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Articles by: Joey Skee

  • Fear and (Self-) Loathing in Italian America





    Italian Americans are Under Attack!
     



    That was the subject line of the email blast that appeared in my inbox this past month, originally sent by the
    National Italian American Foundation as part of its membership drive. The connection between anti-defamation efforts and membership recruitment piqued my interest in the recent outbreak of alarm gripping the larger consortium of prominenti. This media-induced panic attack is reminiscent of the conflated hysteria around cinematic aliens and communists that characterized the Cold War era.






    American studies scholar Laura Cook Kenna reminds us in her 2007 dissertation, Dangerous Men, Dangerous Media: Constructing Ethnicity, Race, and Media’s Impact Through the Gangster Image, 1959-2007, that anti-defamation efforts after World War II increasingly linked Italian-American identity with American patriotism and political conservatism as part of the Cold War mentality. The playbook that was drafted during the 1950s continues to fuel the anti-defamation response; the boogeyman du jour that is “Jersey Shore” is a generational crisis. (Of course, there are middle aged and elderly Italian Americans who are not troubled by such media depictions, and even enjoy them, and there are twenty-somethings who suffer agita at such programming.)


     
     


    The graying
    prominenti, who become apoplectic with each perceived media slight, were climbing the corporate ladder in an age when a vowel at the end of a name did influence job promotion or the offer of a law firm partnership. (The overt gendered aspect of this history should not go unmentioned.) In 2010, Italian Americans are not being routinely denied jobs, housing, or made the subject of police harassment because of their ethnicity. Yet past hurts resurface with the mere flicker of the screen. Historian Robert Harney’s discerning essay, “Cabato and Other Parentela,” notes that bigotry in North America fostered “an ethnic inferiority complex,” a state of self-loathing among the elite that led to an aversion to proletarian histories and vernacular expressivity. The specter of the gavon lingers like the pungent odor of grilling sausages and peppers in the weave of a three-piece suit.

     


     
    One great fear that is repeatedly revealed is that “they,” i.e., the “Americans,” who live in exotic lands like Nebraska and Kansas, will think ill of Italian Americans. The recurring (sub)urban legend involves a telephone call made to a corporate representative who, upon hearing the caller’s Italian surname (often linked to an east coast city like New York or Philadelphia) proclaims, “‘Oh, you’re Italian! You must be in the mafia’.” 
     
    So what?
     
    It doesn’t matter.
     
    Such a statement is like the insignificant buzzing of a gnat that has no lasting impact on our lives. Unless, of course, one’s social persona is fragile, then such a comment is elevated into an INSULT, not only for the individual but also for all those hard-working, immigrant ancestors–cue the violins–who came to these shores . . . . Well, you know the script.   
     
    The script consists of specific verbal cues and symbolic language. One such cue involves the un-defined notion of “community.” Anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo points out that “community” is “an ideological construct” meant to convey a unity of belief and interests about a network of individuals. There are voting blocks and there are consumers, but there is no one single “community.” The fiction that is the “Italian-American community” is a means for individuals to jockey for political power and social prestige.  
     
    The script also relies on hyperbolic language. The Italian-American plight is the “demonization of a people [that] is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.” Those who disagree with the anti-defamation agenda are branded as having “whacky destructive views” and are simply “traitors.” 




    Ultimately, those with different opinions are compared to Holocaust deniers. One can trace this language through a series of protests from “Jersey Shore,” to the “The Sopranos,” to “The Godfather,” ad nauseum. (But strangely not those unremitting Super Mario Brothers!)  
     
    This hysterical language, coupled with humorless sanctimony, is evident in another email that popped up in my inbox in response to an online video, in which the sender was unable to discern the obvious truth that this was a parody.




     

     
    "YOU DON'T THINK WE HAVE A PROBLEM WAKE UP ...... look to this officially sanctioned MTV video on YouTube directed at Italian Americans offended by Jersey Shore .... it isn't enough for Viacom and MTV to humiliate us with the show .... with this YouTube video they are directly spitting in our face laughing at us  ... the show is bad enough but now even more THERE IS NO OTHER ETHNIC GROUP ON EARTH ... none MTV would ever sanction a video like this being produced and distributed .. it is beyond offense and proves just how WEAK they believe we are that they can get away with this crap .."
    (quoted verbatim)

     
    This is not mere “irony deficiency” but a case of acute anemia.
     
    The buzz around New York is that the thin-skinned prominenti are searching for an “Italian-American Al Sharpton,” a person who will speak with one voice against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes plaguing the Italian-American community. In times like this, when the hurt, the fear, and the anger overwhelm the psyche of Italian America, we should turn to our resident headshrinker, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, for insight.



  • Op-Eds

    Fear and (Self-) Loathing in Italian America





    Italian Americans are Under Attack!
     



    That was the subject line of the email blast that appeared in my inbox this past month, originally sent by the
    National Italian American Foundation as part of its membership drive. The connection between anti-defamation efforts and membership recruitment piqued my interest in the recent outbreak of alarm gripping the larger consortium of prominenti. This media-induced panic attack is reminiscent of the conflated hysteria around cinematic aliens and communists that characterized the Cold War era.






    American studies scholar Laura Cook Kenna reminds us in her 2007 dissertation, Dangerous Men, Dangerous Media: Constructing Ethnicity, Race, and Media’s Impact Through the Gangster Image, 1959-2007, that anti-defamation efforts after World War II increasingly linked Italian-American identity with American patriotism and political conservatism as part of the Cold War mentality. The playbook that was drafted during the 1950s continues to fuel the anti-defamation response; the boogeyman du jour that is “Jersey Shore” is a generational crisis. (Of course, there are middle aged and elderly Italian Americans who are not troubled by such media depictions, and even enjoy them, and there are twenty-somethings who suffer agita at such programming.)


     
     


    The graying
    prominenti, who become apoplectic with each perceived media slight, were climbing the corporate ladder in an age when a vowel at the end of a name did influence job promotion or the offer of a law firm partnership. (The overt gendered aspect of this history should not go unmentioned.) In 2010, Italian Americans are not being routinely denied jobs, housing, or made the subject of police harassment because of their ethnicity. Yet past hurts resurface with the mere flicker of the screen. Historian Robert Harney’s discerning essay, “Cabato and Other Parentela,” notes that bigotry in North America fostered “an ethnic inferiority complex,” a state of self-loathing among the elite that led to an aversion to proletarian histories and vernacular expressivity. The specter of the gavon lingers like the pungent odor of grilling sausages and peppers in the weave of a three-piece suit.

     


     
    One great fear that is repeatedly revealed is that “they,” i.e., the “Americans,” who live in exotic lands like Nebraska and Kansas, will think ill of Italian Americans. The recurring (sub)urban legend involves a telephone call made to a corporate representative who, upon hearing the caller’s Italian surname (often linked to an east coast city like New York or Philadelphia) proclaims, “‘Oh, you’re Italian! You must be in the mafia’.” 
     
    So what?
     
    It doesn’t matter.
     
    Such a statement is like the insignificant buzzing of a gnat that has no lasting impact on our lives. Unless, of course, one’s social persona is fragile, then such a comment is elevated into an INSULT, not only for the individual but also for all those hard-working, immigrant ancestors–cue the violins–who came to these shores . . . . Well, you know the script.   
     
    The script consists of specific verbal cues and symbolic language. One such cue involves the un-defined notion of “community.” Anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo points out that “community” is “an ideological construct” meant to convey a unity of belief and interests about a network of individuals. There are voting blocks and there are consumers, but there is no one single “community.” The fiction that is the “Italian-American community” is a means for individuals to jockey for political power and social prestige.  
     
    The script also relies on hyperbolic language. The Italian-American plight is the “demonization of a people [that] is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.” Those who disagree with the anti-defamation agenda are branded as having “whacky destructive views” and are simply “traitors.” 




    Ultimately, those with different opinions are compared to Holocaust deniers. One can trace this language through a series of protests from “Jersey Shore,” to the “The Sopranos,” to “The Godfather,” ad nauseum. (But strangely not those unremitting Super Mario Brothers!)  
     
    This hysterical language, coupled with humorless sanctimony, is evident in another email that popped up in my inbox in response to an online video, in which the sender was unable to discern the obvious truth that this was a parody.




     

     
    "YOU DON'T THINK WE HAVE A PROBLEM WAKE UP ...... look to this officially sanctioned MTV video on YouTube directed at Italian Americans offended by Jersey Shore .... it isn't enough for Viacom and MTV to humiliate us with the show .... with this YouTube video they are directly spitting in our face laughing at us  ... the show is bad enough but now even more THERE IS NO OTHER ETHNIC GROUP ON EARTH ... none MTV would ever sanction a video like this being produced and distributed .. it is beyond offense and proves just how WEAK they believe we are that they can get away with this crap .."
    (quoted verbatim)

     
    This is not mere “irony deficiency” but a case of acute anemia.
     
    The buzz around New York is that the thin-skinned prominenti are searching for an “Italian-American Al Sharpton,” a person who will speak with one voice against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes plaguing the Italian-American community. In times like this, when the hurt, the fear, and the anger overwhelm the psyche of Italian America, we should turn to our resident headshrinker, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, for insight.



  • Op-Eds

    Real Italians



    We called them cugines. 
    They were the super ginzos, the hyper wops, the swamp guineas. Deep, deep Brooklyn.
     
    We were Italians Americans, too, but different. Or so we wanted to be.
     
    It wasn’t the attention to hair, body, and cars that was troublesome, but an ethnic identity directly linked to a geographically-bounded racism that I found ugly and frightening. 
     
    Located in the racially-charged neighborhood Canarsie, South Shore High School during the early 1970s was dictated by circumscribed groupings: blacks and Puerto Ricans over there, whites over there. Within the orbit of white teenagers were further subdivisions. Cugines and JAPS (Jewish American Princesses) were linked in a middle-class, white ethnic style of puffy hair and disco. Freaks were dedicated to the American promise of sex (far too little), drugs (far too much), and rock ‘n’ roll (far too loud). 
     
    I straddled these different and often conflicting universes: a long-haired, bearded, salsa/disco-dancing Italian-American who desperately sought to escape the confines of my outer borough existence. Tony Manero riding the subway to Manhattan was a cinematic inspiration that helped motivate me to get the hell out.
     


     
    Cugines morphed into guidos and ended up on the Jersey Shore, and I got a Ph.D. 
     
    Of course, that’s too simplistic an ending. My life is significantly more complicated than this truncated telling and so are those of guidos. 
     
    As a social scientist trained as an ethnographic folklorist, I have spent the past thirty years researching the expressive cultures of Italian American New Yorkers. I have often interviewed people whom I once labeled and dismissed as guidos, and who subsequently embraced the term as an ethnically-marked youth style. 
     
    It is fortunate that sociologist Donald Tricarico has been researching guido culture for over twenty-five years. His work has helped me to understand and appreciate the varied ways expressivity and identity emerge among contemporary Italian-Americans and, in particular, youth. (See the bibliography below). 
     
    And then came MTV’s realty show “Jersey Shore.”
     
    When the self-appointed leaders of Italian-Americana did what they do best—become insulted by media projections—it was evident that they were unaware of the existence of Italian-American youth in the northeast who self-ascribed as guidos. For these modern-day prominenti, guido was only an ethnic epithet. Those of us from New York and the metropolitan area familiar with guido culture could only shake our heads in disbelief. Where had these “leaders” been for the past thirty years? 
     
    Given this unawareness, I proposed that the Calandra Institute invite Prof. Tricarico of Queensboro Community College (City University of New York) to present his research on guido culture. He, in turn, suggested inviting Johnny De Carlo, a northern New Jersey caterer and a self-professed guido, with whom he communicated online to the academic colloquium.
     
    “Founder and chairman of the Bowling Green Association” Arthur Piccolo hurled a rambling invective against Prof. Tricarico (the originally posted insult “MORON” has been changed to “IDIOT”), Distinguished Professor Fred Gardaphé of Queens College, and the Calandra Institute in his i-italy.us blog postPiccolo’s vituperation against “so called ‘intellectuals’” states: “When in spite of their degrees and their titles they are nothing but dumb or worse traitors for a few pieces of silver thrown at them for pissing on their own community.” Such a repugnant display of anti-intellectualism is more frightening than anything I ever experienced among the cugines of South Shore High!
     
    The January 21st colloquium “Guido: An Italian-American Youth Style” does not “glorify” guidos any more than our lectures, readings, film screenings, and conferences have endorsed the mafia, fascism, anarchism, religion, Neapolitan music, neo-burlesque, or the other varied subjects presented at the Institute. Many of these self-professed leaders have never or rarely attended the Calandra Institute’s free public events. They were notably absent from the Calandra Institute’s 2007 conference “Recent Scholarship on Contemporary Italian-American Youth” which featured Prof. Tricarico’s research on guidos. (I would be remiss not to mention that the National Italian American Foundation has supported Calandra Institute with several generous grants.)
     
    The appalling anti-intellectual reaction to the Calandra Institute colloquium raises some basic yet critical issues. What is Italian-American culture(s)? How is Italian-American identity reproduced? Who speaks for Italian Americans?
     
    Anthropologist Fredrik Barth observed that ethnicity is a performance of difference displayed at the boundaries between groups. Ethnic borderlands are in constant flux, shifting from generation to generation, from moment to moment. Context is everything.
     
    In addition, the “cultural stuff” that signifies italianità in the United States is constantly changing, yet a sense of Italian identity prevails. Being Italian American is not contingent on dancing the tarantella, eating spaghetti, or even speaking Italian. Hair gel or a dinner gala, in concert with other objects and behaviors, have come to signify “Italian” in certain contexts in what Prof. Tricarico has called “a dynamic, adaptive character of ethnicity.” Under what conditions does one object or activity become privileged over another as an expression of Italian-American identity?
     
    Scholars have pointed out that Italian-American elites emerged as “power brokers,” ethnic mediators between the mass of Italian Americans and mainstream American society. They served in this capacity by becoming arbitrators of what constitutes italianità. These prominenti historically devalued folk and vernacular expressions, promoting elite cultural forms like opera and establishing a pantheon of revered “ethnic heroes” like Columbus (see Harney 1993). Key to this work of cultural politics is the issue of “authenticity.” What constitutes “real” Italian culture and “real” Italians?” (I hope to address Italian nationals’ beliefs on this subject in a future post.) An annual gala dinner is no more an “authentic” expression of Italianness than hair gel, or, for that matter, speaking standard Italian. Individuals use these and other culturally-charged key symbols to collectively shape meaning and create value as part of the varied expressions of Italian-American cultures and identities. 
     
    The Italian-American elite had and continues to have a vested political interest in shaping and policing cultural expressions and ethnic identity. The late historian Philip Cannistraro, Distinguished Professor at Queens College and interim director of the Calandra Institute, noted:
     
    Throughout the Italian American experience, the prominenti have consistently endorsed a closely-linked agenda of “patriotism” and Americanization, which has essentially meant supporting the coercive efforts of American society designed to strip Italian immigrants and their descendants of their history, culture, and their identity. The dual focus of prominentismo has always been to promote the separate, self-aggrandizing interests of their own particular elite rather than of the community as a whole, and to stress what Italian Americans are not.
     
    Cannistraro’s historical assessment helps us put the most recent “controversy” concerning guidos in perspective: In whose interest is it to attack media representations, Italian-American youth, and stifle intellectual inquiry? Not mine.
     
     
    Bibliography
     
    Cannistraro, Philip V. “The Duce and the Prominenti: Fascism and the Crisis of Italian of Italian American Leadership.” Altreitalie (July-December 2005), 76-86.
     
    Harney, Robert F. “Caboto and Other Parentela: The Uses of the Italian Canadian Past.” From the Shores of Hardship: Italians in Canada. Essays by Robert F. Harney. Nicholas De Maria Harney, Ed. (Welland, Ontario: Éditions Soleil, 1993), 4-27. 
     
    Tricarico, Donald. “Guido: Fashioning an Italian American Youth Subculture.” The Journal of Ethnic Studies (Spring 1991), 41-66.
     
    Tricarico, Donald. “Read All About It!: Representations of Italian Americans in the Print Media in Response to the Bensonhurst Racial Killing.” Notable Selections in Race and Ethnicity. David V. Baker and Adalberto Aguirre, Jr., Ed.. (Sources, June 2001), 291-319.
     
    Tricarico, Donald. “Youth Culture, Ethnic Choice, and the Identity Politics of Guido”. VIA 18.1 (2007), 34-88.
     
    Tricarico, Donald. “Dressing Italian Americans for the Spectacle: What Difference Does Guido Perform?” The Men’s Fashion Reader. Andrew Reilly and Sarah Cosbey, Ed. (New York: Fairchild, 2008), 265-278.


  • Facts & Stories

    Wise Men Melchior and Balthazar Banned in Northern Italian City



    Just when the ugliness and absurdity of contemporary Italian xenophobia and racism have reached an all-time low, a northern Italian city has banned the Wise Men Melchior and Balthazar. Padaniapoli passed a town ordinance on November 27, 2009, two days before the first Sunday of Advent, ordering the removal of all representations of the two royal figures believed to have visited the Christ Child in Bethlehem.
     
    Mayor Fiorenzo Bava Beccaris, of the Northern League party, stated in a town hall press conference, “Italy is being overrun by illegal immigrants who are undermining our culture. Head scarves, kebabs, drumming. We don’t want a multi-ethnic Italy!  We must act to save Italy and Italians from this onslaught, from this contamination. And that is why the city of Padaniapoli has taken this bold action to prohibit these two from Africa and the Middle East. They are not welcome in our city.”


    The names of the Magi were first mentioned in the eight century.  Over time, Western art came to depict Caser as white, Melchior with a turban, and Balthazar as black.

    The ordinance bars the public display of Melchior and Balthazar in all public institutions and places. Miniature crèche (presepio) figures were no longer sold in local shops and the city’s famed Nativity scene set up Piazza Maggiore consists of the Holy Family and a solitary Caspar bearing his gift of myrrh.

     
    “We don’t want immigrants for the Epiphany!” read a recent headline of the local weekly Il Grido della Stirpe (The Cry of the Race). In his front-page editorial, Domenico Trombetta, a self-professed racist and admirer of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, wrote, “A Nativity scene with a black Jesus and Holy Family is a useless act of provocation, just like the suggestion not to have a Nativity scene at all, in order not to offend Muslims. We will keep our traditional presepio and it will be all-white!”
     
    Since the Northern League took political power of this medieval city in 2007, it has implemented laws that many in Italy have seen as xenophobic and racist. The first act was to officially change the town’s name from Civitavecchia di San Benedetto to Padaniapoli. Saint Benedict, also known as “The Moor,” was a black slave born in Sicily in the sixteenth century. The Northern League has used the name Padania, the name of the Po River valley, as part of its separatist agenda.
     
    Other town ordinances have followed those implemented or suggested in other parts of Italy, including banning restaurants and shops serving non-Italian cuisine in the historical center, separate buses for Italian citizens and immigrants, the use of the vigilante Italian National Guard with its Fascistic uniform, and most recently, “Operation White Christmas,” in which police have been carrying out house-to-house searches for illegal immigrants. Mayor Beccaris has even requested that Catholic priests be Italian citizens. The constructing of mosques is banned within city limits.


     
    The approaching Feast of the Epiphany is presenting vexing problems for Padaniapoli. Its ruling on the two Wise Men has received international condemnation and ridicule. And now a theater group named Compagnia Teatrale Modotti is preparing a mass rally of costumed performers dressed as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar to enter the walled city through its seven medieval gates on January 6th. The performance is being billed as a simple gesture of imagination reaffirming the reality of a multi-ethnic and multi-racial Italy.
     


  • Life & People

    An entry from The Encyclopedia of Imagined Italian-Americana



    In January 1956, Jackie Gleason saw a RAI-TV version of Eduardo de Filippo’s Neapolitan-language play “Natale in casa Cupiello” broadcast on “Continental Miniatures,” the television program that aired Italian films on New York’s WOR-TV (see Martin Scorscese’s 1999 documentary My Voyage to Italy), and decided to produce a Christmas special for his successful The Honeymooners.  This episode expanded on the show’s previous Christmas specials by including an Italian-American theme. 
     
    The plot involves Ralph Kramden seething at his Italian-American neighbor’s boisterous Christmas festivities.   When he goes upstairs to complain he discovers that the Rossi family is too poor to afford a holiday meal and is simply putting on a show for their neighbors, the Monettis.  As in the de Filippo play, Luigi Rossi has built a sprawling Nativity scene (presepio) in his Brooklyn apartment, which fascinates Ralph Kramden. 
     
    The show had a stellar cast of Italian-American actors, with Vito Scotti and Argentina Brunetti as the Rossis, and Tito Vuolo and Esther Minciotti playing the Monettis.  Jerry Colonna, with his distinctive bulging eyes and extended moustache, makes a comic entrance doing his opened-mouth siren routine.   
     
    The Honeymooners was cancelled in September 1956 and the episode was never aired.  “JUS Classic TV” released the episode in 2002 as part of its three-DVD box set “Lost Christmas Specials from the Golden Age of Television.”  As part of the DVD “Features,” Professor Vanessa Longo-Murphy of Montclair State University commented that this episode marked a high point in the representation of Italian Americans in American media, given the “gravitas of the Italianate Christmas Carol theme plunked down in the middle of American’s defining television comedy.” 
     
    In the seven years since the episode’s rediscovery and release, it has become an instant classic and seasonal perennial.  Now during the holiday season families all over America can be heard joyfully repeating Ralph Kramden’s bellowing declaration that closes the episode and, effectively, the television show: “Of course the apartment is a mess, Alice.  I’m building a friggin’ presepio!”
     
    The author thanks Prof. Bernard, Prof. Carnevale, Prof. Fausty, Prof. Giunta, Prof. Guglielmo, and Prof. Ruberto for their invaluable support of this ongoing research.


  • Art & Culture

    The Film Festival of Positive Italian-American Images


    I finally got around to watching the 2003 film Uncle Nino on DVD, more out of professional obligation than personal interest. I had been forewarned by various reviews that this was a feel-good, uplifting movie doused with a high level of saccharine. Thankfully, I don’t suffer from diabetes. 



    The hackneyed plot involves the Michellis, a beleaguered, middle-class family struggling with the stress of contemporary, American suburban life. An overworked father’s white-collar job keeps him from attending to the emotional needs of his family, especially his angry teenage son.   The film’s eponymous character arrives from Italy and his homespun philosophy ultimately results in the family learning to stop and smell the flowers (gardening is a major motif). And everyone lives happily ever after.





     2003 film Uncle Nino




    For some Italian Americans, this film is a welcome reprieve from the endless spate of mafia movies. The call for cinematic fare depicting Italian Americans as law-abiding and successful members of society, be they doctor, lawyer, or harried insurance executive, is a constant refrain of the anti-defamationist contingent. And in recent years there have been a number of movies featuring non-gangster, Italian–American characters—The Amati Girls (2000), The Bread, My Sweet (2001), The Whole Shebang (2003), Everybody Wants to Be Italian (2007),and others—that make it easy to imagine a “Film Festival of Positive Italian-American Images.” (Given the little it takes to spark said Italian-Americans’ indignation—see the recent outrage at the MTV’s “Jersey Shore” reality TV show—some of these films might set off the gavon radar.) 

    Yet these films, which range from domestic dramas to romantic comedies, are so utterly positive, sanitized, and simplistic that they cause a mind-numbing experience that ultimately detracts from any affirmative effect their creators may have hoped to achieve. Collectively, the upbeat representations and predictable storylines of these films create celluloid pabulum that erases nuance and complexity of the varied experiences of Italian Americans. Earlier films, like Household Saints (1993), Mac (1993), and Big Night (1996), succeed in providing fresh depictions with plots set in the past, while recent movies like Dinner Rush (2001), Puccini for Beginners (2006), and Amexicano (2007) offer stories of contemporary Italian-Americans that are neither straight-forward or obvious. 

    In the end, the prosaic fluff of “positive images” is easily forgotten.  Relegated to the museum of insignificant things, such films remain curious artifacts to be screened in some future Film Festival of Positive Italian-American Images.


  • Events: Reports

    The Italian-American Political & Moral Bocce Club of Paradise's Inaugural Annual Reception, Gala, and Dinner Dance


    The Italian-American Political & Moral Bocce Club of Paradise*
    cordially invites you to its 
     
    Inaugural Annual Reception, Gala, and Dinner Dance**
     


    Thursday, October 8, 2009, 6:30pm
    Brooklyn Social Club
    335 Smith Street
    btwn Carroll and President Streets
    Brooklyn, NY 11231
    F or G to Carroll Street station
     
    The Italian-American Political & Moral Bocce Club of Paradise is dedicated to the political and moral benefits of Italian-American bocce. Established in September 2009, the IAP&MBCofP has 51 Facebook members. Its mission is to celebrate the diversity of the nation's estimated 26 million people of Italian descent, their family members and friends, and the larger Italian diaspora world wide, and their family members and friends (but not Italians living in Italy, or vacationing in Brazil, Thailand, or the Dominican Republic).
     
    The IAP&MBCofP hopes famous people will attend the event so the Honoree Selection Committee can nominate them for the 2010 IAP&MBCofP Honorees Award. 
     
    The IAP&MBCofP will give its Jimmy Durante Award for Excellence to the first ten people who show up. 
     
    Dr. Charles Lombroso, the newly appointed Umberto and Elsa Anastasia Chair in Italian Diasporic Studies at the Melanocorypha Lark Institute, will give the keynote address.
     
    Entertainment by the ever-popular Zi Torre & His Capitones!
     
    The IAP&MBCofP is currently accepting applications for the 2010 Joey TribbianiScholarship for the study of an obscure Italian dialect. Applicants must answer in essay form (150 word maximum) why they are proud to be an Italian-American, or have an Italian-American relative or co-worker, and how positive stereotyping of Italian-Americans has adversely impacted both the political and moral state of their bocce playing. The essay must be written in the dialect to be studied (please see the Accademia Italiana di Lingua’s guidelines for writing in Italian regional dialects). Eligibility: U.S. citizens of Italian descent, with at least one Italian grandparent or next door neighbor. People with origins in the towns of Lavinio-Lido di Enea, Monteleone di Spoleto, Città di Castello, and the Isola di Dino, or their children or grandchildren, are ineligible.
     
    Remember the Italian-American Political & Moral Bocce Club of Paradise’s motto:
    Se ‘ng n’amma sci, sciam’nninn, se non ‘ng n’amma sci, non ‘ng’n sciam scenn.
     

    Organizing Committee:
     
    President: Cav. Rust. Enrico Conti, J.C.D., Mech.E.
    Vice-President: Veronica M. Sciuè, D.S.S.c., D.M.V.
    Secretary: KaNèesha Leilani al-Jamil-O’Neil née Yamaguchi, Esq.
    Treasurer: Chickie Santo JannidiGianola
    President, Men’s Auxiliary: Filomena Dobbins
    Mondo Bambini Bocce League: Dr. Mary Plaza, D.M.V.
    Honorary Academic Consultant: Professor Vanessa Longo-Murphy (Montclair State University)
     
     
    *Not affiliated with the Italian-American Political & Moral Bocce Club of Paradise of Philadelphia.
     
    **Please indicate your choice of primo (penne alla vodka or al filetto di pomodoro) and secondo (chicken francese or prime rib). No vegetarian options available.
     


  • Facts & Stories

    Serendipitous Encounters of an Italian-American Kind



    This month I walked around my Williamsburg neighborhood to ask shopkeepers to hang posters advertising the Calandra Institute’s Puglia Film Festival in what ultimately felt like a game of “Six Degrees of Separation.” I stopped at a local realtor because I previously met Louis Bascetta who worked there and who had worked with my sister Annabella on the television show “Law & Order: Criminal Intent." That day his father Louis, Sr. was in and he agreed to hang the poster in the window as he did in March for the Institute’s conference on the Neapolitan song. This time Louis, Sr. asked me, “Do you know who my uncle is?” I had no idea. “Alfredo Bascetta,” was his reply.

    I was familiar with Bascetta because an undated sheet of music, “Mamma luntana,” was featured in the exhibition I co-curated “Chist’è New York: The Mark Pezzano Collection of Neapolitan Sheet Music from New York.” In addition, I had been listening to his 1920s-1930s recordings “Le ragazze di New York,” “‘o Squarcione,” and “Se n’e’ fuiuto ‘banchiere,” from CDs of Neapolitan music recorded in the States that Paquito Del Bosco of the Archivio Storico della Canzone Napoletana had given me during the conference. Between my conversations with Louis Bascetta, Sr. and some online sleuthing I learned a whole lot more.

    Alfredo Bascetta was born born in the town of Pietrastornina(Avellino province) on September 14, 1889. He arrived at Ellis Island on November 6, 1911 and was listed as married. He settled in East New York, Brooklyn. He was soon recording for Victor, Columbia, OKEH Records, and others. 





    The Italo American Corporation produced a film based on his recorded song “Mamma luntana!” (Mother in Distant Land!...) filmed in Naples and staring Bascetta. Almost a year after the film’s premiere, Bascetta returned to New York on the Conte Verde, docking on September 9, 1923.


    In 1927, Bascetta also wrote a topical song protesting the arrest, trail, and death sentence given Sacco and Vanzetti. “Lacrime’e cunndannate(The Tears of the Condemned):


    Sta tutt’o munno sano arrevutato,

    pe’ Sacco e p’e Vanzetti cundannate.

    E chì vigliaccamente la ‘nfamate,

    maie n’ora ‘e pace nun addà truvà!

    A tutte parte arrivano pruteste ‘nquantità

    Facenno appello, cercano e farle aggrazià!
     
    The whole wide world is topsy-turvy
    for Sacco and Vanzetti’s sentencing.
    And those who cowardly defamed them,
    should never find an hour of peace!
    Numerous letters of protest are arriving from all over,
    attempting an appeal, trying to have them pardoned.
     
    Doppo sett’anne e pene carcerate,

    tra vita e morte, chisti sventurate.

    Mo c’‘a cundanna l’hanno cunfermata:

    nun c’è sta mezze pe putè salvà!

    Sulo ‘o Guvernatore giustizia le po fa,

    si Dio c’ho mette ‘ncore, a grazia le farrà.
     
    After seven years of painful imprisonment,
    these unfortunate wretches have been between life and death.
    Now the sentence has been confirmed:
    There’s no way to save them!
    Only the governor can provide justice,
    if God changes his heart, a miracle happen.
     
    So state senza core tutt’e quante,

    pure e giurate, ma che ‘nfame e ggente!

    Nun sentene e raggione e chì è ‘nnuccente:

    chesta nun è giustizia, è ‘nfamità!

    Sti sfurtunate chiagneno, so rassignate già

    E dint’a celle aspettanno ca Dio l’addà salvà!

    Everyone has been heartless,
    even the jury, a callous people!
    They don’t listen to reason to who is innocent:
    This is not justice, but infamy!
    These unfortunate ones cry, resigned to their fate
    and they wait in their cell for God to save them!
     
    As he got older, Bascetta moved to Florida to his daughter Gemma’s home. His son-in-law Livio Giorgi played the part of the stage actor who held a gun to his head in the restaging of the Penninio-inspired sceneggiata “Senza Mamma.” Bascetta, 93, died on December 6, 1982.

    When I mentioned Bsacetta’s “Lacrime’e cunndannate” to Louis, he said, “Oh, my uncle Gino got his head knocked in protesting for Sacco and Vanzetti.” Who’s that? I asked. “Gino Bardi. He was Uncle Alfredo’s nephew. He changed his name.”

    That wasn’t a name I was familiar with, but I soon found out about a connection of the Bascetta family tree unknown to scholars of Italian American history and culture. 

    According to Louis, Alfredo’s brother Biago’s son Giuseppe was born in Italy on June 12, 1907 and arrived in New York with his family as a child. 

    Historian Gerald Meyer has written about Bardi in two articles: “L’Unità del Popolo: The Voice of Italian American Communism, 1939-1951” The Italian American Review 8.1 (2001) and“Italian Americans and the American Communist Party” in The Lost World of Italian-American Radicalism(Prageger, 2003), which he co-edited with Philip Cannistraro. Meyer describes Bardi’s 1939 publication Siamo Ariani? (Workers Library Publishers; an English translation was published the same year), which addressed the notion of “Italians” as a pure race and “Aryan,” attacking fascist Italy’s anti-Semitism.

    Gino Bardi, 1938.


    That same year,Bardi became the co-editor of the American Communist Party’s Italian-language weekly, L’Unità
    del Popolo.” (I add this tangential nugget to the serendipitous connections encountered: Bardi’s co-editor was Maria “Mary” Testa, the mother of Suze Rotolo, visual artist and author of the memoir, A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties (2008), who the Calandra Institute presented in November 2008. Bob Dylan’s song, “Ballad in Plain D,” references Testa in passing.). In 1940, Bardi ran for Congress as the American Labor Party’s candidate for a district representing Greenwich Village. Meyer’s account of Bardi ends with his enlisting in the U.S. Army in the spring of 1942.

    Louis, Sr. provided some additional details of his relative Gino Bardi: Bardi obtained a degree in philosophy at Columbia College and returned to Italy to teach at the University of Florence. There he was drafted in the fascist army. He returned to the States, joined the Army, served in the Third Army, and wrote for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. Bardi was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), as were other Italian-American soldiers, to assist Italian partisans behind enemy lines. 

    After the war, Bardi return to Italy and worked in the Italian film industry, in particular with producer Dino De Laurentiis. He and director Luchino Visconti translated Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” in to Italian. 


    Gino Bardi (cente) and Orson Welles (right), Italy, circa 1950.



    Bascetta died in the States in May 1978 and is buried in St. John’s Cemetery in Queens. His nephew, Basil Bascetta, is the Chief Administrative Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds at Queens College, the Calandra Institute’s parent college. Bardi’s unfinished memoir has been lost.

    So much of Italian-American immigrant history and culture has been discarded or lost. We are left with a paltry litany of moldy names that are endlessly resurrected each Columbus Day or after the latest mafia movie premiere by those professional ethnics who have proclaimed themselves “community” spokespeople. This has contributed to a situation in which the lives and works of people like Alfredo Bascetta and Gino Bardi have fallen by the wayside. I count myself as fortunate that a fortuitous encounter in Brooklyn offered me an opportunity to learn about an unheralded yet significant aspect of Italian-American history and culture.

    (Thanks to Rosangela Briscese and Rosaria Musco.)


  • Op-Eds

    Chi è Pete Panto?


     

    Pietro “Pete” Panto (1911-1939), a longshoreman working the Brooklyn docks led a rank-and-file revolt against the corrupt and mob-controlled International Longshoremen’s Association. Headed by the all-powerful president Joseph Ryan (dubbed “King Joe” by dockworkers) and vice-president Emil Camarda, the ILA was rife with corruption, political patronage, and violence. Working conditions on the Brooklyn docks were horrid, with endemic problems such as the “shape-up” hiring system (where men waited daily to be chosen to work), mandatory salary kick backs, extortion, and high rates of work-related injuries. Enforcing the status qua of this corrupt fiefdom, was gangster Albert Anastasia, head of the crime syndicate “Murder, Inc.” and his brother Anthony “Tough Tony.” 
     
    According to historian William Mello, “a group of radical dockworkers with political ties to the American Labor Party and to the Communist Party formed the Brooklyn Rank-and-File Committee . . . to transform working conditions on the Brooklyn docks.”  Their office was located at 186 Remsen Street in Brooklyn. Panto, who was at the center of the Committee’s work, “began to organize rank-and-file open air meetings in front of the piers.” The first one in mid-June 1939 brought together 350 longshoremen, while 1,500 assembled on July 3rd
     
    Union officials became worried. They tried smearing Panto as a “red.” They tried bribing him. And then they threaten him.
     
     
    On July 14, 1939, Panto left his apartment at 11 North Elliot Place at 7PM “to meet two guys he didn’t trust,” telling his fiancée’s brother Michael Maffia that if he did not return by 10 the next morning he should call the police. Mello describes what happens:
     
    Later testimony by Abe Reles, member of Murder Inc., to the Brooklyn District Attorney described the way Panto was taken to the house of waterfront gangster Jim Ferraco. There Albert “The Enforcer” Anastasia and Mendy Weiss met him. On Albert’s orders, Mendy Weiss assassinated Panto later dumping his body in a lime pit in Lyndhurst, New Jersey.
     
    Trade unionists and political progressives such as author Richard Wright, House Representative Vito Marcantonio, Transport Workers Union president Michael Quill, among others, joined forces to “mobilize public opinion in order to compel the police and local government to find those responsible for Panto’s disappearance.” The Brooklyn Rank-and-File Committee posed the question “Dov’è Panto?” on pier walls and in pamphlets. 
     
    It wasn’t until January 1941 that Panto’s decayed corpse was discovered. No one was convicted of his murder.
     
    Around this time, “progressive Italian longshoremen in Brooklyn organized “Il Circolo Educativo Pete Panto” (Pete Panto Educational Circle). It was a means of keeping the memory of Pete Panto’s activity alive and organizing dockworkers.”
     
    Today the question is not, Where is Panto?, but, Who is Panto? Little is know of his life and struggle. There have been at least two fictionalized accounts of his labor activism and death, e.g., Robert Travers’s A Funeral for Sabella (1952) and Benjamin Appel’s The Raw Edge (1958). Panto’s story is often a mere backdrop to the recounting of Cold War’s politics and culture surrounding Arthur Miller’s screenplay The Hook, Elia Kazan’s film All Along the Waterfront, and their troubled relationship. I have relied on and quoted from Mello’s 2002 article “The Legacy of Pete Panto and the Brooklyn Rank-and File Committee” in The Italian American Review
     
    In keeping with the goals of Il Circolo Educativo Pete Panto, I organized the 2001 symposium “Italians on the New York Waterfront: A Tribute to Peter Panto” for the Calandra Institute, and now present here excerpts from the symposium as originally aired on ITALICS. (Grazie a Lucia Grillo.)
     

  • Life & People

    Vittoria Pietropaoli, An Appreciation

    There are a few artists I always keep on my 4GB IPod Nano, with its circa 1,000 song maximum, regardless who I have to delete to make room for new music: jazz great John Coltrane, the encyclopedic Afro-Latin ensemble Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino, Chicago bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, '60s rock band Jefferson Airplane, and contemporary Sardinian rappers Malos Cantores. These musicians never fail to surprise and please me when they pop up in a shuffle. And then there’s Vittoria Pietropaoli, a contadina from Lazio.

    I don’t know much about this singer of musica popolare. I first came across her voice in 1977 when I purchased the LP “Il Lazio, Vol.1, I canti e le zampogne/La mietitura, i pastori e le zampogne” (Albatros, VPA 8314) while in Italy. Ettore De Carolis made these field recordings the previous year. As the album’s subtitle indicates, these are work songs of reaping and herding, including that of the zampognaro (bagpiper). The LP included three songs song by Pietropaoli. In 2006, the Finisterre label reiussed the music as a CD “È tanto tempo che non recantavo” (TTCD35), with additional songs including four new (non-work) tunes sung by Pietropaoli. Her music totals less than fifteen minutes. 
     

     

     

    I’m not a musicologist and ill equipped to describe the formal elements of Pietropaoli’s singing style. Her voice, with its slight rasp, has the broad open tone approaching the wail of more southern Italian vocal techniques, but not quite the same as you find in Sicily or Calabria (listen to the polyphonic duet with Fabbi that is “E metete metitori”). 
    There’s a playful intimacy to her singing, especially on the songs “E gliu pecuraru che. . .” and “E se m’ascolter(r)ete.”  This artistic mix is especially appealing in the love song “Amore mio nun r’ammalà”:  
                    Fiore de menta, rosa senza spina
    e de baci n’ho composti una corona.
    Voi del mio cuore siete la meglio rama.
     
    Quantu me piaci!
    Me pari una minestra pasta e ceci,
    io me ‘tte magnerìa a forza de baci.
     

    I have crafted a crown for you made from
    mint flowers, a thornless rose, and kisses.
    You are the finest branch of my heart.
     
    Oh, how I like you!
    You are like a minestra of pasta and chick peas.
    I could eat you with the force of kisses.
     
    But there is something else that attracts me to Pietropaoli’s voice. Her phrasing, the articulation, her tone, the lyrical rhythm are intimately familiar, sounds from the recesses of infancy. Is this the voice of my immigrant mother, singing ninne nanne (lullabies) to me as a child? I played the Pietropaoli songs for my mother, Anna, who was raised in Maranola, a hamlet of Formia (Latina province), at the opposite end of Lazio. While she fondly reminisced about listening to contadine perform similar work songs during harvest time, there was no indication that she sang such songs.  There is no way of retrieving the half melodies my mother hummed or the inflection she gave a tune half a century ago, leaving me to wonder if my emotional response to Pietropaoli’s voice is a buried aural memory or deluded fantasy. Either way, this Latium contadina’s haunting voice will remain in my musical rotation for years to come.

    "Il ricco e il povero"
     

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