Fiat 147 at Percorsi Italiani exhibition

​A heartwarming path that unites Italy, Brazil and Argentina


Exhibition "Percorsi Italiani: 120 years of history at Casa Fiat de Cultura" rescues the migratory flows of the Italian community in two South American countries and their social and historical wealth

December 18, 2019 - Imagine moving to a faraway country without knowing the language of the place that will be your new home, separated from family members or with your large family, not knowing what to expect? This describes what many migrants went through and still go through today, and it involves pain, longing, dreams and hope. Italy saw much of its children leave “en masse” to try out a new life in another nation, either because of the lack of opportunities after the unification in 1871, or in the contexts of the First and Second World Wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945, respectively). The free exhibition "Percorsi Italiani: 120 years of history at Casa Fiat de Cultura", on display from November 26, 2019 to March 1, 2020, in Belo Horizonte (MG, Brazil), brings together a collection with more than one hundred images, as well as objects and videos , to relive the paths taken by Italian immigrants in South America, specifically in Brazil and Argentina since 1899, the same year the Italian Fabbrica Automobili Torino was founded. For some, it was a definitive arrivederci (goodbye) with nuova vita (new life) on another continent.

The show is a trip though time. Each step goes deeper into a distant but still present past. Right at the entrance, panels showing the longshoremen with Italian immigrants holding heavy bags of coffee piled on their shoulders, making them look twice as tall, sets the stage for the life that foreigners would have in South American soil, marked by the expectation of better days to come – which is something African slaves did not experience - but full of mishaps too. It was in the ports of Santos (São Paulo, Brazil) and Buenos Aires (Argentina) that the Italians found the land to rebuild their lives. "The guiding threads of the exhibition are the paths that thousands of Italian immigrants traveled from Europe to South America to 'build America', as they used to say", says Fernão Silveira, president of the Fiat House of Culture. "We took the liberty of using an Italian term – 'Percorsi Italiani' – to describe this journey full of comings and goings that make us relive the mixture of Brazilian, Argentine and Italian cultures and the many common passions that we have – such as art, food, football and automobiles", he adds, noting that Fiat is part of this history in its 120 years of trajectory.

Italian longshoremen in BrazilPhoto that inspired the panel of longshoremen for the exhibition Percorsi Italiani: Italian immigrants in the Port of Santos (São Paulo, Brazil)

"It was a great challenge, in view of the gigantic universe of images, to select those that complemented each other and together could tell a story that could generate this emotional bond", says journalist and historian Cinthia Reis, curator of the exhibition. Empathy is a key word for the experience in Percorsi Italiani, because the visitor, whether from Italian descendent or not, is called upon to put him or herself in the other person’s shoe, and to reflect on how the whole experience relates to the construction of identities of those two South American countries, going beyond their mere personalities – after all, the Italian influence is there, in cities, in design, in the arts, in customs. "We propose a recognition that stems from basic issues such as family, food, everyday life", explains Cinthia. "For those who love cars, as well as those who like pasta, will feel welcomed: we have a video that shows the production process and objects used in immigrant bakeries. We stimulate the senses with sound, images and even smell, with the coffee bags", she explains.

One of the activities in the exhibit, for scheduled groups, invites the visitor to collectively build a family tree of “Italianidade” in Minas Gerais, the state where Fiat chose to set its roots in Brazil and the birthplace of Palestra Italia (today Cruzeiro), a football team founded by Italian immigrants (there is even a soccer ball of the club, from the 1920s, in the exhibition). The state's relationship with Italian immigration is old: the 1897 immigrant registration book of an inn in Juiz de Fora, in the state's interior, is a historical piece that allows us to see, amid embroidered calligraphy, how numerous these Italian families were, what part of Italy they came from and where they settled. The inns were like a support system for the arrival of foreigners before settling into more permanent activities, especially in coffee plantations.

Two decades later, in 1919 in Argentina, Fiat Turin was installed as a branch, while Italy dealt with the end of World War I and the advent of the rise of fascism. Six years later, a new branch was inaugurated. There, the company specialized in sales and technical assistance for trucks and cars from Italy and, only then began producing cars. Later, after World War II, Argentina received another significant wave of Italian immigrants: about 300,000, while for Brazil, it was 15,000. This whole story is told through a timeline with images from the collections of the Museum of Immigration (Public Archives of São Paulo), the Abílio Barreto Historical Museum, the Minas Gerais Public Archive, the Storico FIAT Center and FCA group Argentina.

Second Fiat branch in ArgentinaThe façade of the second Fiat Turin branch in Buenos Aires, Argentina

The exhibition brings together other attractions, such as replicas of the models Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, known as "Jug", and Vought F4U Corsair, which represent Fiat's performance in the aircraft industry. That's right: in the beginning, the factory produced not only cars but also items such as ship engines, and the following years began developing engines for submarines, airplanes and even complete aircrafts. A historical copy of the Fiat 147, the first model of the brand manufactured in Brazil in 1976, and the world's first ethanol-powered car to be produced in series are also displayed in the galleries.


Umberto Cerri and Giuseppe Di Gioia: intertwined stories of Italy, Brazil and Fiat

The story of two Italian immigrants who came to Brazil in the 1950s and 1970s blends in with Fiat's own history: Umberto Cerri, an industrial photographer who crossed the ocean to escape the draft after suffering in World War II during his childhood, and Giuseppe Di Gioia, who worked for Fiat in Italy and arrived on Brazilian soil along with the company, which settled in the South American country. The two fell in love with Brazil, Brazilian women and started their families in the new land.

Umberto was born in 1933 in Pisa, the youngest of a family of six. When the conflicts between the Allies and the Axis Powers (including Italy) began, Cerri was only six years old. But when the war officially ended in 1945, he was twelve. The memory of the bombings is still alive. "There was no food, we slept in anti-aircraft shelters", he recalls. One of his strongest memories is sitting on the top tube of his older brother's bike and leaving behind a burning Pisa on his way to Milan, always fleeing the front. His mother's firstborn, was missing when Italy suddenly signed the armistice with the Allies. When the family gathered in the burned down house in Pisa at the end of the confrontation, Cerri the matriarch, who developed heart problems, was heartbroken. "The emotions were so strong it was a tragedy. She died at the age of 52", Umberto says.

Fernão Silveira, Umberto Cerri and Alessandro CerriThe president of Casa Fiat de Cultura, Fernão Silveira, with Italian photographer Umberto Cerri and his son, Alessandro

Post-war Italy was marked by unemployment, but Umberto managed. When, however, his turn came to join the military service, he decided it was time to leave the country. "After living what I had lived, I swore to myself that I would never wear a uniform or hold a gun", he says, resolutely. That's how, in 1954, at the age of 21, Umberto disembarked from the Provence ocean liner in Rio de Janeiro, with no money or structure, and did what he could to survive. It was in São Paulo that he had the opportunity to work with photography – a craft inherited from his father, Guido Cerri, who was a photographer for the Italian Royal House. It didn't take long for Umberto to take his first photos for Fiat, installed in Brazil, Minas Gerais in 1973.

Several of his pictures are part of the exhibition. He reminisces about the time he would take the cars to beautiful real sets for the iconic pictures. The studio he founded with his name and managed by his son Alessandro, is to this day a partner of the Italian automaker. Umberto also has four daughters – "I married Brazilian women three times!", he says, laughing – and speaks proudly of his three granddaughters. The last trip he took to his homeland was in 2018, to be reunited with his two sisters. It was our last time together: they died a few months after the visit. "Immigration is very painful and the exhibition shows this in an exciting way. It's very sad to leave your homeland, your family, those you love", he vents. In order to maintain the traditions of his roots, he makes pasta from scratch, more so now that he’s retired. He really likes to be busy, which seems to be common among Italians, just like our next personage who also carried these traits.

Giuseppe di Gioia driver's licenseGiuseppe's driver's license, kept for years by his wife, Eny, and now part of the exhibition

Giuseppe's story is told by his wife, Eny, and his two daughters, Bianca and Bruna. Giuseppe passed away last year, therefore, having his driver's license at the Percorsi Italiani exhibition is seen as an exciting tribute by the Di Gioia family. Peppe, as he was called, was born in Foggia, in the Puglia region and, like Umberto, lived through the horrors of World War II. In 1975, he arrived in Brazil with a group of Fiat leaders coming from Italy to work in the new factory. "My husband and I met in an Italian restaurant with very traditional food, near the place where I worked", Eny recounts fondly. The love that was born stood the brief test of time when Giuseppe returned to Italy before moving definitively to Brazil in 1976. Though the couple raised their daughters speaking in Portuguese, they always connected with the Italian culture, through food, stories and opera. Later, the two girls studied the language, which Eny also knows well. "I found out that my father was from another country and understood what that meant when I was eleven. Before that I just thought he spoke a little differently", jokes Bianca, the oldest, who now is the coordinator for Gruppo Dirigenti Fiat in Brazil, an association born in Italy in 1974 and brings together managers and former company leaders.

Di Gioia family in the 1990sThe family Giuseppe started in Brazil: his wife, Eny, and daughters Bianca (in white blouse) and Bruna (black blouse), at Teksid's annual gathering in the 1990s

Pasta has always been part of the Di Gioia family and Eny, who was born in the interior of Minas Gerais and accustomed to the typical cuisine of the region, had no problems mixing the dishes with the typical cheese bread and mashed beans of the region. A common love among Italians, Brazilians and Argentines is soccer, which also made the journey across the ocean with Peppe. "Here in Brazil, my father cheered for Cruzeiro, formerly Palestra Italia. In Europe he cheered for Juventus", Bianca recalls. It can be said that Peppe's heart beat 50% for each team, as well as for each country, Brazil and Italy. And the numbers don’t stop here: "When my husband passed away, aged 86, I realized that he had lived exactly 43 years in Italy and 43 in Brazil," recalls Eny.

Bruna, the youngest daughter, attests that her father was more Brazilian than anyone of them in the house. As a designer, she credits much of the influence for choosing her profession to Italian art, due to the fact that Giuseppe received many fellow citizens at home and travelled frequently with the family to Italy, where his eldest son, Fabio, from a first marriage, lives with his wife and two children. "My father was a test pilot in Italy and he was proud of the laps he took at the Lingotto factory", recalls Bruna. She’s referring to Fiat's unit in Turin founded in 1923 and known for having, in an avant-garde manner, the test track on its roof – there are aerial photos in the exhibition. She fondly says that her father, who worked at Teksid, a partner of the Fiat group, between 1984 and 2008, spoke with great joy of the company, with which he was connected to all his life. She still remembers Giuseppe's expansive and sincere way and how Italian don’t have suppressed emotions. "We miss him so much," she concludes, using the word ‘saudade’ in Portuguese which has no translation in other languages, but where the feeling is independent of time and nationality.

Check out the video we prepared about the Percorsi Italiani exhibition: 120 years of history at Casa Fiat de Cultura:


Words: Bárbara Caldeira

Pictures: Marketing FCA / Public Archive of the State of São Paulo / Di Gioia Family Archive

Related Stories

​Music as a social transformation tool for an entire community

Read More

​"The service through the app was agile and helped me get the information I needed"

Read More