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Copyright 2009-2010 by
Mary Brotherton
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Inside my Brain

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Monday, October 24, 2005

The U.S.A. is known as the World’s Melting Pot after opening her doors to what poet Emma Lazarus called, "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Schoolhouse Rock explained in a song for children to understand:

“You simply melt right in,
It doesn't matter what your skin,
It doesn't matter where you're from,
Or your religion, you jump right in
The great American melting pot.
Ooh, what a stew, red, white, and blue.
America was the New World
And Europe was the Old.
America was the land of hope,
Or so the legend told.
On steamboats by the millions,
In search of honest pay,
Those nineteenth century immigrants sailed
To reach the U.S.A.
Lovely Lady Liberty
With her book of recipes
And the finest one she's got
Is the great American melting pot.
What good ingredients,
Liberty and immigrants.”

Whether immigrants, GI brides, Native Americans, or refugees; this country has been influenced by the cultures brought here from other lands. Long before the Statue of Liberty stood, “America” was influenced by Greek and Roman philosophers, Spanish conquistadors, and others. The United States is relatively young, compared to other countries with civilizations that are thousands of years old. Without a traditional homeland, the citizens of the U.S.A. have had to create or modify customs, traditions, and culture from those who now reside here.

Twenty-three local heritage organizations are devoted to preserving their American way of life, and ensuring that their native customs, and traditions are not lost.
Diane Petitpas, of the French and Canadian Heritage Society believes, “What we are is the sum of our parts. We may be a little Irish and French, a little Canadian, and Italian, but we are then fully Americans.”

Mrs. Petitpas and her husband Jerry started the Society in 1994, when they realized that many of their relatives had also moved to Florida. “Quebec has a straight aim at us, doesn’t it?” she joked.

In Florida, Diane, who was from Iowa, met Jerry, who was from New Brunswick. They have written a book titled, “Where Rivers Converge, Families Unite,” after they discovered that they both have family ties in Three Rivers, Canada. This book, which can be found in Brevard libraries, is more than a personal family genealogy; it’s a piece of French-Canadian heritage.

Fumiko Dudnick is the current president the Yuimaru-Kai Community Organization and devoted to preserving the heritage of Okinawa. She said, “In Okinawa, today, the young people don’t speak the native dialect, called Hogan; they all speak Japanese.”
All of the women in this 5 year-old organization are wives of military men once stationed in Okinawa. Today, they call America home, and are dedicated to not only keeping their customs alive, but to sharing them with others. Each week, 20 women practice their native dance, and prepare to perform at a December festival in St. Petersburg.

Many of these ethnic groups are philanthropic as well as social, such as the St. Sophia Ladies Philoptochos Society, which was founded in 1975. Kaye Koines has been a member of St. Sophia’s since she moved to Melbourne 14 years ago, but she was a member of her local group in New York years before.

She explained, “The name Philoptochos in Greek means "Friends of the Poor," as she told of the many outreach projects her sorority embraces.

St. Katherine Greek Orthodox Church also sponsors a group for men: American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) also conducts social and fundraising events throughout the year; but St. Sophia’s draws the largest crowds, because, as Koines proudly stated, “People come from all over to get our pastries.”

Many organizations evolved around the members’ love of traditional food, such as the Italian-American Club of South Brevard, which meets twice weekly for Bingo and lunch. They also meet every Saturday for dances. President Maddalena Crisci explained, “Anyone can come who is an American. We are all Americans, and we don’t exclude anyone. You don’t have to be Italian, but we will be speaking Italian here. We try to keep our heritage alive.”

A former resident of Massachusetts, Crisci joined the 30 year-old club 5 years ago. In addition to the traditionally American holidays, this organization focuses on celebrating Columbus Day, tying both countries together.

Sometimes, the Italian-American Club will join with the Da Vinci Italian-American Society, which is a little stricter in their membership policy. President Ann Hopp, formerly from Staten Island, NY is a founding member and has been active with the organization since it started 37 years ago. She said, “You have to be of Italian descent, but we don’t care if you are 1st or 2nd or 5th generation, just so there’s a little Italy in you. We have to think about where we came from, and remember our roots.”

Remembering roots and historical tradition is very important to Tony Cortes, of the Alliance of Hispanics of the Space Coast. Originally from Puerto Rico, he joined the Air Force while living in New York, and moved to Melbourne in 1978.

“The club is small, but very active,” states Cortes, club president. “Our main event each year is the Feast of the Three Kings, in January. Three men dress up as the Three Kings and take thousands of toys to the children of Migrant Workers in Fellsmere.”

He believes that it is vital that these children remember one of the most important holidays in the Latin American world. “It is important to keep the tradition of the Three Kings; this is part of our Hispanic heritage. These children might not even know about the traditions of their heritage if not for our group of dedicated men.”

Henry Bertod, a former citizen of Cuba, lived in Wisconsin, Georgia, and Miami, before moving to Titusville in 1966, when it was still called Indian River City. “I’m a hillbilly now,” he smiles. Secretary of the Latin American Club of Titusville, Bertod joined the club the same year it was formed, 33 years ago.

“All different nationalities are welcome in the club, because we are all Americans as well as Latin,” he said. “We don’t discriminate. There are Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Chileans, Columbians, Argentineans, Brazilians, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, and even Americans in the group! If you are Hispanic or married to an Hispanic, you are welcome. Even if you don’t have any Hispanic blood, you’re welcome.” He emphasized, “We are the Latin-American club and we start each meeting with a pledge of allegiance to the US Flag.”

“We take trips to historic places like Saint Augustine and we have two big dances each year. Of course we have the big dance at Halloween to help celebrate our culture. Many people come dressed in the traditional clothing of their countries. It’s all about preserving our traditions.”

John Nolan, of the Comhaltas Club knows about preserving traditions. A resident of Florida since 1988, Nolan’s family traces back to Ireland, when some of his ancestors sailed to America on the Ship Dunbrody, along with members of the Kennedy Clan, in the 1840s.

The Comhaltas do not hold regular meetings, as membership is very small in this participatory group. The Comhaltas is an amateur group dedicated to preserving and teaching traditional Irish music and folklore. This organization was formerly called the Space Coast Irish-American Club, with over 300 members. Nolan said, “There’s been discussion of returning to the former club format.”

One Irish-American club that has not changed is the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the oldest Catholic lay organization in America. President Ed Kelly once played for Notre Dame, and then played professional football for the Rams, eventually coming to Suntree from Miami. He has been a member of the local group for 26 years, and said,

“Even though we are a man’s club, there is also a Lady’s group that meets the same night we do.”

The Trans-Atlantic Brides and Parents Association is another lady’s group that was formed in the U.S.A. and in Britain when WWII created GI brides. Originally formed to assist families in chartering flights, the 50 year-old organization has a social flare today. President Meg McGuire, from Manchester, England is a founding member of Brevard’s 9 year-old club. The Brevard Trans-Atlantic Brides are current benefactors to soldiers in Iraq. They recently sent them phone cards, knowing how difficult it is to be away from home, and unable to call.

Coming from Syracuse, NY, John Tovern was a sparring partner to Carmen Basilio, who once defeated Sugar Ray Robinson. John Tovern is now the publicity chairman for the Polish-American Club of Barefoot Bay. “This club is strictly social,” Tovern said.

“You do not have to be Polish to join, since we are all Americans. Each March, Barefoot bay has a big Ethnic Festival. Everyone there will be American!”

While trying to preserve their unique heritage and share their traditions with a new homeland, many of these groups were originally formed to provide a service to new immigrants. The Sons of Norway Space Coast Vikings Lodge 615 is a social club striving to preserve Scandinavian heritage and providing for the member’s insurance needs.

“We need people to row our boat,” said President Unni Barton, who has been a Melbourne resident since 1978. Comprised of people from Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway the lodge races a small, wooden, Viking boat against other lodges.

The Polish National Alliance is the largest of all ethnically-based fraternal insurance benefit societies in this country. Joseph Bogdanski is president of The Polish National Alliance Lodge 3203 and said, “We donate to charity and provide for the insurance needs of our members. But you don’t have to buy insurance to be a member. We have social members and benefits members.” He’s been president of the Alliance since 1994.

“They won’t let me go!” is a common theme among the club presidents. Maureen Rupe, from Port Saint John has been the president of the Brevard British Club for 10 years. She came to the US from Kettering, England, with her husband; when he was stationed at PAFB in 1986, she found a new home.

“We have a very jolly group,” she said of the 45 members who meet at members’ homes to “talk and laugh.” They share British newspapers and traditional English dishes.

“There are Scots, Northern Irish, Welsh and a variety of other people in the club. The only requirement is that you must have been born in the British Isles or one of the 53 Commonwealth countries,” Rupe said. “Visitors are welcome, but only those British-born can be members.”

Ruth Mlodzanowski has been the president of the German-American Social Club of Brevard for 14 years. Reserving only their Oktoberfest for members, this club welcomes all visitors. “You don’t have to be a German. We have young and old and in between. We like to have dinner, socialize, have a short meeting, then socialize some more,” she said. “We also take trips to explore our German heritage, like the festival at Saint Petersburg or Oktoberfest in Castleberry.”

Even if membership is restricted to specific nationalities or bloodlines, every club welcomes visitors and the opportunity to share its unique country’s heritage and tradition with anyone who shows interest. For more information about a specific organization, please refer to the list.