When the Melrose Park School put out a call for speakers on Columbus Day, the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans sprang into action. Their efforts yielded longtime activists Don Fiore and Lilia Juarez, who tag-teamed a pair of scintillating presentations to the entire student body on Oct. 12.
The school has an enrollment of 900 students from grades kindergarten to eighth grade and it was a daunting for both Lilia and Don to realize they were about to speak to so many children.
Principal Cristina Romo greeted the pair with a hearty “Viva Italia!” as they entered the gymnasium. The student body was broken down into two huge groups, with grades K-4 filling the gymnasium at 10 a.m., and grades 5-8 at 11 a.m.
The ethnic makeup of the school is of 95 percent Mexican American, and the principal began the presentation by reviewing the history of Melrose Park, noting that, beginning in 1880 and continuing for 100 years, Italian immigrants settled in Melrose Park because they wished to be close to their family and friends who had already arrived from the various regions of Italy.
Hardworking Italian families have called Melrose Park home for many generations, and the Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel emerged as their church of choice. In recent decades, those very same homes are now owned by Mexican-American families, who share a similar faith and work ethnic.
Principal Romo introduced Lilia Juarez, who began her presentation by displaying the Italian and Mexican flags and asking the children to note the difference, which they did. The Mexican flag has an eagle and a snake in the white portion and the Italian does not, but otherwise they’re exactly the same.
She then explained some of the history of Italy, beginning with the Roman Empire, moving on to the Middle Ages; and then the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery, of which Columbus was a key figure.
Lilia brought the book “Pinocchio,” which was written by Italian author Carlo Collodi, and compared it to the Disney movie of the same name. She then showed pictures of pasta in all of its forms, noting that it is the cornerstone of Italian cooking.
Then it was Don’s turn. He did a power-point presentation on the famous Italian scientists and inventors, starting with Galileo Galilei, Alessandro Volta and ending with Guglielmo Marconi and Enrico Fermi.
Don spoke about how Italy had been invaded by France, Spain, Austria and other nations, and how Giuseppe Garibaldi finally united the country in the mid-19th century.
On the culinary front, Don talked about the invention of pizza, noting that Queen Margarita di Savoy paid a visit to Naples in 1880, and the proprietor of the restaurant wanted to make something special for her. He made a flat dough, which was white, to which he added green basil and red tomato sauce, comprising the colors of the Italian flag, and named it Pizza Margarita in her honor. It became her favorite food, she promoted it all over Italy.
Don finished his presentation by mentioning many Italian women who were first in their respective fields, including Maria Montessori, who created a system of early childhood education that is practiced around the world.