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Italian-American heritage in Pennsylvania-A conversation with Stephanie Longo

October is Italian-American Heritage Month—an annual observance that recognizes the contributions and achievements of Italian-Americans. One of America250PA’s goals is engaging #EveryPennsylvanian in #EveryCounty, so we wanted to further explore Italian history and heritage within the Commonwealth.


Cue Stephanie Longo, author, associate producer of The Italian American Podcast, and jokingly-self-proclaimed “professional Italian-American” who strives to learn all about Italian history, heritage and culture in Pennsylvania. With hopes of celebrating her family’s heritage, Longo has written multiple works about Italians in northeastern PA.


Learn more about Longo and her work by reading or watching our conversation with her below, and stay tuned on our social media pages for a giveaway of one of Longo’s books titled, Italians of Lackawanna County!


Q: Can you tell a little about yourself? What’s your background? Where are you located in PA?


Longo: “I’m a resident of Dunmore, which happens to be one of the top 20 most Italian communities in the United States. That’s a great source of pride for all of us. Lackawanna and Luzerne counties are actually five out of the top 20 in the U.S., so a really wonderful thing for us all. . . . I’m a graduate of The University of Scranton as well as Regent University, and I’m actually back at Regent now working on a doctorate in Strategic Communications, so [I’m] very heavily involved in the educational world right now. I’m professionally the associate producer of The Italian American Podcast, and I also write books about northeastern Pennsylvania’s Italian-American history, so I guess you could call me a ‘professional Italian American’ in a lot of ways!”


Q: What was your main source of inspiration for getting so involved in [Italian-American History] and spreading it in Pennsylvania?


Longo: “When you talk about Italian-American locales in the United States, it feels sometimes, as a Pennsylvanian looking outward, that people don’t realize how much we have here in the Keystone State. I think anybody who lives here knows that we have an awesome state. There’s so much going on. We’re also gigantic, so you could go from one end of the state to the other and get a completely different experience. As I was doing my research and getting involved with things, I realized that people don’t know about the Italian community in northeastern PA, and yet we’re one of the largest. You tend to think of places like New York and New Jersey because that’s the hub, but then outside of that, you don’t realize. I thought, ‘Well, you know what, maybe I can change that perception and maybe I can do something about it,’ and I really dedicated my whole writing career just to talking about Italian-Americans in northeast PA, and a little bit too in some of the other sections of Pennsylvania that people don’t tend to realize.


“I’ve just written an article for PRIMO Magazine on the Letterkenny Army Depot’s Chapel that was constructed by Italian POWs during World War II. People don’t realize that there’s all of this Italian-American culture right here where we’re from.”


Q: Can you explain what your main pieces of writing are about and how you got into those?



Longo: “My first book was the Italians of Northeastern Pennsylvania. I’ve got another book out just about the town of Dunmore that doesn’t quite focus on Italian-American things, but like I said, Dunmore is such a prominent Italian-American population that it’s in there. You can’t escape it! And then my most recent one is Italians of Lackawanna County, and I’m so proud of all of them. I’m still doing some research [on] a big project on Italians in Scranton. The city of Scranton I’m working on specifically because there’s so many sections of our city that have Italian things in them that people don’t even realize, and they don’t realize the history from way back during the era of immigration. It’s almost like two different stories of Scranton.


“My big dream project that I’ve been chipping away at every chance I get is a book on the entire Italian population of the Keystone State, so there’s a lot going on. Every time that I come across something, any time that somebody gives me a news tip, I have an excel spreadsheet that I keep—and I keep it on a flash drive so I don’t ever lose it because that would be tragic—and I just write it all down and it’s just waiting for me to do something with it, and I am, but when you’re tackling and entire state, it’s much different than tackling Lackawanna County—so I want to be right with everything.”


Q: You are working with America250PA to arrange a book giveaway, and the book you mentioned for it was Italians of Lackawanna County. Is there any particular reason why you chose that one, and can you share what it’s about?


Longo: “So that’s my most recent one, and what I love about Italians in Lackawanna County is that it focuses on not only the past Italian-American community of our area, but the present and kind of segwaying into the future. People don’t realize that there’s stuff happening right now in our Italian-American community, and that is something that I want to share with people, especially because your tagline is “Every Pennsylvanian,” and that’s important to me as an Italian-American because we’re such a big part of Pennsylvania’s community that we want to be discovered. You should come and see what we have in Lackawanna County, but if you think that the history book is history as in ‘past history,’ you might not come to see us. But if you see, ‘here’s the past and here’s what’s going on right now,’ then hopefully you’ll come and you’ll discover all of the great things that northeast PA has to offer.”


Q: Can you dive a little more into Lackawanna County? How exactly do you think it became such a hotspot for the Italian-American population?


Longo: “I personally believe that it’s definitely because of the rail and coal industries. You’re looking at a place where it was also this beautiful convergence of ethnicities. You had the Polish. You had the Welsh. You had the Germans. You had Lithuanians. The Irish. All of them, they came to northeastern Pennsylvania to work in the mines, and they were able to do rather well for themselves. I have family members who went to New York City—the Brooklyn area—and they did okay for themselves, but then I have other family members—and obviously I’m part of that—that settled in northeast PA who did very well for themselves and who were able to save up the money. I tell the story of my great-grandfather who purposely waited so he could save up so my grandfather, my great-grandmother and my great-aunt could all come over second-class instead of steerage-class, and that was special. . . . He worked as a stone mason for one of the coal companies, so he actually never went under the ground, but he was still able to do that. Obviously the coal mining industry, it was a difficult industry to work in. A lot of tragic things happened, especially in terms of labor relations. You hear about those stories. But you also hear some of the stories of the self-made people from our area. You hear the barbers. You hear the shoemakers. You hear a funeral director even, Fedele Musso in Scranton. He’s a wonderful example of somebody who really was able to build a business. These people helped build the city of Scranton and build Lackawanna County, and it’s a very special thing to be able to celebrate.”

Q: You mentioned before that you are involved in The Italian American Podcast. Can you share a little more about that?


Longo: “Yeah, I’m really lucky. So I work for the podcast during the day and then at night I do my book research. Like I said, I’m a professional Italian-American! The podcast is my dream job. Let’s call it what it is. It’s not work. Yes, it’s my job, but it’s not work. It’s my passion. I love being a part of that. So I’m the associate producer. I work with the team in getting guests on, doing research for shows, having a hand in all of the amazing things that we do as a company to preserve Italian-American heritage on a national scale, so I get to see [how] my little Pennsylvania stuff—that I love—fits into the national conversation. And it’s a beautiful thing. I’m so blessed every day.”


Q: How can people learn more about the podcast?


Longo: “They can go to Podcast.com and it’s of course on my website as well! Any time that I can direct people over to the podcast, it’s a great thing. You will learn—I have learned so much from John Viola and Pat O’Boyle that I didn’t even know existed. I’m learning every day, so like I said, it helps me to center Pennsylvania into that great Italian-American national conversation.”



Q: You mentioned that the month of October is Italian-American Heritage Month. What does that personally mean to you?

Longo: “It’s a chance to celebrate my ancestors, and I think that’s something that we as Italian-Americans do every day just by our own example. But it gives me a chance to actually pause and really celebrate the people who got me here. That is my great-grandparents, my grandparents, the people who came before on the family tree that are so far back in generations that I may never know their name (I’d hope so! I love genealogy.). But they all got me here, and I’m able to celebrate everything that they did. Every breath they gave gave me life, and the best way to use that life is to be able to advocate for that shared thing that we all have in common, and that is being Italian-American.

“I always try to learn something new about my heritage in October. It’s kinda weird—working for The Italian American Podcast, you would think that I would know a lot, and I feel like I do. I’ve definitely learned since I’ve taken on this job and of course it’s what I do with the books, but there’s things that I’m learning every day. I recently got these Italian-American cookbooks from Watertown, New York. When I was a little girl, I would go up to the Thousand Islands every summer with my mom on vacation, so [it’s] a special area to me, and I happen to be on a Facebook group that just talks about the Thousand Islands. This woman started talking about the Italian community in Watertown —and I’m just like ‘I can’t escape this.’ (*laughs). So we ended up chit-chatting and I learned a lot about their community and she sent me some cookbooks from up there. I’m learning some of these recipes that immigrants brought to Watertown that are not part of my tradition whatsoever, but now I’m getting to incorporate those into my life. So that’s my learning experience for THIS October. Every October, I try to do something different, whether it’s a craft or watching a movie or film, anything that I possibly can about Italian-American Heritage.

“In fact, Friday night (Oct. 29th, 2021), the Italian community in Hershey is actually going to be launching their documentary on the Italians down there. It’s going to be live, so that’s another thing I’m doing for Italian-American Heritage Month. I have my schedule cleared for Friday night so I can watch this amazing documentary, because Hershey is near and dear to my heart, and people don’t realize that Milton Hershey brought Italians in to help build the town. So I can’t wait to see that!”

Q: Referring to Longo’s virtual background on video: I almost forgot to ask about your background. Are you related to it in any way?

Longo: “Yes! That is my grandfather’s hometown. Unfortunately, my grandfather passed away before I was born, and his big dream in life was to go back home to Guardia Lombardi, and that’s Guardia behind me. When I was five years old—it’s my earliest childhood memory—my mom took me to a pizzeria in Clarks Summit and traced the the boot of Italy that was on the placement with my finger and she said, ‘my daddy was born there, and he loved it and wanted to go home.” And I just remembered that so much as a child. If you ask her today, she’ll be like “I don’t even remember that,” but I do. It’s what brought me here. My grandfather was so proud to be Italian-American. He was a barber in Dunmore, and that was his thing. He helped the Italian community here. He worked with them, and he was proud to be Italian-American, as was my grandmother. Her family came from Calabria. It was the same thing, so that’s something that’s been ingrained in me even before I came along was to always be proud to be Italian-American.”

Q: Have you had the chance to go to Italy and visit that town?

Longo: “Yeah, I’m actually trying to buy a property there right now. It’s interesting. . . I’ve been working because obviously, if I’m going to do it, I want it to be in Guardia, and I found a couple of nice places, so it’s just a matter of getting over there to actually look at them and see which one I want and take the plunge. To me, it’s important because, one day, I hope to have a family of my own, and I want to pass all of this on to my children.”

Q: How can America250PA be sure to celebrate and honor Italian-American heritage and accomplishments in Pennsylvania as we lead up to the nation’s semiquincentennial?

Longo: “That is a wonderful question, and I like to phrase it with you’ve already come into contact with Italian-American heritage without realizing it. If you’ve eaten a slice of pizza in your life, you have come into contact with our heritage and our culture. Now, we have the chance as part of an ongoing national conversation to really learn about what it means to be Italian-American and what the Italian-Americans have done for this county, how they’ve built this country, and how they’re keeping it going forward. To me, I would suggest people to read. They don’t have to read my books. My books aren’t for everybody. That’s okay, but perhaps pick up a book by an Italian-American author or pick up a book about Italy or the immigrant experience, or something. Listen to The Italian American Podcast if you’re not an avid reader like I am. It’s all there! There’s a topic for everybody that you can discover and find things out. In terms of Pennsylvania, just look around you. This state is, to me, the best state to live in. I’ve had opportunities, I’ve had offers to leave it. I won’t leave it. You could ask anybody who knows me. You’re stuck with me PA!

“But, you know, you can take a look at any one of our towns in this state, and you will find something Italian if you really open up your eyes, and it might not be what you’re expecting it to be. It might be an Italian stone carver who carved the statue that’s in your town square. Or it might be an Italian restaurant. It might be your favorite pizzeria or something, but there’s always something Italian around you. And just take a drive if you’re not sure. You’ll find things. I did not know that Sayre [PA] has a big Italian-American community until I was on my way to Cleveland and I decided to go up and over instead of taking 80, and I stopped in Sayre for a little bit of a break and I could not believe all I was learning. And that’s Sayre. You would think being from the northeast that I would know this. I didn’t. So there’s always something you can discover in this area, and I think that’s the main thing for [America250PA]—it’s that spirit of discovery. If I could help one person discover Italian-American heritage and culture, especially right here in Pennsylvania, then I feel like I’ve done my job.”

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

Longo: “Off of what I just said, if you’re somebody who is interested in Italian-American heritage and culture, message me! I will be happy to connect you with the resources that might help you discover. And the cool thing is that you don’t have to be Italian-American to discover Italian-American culture. I like to get into the topic of food, because I’m a foodie myself and I was just saying to a friend earlier today, “I am dying for some Greek food.” Like, you would think, “The Italian-American person? What’s going on? She wants Greek food?” I LOVE IT. Same thing with Thai food. But food is a tangible way to discover someone else’s culture, and if you’re not sure where you want to begin, start there. Start with an Italian cookbook and discover something, or if you really want to do a deep dive, pick up a book, listen to The Italian American Podcast. There’s so many resources out there, and if you’re stuck, that’s what I’m here for. Message me and I’m happy to help. Or if you have something that I should know about for my great, giant Pennsylvania Italian project, I’m ready to listen to you because I really want that to be phenomenal!”


 

If you are interested in learning more about Stephanie Longo and her work, please visit http://www.stephanielongo.net/home.html.

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