In all the stories about Irene Dalis, the famed opera star and impresario who died over the weekend at the age of 89, one thing stands out: She was a San Jose patriot.
Patriotism has acquired a kind of gamy flavor these days, particularly in a place as diverse as San Jose.
Say the word and you imagine a rifle-toting man crouched in a mountain hideaway, crying for the deportation of people with a darker hue of skin.
Listen carefully and you’ll hear people from San Jose describe themselves as being from the Bay Area, or Northern California, or — worst of all — Silicon Valley.
Dalis never had that apologetic take on her hometown. In 1957, when she made her broadcast debut with the Metropolitan Opera House, announcer Milton Cross asked her how she wanted to be introduced.
“Well, you’ll have to tell them that I’m from San Jose,” responded the rising young mezzo-soprano.
We have too few of her type, and there are reasons. Over the last six decades and more, San Jose has grown too fast. In our vast suburbia, we lack the glue of more established towns.
It took no brains and no reinvestment to flip farmland for housing subdivisions. People who should have had a stake in San Jose departed for places like Indian Wells.
Today we’re forced to compete with the urban lure of San Francisco for our brightest young people. It turns out that the next generation doesn’t crave suburban traffic jams.
Dalis had the good luck to be born in 1925 and to have grown up on Delmas Avenue at a time when San Jose was one of the loveliest places on earth, a compact town surrounded by orchards.
But she returned and created a legacy as the founder of Opera San Jose at a time when her hometown had already morphed into something different. In a sense, she was reclaiming her turf.
She described running Opera San Jose as “my life’s work, coming home to build this company.” And you had only to look at its survival to know it was far better run than other San Jose arts efforts.
There’s no reason why the rest of us cannot profit from her example. We already have several multigenerational families who have reinvested in San Jose — the McEnerys, who have created downtown San Pedro Market, or the DiNapoli family, movers in the resurgence of Willow Glen.
One of the things I liked about San Jose’s recent mayoral election was that both Sam Liccardo and Dave Cortese had deep roots in San Jose. Whoever won would have skin in the game.
Nobody needs to pretend that San Jose is a perfect place. It is not. We are condemned to spend too much time in cars. Our diversity doesn’t always translate into real cooperation among ethnicities.
Yet there is plenty to be proud of for those of us who live here — a growing downtown, a huge selection of ethnic food, a lack of pretension. We are not San Francisco, and that’s just fine.
When someone asks, don’t be apologetic. Tell them you’ll have to be introduced as being from San Jose.
Contact Scott Herhold at 408-275-0917 or [email protected]. Twitter.com/scottherhold.