It’s hard to believe that seventeen years have passed since History Colorado launched its Italian community documentation project. Guided by the History Colorado Collection Plan, the leaders of this initiative collaborated with the Italian American community statewide, aiming to better represent that community in History Colorado’s permanent collection. As an early immigrant group in Colorado, Italians brought their culture, traditions, and skills to our state—playing a major role in the businesses that supported a growing population while providing labor needed for the development of the railroad, mining, and agriculture in the place we call home.
Italians started settling in Colorado in the late 1850s, and, by 1922, roughly one in five people living in Colorado was Italian American. Today, Colorado’s Italian Americans number over 200,000 and make up about 5 percent of the state’s population—a testament to the community’s legacy here.
Immigrant groups had little time to spend on documenting their own histories and experiences. Instead, they focused on surviving: adjusting to their new lives in America, earning a living, and caring for their families. As a result, the Italian community’s history has traditionally been recorded in official documents, such as census records and birth certificates, and in secondary sources like newspapers and magazines. Often, researchers used these materials as the basis of their studies, finding no more than general overviews and a few names and photographs. Historians rarely found a diary or other firsthand account—the sort of finds that can open a window into someone’s life and their connection to the larger community.
In 2002, as a new way of looking at history, curatorial staff at History Colorado collaborated with Colorado’s Italian American community to actively collect personal stories that detailed the daily experiences of immigrants and family and community traditions. Through careful study of these individual experiences, the team revealed vital information about the Italian community’s social customs, religious beliefs, migration and settlement patterns, interactions with one another, and the mark the early Italian community left on contemporary Italian Americans.
Community involvement and support of the project was vital to its success. That year, History Colorado founded the Colorado Italian American Preservation Association, or CIAPA. A volunteer organization, CIAPA’s mission was (and is) to collaborate with History Colorado and other organizations to develop, support, and coordinate projects that preserve, promote, and celebrate Italian American culture and heritage. The organization has carried out its mission by meeting with people from the Colorado Italian American community—recording their stories and creating an archive that now holds more than 200 oral histories, 6,000 photographs, 4,000 research files, and 600 artifacts.
The largest Italian American research archive in the West, the CIAPA collection served as the foundation of the 2007 Italians of Denver exhibit and the 2008 book Italy in Colorado: Family Histories from Denver and Beyond. The CIAPA research archive is a major resource for both the Italian American community and studies of Italians in the West. In addition to genealogical research, the archive provides unique content for educational programs, publications, documentaries, and lectures. It supports academic research on immigration, businesses, industries, social customs, and fraternal organizations, as well as the legacies of discrimination, the role of Italian newspapers in the state’s Italian enclaves, and the impact of Fascism during and after World War II.
The CIAPA collection has enabled History Colorado to contribute to Colorado’s Italian American newspaper—Andiamo!—for the last fifteen years while at the same time connecting our community with historians in Modena, Italy. The collection has supported a documentary about the legacy of Italian emigration, facilitated loans for an exhibit at the Archives in Rome, and provided content for an Italian journalist interested in Colorado’s Italian American community—its ties to Italy today and the ways relations between Italy and the United States could improve.
A model for preserving other communities in Colorado, the Italian documentation project (along with other efforts by History Colorado staff) naturally led to the development of We Are Colorado. This community engagement initiative extends History Colorado’s work of connecting with underrepresented communities to foster collaboration, engagement, and opportunity and to fill in gaps in the permanent collection.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Italian documentation project is the renewed interest of families to record their own history and to pass on their traditions and customs to younger generations. That, along with History Colorado’s documentation project, is helping to ensure both the history and the future of Colorado’s Italian American community.