Operating out of a nearly 100-year-old house in Montrose that has been both a private residence and Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, the Italian Cultural and Community Center preserves rich traditions and culture with a décor that's a throwback to the mid-20th century.
When I comment that that a lot of the furniture and huge china cabinet is reminiscent of what I saw in my own Italian grandmothers’ houses, ICCC Marketing and Communications Coordinator Kathryn Brough has to laugh. “We get that a lot!” she offers.
But despite its appearance, the ICCC is no museum to just look at. It’s home to a busy schedule of events year-round that includes classes in cooking, language, and travel. There are wine tastings, film screenings, musical concerts, and lectures on art, opera, and culture, some in multiple parts.
Sure, the pop culture shorthand for Italian culture is rooted in pizza, The Godfather, “The Sopranos,” and Frank Sinatra or Sophia Loren. Plus a lot of high passion and talking with hands.
But as ICCC Program and Event Director Erika Myers (herself a native of Veneto in northern Italy) says, the Center hopes to change – or at least broaden - that perception.
“We try to have programs that will expand what people’s visions are for Italian culture, especially when it comes to the arts,” she says. “And there are a lot of niche markets. Art and music lovers will come for what we do here, but also when we take trips to places like the Museum of Fine Arts to see the Michelangelo exhibit. Movie buffs will come for the films, and we show things here that are premiers for the entire state.”
At one point in the mid-20th century, the ICCC house served as a sort of general meeting place for Houston’s more than 20 individual Italian clubs, started by immigrants and often associated with a specific church. Today, Myers says five or six of the surviving clubs still come there.
Italians have been coming to this continent since…well…pretty much the start. After all, the country is named for an early explorer from “the Boot,” Amerigo Vespucci (even if he was sailing under a Spanish flag).
Our popular consciousness may think that most European immigrants came to the country via Ellis Island and then spread out to areas like Texas. But that’s not the actual case, according to Sandra Celli Harris, a retired Professor of Italian Studies at the University of Houston who taught a course in Italian immigration.
“A lot of the northern Italians did go through Ellis Island, but many of the southern Italians and Sicilians took a more southern route, landing in the ports of Galveston, New Orleans, and – for some reason – Indianola,” she offers “Galveston at the time was the Wall Street of the South and very prosperous. The banking industry was huge. Houston was just farmland on the bayou”
Harris’ own family immigrated from Tuscany, but she says that her parents always taught her to assimilate as rapidly as possible. “We did not speak Italian at all, and there was a sign in my school that said ‘English is the language spoken,’” she adds. Though as a child, she would spend summers in Italy. Today, she still works with the UH’s Moores School of Music whenever they present an Italian opera program.
The organization also publishes the La Voce Italiana newsletter and is the primary force behind the Houston Italian Festival, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary this October 11-14. And it has a large collection of books and manuscripts about Italy – in both Italian and English – available for checkout by members.
“There is so much love for Italian arts and culture in Houston,” Myers sums up. “We have a connection with people who come here. And even in our cooking classes, people will want to know if the food [measures up] to what their grandmothers used to make.”
For more about the Italian Cultural and Community Center and its programs, visit ICCCHouston.com
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