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From child migrant to Italian festival patron

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Silvana Zerella and her late husband Vic were stalwarts of the SA Italian Association which was established as the Catholic Italian Welfare Association under Archbishop Beovich in the early 1950s. Now the patron of the Adelaide Italian Festival, Silvana shared her family’s story to highlight the importance of recognising the courage and contribution of Italian migrants.

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Silvana is making an Italian dish from home-grown broad beans for her 93-year-old father Francesco Domenico Zuzolo when I knock on the door of her Norwood home.

Francesco (Frank) still lives in the home he moved into at Goodwood in the 60s, shortly after coming to South Australia to make a better life for the family he left behind in Benevento, near Naples.

“My brother Rino lives next door and we take it in turns to take a meal around to him,” said Silvana.

“He says he doesn’t need us to, but he never says no either.”

Silvana and Pellegrino (Rino) were four and six years old when Frank made the brave decision to travel to the other side of the world. There wasn’t enough work, or food, on the farm for him and his brothers so he took up an invitation from his wife’s sister to come to Adelaide.

“He left everything he knew and went to somewhere he didn’t know and couldn’t even speak the language,” said Silvana. “But I guess when you’ve got nothing, you do what you can.”

With cappuccino in hand, Silvana reflects on the three years her mum Amabile spent alone with two young children in impoverished southern Italy.

“I remember exactly where we lived, in one room with a kitchen and a bedroom upstairs,” she recalled.

“At night mum would put the sheep or the chickens or whatever animals we had in the kitchen and then we’d go upstairs to sleep. In the mornings she would leave so early that she’d lock the door and then throw the key back under the door while she went off to work the land.”

Amabile’s sister had come to Australia as a proxy bride, marrying an Italian from the Venetian region who proposed to her after she sent him her photograph.

Fortunately for Frank, it meant he had a place to stay and employment with his brother-in-law laying terrazzo in city buildings.

When it was time for the rest of the family to join him, Silvana and her brother thought it was a great adventure to take the bus to the port and board a ship called Galileo to Australia.

It wasn’t quite the same for their mother.

“I remember my mum getting so sick she wasn’t able to get out of bed,” Silvana said.

“And then a couple of times we had bad weather and all our food was thrown off the table. For me and my brother it was interesting and fun but for my poor mum, she was so sick and it was such a big thing to do on her own.”

Settling into life in a new country wasn’t easy for the two youngsters who were teased and bullied every day on their way home from school.

“They’d throw stones at us and call us names, we were always dagos,” Silvana said of their time at Goodwood Primary.

“Fr Kelly from the Goodwood parish came and spoke to mum and dad about going to St Thomas so from about Grade three onwards my brother and I went there.”

By now Frank was working at Holden and pulling out weeds on the weekends – a job that led to him purchasing his own gardening business which he ran for the next 40 years.

Amabile found a job as a dishwasher at the Pier Hotel at Glenelg. She would catch the tram there and back, even when on night shift, and she rose to the position of second chef.

“I don’t remember mum having a Christmas with us til I was about 21 because she was always working,” Silvana said.

“From when I was about 10, I would do all Dad’s paperwork and accounts as well as the cooking.”

Silvana laughs when she remembers how embarrassed she was to take thick Italian bread to school, rather than thinly sliced bread like the other children.

And it was “pasta, pasta, pasta” at home, along with other simple Italian dishes which are now part of Australians’ staple diet.

“We used to love going to weddings and being able to eat a quarter of (barbecue) chicken,” she said.

When it was time to go to secondary school, Fr Kelly stepped in again and with the help of a local nun found Silvana a place at Cabra College where she stayed until Year 10.

After going to Muirden Business College she worked for Hines Metals and York Motors. But the big turning point in her life was attending a large welcoming party for a friend of her parents who was arriving from Italy.

It was there, as a 19-year-old girl who only ever went out with her mother or father, that she met Vic Zerella, a second generation Italian 15 years her senior whose family had built up a successful produce business from a small market garden in the western suburbs.

Vic’s father the late Ercole Zerella had immigrated to Australia from Campania as a 17 year old and rode fences for the Kidman family before settling at Flinders Park.

“He said he ate so many rabbits he never ate rabbit again,” Silvana said.

Ercole was called up to the army during World War II but refused because he didn’t want to risk fighting against his brothers in Italy. The army found out about his market garden and said they wouldn’t intern him if he grew vegetables for them.

“Like my dad, he came with only a suitcase, not knowing anything, and gradually bought bits of land,” said Silvana.

“I tell my kids, you just don’t know what it was like; they would work two or three jobs, doing anything they could because they didn’t have a cent in Italy, nothing.”

Although Vic wasn’t born in Italy, Silvana said he was “more Italian” than many who were and was passionate about carrying on Italian traditions.

He was president of the SA Italian Association for six years and as their three sons grew up Silvana became more involved in fundraising and helping him on his various projects.

“Vic would push me to my limits with everything,” she said.

“I was very lucky now that I look back to have had him as a mentor.”

Silvana nursed Vic at home for three years after he was diagnosed with vascular dementia and after he died in 2009 she took over his involvement in the Italian Club “because I knew he wanted me to”.

With a plethora of regional-based Italian groups and festas in Adelaide, Vic’s vision was to try to make the Italian Club “everyone’s club”.

“Vic worked his butt off to try to bring everyone together,” she said.

Since the Carenvale festival folded two years ago, the SA Italian Association has moved to revive the concept of a festival based in the heart of the city that celebrates the huge contribution of South Australia’s Italian migrants.

Silvana is the patron of the Adelaide Italian Festival which will commence at 3.15pm on November 14 with a procession and special Mass celebrated by Archbishop Patrick O’Regan in St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral.

As well as paying tribute to the dreams and achievements of people like her parents, Silvana said the festival would be a time for the next generation to show its gratitude.

“I’m very grateful to be where I am,” she said.

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