Ethnic clubs culture and connection
The Arizona Republic

By Angela Cara Pancrazio

Ethnic clubs: culture and connection

U.S. Italians, Poles, Chileans can feel at home

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

PHOENIX — Born, raised and married in Brooklyn, N.Y., Joanne Motola remembers walking from one block to the next, knowing whose neighborhood she was in just from the smells of who was cooking what.

"You could tell what neighborhood you were in, whether you were in an Irish neighborhood, Italian neighborhood or a Jewish neighborhood," said Motola, 62.
Had it not been for the Arizona American-Italian Club and a few Italian specialty-food stores that stocked authentic ingredients, the Motolas' Italian heritage could have evaporated quickly when the family moved to the desert in 1971.
Ethnic and cultural social clubs quench the nostalgia for the old neighborhood and extended family "back home."
Voices punctuated with familiar accents fill the clubs, where people share a love for the food and music of their heritage.
It was Motola's mother who first led her to the American-Italian Club to play bingo.
"There was a gentleman in charge of selling the stuff that would raise money for scholarships," Motola said. "Right then I felt like, 'Oh, I'm in Little Italy,' because his name was Tony. He had a gold chain and a little pinkie ring.
"So it just gave me a feeling of, 'Hey, I'm really familiar with this; I feel like I'm at home.' "
Ethnic clubs have been part of the American social fabric ever since the late 19th century.
Early Mexicans were among the first to celebrate their heritage, with clubs and fraternal organizations named Sociedad Zaragoza and the Alianza Hispano-Americana.
Many of the early clubs began like the Pulaski Club did in 1939 in Henrietta Nemecek's backyard.
Nemecek, 83, was a teenager at the time, and she recalls her family combing through the phone book picking out anyone with a Polish-sounding last name and inviting that person to their home.
They set up card tables in the backyard, served Polish sausage and played their music.
By the 1950s, they had built a place of their own for dinners and polka dancing. The Pulaski Club of Arizona still stands.
"We speak Polish, sing in Polish, dance Polish," Nemecek said. "We have Mexican people, Italian, German people — everybody is welcome."
Decades later, Patricio Gutierrez's experience was similar to that of Polish-Americans. When Gutierrez arrived from Chile to attend college here, he grew homesick for his family.
"We got a group of Chileans together and said, 'We need to do something,' " said Gutierrez, 48.
So the small group hosted house parties. Over time, it set up its nonprofit Chilean Cultural Center.
The center doesn't have a place of its own yet. Last month, hundreds of Chileans from all over Arizona showed up at the Independence Day celebration in a Scottsdale park, emphasizing the need, Gutierrez said, for a permanent meeting place.
House parties and picnics were just as commonplace for the Filipinos and the Irish.
Filipino picnics with the Sampaguita Club remain a favorite for Philippines native Maria Concepcion Lyons. It's the one occasion when she can cook adobo, chicken sautéed in onions, garlic, soy sauce and vinegar.
Every Thursday evening, as soon as the floodlights light up the bronze Christopher Columbus, boccie balls begin rattling on the court behind the American-Italian Club.
Many of the players are in their 80s, some are in their 70s, a few are in their 60s, and fewer still are in their 50s or 40s. There's one 30-year-old, Bryan Krueger, who is not Italian-American but joined the club to play boccie ball.
The membership is 800 strong now, but the group worries about its future.
"I'm 63," said Gene Rossi, the club's president. "If half the people in the club are older than me and this past week I went to two funerals, does that mean anything to you?"
To try to make the club appeal to the next generation, Rossi has enlisted an entertainment manager. To survive, the social clubs pin their hopes on newer, younger members, such as Joanne Motola's daughter Patti Gaydosz.
Gaydosz, 36, was a baby when her family moved to Phoenix, so she didn't absorb her Italian-American heritage as her mother did.
When she joined her mother and grandmother at the American-Italian Club's bingo games, it was to spend more time with them.
"But at the same time, there were all these Italian people," Gaydosz said. "It was sort of like you feel a connection to your culture that I didn't even realize that I would feel.
"It makes you feel like a sense of belonging."