By Roberto Ferragina
The Amerigo Vespucci Society (AVS) of Long Branch once again celebrated Italian American Heritage and Culture month in as many ways as they could. Their current President, Joseph Mossa, stated, “As the nation’s oldest Italian American Mutual Aid Society, the AVS wanted to make sure it did all it could in October to celebrate and acknowledge the federally declared month of October as ‘Italian American Heritage and Culture Month’.” As a result, the organization participated and scheduled four events for October.
The first event, Italian Heritage Night, was held at the Long Branch Arts and Cultural Center on October 5th. It was the third year running and featured two local Italian American artists (Carla Valentino and Kathleen Lo Pinto Vignolini), seven local Italian American photographers (Nicole Probo, Julia Gasparini, Frank Valentino, Brian and son Joseph Valentino, James Monte, Tom Risoldi, and Robert LaBella), and Italian American sculpture Paul Pugliese. Free to the public and supported by the City of Long Branch Office of Community & Economic Development, the evening included an abundance of complimentary pastries from Caputo’s Pastry Shoppe and Italian liquor samples from Long Branch Distillery, whose owner Mark Elia is a proud Italian American and member of the AVS. The featured vendor this year was
which supplied an extremely large antipasto spread filled with premium Italian cheeses, meats, salads, fruit,
and more. Owner Rick Piancone stated, “It was a pleasure to assist and participate.” He added, “The restaurant is literally a few doors down from the event venue, as such it was a natural fit to support this great event and to support the AVS and the overall Italian American community.”
Attendance was impressive as the room was at capacity. Dignitaries included Congressman Frank Pallone, Senator Vin GoPal, State Assembly Representatives Marilyn Piperno and Kim Eulner, Long Branch Mayor John Pallone, Atlantic Highlands Mayor Loretta Gluckstein, Ocean Township Councilman Rob Acerra, and more. There were also representatives from other local Italian American organizations, including the Figli Di Colombo Club, The Italian American Memorial Association (IAMA), the Italian American Association of the Township of Ocean (IAATO), and the local UNICO chapter. As the room filled with art enthusiasts and acoustic music filled the air by musician Doug Clarke, AVS member Roberto Ferragina stepped forward to introduce the artists and to welcome everyone. After the event he stated, “As Italians and Italian Americans, the arts are in our DNA. Our ancestors include the greats: Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Giotto, and the list goes on!” He went on to state, “We have talented local artists right here in the greater Long Branch and Monmouth County area, it’s a pleasure to partner with the city to feature them and to celebrate Italian American heritage and Culture month! The Italian community is united and proud of its culture and rich history.”
The second event was the Italian Flag raising at City Hall in Long Branch. The AVS has been raising the Italian flag for several years during the month of October and this year was no different. Led by the AVS and Mayor John Pallone, approximately fifty people attended the flag raising. This year the AVS invited a representative from a few other local Italian American organizations to assist in the actual flag raising. Those organizations included the Figli Di Columbo Club and the Italian American Association of the Township of Ocean (IAATO). AVS member and society Orator Frank Crupi – Esquire was one of the society members who attended the flag raising. After the flag was raised he stated, “There are several local Italian American organizations and that is a good thing. We all share pride in our heritage and we are all united by the beautiful red, white, and green of the Italian flag.” Assisting in the actual flag raising was Long Branch Councilman Mario Vieira who is an active member of the Portuguese community. The President of the AVS, Joseph Mossa, explained, “we wanted to include Councilman Vieira for several reasons. First, he is a member of the city council and as such we wanted to show our appreciation for the city holding the flag raising and acknowledging Italian American heritage month. Second, many people do not realize that the auxiliary flag for these monthly raisings was donated by the Long Branch Portuguese community several years ago. As such, the AVS wanted to show its appreciation to that community.”
The Italian flag will be on display in front of city hall on Broadway through the month of October. There are other municipalities throughout the state that have also raised the Italian flag at their respective municipal buildings. When asked about the meaning of the Italian flag colors AVS member Robert LaBella, owner of Long Branch’s Jamm Printing Company, stated, “There are several versions of what the colors represent however many see the white representing the snow filled Italian Alps, the green representing the Italian rolling plains and hills, and the red representing the blood spilt at the various Italian wars of independence. For us at the AVS the colors also represent the sacrifices many Italian immigrants made to create a better life for their children as well as the achievements Italian Americans have made to our great nation, the United States.”
The third event that the AVS participated in was the recent Annual Long Branch Columbus Day Parade. The AVS float, which was professionally made, was the brainchild of AVS member and local businessman Paul Sgro a few years ago. The float has professional graphics, including a jumbo size AVS logo with the image bust of the Italian explorer and mapmaker Amerigo Vespucci. It also has large speakers which amplify many songs, including the Italian National Anthem and God Bless America. AVS flag bearers and approximately twenty five members marched in front of the float, all wearing suits and red ties with hand made sashes made several years ago by the late Ralph Ciambrone, a fifty year member who was a local Long Branch tailor and active member of the Italian American community. On the float were various AVS family members, friends, and children throwing an abundance of candy to the spectators along the parade path. When asked about his efforts regarding the float, AVS Member Paul Sgro stated, “my interest to assist with the float was and is my passion to always remember where I came from and to never forget educating my family and friends about the struggles of our ancestors as well as the incredible history of both Italians throughout history and what Italian Americans have accomplished in all walks of life from architecture to fashion, to science.”
AVS President Joseph Mossa interjected by stating, “we are a volunteer organization and members such as Paul, who volunteer their time, effort, and money, are why this organization has existed since 1875.”
In addition to the three events held thus far in October, the society changed their calendar again this year to include their annual “Thomas Gagliano Tripe Dinner” which will be held later in the month. The event has been taking place at the AVS for over fifty years. It has always been sold out and includes a multi course meal. Society member Joseph Valentino, who has been on the Tripe Dinner Committee for many years stated, “having the dinner this year in October, as we did last year, allows the membership an opportunity, once again, to further celebrate, acknowledge and enjoy some Italian passions, that being amazing food, friendship, community, and brotherhood. It’s also an opportunity to remind those who attend the dinner about Italian Heritage month and the history behind it”
The AVS, founded in 1875 and incorporated in 1893, takes its name from the famous 15th century Italian explorer and map maker. The organization was originally established as a mutual aid society where Italian men could congregate, escape from discrimination and anti-Italianism that began during the period of large-scale Italian immigration during the late 19th century. Since that time the society members have made it a priority to assist each other and their families when there was/is no other place to turn. Today, the AVS continues to be a mutual aid society as well as a 501(c)3 organization assisting individuals and organizations in the community and providing educational scholarships. They are active in combating pervasive negative stereotyping and defamation of Italian Americans in the media and promote the extraordinary history and accomplishments of Italians and Italian-Americans. They also promote the admiration, general appreciation and love of Italy, its culture, society, arts and people. The AVS joins other local and national organizations in promoting Italophilia and combating anti-Italianism.