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Articles by: Fred Gardaphe

  • Op-Eds

    Organized Culture


    Italian Americans have been formally complaining about the way they have been portrayed in the media since as far back as 1931 with little or no effect. That year, Fiorello LaGuardia, then Mayor of New York city, wrote a letter to William H. Hays, the first president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, to protest the portrayal of Italians in the film Little Caesar. Obviously nothing has changed, yet over the same 80-year period, other racial and ethnic American groups such as Jewish Americans and African Americans have succeeded in changing the way their images have been presented. So what’s the difference?

     
    For the past two weekends I have spent the best part of my Saturday attending so-called summits organized by a national organization (of which I am a member) and a group of local people in lower Manhattan. I have listened to the best of what all the speakers had to say and can only say that nothing new was offered. Protests were suggested, and while that might work for the powerful, showing up with dozens of picketers instead of thousands would set us up for laughter and dismissal. Lawsuits were mentioned that will cost thousands of dollars, and while that might work for the wealthy, for us it is wasting money better invested in our cultural community. These tactics worked for other groups because the other groups did something we have yet to do. Want to move beyond organized crime or organized buffoonery? Try organizing our culture!
     
    In the Italian immigrants’ efforts to become American they eschewed education in favor of work; and only later, on the shoulders of money, began to consider the benefits of formal education. We were above the average in income long before we were above the average in education. When we sent our children to school, we thought we were doing the right thing, and so we focused on getting scholarships, money that however well intended, would take our children further away from their Italian-American neighborhoods and families where ethnic identities were formed and maintained. We rebelled against earlier generations, who didn’t trust education, who had a natural sense of the changes that would occur in school, and feared what they didn’t know. The basis of fear is ignorance—exactly what we are facing today.
     
    Those of us born and raised in Little Italys who went to school, left our homes with a memory and a sense of being Italian American that was reinforced in those neighborhoods. Without transmitting that memory to the next generation we lost them. The more education they receive, the further they get from us, and the protection those communities offered. The result is the creation of Americans with Italian names who do not see anything wrong in writing, producing, directing and acting in films that, while protected by the First Amendment, offend other Italian Americans. So where’s the disconnect? To get our culture back, we need to learn from Black America.
     
    Let’s take a brief look at African-America history. When white people watched African slaves entertaining themselves on plantations, they imitated them through minstrel shows that quickly became popular throughout the country. When freed slaves wanted to make their way into mainstream U.S. entertainment, they were limited to playing in those same minstrel shows. They outdid the white actors and in the process brought a little more humanity to their portrayals. As soon as a Black middleclass evolved, blacks took offense at these portrayals and protested in much the same way the Italian-American community has for over 80 years. But they didn’t limit their strategies to protest. Led by such intellectuals as Harvard educated W.E.B. DuBois, they focused on developing what he referred to as the “Talented Tenth”. Through the establishment of black colleges, black studies, black businesses, black cultural products and consumers, African Americans educated themselves and by the 1920s created arts to be studied and emulated; by the 1960s they created a social and political awareness that challenged racist histories and legacies, and by the 1970s were able to produce independent filmmakers such as Spike Lee and television producers like Bill Cosby who made sure the rest of the world saw their lives in different ways.
     
    While Italian Americans have been busy becoming good Americans, America has spent a great deal of time nurturing what we might call our “Untalented Tenth.” Why has the bottom of Italian-American culture gained the spotlight and infamy? Because we have never organized our culture the way others have, and now we are paying for it by fighting sophisticated image-makers with out-of-date weapons.
     
    Basta with using neighborhood strategies to attach national problems. You can’t think locally and act globally. We must nationalize the education of Italian Americans first, in order to understand why the Coppolas, Scorseses, Chases achieved success through the minstrel show mill and why not a single Italian American with any kind of real power in politics, the media, the arts, religion, ever came to the aid of those who wanted to protest defamation of Italian Americans; second, You to understand why you don’t know, but should know, names like Ardizzone, Bacarella, Ciabattari, deVries, Ermelino, Farella, Gillan, Hendin, Ingrasciotta, Janotta, Krase, Lentricchia, Musolino, Norelli, Postiglione, Rimanelli, Savoca, Timpanelli, Valerio, and Zandy.
     
    If you believe that the “Jersey Shore” show of MTV is really gangsters without guns, then you should do something about it. But since when have we become afraid of our youth? Since when has the public behavior of seven 20-something kids been something to pay attention to? This shows that kids don’t really know what it means to be Italian American outside of their family; it also shows that we probably don’t know our kids as well as we think we do. And if we don’t get to know them, there will be no one (or the very few) who will follow us in perpetuating the various national organizations.
     
    What MTV produces is legally their right. Had we done our work right over the past 80 years, others would have joined us in confronting defamatory programs. Had we educated our children, we might not have created those MTV employees who produce and maintain this show. So don’t blame MTV; we have failed ourselves.
     
    When you don’t see your reflection in a mirror you begin to look for other identities to take on; you become the figurative vampire, living off the blood of others; and that’s just what these “Jersey Shore” kids are doing. We know they are no more Italian than the pizzas of Pizza Hut or the food of Olive Garden, so why the protests? Because, as some of the leaders have said, this is the way the rest of the country sees us as? Really? Want to know this for a statistical fact? Commission a serious study to check on this! Contact the Italian-American communities throughout the U.S. and begin communicating, sharing ideas, strategies and resources.
     
    Want to change “Jersery Shore”—give the Situation and all his buddies scholarships to study in Italy. Let them go to the Mediterranean shore and see if they can entertain audiences acting like that.
     
    To kill an infestation you can target every instance and keep busy stamping it out one bug at a time, or you can locate the source. I suggest we form a multi-fronted strategy that focuses on the nest.
     
    We may think we have created Italian America, but we have yet to create Italian Americans.
     
     
    Next “Nota Bene”: A Strategy for Organizing Italian America
     
     


  • Op-Eds

    Dialogue and Debate, Part two: An Italian-American Controversy


    Dear Mr. Fratta,


    I’m glad that this controversy has brought our voices and ideas into conversation.  For too long our community has kept business separate from intellectual pursuit.  I believe you, like most Italian Americans, are not familiar with the work that I have produced over the last 30 years and perhaps this interaction will result in a greater awareness of the work I and many others have produced.  Many of us have spent our lives examining the phenomenon of Italian immigration to the United States with the purpose of understanding and improving the lot of the Italian American.  Communication between us can help improve our community by promoting the sharing of knowledge and resources in pursuit of better lives.


    We agree on many things and so I suggest we base the foundation of our discussions on that and then debate that upon which we do not agree.  I would never challenge another person’s beliefs and so agree with you that Mr. Piccolo is “not wrong in his beliefs”.  You are right that “we should be joining forces and begin attacking the problem”.  This initial colloquium is part of making that happen.  By framing the problem and examining it from various angles we will be better able to formulate strategies for solutions. 


    Politicians usually arm themselves with studies conducted by academic think tanks and perhaps that’s what’s been the problem with our politicians.  When the Calandra Institute provided our politicians with the information about the Italian American dropout rate those politicians rallied to solve that problem.  Would this have been done if someone had said the Institute should spend more time promoting the positive instead of investigating dropouts?  Cancer never was a good thing, and when people started studying it we started finding solutions.  And if we don’t study phenomena of our own community, then we are left with reacting to what the news and entertainment media present. 

     

    This colloquium, one of many the Calandra Institute has offered since its inception, is not focused on the MTV television show, rather the culture that the show purports to represent.  Who better than to give us insight into just what the fuss is all about than a social scientist who has actually studied the subculture for many years. This colloquium is a signal to the world that we are taking control of our own representations.  This colloquium is not the first, nor will it be the last word on this subject.  A few years ago the Calandra did a similar colloquium on youth culture at Queens College and not one Italian American organization responded to it. 


    My students at Queens College will be hosting a roundtable in the spring on Italian American youth lifestyles that will be part of a larger series on Italian American youth culture.  Through these events we hope for all to gain a better understanding of what is happening to those who will someday take over the leadership of our community.  This is why it is so important that all of our leaders should plan on attending these and other events.  I must say that when I was their age, a while ago, no one in the Italian community paid attention to my attempts to forge an Italian American identity, which I did through many successful and unsuccessful attempts.


    Let’s make this the beginning of better interaction among leaders in the business, social, educational and cultural institutions of Italian America.  Combining the brains, brawn and beauty of our community can only help us all no matter where we work or live.


    I hope that with the support of leaders such as your self we can begin to work together to better understand what it meant, means and will mean to be Italian Americans.


    Sincerely,


    Fred Gardaphe

    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------




    Dear Mr. Piccolo,


    I want to thank you for drawing attention through your recent blog to the Calandra Institute’s upcoming colloquium that was designed to investigate what is known “Guido” has been in existence for 30 years.  Too often the Italian American community does not pay attention to the good work done at and through the Calandra Institute. 


    In that blog, "‘Guido’ The New Way to Mock Italian Americans” you say there are “so called ‘intellectuals’…trapped by their own Bull Shit” I assume you are referring to me [editor note: for the satements published in the Time Magazine,] and so I address this as my personal response to your claims.


    I have never been referred to as a “Guido” nor do I portray the behavior that might warrant such a characterization.  First of all you claim that what I say makes me “dumb” and “a traitor for a few pieces of silver” thrown my way.  Such accusations are unfounded; I ask you here for a personal apology and a public withdrawal of those accusations.  The work I do and have been doing for a good thirty years has never been funded by any insidious source that has enticed me to “betray” or even worse as you put it “piss on” my community. 


    On the contrary, my work has been motivated by my need to understand that community, and my responses to the exploration of that information has been the more than seven books I have written on the subject of the Italian American community.  I have dedicated my professional life to this exploration, and your characterization of me is crude and could be construed as libelous.  I have not garnished monetary wealth from this work and simply have a respected reputation that you have publicly attempted to defame.  Your public apology would be greatly appreciated.


    I don’t believe that Donald Tricarico, as you say, “glorifies guido”. Tricarico is a sociologist who has spent time trying to understand aspects of the larger Italian American community that often gets manipulated by the media.  Guido culture is not something the media created; in fact, Italian American culture, for better or worse, has created Guido culture, and that I believe is something that must be investigated and understood before we can move further in any discussion. Dr. Tricarico, as any good social scientist describes Guido culture for those who are interested.  He doesn’t “Love it” or Hate it. 


     

    I can understand your anger and your fear at the recent dominance of this culture’s representation in the media.  Once again, a small segment of the Italian American population is getting the attention that the major part of Italian American culture has never respectfully received.  This has been one of the greatest problems that our community has faced, and one that we hope to address through intellectual investigation and through the promotion of alternative artistic and media works.  This has been the foundation of what has been produced by the Calandra Institute since its inception and one of the reasons I was drawn to my current affiliation. 


    I find the Calandra Institute’s wording of this upcoming participation in the upcoming colloquium to be accurate and appropriate.  Guido culture is something that is “non-traditional” and represents the way a number of Americans of Italian descent have chosen to identify themselves as being Italian American.  No one ever said they represent the whole of the culture, and actually, within Dr. Tricarico’s work, you will find the information you need to more cogently critique what you see as a negative representation of Italian American culture.


    Whatever it is one feels about Guido culture, all Italian Americans share some responsibility for having created it.  Whether those inside Guido culture have created their identities out of arrogant animosity toward what some consider to be traditional representations of Italian American culture--both within and without the Italian community--or through some interpretation based on attentive admiration of publicly presented versions of Italian American culture, what needs to be examined is just what is and what isn’t Italian or American about Guido culture, and what is or isn’t of our own creation.  That is what I feel is the work at hand.


    I have many students who feel that Guido culture does not represent them, the same way that most Italian Americans feel that gangster culture does not reflect them.  I also have students who feel comfortable within versions of Guido culture.  This is simply a reality that such a colloquium will enable us to examine. 


    I have never once publicly applauded the MTV television program that has brought attention back to this culture, and I do not accept your interpretation of a recent misquoting of my response to one reporter as enthusiastic support of it.  In fact, I simply said that it is just more of what MTV has been throwing out for years without much protest from other communities.   The reporter mistook my interpretation of “guappo” for “guido” and that’s where some of the confusion might lie.


    I do believe strongly in there being an irony deficiency within some members of the Italian American community that does not allow them to connect to the more artistic mis-representations of Italian America that appear in the arts.  I never said irony deficiency was a right or wrong thing, those are your words.  I simply identified it and have been working to document it and explain it, much the same way Dr. Tricarico has worked to document and interpret Guido culture.

     

    That Guidos take pride in themselves is no reason to encourage “young Italian boys and girls” to join them.  Such reasoning would lead to the suggestion that the First Amendment is at the root of all this representative evil.


    I think this colloquium is a great opportunity for all Americans to better understand all sides of this issue.  By calling for a boycott, or even worse a cancellation, of this colloquium you are not only denying the right of free speech, but also the necessity of intellectual investigation of all aspects of the community.  It is imperative that we debate intelligently and respectfully all issues, whatever we may think of them.  I find this quite sad and little more than a reminder that the generation gaps inside Italian America will continue to grow and remain unbridged. 


    Professor Tricarico does not need any “proof” of his credibility; but we all need to consider his research as we attempt to fashion powerful ways of addressing Italian American identities today and for the future.  I hope you, as well as others who might consider not attending, will consider joining us for what promises to be a significantly informative, and thus beneficial discussion for all.


     

  • Facts & Stories

    Dialogue and Debate: Not Denigration and Dismissal


    Dear Mr. Piccolo,


    I want to thank you for drawing attention through your recent blog to the Calandra Institute’s upcoming colloquium that was designed to investigate what is known “Guido” has been in existence for 30 years.  Too often the Italian American community does not pay attention to the good work done at and through the Calandra Institute. 


    In that blog, "‘Guido’ The New Way to Mock Italian Americans” you say there are “so called ‘intellectuals’…trapped by their own Bull Shit” I assume you are referring to me [editor note: for the satements published in the Time Magazine,] and so I address this as my personal response to your claims.


    I have never been referred to as a “Guido” nor do I portray the behavior that might warrant such a characterization.  First of all you claim that what I say makes me “dumb” and “a traitor for a few pieces of silver” thrown my way.  Such accusations are unfounded; I ask you here for a personal apology and a public withdrawal of those accusations.  The work I do and have been doing for a good thirty years has never been funded by any insidious source that has enticed me to “betray” or even worse as you put it “piss on” my community. 


    On the contrary, my work has been motivated by my need to understand that community, and my responses to the exploration of that information has been the more than seven books I have written on the subject of the Italian American community.  I have dedicated my professional life to this exploration, and your characterization of me is crude and could be construed as libelous.  I have not garnished monetary wealth from this work and simply have a respected reputation that you have publicly attempted to defame.  Your public apology would be greatly appreciated.


    I don’t believe that Donald Tricarico, as you say, “glorifies guido”. Tricarico is a sociologist who has spent time trying to understand aspects of the larger Italian American community that often gets manipulated by the media.  Guido culture is not something the media created; in fact, Italian American culture, for better or worse, has created Guido culture, and that I believe is something that must be investigated and understood before we can move further in any discussion. Dr. Tricarico, as any good social scientist describes Guido culture for those who are interested.  He doesn’t “Love it” or Hate it. 


     

    I can understand your anger and your fear at the recent dominance of this culture’s representation in the media.  Once again, a small segment of the Italian American population is getting the attention that the major part of Italian American culture has never respectfully received.  This has been one of the greatest problems that our community has faced, and one that we hope to address through intellectual investigation and through the promotion of alternative artistic and media works.  This has been the foundation of what has been produced by the Calandra Institute since its inception and one of the reasons I was drawn to my current affiliation. 


    I find the Calandra Institute’s wording of this upcoming participation in the upcoming colloquium to be accurate and appropriate.  Guido culture is something that is “non-traditional” and represents the way a number of Americans of Italian descent have chosen to identify themselves as being Italian American.  No one ever said they represent the whole of the culture, and actually, within Dr. Tricarico’s work, you will find the information you need to more cogently critique what you see as a negative representation of Italian American culture.


    Whatever it is one feels about Guido culture, all Italian Americans share some responsibility for having created it.  Whether those inside Guido culture have created their identities out of arrogant animosity toward what some consider to be traditional representations of Italian American culture--both within and without the Italian community--or through some interpretation based on attentive admiration of publicly presented versions of Italian American culture, what needs to be examined is just what is and what isn’t Italian or American about Guido culture, and what is or isn’t of our own creation.  That is what I feel is the work at hand.


    I have many students who feel that Guido culture does not represent them, the same way that most Italian Americans feel that gangster culture does not reflect them.  I also have students who feel comfortable within versions of Guido culture.  This is simply a reality that such a colloquium will enable us to examine. 


    I have never once publicly applauded the MTV television program that has brought attention back to this culture, and I do not accept your interpretation of a recent misquoting of my response to one reporter as enthusiastic support of it.  In fact, I simply said that it is just more of what MTV has been throwing out for years without much protest from other communities.   The reporter mistook my interpretation of “guappo” for “guido” and that’s where some of the confusion might lie.


    I do believe strongly in there being an irony deficiency within some members of the Italian American community that does not allow them to connect to the more artistic mis-representations of Italian America that appear in the arts.  I never said irony deficiency was a right or wrong thing, those are your words.  I simply identified it and have been working to document it and explain it, much the same way Dr. Tricarico has worked to document and interpret Guido culture.

     

    That Guidos take pride in themselves is no reason to encourage “young Italian boys and girls” to join them.  Such reasoning would lead to the suggestion that the First Amendment is at the root of all this representative evil.


    I think this colloquium is a great opportunity for all Americans to better understand all sides of this issue.  By calling for a boycott, or even worse a cancellation, of this colloquium you are not only denying the right of free speech, but also the necessity of intellectual investigation of all aspects of the community.  It is imperative that we debate intelligently and respectfully all issues, whatever we may think of them.  I find this quite sad and little more than a reminder that the generation gaps inside Italian America will continue to grow and remain unbridged. 


    Professor Tricarico does not need any “proof” of his credibility; but we all need to consider his research as we attempt to fashion powerful ways of addressing Italian American identities today and for the future.  I hope you, as well as others who might consider not attending, will consider joining us for what promises to be a significantly informative, and thus beneficial discussion for all.


     

  • Op-Eds

    Mafiaman…Could This Be the End?

     I had the opportunity a few years ago to meet Ernest Borgnine, the actor who played Joe Petrosino in the 1960 film Pay or Die, but who’s perhaps better known through his previous film appearances in From Here to Eternity and Marty, and the McHale’s Navy television series.  I was curious if he had ever been tempted to play a gangster in a film.  He told me that he was offered the part of Al Capone in the gangster’s 1959 biopic in which starred Rod Steiger, but he turned it down.  When I asked him why he turned it down he told an amusing story about how when he was a child his mother used to threaten bad behavior with the warning that Al Capone was going to get him if he wasn’t a good boy.  “That guy frightened me pretty badly, so much so that I couldn’t even play him in a movie,” he replied. 

    That was the only time Borgnine remembered being offered a role as Mafiaman.  There weren’t many Italian gangster films made by Hollywood in the prime of Borgnine’s acting career, that period after the 1930s when Hollywood censorship had put a lid on many of the gangster film

    possibilities.  It wouldn’t be until Puzo and Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) that the Italian gangster was realized as a sure draw to the box office, and a sure pain in the collective Italian American consciousness and culo.  So what was it that made this Italian gangster figure so popular? Two things: timing and talent.
     

    First of all, the gangster figure emerges in American popular culture at the time when the United States is shifting from an agrarian to an industrial based economy, so people are moving away from the farms and into the cities; this was also a time when immigration to the United States was at its highest and xenophobia was rampant.  These became the right ingredients for setting up the Italian American man as the gangster, even though “Mafia man” had yet to rise to his ultimate status in real life.
     

    Easier access to stylish consumption, through fancy dress and flashy cars blurred the earlier lines that separated social class.  As street criminals began associating with the upper echelons of society, it became harder to tell the gangster from the corporate elite.  This enabled the criminal to more closely resemble those in the rising business class, and for the sake of film (not to mention the good name of film investors), the gangster would have to be coded in order to maintain that separation between the “American” business man and the criminal; the cinema criminal then is rising in class and assimilating to mainstream culture at the same time American urban ghetto white ethnics are trying to do the same, and so if you code the gangster as ethnic, people won’t confuse him with the real criminals of the newly burgeoning economy.   

    Just as the gangster came to represent America's attempts to struggle with the advent of image-driven consumption, the gangster also represents traditional male aggressiveness and its use as a means of controlling his world.   Nowhere was this more obvious, writes Ruth, than in the representation of the gangsters' treatment of women.  A defender of "conservative gender values" on the one hand, the gangster also depicted an "openly expressive sexuality” that was becoming more acceptable in urban life.   The prototype for this gangster, says Ruth, is none other than Al Capone, what he calls an "attractive and repulsive" figure that

    "illuminated the lives of urban Americans."  And when you look at the actors who have played Capone, his cronies or his descendants, you find an incredible pool of cinematic talent.  Capone’s wannabes have lined up in real and Hollywood history so we can trace a line all the way through to Tony Soprano.  But there’s more to the gangster than his Italian good looks and his fortuitous appearance in the right place at the right time. 
     

     Film scholar Jonathan Munby wrote that the gangster provides us with a view into our world from a different perspective:  “If there is a problem the society is worried about or a fantasy it is ready to support, odds are it can be located in the gangster”.  As Jack Shadoian points out in his study of gangster films entitled Dreams and Dead Ends the gangster embodies “Two fundamental and opposing American ideologies—a contradiction in thought between America as a land of opportunity and the vision of a classless, democratic society”.  The gangster then functions as the scapegoat for the obsessive desire for self-advancement, and unrelieved class conflicts are played out in films.  He becomes, for the United States, the only sanctioned soldier in the class war; and ultimately he teaches us that it is a losing battle.  

    In spite of all this scholarly work, people don’t associate the typical gangster with anything but the Italian American male:  Mafia Man, constructed by non-Italians, was refined by Italian American writers and filmmakers, and then imitated ad nauseum.  But what’s stronger the facts or the fiction about Italian/American gangsters? 
     

    The Sopranos continued to milk the myth, popularized by Puzo, that organized crime is monopolized by Italian Americans.  If Puzo admitted that much in The Godfather was made up, then why do Italian Americans wince when Hollywood sends out another formulaic gangster film?  Why should fiction be so upsetting?

    The answer lies in the fact that for nearly seventy-five years Mafiaman has been Italian/American culture in the eyes of America’s filmgoers.  In spite of some recent books, the regrettable truth is that the fictional Mafiaman is stronger than the facts, and the facts of Italian/American history will never be as attractive as the fictional myths.  We know that the gangster figure meets a fundamental need by allowing Americans to reclaim a sense of power in a society gone out of control.  But as these recent publications prove, the mafia has been a convenient and relatively safe dragon for American heroes to chase. 

    In the meantime more terrible monsters terrorize the American way.  And as long as the U.S. has Mafiaman, we don’t have to admit that we are failing in the real fight to make America a safe and healthy place to live. 

    So what’s next?  Is there room for a reinvention of Mafiaman?  Will Italian American culture develop to the point where Mafiaman will be buried for good?  Up until this point, Italian America has been often defined by the myth of mafia, but in the face of contrary evidence, what we do in response to the myth of Mafiaman will define us and determine the future of our community and identity as Italian Americans.  If we seriously invest in education and the arts we this could be the end of Mafiaman, and the beginning of a renaissance of Italian American culture.

  • Art & Culture

    BLOOD TYPE: RAGU. Irreverent with Love


    I’ve seen actor and playwright Frank Ingrasciotta do his one-man show, Blood Type: Ragu, three times now over a period of what I think is about 10 years, and each time I see something that I didn’t remember from the previous performance, each time I’m amazed at how irreverent he can be while maintaining a love and loyalty to the idea of the Italian family.  This latest performance is like the matured version of what I first saw all those years ago.  And what you can see today is what the play was meant to be, and now you get to see it without having to have seen it go through all those earlier, sometimes awkward, stages.   


    The plot is simple--caught between mother and father, a young boy must grow into a man by leaving them all without losing himself.  The journey takes place through portraits and scenes of family, friends and neighbors.  The result is a “misto imbroglio” of personalities that have helped to shape the man on the stage, but when you watch that actor turn into neighbors, relatives, men and women alike, you forget that there’s one person behind all this.  Warts and all, the family portraits will have


    Blood Type Ragu - Dad Answers Phone from Blood Type Ragu on Vimeo.

    you recalling your own experiences; secrets and public knowledge are juxtaposed to create just enough tension to keep you wondering just where this guy is headed with all this.

     

    Ingrasciotta has the talent and wisdom to take risks that few Italian American writers have.  He finds the extraordinary in every day life, and telescopes (sometimes microscopes) through time and space to present truths about life that lie all around us, but that we don’t often have time to see for ourselves.  This is what good art must do and this is what Ingrasciotta does so well.  It’s what this artist makes you feel that sets him apart from many other performer-writers.   The dramatic effects are complex as the actor performs comedy, tragedy, even a little mime and burlesque.  This is a show that should be supported by all Americans, especially those of us from Italy.  As one of the line’s tells us: “This isn’t The Godfather, it’s real life.”  



    I had a chance to talk to the actor and playwright and offer you this brief entre into the mind behind and inside the show.   

    Everyone has stories in their lives; how did you pick the ones that you would use to create this show?


    I picked stories that connected my first-generation experiences growing up and jockeying between two cultures.  In the show’s early incarnation, I had many stories that talked about the Italian culture.  I soon realized that as rich as they were, some had to be sacrificed for the sake of clarity.  So I streamlined the writing focusing on the Holy Trinity: my father, my mother and me.  There are also a few external stories about my brother and sister that dress it up.


    What responses have you had from your family regarding the material?


    My brother Phil has been very supportive of the show and has brought many friends.  My sister Jennie struggled with it at first.  I understood how it would be challenging for her to see her family on stage.  However, in time, she became my biggest fan and is very proud of me and the show.  It’s always an emotional experience when they come to a performance because they lived the story with me.  Although it’s funny, there are also some painful parts, and in many ways they acted as a buffer

    during my upbringing to protect me from all that was going on.


    Who are some of your influences in terms of writing and acting?


    The people who influenced my writing are comedy writers -- Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner.  Also, Bob Carroll and Madelyn Pugh, who wrote all those wonderful “I Love Lucy” scripts.  The people who influenced my acting are Jack Lemmon.  He was a master of comedy and drama.  I also love Anthony Hopkins, whose acting is more like channeling.  There is also a French actor by the name of Romain Duris whose work I saw recently in the movie “Moliere.”  He gives a very captivating performance that is so interesting to watch.


     How different is it doing your own work vs. someone else's?


    When I am acting in someone else’s work, I am constantly searching the script for clues to the character’s emotional behavior based on the intentions of the playwright.  When it’s something I’ve written, my mind already knows the character’s traits and their emotional journey in the play.  However, when I first started putting Blood Type: RAGU on its feet, I was struggling with the text and kept asking myself, “Who wrote this?”  I had to keep reminding myself that I did.  It was a bit of a challenge to bring it to life and take it off the page.  I realized there were many lines I could cut because an expression or movement would take care of the moment.  I also had to completely let go of the playwright part of me and move into being an actor that was portraying 20 different characters.  I had to come up with a voice and body movement for each of them.



    How is this show different from its earlier incarnations?



    The basic spine of the show is the same as it was during its first production nine years ago at the Belmont Playhouse.  However, I am a different person than I was nine years ago and I feel I have much more life experience that I can give to it.  Also, through the work of the director Ted Sod, I feel it’s much more specific and enhanced.  


    What were the major challenges in putting on a one-man show and how do you prepare for it?



    I have to pace myself.  A performance day becomes about preparing for those 90 minutes.  180 minutes when I have two shows.  It’s like training for a marathon to perform eight shows a week.  I’ve lost 18 pounds since I’ve started rehearsals.  My daily regimen consists of meditation, stretching, steaming my vocal chords, resting my voice, staying off the phone, eating healthy, no alcohol (I miss my glass of wine with dinner!).


    What do you envision as a future for this show?


    I would like to have a long run and tour it around the country - especially in cities like Boston, Chicago and Providence.  Many people have told me it’s got a cinematic quality, so I would love to explore the idea of adapting it into a movie.  But, for now, it’s an honor to perform the show and I’m grateful for all the support I am receiving from audiences.  In addition to the general theater-going audience, I hope the Italian-American community will embrace the show as a work that speaks of family, culture and embracing heritage.




    Blood Type: Ragu can be seen at: The Actors’ Playhouse.  100 7th Avenue South (Between Grove and Barrow) on Wednesdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30; Thursdays at 7:30P.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.  Tickets are $47.50 Wednesdays and Thursdays; and $52.50 Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. 

    For tickets call (212) 868-4444 or visit www.BloodTypeRagu.com      Groups of 10 or more call (641) 319-0634.

     

  • Op-Eds

    Obama. A Hope That I Had Kept Alive Inside Me


    It's hard to put words to what that is exactly, but I know that part of it is O since the first time I learned that hard work can change the way things are.  This was something I accomplished back when we worked to get the 18 year- -old right to vote.  It was carried through the ending of the Viet Nam War, and became something I kept alive inside me as I worked my way through education and then made education my life's work. 


    I felt good when I voted today; better than I have for many years.  I had a spring in my step that usually comes along the first day of spring each year, and here we are deep into autumn.  I left political thoughts behind as I taught my courses, but as soon as my work ended for the day, I began to get a chill.  It was a combination of worry and excitement.  The only thing I could think of to do to start calling people.  First in my family-my mother, who at 82 voiced her support of Obama in a neighborhood of McCain supporters; my daughter, who while dealing with work, her education, and her one-year-old son found the time to spread the word throughout her network of friends to get out and vote; and to my son, who has been working for Obama for the past two years, the last 15 months in his campaign and who left his home in Chicago to do what needed to be done in Florida.  I talked to everyone who was close to me between the end of work and the end of the election. 


    A good 6 hours have passed, and now that all the talking is over it's time to rest, to get the energy to begin another tomorrow, one that will be different in a way that none of my tomorrows have promised for a long time for me.  I have regained a belief that those who have come together through the support of our new president, can continue through and after his days to solve the problems that have plagued us yesterday, today and tomorrow.   

  • Op-Eds

    Whites on a Leash: Italian Americans and White Privilege in the U.S.


    For Italian Americans, “making it” has come with a high price tag. It has cost us the language of our ancestors--the main means by which history is preserved and heritage passed on from one generation to the next. For a few generations we have had to trade-in or hide any customs which have been depicted as quaint, but labeled as alien, in order to prove equality to those above us on the ladder of success. In this way, Italian Americans have become white, but a different kind of white than those of the dominant Anglo/Saxon culture. Italian Americans have become whites on a leash. And as long as we behave ourselves (act white), as long as we accept the images of ourselves as presented in the media (don't cry defamation) and as long as we stay within corporate and socio-cultural boundaries (don't identify with other minorities) we will be allowed to remain white. This behavior has led to Italian Americans being left out of most discussions of multiculturalism.

     

    In A Different Mirror, Ronald Takaki's revision of American history the European immigrants and their descendants are either lumped in the falsely monolithic category of whites or overlooked entirely. The fact is that each of these groups has its own unique history of subjugation that aligns it more closely with Takaki's oppressed minorities than with the Anglo majority. We all need to come to grips with the fact that there is a great diversity and much oppression within white America. Until then, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the earlier histories that we are trying to correct.

     

    A Scene from The Untouchables

    For too long, the U.S. media were all too ready to help restrict Italians’ attempts to assimilate as white Americans. The vast majority of Italian Americans are law-abiding citizens, but you wouldn't know it by watching television, listening to the radio or reading books. We have been viciously framed by the constant repetition of negative portrayals. Most histories of mafia in America begin with the 1890 murder of the corrupt New Orleans Police Chief Hennessey. The aftermath of his murder lead to one of the largest recorded mass lynchings in this country's history. America's obsession with the mafia has overshadowed the real history of Italians in America that includes indentured servitude, mass lynchings, Klu Klux Klan terrorism against Italians, and strong participation in civil rights struggles. For Italian Americans, overt oppression has given way to more covert techniques of discrimination. Italians have replaced Indians and blacks as the accepted “bad guys” in films, and this image was regularly reinforced and perpetuated through contemporary remakes of The Untouchables and the establishment of museums such as the now gone “Capone's Chicago.”

     

    These portrayals have become the building blocks of an American cultural imagination that has petrified a stereotype and fortified the possibilities of remaining white. This never ending reproduction of negative stereotypes has so impoverished American minds that anything Italian is immediately connected to gangsterism and ignorance, and so Italians may protest such images without a sense of what other groups have experienced. To become American, Italians would have to do everything in their power to show how they were unlike the gangsters and buffoons who dominated public representation of their culture. To stay Americans, we would have to avoid anything that might make us seem needy for institutional protection such as that granted to other minority groups.

     

    There are many examples of Italian Americans who have both broken the silence and created the historical narratives that will challenge long established notions of ethnic whiteness, but I will bring up one presented by the late Rudolf Vecoli. In his keynote address to the 1994 American Italian Historical Association’s national conference, Vecoli challenged the notion of Italian Americans being white. Using numerous examples from history in which Italian Americans were not always considered white, he argued that:

     

    Our experience has taught the fallacy of the very idea of race and the mischief of racial labels. It has taught us that both total assimilation and total separatism are will-o’-the-wisps, unachievable--and undesirable if they were. It has taught us that a healthy ethnicity is compatible with, indeed essential to, a healthy America. For these reasons, we, Italian Americans, have something important to contribute to the national dialogue.(1)

     

    Vecoli concludes his speech with the idea that the key to Italian American participation is the creation of the ability to define our selves, “distinguished by our unique experience” that is not “white, nor black, nor brown, nor red, nor yellow.”

     

    Although racial discrimination against Italians was more prevalent in the past, it has not disappeared. Today, Italian American youth suffer from association with a different stereotype; the image of the organ-grinding immigrant has been replaced by the mafioso and the dumb street kid ala Rocky Balboa. These images do not come from family interaction, but from the larger society. So that when Italian Americans look into the cultural mirror, they receive a distorted view, as though it was one of those funny mirrors found in an amusement park. Consciously or unconsciously those distorted images affect their identity, and they must face the reality that the dominant culture is comfortable with Italians as serio/comic figures, caricatures made up of the most distorted aspects of their culture. The question all Italian Americans must confront these days is, “Who controls the image making process and why are their social images so distorted?" Reinforcement of a positive cultural identity that was created in the home is necessary for the maintenance of and a willingness to continue that identification outside the home. If children get the idea that to be Italian is to be what the media and white histories say Italian is, then they will either avoid it, if it shames them, or embrace it if it gets them attention.

     

    If not totally black, Italians have certainly complicated the notion of whiteness in America so that they are neither totally white, and it is this in-between status, that makes them likely candidates to support the abolition of whiteness as a privilege status in the U.S.A. For those who can naively say we’re not black, there are others who counter with the truth, that we weren’t always white.

     

    * * *

    (1) Vecoli, Rudolph J., “‘Are Italian Americans Just White Folks?’” in Through the Looking Glass: Italian and Italian/American Images in the Media.  Selected Essays from the 27th Annual Conference of the American Italian Historical Association, Mary Jo Bona and Anthony Julian Tamburri, eds.  Staten Island, NY: American Italian Historical Association, 1996, p. 17.

     

  • Op-Eds

    Should We Celebrate Columbus Day? And Why?


    (Above: Columbus, his feet in fetters, is sent back to Spain)

     

    Columbus Day has come to symbolize the celebration of the Italian presence in the United States of America. This presence has not always been welcomed, but it has been a positive presence, and one that is rarely celebrated in mainstream U.S. culture. It is no wonder that more than 100 years ago Italians latched on to Columbus as a symbol for their own experiences. However, Columbus, like many figures of history, has outlived his usefulness for all Americans, but for Italian Americans he continues to represent the struggle their immigrant forbearers overcame in becoming Americans. I am here to tell you that we do not need to depend on Columbus’ story if we 1) tell our stories, and 2) incorporate those stories into the history of the United States.

     

    A lack of access to our own histories, whether through the family or social institutions, is forcing us to depend on a sense of ethnic identity portrayed by others and outdated symbols such as Columbus. Outside celebrations such as religious feste and Columbus Day parades became the most important public presentation of Italian/American culture, but these annual events were never frequent enough to protect Italian/American culture from the regular mass media bombardment of negative stereotypes.

     

    I could choose any number of examples, but one which helps us understand them all came through an Editorial that appeared in the October 7, 2002h issue of the St. Augustine Record in which Hansen Alexander wrote: “Tomorrow’s Columbus Day Celebration will go forth undeterred by the fact that the Genoese mariner helped Spain, not Italy stake a claim to the Americas.” Then begins his lament, “The holiday has come to celebrate that which is Italian, or more specifically, that which is southern Italian.” Having made this distinction is interesting, but why is another story. Alexander characterizes southern Italy as an area more impoverished than the rest of Italy, and the birthplace of “tomato based foods like thin pizza, the notorious Mafia, and poor fishermen like Joe DiMaggio’s father” (1). He complains that we do not celebrate northern Italian traditions like “the industrial might of Milan, the intellectual heritage of its great universities at Bologna and Padua,” or the genius of da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante and Bocaccio. “No,” he continues, “tomorrow will be about cheap wine and stereotypical visions of Italians as a congregation of vigilantes.”

     

    I continued reading the editorial hoping that this was someone’s idea of a joke. But it only got worse from there. While the publisher of the paper later apologized for the publication of this editorial and it has been pulled from its online archives it represents more than the ignorance of one man. Alexander suffers from an affliction which is traceable to the difficulty in interpreting the various metaphors that have come to be associated with the United States of America.

     

    To Italian Americans, America as a metaphor often communicated denial. It wasn't a problem of knowing what being American was, rather the problem came in trying to avoid everything that common knowledge said being American wasn't. Early twentieth-century immigrants from Italy to the United States did not at once refer to themselves as Americans, just as they didn’t see themselves as Italians. Most of the early immigrants were sojourners or “birds of passage,” primarily men who crossed the ocean to find work, make money, and return home. This experience is well presented in books such as Michael La Sorte’s La Merica: Images of Italian Greenhorn Experience (1985). In addition to language barriers, these immigrants often faced difficult living conditions and often encountered racism. In Wop! A Documentary History of Anti-Italian Discrimination (1999), Salvatore La Gumina gathers evidence of this racism from late 19th and 20th century American journalism appearing in the New York Times and other major publications.

     

    In response to this treatment, many of the Italians referred to Americans as “Merdicani” short for “Merde di cane” (dog shit). The word was also used as a derogatory reference by Italians to those who assimilated too quickly and readily into American culture. Most novels published prior to World War II depicted this vexed immigrant experience of adjustment in America; simply the titles of Louis Forgione’s The River Between (1924) and Guido D’Agostino’s Olives on the Apple Tree (1940), tell that story.

     

     

     

    I learned my idea of America through television, schools, newspapers, and through Irish American administrated religion and politics. And those media portrayed America as sleek, fashionable, material, present and future oriented. History played a minor (if any at all) role in the life of the average American. History was facts, figures and military victories in which the losers were always the non-Americans. And those victories represented the conquering of enemies that were inhuman or cowards, especially we learned that Italians were cowardly soldiers.

     

    Everything non-American was weak and needed American assistance to stand up to enemies. As we grew older we realized America was a mis-read metaphor, but there had been clues all along...foreigners never fared well in the novels taught in schools and Italians, if they had written any American novels at all didn't count. As Guido D'Agostino's novel Olives on the Apple Tree warned, there was nothing to be done about not fitting into America. How can you expect an olive to grow from the apple tree?

     

    But the sixties changed such immigrant fatalistic attitudes. It was as though life in America had been a masquerade party in which everyone in attendance had been wearing American costumes. And in the sixties came the unmasking, and we found that most were not really Americans at all. A once strong American identity was found to be a fragile facade, a surface, like ice strong and reflective until the heat comes upon it. And the heat of the sixties proved to be too much. Breaking the surface we find, like the analysis of any metaphor will prove, that its origins were much more complex than we had thought. The early metaphor was a primitive reaction between self and other. We would soon find out that Indians were the real Americans, the first Americans and so they would be renamed Native Americans--this carried over to Black Americans, Jewish Americans, until it seemed the hyphenation craze would never end. But this still wasn't quite what we were hoping for. Although we were now better connected by a bridge of punctuation to the word and thus to the metaphor we were still without accounts of us in history. What we had learned in history classes was not the real us, but the “us” that others saw and depicted. So many of us fell for those portrayals that when something like Mario Puzo’s The Godfather came along, we were forming "Godfather clubs;" so we didn't think we mattered, what mattered was what was historical and that meant it had to be red, white and blue.

     

    More than a few Italian Americans were brave thinkers, who didn't fall for such nonsense, who realized we had always been in involved in history and so they started documenting it. Now we have books about us in America; we have novels, plays, and poetry that show the creation of the metaphor, the interpretations of the metaphor, and the alternatives to the metaphor. Today, we are experiencing a cultural renaissance that has come from the reawakening, the researching and recasting of our ancestors roles in the development of this land called America.

     

    Metaphor was responsible for identity crisis of the children of immigrants, and the search though the metaphor for the real basis of the American signs. Once the immigrant lost the original idea of America, and the dispelling of some of its early metaphorical associations took place, Italians needed to replace it with another ideal--and that's where the notion of the "old country" came to life.

     

    Italy became a metaphor for the post-immigrant generations, though stories told by immigrant relatives, the images began building. With that image in mind we went off to find that place called “bell’Italia.” But it was nowhere to be found. Italy had changed, the metaphors of the past no longer could be found in the present reality. So that they could live on, we captured them in literature. The Italians who came here where never part of the “huddled masses yearning to be free,” they were not criminals forced into exile, they were the energetic and ingenious ones who had the vision, the strength and the courage to say we’re not going to take this any more and they did something about their lives.

     

    Just as the immigrant was, for the most part, alienated from the mainstream economies of Italy and the U.S.--forced as most new immigrants are to take the work given to them or to make work for themselves--the second generation, the children of immigrants, became social immigrants, searching for acceptance in the larger society, something that would be easier for them once they lost the alien trappings of Italianita and mastered the means of obtaining power in American society. It would be in the third generation then that we can expect any mass movement into the cultural mainstream. The irony here is that to be successful on a cultural level, they would have to accept or return to what their parents had to reject.

     

    Just like Columbus, the romance and tragedy of early 20th century immigration can no longer serve as models for Italian American identity. The key to creating a meaningful sense of Italian American culture that speaks to today’s youth is to first insure that they have access to histories, of their families and of their communities. They need to be exposed to historical and contemporary models in the areas of arts, business, and education that they can study, emulate and transcend. The Little Italys that once served as the source and haven of Italian American identity have become little more than cultural theme parks in gentrified land. With the move to the suburbs, Italian Americans have created scholarships for higher education, but have done little to help those applicants understand what it means to be Italian American once they enter those institutions. This knowledge comes best when it is found in the very materials those students study, in the very stories they hear and read from childhood up through graduate school. Writers such as Pietro di Donato, John Fante, Helen Barolini, Louise DeSalvo, Maria Gillan and countless others have been writing and publishing those stories, but how many of their wonderful works can be found in the homes and in school libraries where they can serve as models for present and future writings.

     

    On Columbus Day, we should celebrate the arrival of all Italians to the United States, for they were responsible, among other things, for teaching the ‘mericans how to eat well! And we should do so by rallying around the stories that helped turned them into Italian Americans. So if you’re going to march in a parade, carry a book by an Italian American. And if you’re going to stay home to watch the parade on television, read a book by an Italian American, and if you’re too busy to take the day off, use the extra money you made and buy a book written by an Italian American.

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Op-Eds

    Beyond the “Basciument”


    ... In his last chapter, “An Exhortation to free Italy from the Hands of the Barbarians,” he calls for new weapons and formations to be used in warding off intruders and to prepare for new leadership of Italy. In many ways, the current state of Italian/American culture is in similar straights. We need new tools and new alliances to bring a sense of unification to our culture.


    For many years, Italian/American culture has been preserved in our homes, and over the years, more likely than not, in the basement , or “basciument,” where nonno made wine, where nonna had a second kitchen, and where many of us now store our material legacies and memories. Now is the time to move beyond the basements of yesterday and out into the streets of today. The romance and tragedy of early 20th century immigration can no longer serve as models for identity. The key to creating a meaningful sense of Italian/American culture that means something to today’s youth is to first insure that they have access to histories, of their families and of their communities, then we must provide them with historical and contemporary models in the areas of arts, business, and education, that they can study, emulate and transcend. 


    The future of Italian American culture very much depends on how we organize our communications right now. Now that we can no longer depend on the geography of Little Italys to sustain our sense of culture, we must look for other ways.


    This web-based, multimedia, open access portal provides us with the key for an ongoing development of Italian American culture. Too often books come out by writers who are not aware of what the others are doing and end up writing books that never reach their potential in terms of audience and cultural impact. Now i-Italy would change this, providing an open forum for communities of writers, artists and cultural advocates everywhere in the U.S., in Italy, and the world.

     

    Director, Italian American

    Studies Program, [email protected] Brook

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