Articles by: James Periconi

  • Life & People

    Who are the Heirs of Carlo Tresca?

    My title takes off from the famous question asked for decades about the murder in
    New York
    in 1943 of Carlo Tresca, one of the most colorful political and journalistic figures in early Italian America, which is: “Who killed Carlo Tresca?”  Let’s quickly get over the disappointment that there are no political figures quite like Tresca to stir people to radical action any more.


    Perhaps the closest heir in the period between Tresca’s era and the present one is Father James Groppi, a militant priest who led largely African-American youth in marches for justice in mid-1960’s
    .  (We’ll save his story for a later day.) 


    Instead, the unlikely answer to my question is Brooklyn-born, Staten-Island-and-New-Jersey raised Frank Santora, pastor of the Faith Church in New Milford, Connecticut.  More about him in a moment.


    According to historian Nunzio Pernicone in his superb Carlo Tresca: Portrait of a Rebel (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), January 11, 1943, was a day like others in Tresca’s life, in which he alternated between two worlds, one the upper-middle-class and cosmopolitan elite of American writers, artiest, intellectuals and political activists, and the other the Italian anti-Fascist subculture.  He lunched that day with writer John Dos Passos, among others.


    Tresca and a Milanese lawyer friend left Tresca’s Il Martello office uncharacteristically late, that evening, to have dinner (following an aborted meeting that others in the radical Italian community inexplicably failed to show up for). An assassin emerged from the war-time “dim out” shadows while Tresca and his friend waited for a light to change at 15th Street and Fifth Avenue.  The assassin shot Tresca twice, killing him instantly.  His assailant was never found, and different theories abound about who was responsible for the assassination. The order might have come from Mussolini directly, or perhaps from Generoso Pope, the pro-Fascist publisher of Il Progresso Italo-Americano, but the actual hitman appeared to have been the recently released from jail Mafioso, Carmine Galante.  But how Tresca was assassinated, and by whom, is not really our story.


    Tresca was an impassioned orator capable of stirring to direct action (or violence, when something good could come of it) the emotions of a crowd against the capitalist “devil,” whether that crowd was composed of members of a particular union or working men generally. But he did so in a language that uneducated workers could understand.  He was the publisher and chief writer of several revolutionary socialist and anarchist newspapers, including that premier Italian radical newspaper of the 1920’s, Il Martello (The Hammer). 


    He was, to put it simply, a charismatic leader of the sort that would appear does not exist any more, at least not in Italian America. (Besides the biography noted, there now exists in English an autobiography, edited by Pernicone, of Tresca, both of which enormously increase our understanding of this flamboyant leader, previously memorialized by Dorothy Gallagher, whose All the Right good on Tresca’s life, especially his assassination, but not on his ideas, due to her lack of facility in Italian.)


    Enter pastor Frank Santora, who at first blush is an unlikely candidate for heir to Tresca (as well as an unlikely candidate, perhaps, for a lengthy recent New Yorker profile of him and the larger movement of Pentecostal ministers in the Northeast by Frances FitzGerald, which is how I know about him).  After all, Tresca was an atheist, and an anti-cleric, really, an “inveterate priest-hater,” according to Pernicone.  On the other hand, Santora was raised a Catholic, and he was an altar boy.  But his story is inspiring.


    When his mother, seeking a more personal and direct experience of God, started to attend a Pentecostal church in New Jersey, to where young Santora’s family had repaired from Staten Island, Santora joined the church and there decided to give his life to Christ formally.  While still in college at
    Rutgers, studying accounting, he went to
    Rhema Bible Training Center in
    , Oklahama. There, he met another Italian-American former Catholic, the Reverend Anthony Storino, a
    New Jersey
    pastor and regional director of the Rhema association for the Northeast.  Storino, who had prior to finding his ministry worked in his family’s jukebox-and-pinball-machine business, described himself to the New Yorker reporter as “a street kid from
    New Jersey
    ,” with only a year in community college.   


    Speaking without pretense or envy of Santora’s success in dramatically increasing the membership of the church he took over, Storino, who became close friends with Santora, says, in an authentic Italian American voice undistorted by his own success as a pastor, “It worked out good . . . Frank turned that baby around.”  Indeed, Santora made changes that vastly increased the size of the church, which became a true Pentecostal church that taught spiritual warfare with the Devil – not unlike the warfare against the devil of capitalism and capitalists that formed the core of Tresca’s preaching to workingmen – and the approach of Armageddon. 


    By 2005, in addition to a substantial increase in the size of his congregation, Santora changed the name and indeed the whole identity of the church.  The
    Faith Church motto became “Real people, real life, real faith,” and its mission “to help people discover the winner within them through a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.”  Santora no longer focuses on Armageddon, but about “real life, inspiration and hope.” 


    Key, indeed, unique to Santora’s theology – and really why his story reverberated so much with me – is an idea he developed in his recent book, Identity Crisis, where he explains how to shed a negative self-image.  I thought of Santora’s Italian-American background in reading this. 


    The elephant in the room in discussions of Italian America has traditionally been the negative self-image that Italian Americans carry with them.  And it is what Tresca, in a slightly different way, deal with in exhorting working men to feel good about themselves and about fighting for the dignity and respect they deserved as working men, as against the political version of Santora’s traditional Devil, i.e., capitalism.


    According to Pernicone, Tresca shed his flamboyant, rable-rousing persona in one-on-one conversations over a simple pasta dinner with Italian workingmen.  Tresca was famous, in such conversations, for never letting a worker Italian feel his poverty or lack of education as a barrier to Tresca’s respect for them. 


    And so it appears to be with Santora, who is described in the New Yorker article in one-on-one conversation as not at all theatrical, exhortative or overwhelming, but rather patient and caring. And the author of the profile makes clear that the church audience to which he preaches in
    New England – the least fertile ground one might imagine for such a ministry – is made up largely of fallen away Catholic ethnics, who are by definition disaffected from their Catholic roots.  Like Tresca’s union workers and other working men, fallen away Catholics who become Pentecostalists have found an alternative route away from the Devil and to salvation.


    It would of course be far too reductive (and untrue, as well) to say that “because” he’s Italian American, Santora became a Pentecostal minister or, as one, has focused on helping people overcome their negative self-image.  But in reading about Santora I thought of the ways that Italian Americans break through the ambivalence they feel about their Italian American identity. 



    Frank Santora has discovered a new and seemingly positive way – in a world that has no more Carlo Trescas –  to stir crowds and in both that manner and in small gatherings to move the hearts, as well as the minds, of people.  Many of them are Italian American. Santora helps them, among other things, shed their negative self-image, and thereby to live a better life.  How many of us could claim the same accomplishments for ourselves?



    (For more articles by James Periconi visit his blog "Perspectives" at



  • Op-Eds

    Giuseppe Prezzolini and the Changing Face of Italian America

               Giuseppe Prezzolini is hardly ever read any more, yet he presents a good exemplar of a mid-20th century Italian intellectual’s view of Italian Americans, for better and (mostly) for worse.

               Director of the Casa Italiana at Columbia University for some years, Prezzolini leaves a rich history in Italian letters both in Italy and in the U.S., founder of an important Italian periodical, La Voce, among other accomplishments.  The fairly lengthy entry on him in the excellent Italian American Experience: an Encyclopedia  edited by Salvatore J. LaGumina, et al. (New York 2000) – a book that anyone serious about understanding Italian American history should get a copy of – gives a good survey, yet oddly fails to note even the publication of (much less discuss) his most important work for Italian Americans.  Never translated, unfortunately, but much cited except in the sketch just noted, is his I Trapiantati [The Transplanted], published in Milan in 1962, containing writings of his from the 1950’s and earlier. 

    In it he discusses Italians  he has access to as a journalist, as well as due to being the Casa's Director – their politicians, their organizations, their writers, their “prickliness” or touchiness as a people.  Though brilliant in places in assessing our position, his overall thesis is a rather depressing one: that taken as a whole, the migration of Italians to the U.S. has been a massive failure, because – as he says in answering his own question in an Epilogue (“Why are Italian Americans so Touchy? [“permalosi”]) – they sense themselves neither wholly Italian nor wholly American, and as a result, they are too sensitive to what others think of them.  It may seem like a simplistic analysis – of course, it’s more nuanced than that – yet there is much truth to the observation. 

                He notes, even in his 1950s and earlier writings, that Italian became a great success economically in the U.S., but they paid a terrible price: they’re “mutilata nel linguaggio,” mutilated in their speech, and, thus, he continues, mutiltated in their spirits. They’ve lost contact with the people from whom they sprang, without being entirely centered among those who have received them.  They’ve adapted to American culture, without mixing in or becoming fused in that culture.  They don’t represent the joining of two cultures so much as a confusion of the cultures, a blunting of two cultures estranged from each other. They are not the sum of two wholes, but the residue of two subtractions.

                It sounds terribly harsh, and it’s easy to reject his view as that of an Italian intellectual who loved to look down on his Americanized former countryman, but it’s more complicated than that.  Prezzolini does not speak without some sympathy: chillingly, almost, he opines that the Italian American is worthy of admiration if he does not, from the ravages of his spirit caused by the experience of immigration, the uprooting, the loss of language, become either deranged or criminal. And I think he means that sympathetically.

                Nevertheless, his “failure” thesis too thoroughly pervades his discussion of Italian American writers and other professionals.  Even what we might have regarded as successes by the 1950s and early 1960s – the not insignificant number of American medical doctors of Italian descent – he notes with some hauteur that they do not much do sophisticated research in medicine, but are mere workaday practitioners.

                While this and similar judgments had the ring of truth in the 1950’s or 1960’s, Prezzolini seems to have been sure that this would never change; he fails to recognize that it might just take some more time before Italian American doctors would be anything more “interesting” than workaday practitioners (and query whether there’s anything wrong with that anyway), and in general, whether Italian Americans could be in effect reach the summits of their professions.  Two of the most prominent researchers in the origin and cure of perhaps the worst scourge of late 20th century America  were Italian American – Robert Gallo, M.D., co-founder of the AIDs virus, and director of the Institute of Human Virology (IHV) at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute in Baltimore,  and Anthony Fauci, M.D., the long-time director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, one of the National Institutes of Health.  And there are others.

                But my story here is actually about the new, new Italian American medical doctor – not merely a brilliant researcher, like Gallo or Fauci – and my exemplar is “Vin Ferrara,” as he’s called in a front-page New York Times story recently. My discovery of Ferrara was the result of one of my favorite activities – to find and compare two Italian Americans who achieve some prominence in a single issue of the New York Times.  On October 27, 2007, Doctor Vincent Ferrara was featured on the front page of that newspaper.  A former quarterback on Harvard’s football team – that alone is significant, as Prezzolini’s Italian Americans did not often go to Harvard – Ferrara is responsible for developing and marketing what a doctor treating concussions resulting from football injuries, the cause of serious brain injuries among American football players, called the “greatest advance in [football] helmet design in 30 years.”  But wait, there’s more – besides being a medical doctor, he holds an MBA from Columbia, where he also obtained his medical degree. Call this a blend of medical, engineering, and entrepreneurial inventiveness Italian or American, but it is surely a reflection of the genius of both cultures, the histories of both countries – precisely the opposite of what Prezzolini saw as the utter failure of Italian American culture to fuse the best of the two cultures. 

                Most of all, I get a kick out of proving (to myself) the late Prezzolini short-sighted for not thinking our situation in this country might improve, given another generation. Besides all the highly credentialed, high level research medical doctors and other scientists among Italian Americans now, we have the business people.  Not the deli or fruit stand owners or other small businessmen that Prezzolini appeared to know, the small businessmen of, say, Lapolla’s The Grand Gennaro (1935) and other works, but people who’ve gotten to the summit of American business.  In his 1960’s Italian America, there were no Italian American CEOs – none whatsoever – that I ever heard of, then for a while there was Lee Iaccoca at Chrysler, and him alone. 

                But now the country is almost lousy with them, from Sam Palmisano at IBM, to Pat Russo at Lucent, to Robert Nardelli, who recently stepped down (with a $210 million severance package) as Chairman and CEO of Home Depot, to Ken Langone, co-founder of Blockbuster Video, to former New York Stock Exchange Chairman Robert Grasso, whose $140 million or so annual salary caused some consternation at the State Attorney General’s Office a few years ago, and many, many others.  Like the situation with medical doctors, we’re no longer second-class citizens in business.

                The other featured Italian American in that same issue of the Times would have been all too familiar to Prezzolini, namely, a Rhode Island politician, long-time State Senator Louis De Luca, who has both debased political life and resurrected the “buffoon” image that we all hope would somehow have disappeared. Senator DeLuca confessed some months before to intervening in a domestic squabble that his grown granddaughter was having, by using old world strong-arm methods, namely, by getting an allegedly “connected” trash hauler to literally knock some sense into this granddaughter’s husband.  Besides confession to a misdemeanor, DeLuca stepped down from his post as Senate Republican minority leader. We cringed to read this story, and it’s one that Prezzolini, who wrote of both corrupt Italian American politicians and the role of the Mafia, would have recognized all too clearly. 

                So, we could tell Prezzolini, were he alive, about Dr. Vincent Ferrara (and Anthony Fauci, et al.), parade the Italian American CEOs in front of him, and tell him how "everything has changed in slightly more than one generation." 

                But sadly, he’d be able to point to Lou DeLuca to say that nothing had changed.  Both of us – or neither of us – would be correct.