George Altamura has been doing more than buying property in Napa. He's been acting in a top-secret Francis Ford Coppola movie that may be released in a year or so.

Teenagers got the scoop from Altamura on Wednesday morning at a career day for migrant students earning high school credits in a summer program at Napa Valley College.

The students seemed more interested in the movie than in Altamura's 45-minute talk about success.

Altamura, the largest commercial landlord in downtown Napa, demurred when they asked what the movie's about. All he'd say is that he had trouble remembering his lines, which was embarrassing in front of big-name actors, and that a former Miami Vice star is in the movie.

In the informal speech, he primarily recalled how he gradually earned his riches, going from holding two or three jobs at a time as a young man to owning much of downtown Napa today.

"The only way to get ahead is to help yourselves," Altamura said. "They say (in America) we love everybody, but that's bullshit. You have to earn your way into the mainstream."

Most of the 114 students in the summer program are trying to do that. In the voluntary summer session, they can earn high school credits while improving their English skills. Middle school students are also welcome, though they can't earn credits.

The summer program, called Adelante, is run by the state's migrant education office and managed by Kevin Belton, a Redwood Middle School teacher, and Josefina Tenorio, a migrant education advisor. To get into the program, a student's mother or father must have been a farmworker or looked for fieldwork in the last three years, among other qualifications.

For the annual career day Wednesday, Altamura talked frankly to the students about his humble beginnings. His parents moved from Italy to upstate New York where they faced racism and poverty, sticking close to other Italian families to help each other through.

"Latino people have to learn one thing: All you people got to hug on each other," he said. Support Latino-owned businesses, vote, help your neighbors through tough times, don't be embarrassed if your parents only speak Spanish, retain your culture, he said.

Sophomore Rogelio Morales said he could relate to Altamura's story, especially the part about helping the community. Before the family moved to Napa three years ago, his father owned a taxi business in Mexico, giving free rides to less fortunate neighbors. His father now works at a chiropractor's office in Napa.

Altamura said Latinos should start getting out to the polls, but students said that's harder than it seems. Many of them — and their parents — aren't citizens, meaning they can't vote or run for office, as Altamura suggested.

Altamura moved from Buffalo, New York, to Napa at age 17, striking out on his own after graduating from high school. He had visited California a year before, falling in love with Napa, where he vowed to stay forever.

Now, 55 years later, Altamura owns property all over Napa, including Napa Town Center mall, Alta Plaza on Jefferson Street, Bistro Don Giovanni, Yountville Inn, and Gateway Mobile Home Park, among others.

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Although many of the migrant students said they had never heard of him, Altamura is widely known in Napa for his real estate business and charitable efforts.

With Francis Ford Coppola, he's also part-owner of the empty Uptown Theater, on Third and Franklin streets. Residents have complained that the boarded-up theater, with orange cones and caution tape out front, is an eyesore. Altamura didn't say when it would be done, adding that the project's going slow in part because workers are trying to preserve ceiling murals buried under several layers of paint.

He promised the students that Napa "is on the threshold of becoming great" with the riverfront development downtown. When the Uptown is done, he said he'd like to celebrate by hiring Santana to give a free concert on the Third Street bridge.

One student had her teacher ask Altamura how she could get a job in Napa.

"We're going through a bad cycle here," he said. "The only job is school. School is your only salvation."

Jaime Noriega, a Napa High School sophomore, said he agreed with Altamura's message about working for success as an immigrant.

"We have to fight for it. I'm trying to do my best so I can be someone." Since sitting in his first class with a teacher who didn't know any Spanish six years ago, the confident Noriega has come a long way.

Heather Osborn can be reached at 256-2265 or hosborn@napanews.com

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