From the Swiss valley Maggia to the valleys of California

The number of the people at the reunion could fill up one of the Swiss villages abandoned by their ancestors. Ronnie Peterson

As the immigration debate rages on in the US, an unassuming group of American families gathered to celebrate and honor the immigrant stories of their Swiss-Italian ancestors who fled poverty for a new life in California more than a century ago.

This content was published on July 29, 2018 - 11:00
Jessica Davis Plüss

The journey on highway 101 to Santa Rosa is unmistakably northern California. The air temperature is a dry, fresh 65 degrees Fahrenheit on a summer morning as the car passes a large vineyard, a faded Denny’s diner sign, and a row of car dealerships. 

Out of place are the Swiss and canton Ticino flags at Santa Rosa’s Finley Park. But they make the reunion of families with shared ancestry easy to find. 

Attendees with family names like Tognazzi, Righetti, and LaFranchi trickle in, put on a nametag, and let the connections begin. For the next five hours, more than 120 descendants of immigrants from the Maggia valley turn what started as a virtual community into a real world gathering. Many have come in search of family members, others to swap stories of trips back to the “old country”, and the rest out of pure curiosity. 

Today, it's often volunteers who come to the Maggia valley to help clear fields on the steep mountain slopes. Keystone

The origins 

The idea of a reunion was the brainchild of Diana Neal and Robin Bryson. They are both part of the LaFranchi family, who came to California in the late 19th century, but Diana knew little of her California family after moving to the UK nearly 50 years ago. While the two women spent months on phone calls and email, they didn’t meet in person until the reunion. 

Diana explains that she knew she had Ticino ancestry but there was no real awareness of these roots in her family. “I remember being confused as a child. My grandfather was the first to be born in the US in 1881 and although he knew his family came from Ticino he thought he was ethnically French or Italian.”  

It wasn’t until Diana’s brother went to Ticino and brought back family records that she started to become more interested in her family’s past and building out her family tree. A designated blog for Swiss Ticino immigrants created by in 2009 also revealed new family members and the appetite for connecting. 

As she and Robin swapped family trees, they came up with the idea of a reunion. It began as an opportunity to bring together members of the LaFranchi family line, but they quickly realized that there was so much inter-marriage in the Maggia valley that they should extend the event to families whose forefathers migrated from all of the valley. Diana created the “Valle Maggia families” Facebook group a year ago and announced plans for a reunion this year. 

The group only had 10 members in the first few months, but soon entire families joined and by the time of the reunion the group had more than 350 members, many of whom used the site to share family trees, post photos of their trips to Switzerland or seek answers to questions about their genealogy. 

The Swiss-American Dream 

As reported in 2009, there was a major wave of emigration from Ticino to California in the late 19th century. An estimated 27,000 people left poor economic conditions in the northern valleys of Ticino for California in the late 19th century and early 20th.  Boys as young as 16 years old were sent on long, perilous journeys by ship to places like Tomales, San Luis Obispo, and Sonoma. 

Postcards from original settlers sent back to relatives in Ticino talked of the land of opportunity and asked relatives to send their nephews to “milk the cows”. Many were dairymen who set up farms in California, worked hard, and lived frugal lifestyles. 

Janice Battles Barca said her grandfather Bartolomeo Barca, a dairyman, left Aurigeno for California in 1878 at 18 years of age. The local Santa Maria newspaper in California reports that “believing that the streets of California were paved with gold, he told his family, ‘I will never be hungry or thirsty again.’” He went back to his homeland when he was 42 years old to marry a woman he had left behind in Ticino only to arrive and find she was already married and had 10 children. He decided to marry one of their daughters, 17-year-old Virginia Grossini, who later followed him to California. 

Al Nichelini told about his great grandmother who was one of 12 children to a widowed mother. She was sent to California with a nametag around her neck. 

Jeanette Tognazzi Sainz’s grandfather, Victor Tognazzi was only 16 years old when he landed in Cayucos, California in 1877. He fell in love with, and eventually married, Giavanina Locarnini from Bellinzona who arrived in Cayucos in 1889 at the age of 20. 

Jessica Davis Plüss,

As discovered back in 2009, the hard work of many Swiss immigrants paid off. They ran successful farms and businesses, some of which are still active today. The Nichelini Family Winery is considered to be one of the oldest and finest wineries in the Napa area. Another Ticino descendant, Sally Gale’s great grandfather, Carlo Martinoia became a well-known banker and broker in California in addition to being a dairyman at what is now Chileno Valley Ranch, managed by Sally and her husband. 

“You were born in California but raised in Valle Maggia” 

Many reunion attendees spoke of growing up surrounded by Swiss families in areas like Salinas Valley where Yvonne Ramelli and Art Nicola Ottolini were born. Their parents came in the last wave of emigration in the early to mid-20th century from Moghegno and Gordevio, respectively. 

As the first generation to be born in the US, Art and Yvonne grew up with a strong sense of Swiss identity. Yvonne recalls her mother saying, “you were born in California but raised in Valle Maggia”. Both Art and Yvonne spoke a dialect at home that is rarely found in the Swiss valley today. They remember playing at each other’s houses after church on Sundays and the boys, including Art, learning to play the accordion. 

Listen to Janice Battles Barca, Troy Goss and Art Nicola Ottolini.

The obituary for Art’s mother Cesira, who passed away in March 2018, reads, “Always proud of her Swiss heritage, she formed a children’s ‘Chicken Dance’ troupe, sewing the authentic costumes herself. For years she could be found in the kitchen at Swiss American Club meetings, cooking giant pots of polenta and stew”. 

For many people at the reunion, Swiss culture was more distant. Although Jeanette Tognazzi Sainz’s parents were both Swiss, they didn’t speak Italian or their local dialect at home. She said her father told her stories of being the “little immigrant child” growing up in California and wanted his own children to be raised in the US, speaking English. She does recall small Swiss souvenirs in the house, such as a photo of the Chillon Castle hanging in their living room. 

Janice noticed that her mother did things differently than other mothers in her community, but she never understood why until she traveled to the Maggia valley and saw how things were done there. “Everything became clear,” she said. 

Returning to Maggia 

Over time though, some of the Swiss traditions and way of life fade, and it is only through travels back to the Maggia valley that the second, third or even fourth generation learn about their Swiss family history and identity. 

In a rough poll of reunion attendees, more than three-quarters said they had been to their ancestral home. While only three to four spoke a local dialect and even fewer spoke Italian, many expressed an interest in learning more about Switzerland. Some like Al Nichelini, spend months at a time in the area and share photos and updates from their travels with the Facebook group. Janice travels to Switzerland almost every year and has taken her three daughters several times. 

Jeanette made her first visit in 2016 when she was 80, almost as a pilgrimage. She set her sights on visiting every church where her family members were married and documented it all in a book for her children and grandchildren. 

Yvonne and Art have both been back to Valle Maggia several times. Yvonne said that her mother kept saying they’d move back but never did. Ironically, one of Yvonne’s sisters moved to the Maggia valley when she was 18 and never returned to California. 

Fourteen-year-old Hannah Dutton and her cousin Sophia Dutton who is 18 are part of the LaFranchi family. They attended the reunion and shared their impressions of the Swiss valley from a trip they made with their families in 2012. They remembered the people being very friendly and the villages being small and beautiful. 

Jessica Davis Plüss,

These exchanges are spawning new friendships and links with people in Ticino today.  Sandra Rossi of the Ticino genealogical society sent a message to reunion participants as did Giuseppe Del Notaro, a former mayor of Coglio, who noted his family’s own special relationship with California.

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