Family reunites after more than a century

Jay Grossi (front) and Tony Quinn

This is a story of a very unusual reunion. Separated for 125 years, members of different lines of the Swiss-Italian Dodini family have found each other – in California.

This content was published on May 27, 2009 - 11:52

That is not all Tony Quinn and Jay Grossi have in common. Interest in their Swiss roots has changed both of their lives.

A visit Jay made to see the native land of his grandparents 30 years ago convinced him to learn the language that was not passed down to him. "I went to school, learned Italian and went to graduate school and studied Italian literature...

"...what do I do now? I teach Italian!" laughs Jay, a lecturer at the University of California, Davis.

And a longing to better understand where he came from led Tony, a highly regarded analyst of California's political landscape, to become a genealogy expert.

The walls of the Sacramento home of the former Republican Party consultant are lined with portraits of Tony's ancestors and other souvenirs from his family history. These framed icons put the squeeze on the one or two pictures showing him together with George Bush Sr.

"You came over to my house one day with your Swiss family tree and it turned out we had a common name in there," Tony recalls. Jay nods in agreement as we sit down in Tony's living room to talk about their common passion.

Tony initiated that first meeting years ago by phoning Jay when he heard the lecturer would be giving a talk on the "Italian Swiss".

Right ingredients

The way Jay remembers it, he was actually making a presentation on the food of Italy's Puglia region, stepping in for another teacher who had had to cancel.

It may have been the wrong lecture but the ingredients were right to bring the distant cousins together. It would be the start of a fruitful relationship.

Where Tony, now retired, has the time to dig into his Swiss-Italian ancestry, Jay acts as his translator or interpreter when he can.

"Jay was very helpful to me in doing the interpretive work, and especially with some of the older people in the village," Tony says, remembering visits to his ancestral home.

"They presumed you could speak Italian and people would carry on long conversations with me, not having any idea I didn't understand a word they were saying."

Gigantic tree

Tony, who unfolded a reinforced poster of his family tree measuring eight feet by four feet for our talk, has returned the favour by filling in some of the missing links in Jay's ancestry.

Their genealogical pursuit has taught them about their forefathers' home - past and present, but just as important, has helped them better understand the immigrant experience.

"'I'll die for my country' – he was talking about America, not Switzerland," Jay says of his grandfather, Plinio Grossi, who settled in Vallejo, California where he worked as a milkman for 40 years.

According to Jay, his grandfather was a realist who showed little sentimentality for the impoverished land he left behind.

Some of Tony's ancestors, the Salminas, became successful winegrowers in the Napa Valley and maintained their ties with relatives back home through regular correspondence.

"My mother and my great aunt kept postcards that their cousins sent. I have Easter cards from 1910, and these things were kept and passed down," says Tony.

Ties that bind

This regular contact is what Tony believes set his Swiss ancestors apart from his forebears on his Irish and English sides.

"The Irish were tenant farmers, they didn't own anything," he argues. "The Swiss had something back there - a little house, a little vineyard, a little bit of land, maybe a few goats - and they felt obliged to send money back to help. The first time I went in 1970, one of my cousins gave me money to pay back to my grandmother's first cousin. I felt funny doing it."

And now after more than ten years of shaking the branches of their family trees, both Jay and Tony are keen to find out where the Grossis, Salminas – and Dodonis - really originated.

"I'd like to look at the history 2,000 years ago," says Jay. "In Gudo where my grandparents came from, they found over 300 tombs from the Iron and Bronze ages when they were putting the Ticino river into a canal."

"I'm involved in an international DNA project on one of my English lines," adds Tony.

"All males carry markers in their DNA from their male line and you can find what your ancestry was 2,000 years ago, and so I'm curious about where the Italian Swiss came from.

"For instance, was Jay's Grossi family from the village of Lavertezzo in 1600 closely related to the Grossi family in Monte Carasso who were there at the same time?

"And who was there 1,000 years before that?"

Dale Bechtel in Sacramento,

California immigration history

It was a Swiss-German settler, John Sutter, who is credited with setting off the California gold rush of 1849. But it was not only the gold rush that made California a magnet for Asians and Europeans, including many Ticinesi.

Liberal laws such as the Homestead Act of 1862 simplified land purchases, and irrigation and new varieties of grain contributed to the growth of agriculture. Immigration agencies promoted California's cheap land, rich soil, long growing season, abundant water and good climate.

While only a couple of thousand Ticinesi had settled in California by 1880, the numbers increased ten fold over the next few decades, aided by the completion of the railway in the mid 1880s.

Most of the Italian-speaking Swiss settled in and around San Francisco, the Coast Ranges or the Central Valley. They began as labourers, often working as dairy hands on farms owned by the Swiss-Italians who preceded them.

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