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Home sweet home Portraits of Ticino emigrants to the US

Tens of thousands of people left canton Ticino at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century for a better life in the United States. The photographer Flavia Leuenberger managed to track down some of their descendants, some of whom still speak dialect or hoist the Swiss flag on August 1, Swiss National Day. 

The project began with simple letters. Leuenberger said she was moved when she read the tales of Ticinese emigrants in California, published by the historian Giorgio Cheda in the 1980s. She then decided to try to track them down. 

This wasn’t easy, given the distance and the lack of information. “I made a list of surnames mentioned in Cheda’s books and other documents and tried to find them in phone books in the US. I sent at least 60 letters, but only a few replied,” said the 31-year-old winner of the Swiss Press Photo 2015 in the portrait category. 

But most of the people whom Leuenberger did meet had strong ties to Ticino, starting with the language. “It’s bizarre hearing them speak with a dialect from the valleys but with an English accent,” she told swissinfo.ch. 

It’s estimated that between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century some 27,000 people left Ticino for California alone, to work as cow milkers or ranchers. Many then became landowners, as Leuenberger’s photographs show. 

The portraits, on display at the Casa Pessina museumexternal link, are the fruit of two trips to the United States, in 2013 and 2015. 

(Text: Stefania Summermatter, swissinfo.ch; images: Flavia Leuenberger)