Switzerland to West Marin, Part Two: A series of special features

By David Rolland

Point Reyes Light Box 210 Point Reyes Station, California 94956 415-663-8404 or 415-488-4025 http://www.ptreyeslight.com/ The newspaper, which takes its name from the famous lighthouse on Point Reyes, was founded in 1948 as The Baywood Press; it changed its name to The Point Reyes Light in 1966. Located in Point Reyes Station, a town of 675 people 40 miles north of San Francisco, The Light serves 13 small towns in a dairy-ranching region known as West Marin. Its publisher is David V. Mitchell, who was also publishing the newspaper at the time of its Pulitzer Prize. The Light has six fulltime staff members (including three reporters) and three parttime staffers. In addition, several community members also contribute columns and photos. To submit a Letter to the Editor: editor@ptreyeslight.com (300-word limit)

Lavertezzo in the Valley Verzasca is typical of villages in Ticino. An Italian-speaking canton (or state) of Switzerland, Ticino lies on the southern side of the Alps.

The Light sent reporter David Rolland and photographer Janine Collins to Switzerland and Croatia in April and May to research two of the five historic waves of ethnic immigration to West Marin.

Others were from Ireland, Portugal's Azore Islands, and the Mexican state of Jalisco. Next week, The Light's three-part series will discuss the Genazzi, Campigli, Martinelli, Cheda, Dolcini, Lafranchi, and Barboni families. The final week will deal with Marshall's Viliciches and Konatiches and their relatives in war-torn Croatia.

Ticino has found prosperity since war

By David Rolland

Directly east of Point Reyes Station's Green Bridge is the ranch of Harold Genazzi, whose father Fred Genazzi immigrated from the Swiss village of Maggia in 1896.

A century later, Maggia is still tiny (750 residents compared with 675 in Point Reyes Station), and its lord mayor is Elio Genazzi, a cousin of Harold.

Mayor Genazzi has never set foot in West Marin, but in describing his own town on a recent Wednesday afternoon he might easily have been talking about Point Reyes Station.

Vacationers -- typically Dutch, German, and Italian -- boost Maggia's population to 1,000 in summer, crowding the town and making some villagers unfriendly toward outsiders.

As is true throughout West Marin, strict land-use regulations maintain Maggia's traditional appearance but often frustrate property owners. Real estate prices have become exorbitant.

The tourist-based prosperity is only a fairly recent phenomenon. Life, for many Ticinese, generally began improving as the villages modernized after World War II.

Genazzis epitomize change

The Genazzi family itself epitomizes the change. Mayor Genazzi, 42, a bespectacled, soft-spoken man, noted that around the turn of the century, when virtually all Maggia residents were poor, the Genazzis were especially destitute.

"They were considered the poorest family in Maggia," he offered matter of factly. "Even today in Valle Maggia, people talk about what a terrible time my family had to survive."

These days, aside from being the lord mayor, Elio Genazzi works as an urban planner for the City of Locarno and has just been elected to Ticino's canton (or state) parliament.

"Boy, things have changed," exclaimed Evelyn Gilardi nŽe Genazzi of Point Reyes Station, when she learned from The Light how well her cousin was faring.

The mayor, who is also a cousin of Tomales rancher Romeo "Butch" Cerini, recalled with a touch of pride what family members who stayed in Maggia managed to endure 100 years ago.

"At that time it was important to have some land," Genazzi said through an interpreter. "But the only land that they had was right up in the Alps -- in the mountains -- the farthest away from their house."

A dangerous life

Work then was hard and dangerous. Transporting hay down from the Alpine meadows was especially tricky. At the time, men and hay descended the mountainsides in gondola-like slings, which were ridden at high speed.

On one occasion, Elio's uncle Ubaldo Genazzi had not yet reached the end of the line when Mayor Genazzi's father Marco sent a bale of hay careening after him. The hay plowed into Ubaldo and knocked him off the crude sling. He fell some 50 feet and broke both legs.

These days, cable cars have replaced the slings, making the task far safer. The post-war era

If life has improved, the improvements by no means have come free of complications.

A decade ago, after 40 years of modernization and an influx of wealthy residents, civic leaders in Maggia grew concerned about some very West Marin-style issues.

New residents were building modern houses or remodeling old ones, and the resulting loss of historic character and scarce open space prompted a wave of land-use politics.

"If we allow everybody to build where they want, future generations will find themselves with no land, no green open space," said Mayor Genazzi. "Today that's one of the biggest problems we have here -- to plan what to do with the land."

Genazzi acknowledged, however, that some property owners feel paralyzed by new zoning laws and building codes. "Now it's almost to the point that it's practically suffocating people," he said.

"There are so many rules and laws they have to conform with that people say there's no liberty anymore. But it has been necessary to make these laws."

Genazzi, who has been mayor for eight years, is particularly pleased by a recent architectural trend celebrating traditional stone houses.

Homogeneity lost

Some changes city planners can't stop. Historically, villages in Ticino were defined by the families who lived in them. Cevio was the home of the Respinis and Dolcinis. Giumaglio was home to the Cerinis and Sartoris. In Someo were the Tomasinis and Righettis. The Codonis and Scilaccis came from Corippo.

The automobile, however, brought an end to the villages' isolation. Outsiders have moved in and the townspeople themselves have been freer to leave. Communities are far less homogenous than they were before World War II.

"Up to about 1960 in Maggia, the Genazzi, Martinelli, and Garzoli families were the majority," the mayor said, "but today, those families are just a few. The new arrivals have nothing [historically] to do with Maggia."

Unclaimed estates

Intriguingly, the changing character of Ticino's villages may hold financial significance for some West Marin residents.

As many older Ticinese have died, their property has fallen into legal limbo. Under Swiss law, all relatives of a deceased person must be asked if they want to put in a claim for his or her property.

Among those with outstanding claims to property in Maggia are the Swiss branches of the Campigli, Martinelli, and Genazzi families, the mayor noted.

"The relatives that are here can't dispose of an estate until they know all the heirs," he said. "It creates quite a problem, [for] we know there are heirs in America.

"But those heirs are afraid to admit who they are because they fear that maybe in the inheritance there are some debts, and maybe they'll have to pay."

Some heirs don't realize they may have a claim to valuable land in Maggia, he stressed.

Lived in both locales

Eva Giubbini of the village of Intragna has lived for years in both Ticino and West Marin, and has watched both regions evolve along somewhat similar lines.

Giubbini was born in Intragna but grew up in Inverness. She returned to Ticino with her family in 1948 when she was 19.

While living in Inverness, "my parents always said [Ticino] was the most beautiful country in the world," Giubbini said,

Inverness in the 1930s was no less rustic than Intragna at the time. When her family arrived, "Inverness still did not have electricity whereas Intragna already had electricity," she recalled. (Electrical service finally reached the Point Reyes peninsula in 1939.)

"My mother for one year cried every day...she was that homesick."

Likewise, Giubbini's father missed Intragna so much he made visits home every few years, returning one time having bought an old post office in Ticino. During his visits to Intragna, "he always said, 'I want to come back here. These are my roots. I want to come back.' And he did," Giubbini said, "but for only six months, and [then he] died of a heart attack."

New prosperity in Ticino

Upon returning to Switzerland as a young woman, she found Intragna "awful quiet, but I didn't care because I was coming here, and it was a whole new world."

Nearby, the city of Locarno has grown to 15,000 residents, but right after World War II, it looked "like a small, sleepy, Spanish town with little activity," Giubbini recalled.

"I don't know how the change came about, but everyone seemed to be happy," she said. "Everyone started working again. You started building. Banks went into business. Shops opened ... This happens after every war."

As has happened in her childhood home of Inverness, many old houses in Intragna and other Ticinese villages have been converted to vacation lodging.

Giubbini herself rents out a couple of houses to short-term and long-term vacationers. A two-bedroom house rents for the equivalent of $900 a month.

Giubbini waited 10 years after resettling in Intragna before visiting West Marin. She said she was too busy experiencing Europe: "I had too much to do...

"I love going back [to West Marin, but] I think I have gained more by staying in Europe. It has broadened me more than if I had remained in Inverness or Point Reyes."

However, Guibbini said, "I still feel very American."