San Pedro: Italian Fishing Community

San Pedro: Italian Fishing Community

See: CELEBRATION, Folk Festival
See: ITALIANS LOS ANGELES, History, Introduction

Fishing motifs on stained-glass windows
inside Mary Star of the Sea Church, San Pedro

Diehard Fisherman of San Pedro: Vince Lauro, Skipper of the Endurance. "Lauro is one of the last of the San Pedro sardine fishermen, and while all fishermen have to deal with the vicissitudes of the sea and of public taste, sardine fishermen have an additional burden ˝ the fish itself. Periodically, sardines simply vanish ˝ sometimes for decades at a time. Today the fish that were once feared to be gone forever are back in very healthy numbers, especially in the fall and winter months when the Southern California season peaks. Furthermore, they're even bordering on the trendy [...] Now, it's the fishermen who are nearly extinct. The crew of the Endurance isn't going without a fight. [Í] Finally Lauro shouts "Molla!"ˇItalian for "Let it go"ˇand the crew bursts into action. [Í] In the early part of the 20th century, sardines were so plentiful there seemed to be no bottom to the supply. In 1937, California fishermen caught more than 700,000 tons. A little more than a decade later, the fish began to disappear and, by the mid-1960s, the total catch for the entire West Coast was less than 1,000 tons. Just as folks were beginning to talk about sardines being fished to the brink of extinction, they returned.[Í] Despite all of the fish's unpredictable comings and goings, sardines helped build San Pedro. The Yugoslavs from the Dalmatian coast and Italians from the southern island of Ischia founded the fishery at the turn of the last century with their innovative purse seine nets, and to this day they dominate the fleet.

A tribute to Ischia in stained-glass inside
Mary Star of the Sea Church, San Pedro
A substantial number of Sicilians joined them after World War I. [Í] Multi-generational families seem to be the rule in the industry. Lauro's father, Ralph, was a San Pedro fisherman and beyond him stretch many generations of seafaring Ischians. The processing company to which he sells his catch, State Fish, is headed by Vanessa DeLuca, the third generation of her family in the industry. Her 105-year-old grandfather, Ferdinando di Bernardo, is still giving advice [See: FOOD, Winemaking]. Whether there will be a next generation is a subject of constant debate. The consensus among fishermen seems to be that their industry can't last another 10 years. The fact that fishermen were saying that 20 years ago (and probably with more justification) does not disprove their argument. [Í] The San Pedro fishing fleet, which numbered nearly 500 boats in 1937, is down to fewer than two dozen today. Of the 16 canneries that once occupied San Pedro and neighboring Terminal Island, none are left. The last closed in 2001. Most of the work has fled to low-wage countries, first to American Samoa, Puerto Rico and the Philippines and now to Malaysia. [Í] "I'm the last of it. I've got two sons and no way are they going into the industry," says Lauro. Of course, his own father swore the same thing. "He really didn't want me to do this," he says. "It killed my mother when I started to fish. She wanted me to get an education." But the sea does call. After crewing on his dad's boat during vacations growing up, Lauro quit school in the 10th grade to fish full time. "I knew what I wanted to do," he says.

From: "Cooking; Chasing the wild past; Off San Pedro's coast, a small fleet is back catching sardines the way fishermen did generations ago," by Russ Parsons, Los Angeles Times, Oct 15, 2003, p.F.1

Old World San Pedro at CanettiÝs [See: FOOD, Restaurants]. "It's easy to spot the fishermen. Their faces are deeply lined and tanned, their fingers calloused and gnarled, hardened by nylon ropes and the sting of sea salt, their nails ragged. [Í] In the late 1940s and 1950s, my grandfather and my great-uncle fished together out of San Pedro's harbor on creaky diesel-fueled boats, using nets they crafted and mended by hand. Even now, DiMassa cousins pull the nets and work the docks. [Í] Old World San Pedro gathers at Canetti's, as always, by groups. At one table, the village gossips sit; at another, city employees. Once a month, the firefighters stop by. But most of the action takes place at the center, where a long table is reserved for the fishermen. [Í] San Pedro had one of the world's largest commercial fleets back then (1940s); fishermen took orders from the many wholesale markets and canneries that lined San Pedro's wharves and filled them with the sardines, anchovies, barracuda, tuna, swordfish, mackerel and bonito that teemed in California's waters. Italian Americans in San Pedro had begun sending substantial checks˝hundreds of dollars at a time˝to relatives in New York who had been barely subsisting. [Í] Almost 30 years after my grandfather's death, Canetti can recite the names of boats Pasquale worked on˝the Santa Cristina, the Santa Lucia, the Santa Teresa˝and remembers my grandfather's famed lasagna, which was prepared for the Fisherman's Fiesta, an annual San Pedro event, in the restaurant's kitchen. [Í] Inside, where 20 tables fill the crowded main room, pale blue walls are lined with fragments of San Pedro's history: a model of an old schooner, the kind of boat on which Italians first arrived in Los Angeles; black-and-white photos of fishing boats from the 1940s; a framed Los Angeles Times screaming, in a banner headline, "Sub Attacks Southland"; posters admonishing the regulars to buy war bonds; a packing crate from the Catalina Fish Co., headquartered in San Pedro. [Í] There have been changes in San Pedro's fishing industry since its heyday in the 1950s; the fishermen who once crooned songs and organized festivals to the ocean, all to ensure that the gods would bless their harvest, have come smack up against the realities of the contemporary marketplace.

From: "Fishermen, and a Way of Life, Endure in San Pedro; 'Now that the fishermen [at Canetti's] know my name, I'm a regular'," by Cara Mia Di Massa, Los Angeles Times, Apr 8, 2000. p.1