The Sicilian Heritage Festival: Tradition Reigns in Independence
Festivals are common in Louisiana – in the spring and the summer, especially. From oysters to rice, from frogs to music, everything finds a time to be celebrated. The joy of life is everywhere – even in Independence, Louisiana. Independence chooses to celebrate its Sicilian heritage. This year, March 9, 10, and 11 were the dates of remembering the legacies of my forefathers of the community of family, food, farming, and old-time religion at the Sicilian Heritage Festival.
According to the official website for the Sicilian Heritage Festival, we Italians who have roots in the heart of Tangipahoa Parish have been celebrating our southern Italian culture since 2008on the 2ndweekend in March officially. However, this same type of annual gathering for the community has been going on in Independence since 1890 (Indysicilianfest.com). Each year, we American-Italians of Independence increasingly make the legacy our own, adding new and meaningful activities to the previous line-up of nostalgic events.
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For example, this year, Italian dancing in traditional costume in the streets was added to the delight of all the visitors. City-Data’s website reveals that, inthe community of Independence, Italians outnumber all other ethnic groups by far (City-data.com). Why the Italians immigrating to America back around the turn of the century came north from the New Orleans area has an amazing story behind it. Independence is still a small town of only 1,888 residents, but the greatness of Independence is not about numbers. It is about heart.
Many of the residents, like myself, are first, second, or third-generationItalian-Americans whose ancestors can be easily traced to southern Italy cultures – mostly from Sicily (Westbrook 2). In my case, the Piergiorgio and AnnamariaMitidierifamily came here in 1893 with a group of earnest and sweating Italian-American immigrantswilling to do back-breaking work, arriving in the port of New Orleans. Slavery had been abolished before the Civil War, but there were still fields to work. This tough and relentless group of immigrants and their willing children, including my great-grandparents, began to replace the freed slaves in the cane fields, located in the swamps in the parishes surrounding New Orleans. Someone must have told them about the lure of Tangipahoa Parish directly north.
The strawberry fields appealed to these folks – not only because land was cheaper in the rural areas north, but probably because raising strawberries was more similar to the homeland farming of grapes and olives. These immigrants set their sights on Independence, but they expanded the strawberry industry in a circle outside the small town to an area that extended from Amite all the way down to Hammond (Westbrook 1).
The tradition of the Sicilian Heritage Festival still represents memories of the original intentions of long ago in Italian family customs, such as distinctively Italian cooking, farming, and seriouslyreligious celebrations, although the new celebration continues with new angles and twists that show the influence of newer generations.
Italian families center around eating huge, delicious meals where everyone is involved. Italian cooking is at the heart of the Sicilian Heritage Festival. One of the most popular events is the Spaghetti Cook-off. No fewer than twenty family-team competitors demonstrate their nostalgic recipe skills from old Sicily or other communities of origin in south Italy. In Independence on the second weekend in March, the air filled with the aroma of fresh meatballs of secret combinations of veal, beef, and pork, as well as rich red sauces of fresh tomatoes, basil, garlic, and Romano cheese. Besides the cooking contest, the corresponding spaghetti-eating contest is always a big draw.
Even the younger generation who have had to move to Baton Rouge or New Orleans to earn their livings return to Independence to feast with friends and family on this special weekend.Cooking takes place outside, just like the old days. Old folks stand around ruminating memories about the days from their children where each family had their own clay and brick ovens. Our family outdoor ovens are the sources for memorable stories about roasting whole pigs on Sundays or making five loves bread at one time for the week. The old people laugh and talk about putting sweet potatoes on the end of sticks and holding them in the hot coals to roast. The brick and clay ovens were not the only source of homemade foods. Our Italian elders chat endlessly about making their own pasta, their own tomato paste, and even their own cheeses from scratch.
The Sicilian Heritage Festival brings the food – brucciloni, pizza, and lasagna (Westbrook 4), but the food is special – made from the memories of tastes and images of days gone by. Every family member even today is involved in Italian food production every weekend, and, especially, during festival. I know that being Italian in Tangipahoa Parish and cooking Italian food go hand in hand. My family has its own secret variations of red sauce and pasta to please the visitors and the regular attendees at the festival. Going to the festival is like climbing into a time warp and eating the way people did over one hundred years ago. Not much has changed – and that is a good thing!
The bounty from farming is shared at the Sicilian Heritage Festival. American-Italians, like our family, love the challenge and the magic of farming. Family gardens are a big deal in Independence. Strawberry farming is still huge in Independence – and at the Sicilian Heritage Festival. Strawberry shortcake, strawberry jams and jellies, and strawberry wine are still part of the culture in this town where most of the surnames come straight from a telephone book in Italy – Casoni, Alessi, Lamonica, Guzzardo, Cali, to name just a few. Fruits can all be turned into wines – and it is! Italians love any kind of wine.
Wineries can be found in this little community, and all of them sporting their delicious and fragrant wares at the festival. One winemaker with local fame is John Labate, a good friend of my grandfather. Mr. Johnny never sells his wine, but chooses to give it away at the festival. This act shows the heart of the festival. Visitors stand amazed that he will accept no money, only a smile and a hug in payment. He specializes in Old World recipes from his ancestors of all kinds of fruit -blackberry, blueberry, raisin, and strawberry wines, but he can make wine from peaches, plums, pineapples, cherries, or figs, as well (Westbrook 6).Homemade fresh strawberry gelato, which tastes like ice cream, canbe purchased on every corner at the festival. Italian gardens grow more than strawberries, though.
Fresh pestos are featured at the festival from local Italian family gardens, which have generally mixed in their shrubbery, fresh herbs, peppers, parsley, okra, eggplant, snap beans, and green onions, as well as fruit from fruit trees or vines in the yard, like pears, muscadine, tomatoes, and figs. Some of the larger gardens and farms, like the Liuzzas, share at farmer’s markets far and wide – but they are always in abundance at the Sicilian Heritage Festival.
Besides exalting Italian cooking and farming, ethnic Italians in Independence raise up the Roman Catholic religious heritage like no other place in America during this festival.Roman Catholicism is at the hub of the social and cultural life in Independence all year long and the Sicilian Heritage Festival on this special weekend. An invocation by the local priest of the parish signals the beginning of the festival.
The Mater Dolorosa Catholic Church holds Mass several times daily, which is nearly inconceivable for such a small town. The church not only provides daily mass during the year, but it serves as the hub for the annual Sicilian festival. A new church has been built in the past few years, but the Old Mater Dolorosa sanctuary is now used as a museum with all sorts of artifacts and memorabilia of the Sicilian heritage of the Italian-Americans in Independence. The Knights of Columbus Men’s Club and the Ladies’ Auxiliary put together activities for the festival.
St. Joseph’s Day is very significant in Independence culture of tradition, and the St. Joseph’s altar, mirroring the Sicilian original, is a magnificent sight to see during the festival, melding family, fun, farming, and religion in a unique way. Men, women, and children of the community work together to amass the broad array of delicacies and specialties on the altar to give to the community. Feast days, copied from those in the old country, are common in Independence and heralded at the festival. Roman Catholic heritage is very important to the Italian-Americans in Independence.
My great grandmother, Sophia Frassati, told me the legend about the St. Joseph Feast Day fifteen years ago before her death. St. Joseph, the step-father of Jesus, was honored by being the patron saint of the Roman Catholic Church. Italians, in gratitude to St. Joseph for rain that nourished their farms, made an oath to feed the poor in exchange for the blessings. Now, altar-builders strive to give to others and feed the poor in return, bringing the tradition from Sicily to Independence (Westbrook 8).
Annie LauraAccardo, leader of the Italian rosary recitation for the Independence opening of the Sicilian Heritage Festival and my distant cousin, is quoted as saying about the altar at her home, “I never minded strangers coming into my house when I had an altar. My house doesn’t belong to me, anyway. I’m just borrowing my house from Jesus, and that means it’s open to everybody” (Westbrook 10).
The Sicilian Heritage Festival is a bridge from the past to the future, as Italian-American residents continue to share. Unique to the Independence area of Louisiana, this festival draws not only locals, but visitors from faraway places. Fun and family rules annually at the Sicilian Heritage Festival just as it did in the old days when this community met to celebrate with food, farming, and religion.
- “Independence, Louisiana.” City-Data.com. Web. Retrieved Mar. 1, 2018.http://www.city-data.com/city/Independence-Louisiana.html#b.
- “The Independence Sicilian Festival.” Indysicilianfest.com. Web. Retrieved Mar. 1, 2018.
- Westbrook, Laura. “Italian Traditions in Independence, Louisiana?” Louisianafolklife.org. Web. Retrieved Feb. 24, 2018.