Embrace Your Culture

Steve Salvato refuses to charge for his services; they’re just too important.

It’s a core belief he’s held for the past two decades as he’s helped his fellow Italian-Americans to understand their roots.

“Culture is the glue that holds people and families together because they have that common bond,” says Salvato, a Rockford native. “If I can make people happy and interested in their families, that’s what matters.”

It started when Salvato was a young boy. A full-blooded descendant of Sicilians, he was raised in a traditional Roman Catholic family that carried out Old World customs like gathering for Sunday dinner, cherishing one’s heritage and respecting others. This led to a great sense of pride for Salvato and a lifelong interest in Italian-American culture.

In 1999, Salvato bought his first computer and with it he began fulfilling his childhood promise.

As he uncovered his own ancestral roots, Salvato found a rich history of Italian immigrants connected to Rockford and northern Illinois.

“Most Italians here are from Sicily and Northern Italy,” says Salvato, who also works as a probation officer. “The majority of Italians came through New York and Louisiana, so we have a lot of people in Rockford who have roots with Louisiana.”

For 24 years, Salvato conducted what he calls “detective work,” creating a genealogical database of Italian-Americans with connections to the Rockford area. Today, Salvato’s extensive archive includes more than 180,000 names, with the earliest records dating back to 1680, he says.

Salvato currently sits on the board of directors for the Greater Rockford Italian American Association, a nonprofit aimed at promoting and preserving Italian culture and heritage in our region. At the association’s annual Festa Italiana, Salvato has been spied sharing information from his database with those who want to know more about their own heritage.

This summer, Salvato is set to host an interactive workshop at Rockford’s Ethnic Heritage Museum, where he’ll show people some of the genealogy websites and databases they can use.

“One thing I tell people is there is so much information out there for free,” says Salvato. “There’s nothing wrong with paying websites to find information, but I only pay for one.”

Although it doesn’t earn him a living, helping Italian-Americans take pride in their heritage is reward enough, he says.

“I tell people to be proud of their culture,” says Salvato. “That’s why I don’t charge for this. I’m proud of my heritage and I love the excitement people get when they find something they don’t know.”