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Meet Marianna Gatto of Italian American Museum of Los Angeles

Today we’d like to introduce you to Marianna Gatto.

Marianna, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I’m a lifelong resident of Los Angeles, born and raised in Los Feliz and Silverlake, and from the time I was young, history, especially United States immigration history, was what ignited a spark in me. Being Italian American, I was particularly drawn to the period between 1876 and 1914, when 14 million people—roughly one-third of the country’s population—left Italy, fleeing social and political inequities, disease, and natural disasters. My family was among these immigrants, and their experiences, not unlike immigrants of today, truly humble me.

My grandmother’s family emigrated from Sicily just before the turn of the twentieth century and worked in the sugar cane fields of the southern United States like scores of other Sicilians recruited to fill the labor shortage that ensued after the abolition of slavery. From there they migrated west to Pueblo, Colorado, which was then home to a large Italian community. My grandfather, from Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot, arrived in 1919. He worked in mines and mills and also settled in Pueblo. At my grandmother’s urging, the family relocated to Los Angeles in 1946. I credit her vision and foresight for making our lives possible.

Although Los Angeles is home to the nation’s fifth-largest Italian American population, the story of the region’s Italian immigrants was never part of the narrative I was taught growing up, and consequently, I assumed that Italian Americans did not have a significant history in Southern California. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned about a building on the edge of downtown Los Angeles, the Italian Hall, which had been constructed in 1908 and served as the community’s gathering place for decades. I was floored.

In the early 1950s, a time when hundreds of historic buildings in Los Angeles were razed in the name of progress, the State of California purchased the Italian Hall and several other structures in the area to preserve them. The Italian community ceased to use the building, and most of the Italian Hall’s history faded into memory. In the 1990s, the Italian community leads an effort to restore the building, which had languished after decades of neglect and creates a cultural center. It was then that I first walked through the building, and it was like the walls literally spoke to me. I said to myself, “I want to be the director of this place!”

Through the writings of historian Gloria Ricci Lothrop, who was an integral part of the campaign to preserve the building, I learned that the first Italians began settling in Los Angeles in the 1820s when the region was part of Mexico. Her work served as a launching point for my research, which has continued since then. In 2005, I was hired by the city of Los Angeles as a curator. In addition to working on exhibitions, I created educational programs, served as a collections manager, and coordinator of historic preservation projects. I also acted as a liaison between the city and the non-profit group formed for the purpose of creating a museum in the Italian Hall.

During this time, I had the honor of working with legendary public affairs and political consultant Joe Cerrell, who was one of my mentors, as well as the museum’s board of directors who, despite various obstacles, remained devoted to the project. In 2010, I left the city and became the director of the museum, now known as the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles, or IAMLA. After a series of temporary exhibitions, not to mention raising a few million dollars, the IAMLA opened in 2016 with an award-winning, 21st century, dynamic permanent exhibition exploring the Italian American experience in the context of Southern California’s and the nation’s multi-ethnic history.

The museum that tens of thousands of people visit each year was made possible generosity of our donors and partnership with the City of Los Angeles, the dedication of our board and staff, and the creative vision and talent of our permanent exhibition designer, Robert Checchi, and architect Rick Corsini. As a historian, the Italian American experience in greater Los Angeles has been the focus of my research for over a decade and is the subject of two books I have authored, the second of which will be released by Angel City Press later this year.

To rediscover and preserve such stories, and in the process, promote meaningful dialog about our city and its origins, is at the heart of my work and is what I enjoy the most about my position.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
There have been a number of challenges along the way. One of the first hurdles was communicating that Italian Americans have a legitimate (and quite fascinating) history in Los Angeles. When I first began working on the project, there was a general lack of awareness of the historic presence of Italian’s in the region. People would scratch their heads and look at me quizzically, “Italians? In Los Angeles?”

We still get that, but less so, and that is in part due to the awareness that the museum has generated. Los Angeles as a city was founded by the Spanish before passing to Mexican rule, and it was during that time, the 1820s, that the first Italians arrived. Early Italian settlers faced less hostility here than they did elsewhere in the United States.

Remember, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Italians were the immigrants that the government sought to keep out, and it did, through legislation such as the Immigration Act of 1924. They faced tremendous hostility and prejudice. In the same years that eleven Italians were lynched in New Orleans, an Italian American was elected to the Los Angeles City Council.

The shared Latin culture between Mexicans and Italians, including similar languages and customs, and a common religion, enabled the region’s early Italian settlers to achieve considerable upward mobility. The availability of land and the region’s comparatively cosmopolitan nature was in part why the city’s once-thriving Little Italies, including the Plaza area, present-day Chinatown, Lincoln Heights, San Pedro, and parts of Chavez Ravine and the present-day Arts District did not persist in the same way that they did in New York or Boston.

As for organizational challenges, it certainly did not help that the museum’s capital campaign took place during the years of the economic crisis. To say that most people were not prioritizing charitable giving during that time is an understatement. We persevered, however, and created one of the city’s cherished cultural institutions.

Currently, some of our greatest challenges are similar to other non-profit organizations. In this great city, there is no shortage of worthy causes to support and a lot of competition for charitable giving.

The IAMLA is often pigeon-holed as an “ethnic” organization, though 85 percent of our visitors and the people we serve are not of Italian ancestry, and it gives me great satisfaction to watch visitors of all ages and origins connect with our content. The IAMLA speaks as much to the United States as a nation of immigrants as it does to the Italian American experience.

The IAMLA also takes tremendous pride imparting local history, for which I believe there is a tremendous void. If you think about it, the average public school student will learn about the history of Boston, Birmingham, Philadelphia, and New York, but the teaching of local history is primarily confined to the fourth grade.

Los Angeles is a city that influences the world, but most people believe the city’s origins are with Hollywood, not 44 people who walked from what is now northern Mexico to the Native American settlement of Yangna.

Italian American Museum of Los Angeles – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
The IAMLA is located in the historic Italian Hall, one of the oldest remaining structures from Los Angeles’ historic Little Italy, listed today on the National Register of Historic Places. The IAMLA is a 21st century, interactive museum that documents the history and contributions of Italian Americans in Southern California and the nation, a story that is inextricably linked to the region itself. It is collaboratively operated with the City of Los Angeles.

The IAMLA’s awarding-winning permanent exhibition utilizes technology used by a few other institutions in the country to bring history to life. Large, 10′ x 12′ smart glass panels with projections provide an overview of each exhibit, while the complete exhibitions are viewed on tablets. Thanks to a partnership with Google, the IAMLA’s permanent exhibition is accessible to both to visitors at our brick-and-mortar location and those who visit the museum virtually across the globe.

Some of the objects on display include Lady Gaga’s custom-made Donatella Versace robe from the Born This Way tour, Rudolph Valentino’s typewriter, Prohibition-era prescription whiskey bottles, Tommy Lasorda’s Hall of Fame jersey, WWII identification cards belonging to some of the 600,000 Italian Americans who were considered enemy aliens and faced arrest and internment, and hundreds of other items and rare photographs.

The IAMLA also presents a variety of temporary exhibitions, including the recent “Sicilian Cart: History in Movement,” a collaboration between the IAMLA, the Musca Museum of Sicily, and Dolce & Gabbana. The exhibition explored the history of Sicily through the lens of the island’s iconic cart.

The IAMLA is open to the public free of charge, but donations are encouraged. The IAMLA offers educational programming, including film screenings, lectures, workshops, site-based activities, and curricula, as well as what has become one of Southern California’s signature events, Taste of Italy, an upscale Italian food and wine event that takes place annually in October.

The IAMLA’s collection, which will be made available online in the coming months, contains thousands of objects, images, and archival documents relative to local history. The IAMLA is proud to serve as a steward of our region’s heritage.

What is “success” or “successful” for you?
Success to me is striving for excellence both personally and professionally, promoting understanding, learning something new each day, continuously growing, and contributing to the community in a positive fashion.


  • Museum memberships begin at $25 and include invitations to exclusive events, discounts, etc.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Taso Papadakis and Valentina Socci

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