If you think of the Los Angeles Lakers, the first thing that comes to mind may be the television lights, the sporting successes known around the world, the millionaire athletes and an intense life of deadlines, appointments and goals.
If, on the other hand, you think of Settefrati, the first thing that comes to mind is: where is it? After discovering the Comino Valley, you immediately think of a slowed down pace, scents of the forest, centuries old religious traditions and a life in the shadows of the footlights.
Los Angeles vs Settefrati can also be summarized as 14.5 million vs 0.001 million in the difference of population between the two cities. If you think in terms of notoriety, it’s unequal but in the life of Gary Vitti, these two realities have been symbiotic and nourished and have strengthened him through more than half of his life.
Allow me to begin at the beginning:
In the professional sports world, many people know who Gary Vitti is, but for those who don’t , let me summarize the life of this man. He was the head athletic trainer for the World Champion Los Angeles Lakers for 32 years. The Los Angeles Lakers are a storied franchise considered by many as the most famous and greatest sports team in history. The association with such an iconic team has put him in the spotlight of televisions around the world.
His actions and choices have been the topic of thousands of journalists and his pace of work and life would have been impossible for most people in the world. But few know that the origins of all of his grandparents and his father are from Settefrati, Italy, a place he first visited at 30 years of age.
Settefrati is a small village nestled in between Rome and Naples. It lies in the woods of the Abruzzo, Lazio and the Molise National Park with the splendid Comino Valley at its feet. But its peculiarity is that it has a number of inhabitants equal to its number of residents living abroad. It is one of the towns with the highest percentage of immigrants since the Second World War.
For this reason, together with the administration, we have spent years working with its community abroad. Primarily, Tony Malizia of Toronto, Canada and others from Settefrati’s sister city, Stamford, Connecticut (USA) have put forth an effort to bring what is now first, second and third generations back to their Italian roots.
This past winter, we worked on a regeneration project for the town that would attract young Canadian and Americans to discover their Italianness. It includes a television format called Felicita Back Home. Felicita was the mother of seven sons martyred for their christian faith, hence the name of the town “Settefrati” (seven brothers).
Conceived from a tool that uses a visual language platform with a strategy involving Television and social networks, the community of Settefrati in Italy and abroad has unanimously invoked the name of Gary Vitti as their leader and Town Ambassador.
Our mission is to be able to experiment with this model so it can be a template for many other Italian Municipalities that are experiencing the same issues of losing the Italian identity of future generations.
My meeting with the ambassador of Settefrati Gary Vitti
At the beginning of August, I had the opportunity to visit the town of Settefrati. I met a contingent of Italian-Americans that showed me the house of Gary Vitti. It’s a very simple building at the edge of the village. This site, combined with the stories of those who know him, has already given me the image of a person with a simple heart who returns to his village roots to feel ‘normal' and part of the local community.
Gary arrived during the celebrations of the Madonna di Canneto, one of the most followed religious events in Italy. After the celebrations, the mayor Ricardo Frattaroli organized a meeting for me with Gary.
I met Gary Vitti in Rome at Cafe Vitti, a restaurant, bar and hotel owned by his cousin Onorio Vitti in Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina, just behind the Italian Parliament. We talked about his roots, family upbringing and lifestyle. I spent 4 hours which felt like 4 minute with Gary, his wife Martha of Mexican descent and his cousin Onorio.
The theme of my meetings has always been about the relations between the Italian villages and their descendants, a theme that also touched Martha and her origins. The Mexican community that she was raised in, in America, is still deeply rooted in traditional cultural values that include food, language, music, morals, values and ethics, while our Italian community is losing its sense of family with the passing of each generation.
Gary was born in Stamford, Connecticut (USA) where there is still the largest concentration of Settefratese. In fact, the emigrants of the last century moved by word of mouth and when one of them settled in a place where he could find work, he would then import his brothers, sisters, cousins and fellow villagers to a new future rooted in finding the “American Dream”.
They brought traditions of the old country, replicating the best they could of life as they knew it, keeping their dialect and all local customs alive. Gary's grandparents were both from Settefrati but their relationship with their origins were diametrically opposite. His maternal grandfather and grandmother only had a memory of a hard life steeped in poverty with no intention of ever returning. The opposite held true for his paternal grandfather, who continued to send American dollars back to his wife in Italy with the full intention of returning to his homeland when he retired.
Gary’s father was born in Settefrati but immigrated to the United States at the age of 16 never able to return to live full time but also never losing the deep love he held for the town. Gary grew up in a house divided by his paternal grandfathers and fathers love for Settefrati and his maternal grandfather and mothers disdain for the same place.
His mothers mission was to assimilate as Americans in language, education and culture. This even extended to the origin of his name: Gary.
His father (Mario), wanted to name him after his grandfather Angelo. His mother felt it was too Italian of a name but they came up with a compromise. Angelo, was a common laborer who worked on the construction of the Chrysler building in New York City. During the winter months he wore a cape to shield him from the cold. He had a striking resemblance to the famous Italian General Garibaldi. The name, Garibaldi was shortened to Gary and it stuck.
Unlike his mother, Gary had always had a burning desire to identify and get to Settefrati, the land of his roots. Finally, when he turned 30 years old, after finishing college and graduate school, he had the time and money to find the home his father was born in. Without knowing our language, he persevered to solve the problems of the division and succession of the ramshackle family home.
At that time he was not yet that famous but he was immediately set on buying the shares of the house from his fathers sisters and restoring it. He still had no idea what his relationship with Settefrati would become over time, but the stories his father told prompted him to form a bond with his origins.
And so throughout his life this house has been his private corner where he can escape the fame of professional sports and return to a life that is centered in reality.
“Many people think I return to my villa in Italy during the off season. I must explain, that if my family had a villa in Italy, they would not have immigrated to the United States. There is no life of luxury when I go to the home my father was born in but it’s important for me to go to that familiar place, a place that centers me. I’ve had people from the NBA stay at our home in Italy, including Hall of Fame player James Worthy.
He was surprised at how normal he was treated by the people there. It seemed the pictures they took of him were more about him being so tall than being so famous. He felt the same feeling of what it means to live a few days as a normal person enjoying the simple things in life.”
These words from Gary summarize his relationship with Settefrati and how his Italian origin is almost secondary to being from Settefrati. A feeling of belonging to something special that can be handed down to future generations using the modern tools of communication.
We are moving forward with this Settefrati and the Felicita Back Home model in the hopes that we will bring the spirit of our magnificent local Italian cultures to the children and their children's children of Italian immigrants around the world.
Thank you to our new Town Ambassador of Settefrati, its mayor Riccardo Frattaroli, the municipal administration and the whole Italian community in Italy and abroad.