing press, Boccalero, pictured left, founded Self-Help Graphics in an East Los Angeles garage. A chain-smoker, who did not hesitate from using a litany of curses during an argument, Boccalero, or “Sister Karen,” defied most people’s expectations of a nun. To establish a permanent home for Self-Help Graphics, which would include a gallery, studio, and classrooms, Boccalero even battled the archdiocese.

Boccalero highlighted Mexican aesthetic traditions in much of the studio's output. Self-Help Graphics became a showcase and training ground for some of the nation's most important Latino artists, including Gronk, Frank Romero, Patssi Valdez, Willie Herrón, Harry Gamboa Jr., Carlos Almaraz, Eloy Torres, Gilbert “Magu” Luján, East Los Streetscapers, John Valadez, Leo Limon, Gil de Montes, Barbara Carrasco, Linda Vallejo, George Yepes, and Diane Gamboa. By providing teaching jobs, studio space, and early exhibitions for Chicano artists, Self-Help Graphics cultivated Chicano Art and put East Los Angeles on the map.

Boccalero sought to teach children, in her words, “the cultural advantages of being Mexican American” while providing valuable vocational training in artistic disciplines. Because arts education—or any instruction in Mexican arts or culture—was not offered to students in East Los Angeles, Self-Help Graphics converted a parcel delivery van into a mobile classroom. The Barrio Mobile Art Studio—equipped with a darkroom for film development, silk-screening equipment, and a variety of art supplies, including paints and clay—traveled to East Los Angeles neighborhoods, parks, and schools. The Barrio Mobile Art Studio served over 7,500 children each year.

In 1972, Self-Help Graphics held its first observance of Dia de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead,” a centuries-old Mexican celebration that commemorates the dead and reaffirms the joy of life. During a time when violence was devastating the community and when many soldiers never returned from Vietnam, Sister Karen hoped that Dia de los Muertos would become “part of Chicano culture.” Sister Karen and the early artists of Self-Help Graphics played an integral role in making the Day of the Dead in the United States what it is today.

Credits: Exhibit

Content Author- Marianna Gatto
Design- Robert Checchi
Curation- Marianna Gatto and Robert Checchi
Video Projections- Christopher Sprinkle
Graphics- Robert Checchi and Clyde Crossan
GCI Videos- Robert Checchi, Clyde Crossan, and Francesca Guerrini

Images Courtesy of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles, Corbis Images, El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Collection, Branimir Kvartuc, Marianna Gatto, Saveur magazine, Bon Appetit magazine, Holt-Atherton Special Collections, University of
the Pacific Library, Los Angeles Public Library, Jacuzzi, Paul Mitchell, Los Angeles City Archive, KRCA-TV, Macerich, ExperienceLA, California Digital Library, Library of Congress, George Yepes, Frank Romero, Barbara Carrasco, Leo Limon, Patssi Valdez, Gronk, Self-Help Graphics.

Special thanks to David Roberti, Charon D'Aiello Sandoval, the Buscaglia Foundation, Tomas Benitez, Marilyn Gonzalez, John Labarba, Tommy Lasorda and the Lasorda family, Eddie LePine, Mario Andretti, William Fasoli, the Jacuzzi family, John Paul DeJoria, and Paul Mitchell.

Credits: All media
The exhibit featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.