Families hope to preserve strong heritage and culture through Little Italy Festival
Jacqueline Valcoviak can remember days when her family didn’t go shopping or work on Sunday.
For her Italian family, those were days to spend with each other.
“Every Sunday you went to church,” said Valcoviak, who grew up in Dickinson and lives there now. “After church, you went to grandma’s house. You had spaghetti dinner and you visited with family.”
Valcoviak, who is a member of the Emmite family, is part of a large and vibrant tradition of Italian heritage in Galveston County, one marked by hard work and family ties. On the mainland and the island, residents with Italian lineage still celebrate traditions and family stories.
Italian heritage is so strong in the area, several Dickinson residents are banding together to celebrate their shared value of family and community.
Valcoviak is helping put together the second year of the Dickinson Little Italy Festival of Galveston County, an event planned for March 13 and aimed at highlighting the different families who built the area.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, families from Italy immigrated to the Galveston County area. A large group of immigrants from Sicily settled in the area, especially in Dickinson, according to the Texas State Historical Association.
The Little Italy Festival highlights the histories of area families with photos and stories on poster boards, music, food and a St. Joseph’s altar, a tradition from the 1800s that honors St. Joseph’s March 19 feast day.
For many Galveston County residents with Italian ancestors, the hard work their relatives put into building a life in Texas still is very much a point of pride.
Those sacrifices led to much opportunity today, Galveston resident V.J. Tramonte said.
Tramonte’s relatives came to America from Sicily right after the 1900 Storm and made their way to Galveston through New York, he said.
Tramonte’s great-grandfather, Dominic Tramonte, worked for years to save up the money to buy passage for his wife and eight children, V.J. Tramonte said.
“Imagine leaving your wife and your children back at home and crossing on the boat,” Tramonte said. “People don’t realize the sacrifices.”
Tramonte’s family owned a meat-packing business until about 1966, where they used every part of the cows and hogs for sale.
“My grandfather Tramonte used to say we utilize everything but the oink and the moo,” Tramonte said.
Over time, Valcoviak saw overt expressions of Italian heritage fade in Galveston County and she wanted a way to honor that history, she said.
“I was just amazed by so many changes,” Valcoviak said. “Even though I knew that there were a lot of Italian roots in the area, it was like celebrations were not what they used to.”
Having such festivals is important to introducing the younger generation to Italian customs, Dickinson resident Jason Carter said.
Carter, whose Italian heritage comes from the Residori family, grew up speaking Italian with his grandparents, he said.
“I was always very proud of it,” Carter said.
The food, such as fried cabbage, was always an integral part of his childhood and Carter is working to bring back Sunday family days with his own children, Carter said.
The stories of family perseverance also are dear to Marisa Folse, a Friendswood resident who grew up in the Texas City area hearing stories of her Italian relatives.
Her grandfather, Nicolo Achile, boarded a ship in Palermo in 1913 and crossed to America with a coin pouch around his neck, Folse said.
Her grandfather faced challenges, including thieves who stole money from him and sleeping outside before he found his way in Dickinson, Folse said. That story is a matter of pride for the family, Folse said.
“We’d work hard,” Folse said. “We would move forward. More than anything, it’s that pride, it’s that heritage of where we started.”
For Folse, being Italian in Galveston County also means a heightened sense of focus on family, she said.
“Sunday dinners at great-grandma’s was such a big deal,” Folse said. “There would be so many people.”
The Radicionis of Galveston had planned to reconnect with their roots in Italy last year, but the pandemic stymied their plan, Terry Radicioni said.
Terry’s husband, Mitch, was raised hearing stories of the Italian immigrants in his family, she said.
“They came and bought land and opened Italian grocery stores, some in Dickinson and some in Galveston,” Terry Radicioni said.
As a nurse, Radicioni still takes care of people who speak some Italian, she said.
Things obviously are changing for people of Italian heritage, said George Oggero, whose ancestors traveled from northern Italy and Sicily to Dickinson.
People of Italian descent don’t only marry others of Italian descent. Families tend to do other activities on Sundays. But that value placed on community still is present and important, he said.
“They instilled in all of us a sense of family and sense of being giving,” Oggero said. “That’s what it was about. It was about giving and surviving and doing what you could to help your family.”
If you go: Barring any pandemic-related change of plans, the Dickinson Little Italy Festival of Galveston County is set from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. March 13 at the Dickinson City Hall, 4403 state Highway 3, and Emmite Squre, 4404 St. Goar St.