Magazine Feature / People

Alumna to speak at Italy symposium

As recently as five years ago, very little archival information existed on the history of Denver’s Italian community. The same can’t be said today, thanks to Alisa Zahller (MA art history ’97 ).

She spent the past five years conducting extensive research on the topic, culminating in the opening of “The Italians of Denver” exhibit at the Colorado History Musuem. The year-long exhibit, which opened in April, features the stories of more than 100 families from the 1850s to the present.

Zahller will speak at “The Changing Faces of Italy Symposium” held at the Colorado History Musuem on Sept. 29, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Tickets are $50 for the general public, $30 for Colorado Historical Society members and $15 for students, and include lunch and “The Italians of Denver” exhibit. 

The exhibit features stories like that of Cesare Morganti, a 1931 DU graduate, photographer and journalist who dabbled in acting and performed dialect roles at Elitch’s Summer Theater.

Families have provided thousands of photos to the project as well as items such as a grandmother’s wedding dress, a crucifix brought over from Italy and an old-fashioned pasta maker. Many people also were interviewed about their ancestors.

“We hope to dispel some myths and stereotypes about the community and give a better, balanced idea of what it was all about,” Zahller says.

One myth is that the Italian immigrants who came to Denver were all from Southern Italy and were poor. Not true, Zahller says. The first families who arrived in the mid-to-late 1800s were more affluent. 

The heart of Denver’s “Little Italy” was Mt. Carmel Church, which still stands at 36th and Navajo streets in North Denver. Most of Denver’s Italian businesses and residences were located in the area. That began to change in the 1960s as the community dispersed to Arvada, Wheat Ridge and Lakewood. 

In an effort to develop research archives, collect artifacts and images, and produce the exhibit, the Colorado Historical Society formed the Colorado Italian American Preservation Association in 2002. The group includes members of the Italian American community as well as museum and library professionals, academics and artists.

“Not much is known about the history of Italians in the West in general, so the project has generated a lot of interest,” Zahller says. “We’re hoping this becomes a model for other groups who want to collect more information about their history.”

For reservations and information about the Italy symposium, call 303-866-4686. For more about the exhibit, call 303-866-3682 or visit

This article was updated from an article that originally appeared in The University of Denver Magazine, Spring 2007.

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