Articles by: Joey Ski

  • Facts & Stories

    Remembering James Groppi

    This morning on the radio I caught Max Roach’s drum improvisation to Martin Luther King’s now famed 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.   Years of (s)hallow tributes featuring truncated quotes from the finale can not detract from King’s powerful oratory, which like the demonstration itself, helped “to dramatize a shameful condition.” The phrase “the fierce urgency of Now” remains a powerful rallying cry in our troubled times.
    On this day that the nation reflects on King’s contributions/struggles and ponders the promise of America’s freedoms, albeit some what reluctantly, all too often awkwardly, and unfortunately in the reign of Baby Bush hypercritically, I couldn’t help but think of James Groppi’s contribution to the civil rights movement.
    James Groppi (1930-1985) was one of twelve children born in Milwaukee to Italian immigrants from Lucca. Ordained in 1959, Father Groppi served St. Boniface Church, a predominately African-American parish in inner city Milwaukee. He was instrumental in dramatizing segregation in housing and the public schools in that city. He participated in the 1963 March on Washington, the Selma-Montgomery March in 1965, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference voter registration project. In his capacity as NAACP advisor, Groppi organized an all black male group called the “Milwaukee Commandos” that helped quell violence during local marches and mounted a lengthy demonstration for fair housing in the city. 
    In the book Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North, religious scholar James McGreevy wrote that Groppi “became one of the most recognized figures in the civil rights movement” (1998, 202).  Dr. King wrote that Groppi was able to “be militant and powerful without destroying life or property" and that he succeeded in finding "a middle ground between riots and sentimental and timid supplications for justice” (Ibid.).
    In her essay, “Father James Groppi (1930-1985): The Militant Humility of a Civil Rights Activist,” literary scholar Jackie DiSalvo notes that “Groppi has not been the focus of any larger study” despite the recognition he received in his time (2003, 229). Her essay in the important collection The Lost World of Italian-American Radicalism, edited by Philip Cannistraro and Gerald Meyer, looks, in part, at Groppi’s Italian-American background and his thirst for social justice. DiSalvo’s quotes Groppi: “The Italian was in pretty bad shape [when his father immigrated around 1913]. But nothing as far as the black man is concerned. . . . An Italian is white, and that’s everything. . . . Some of the worst bigots in this country are Italians who had gone through terrible suffering in their past” (235).



    On this day when we examine anew how to, in Dr. King’s words, “hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” I pay tribute to James Groppi.

  • Art & Culture

    Ottava Rima in Bensonhurst

    Brooklyn’s Castel del Golfo Social Club is one of New York’s unique culture venues that you won’t find listed in The New Yorker or Time Out New York. Granted the place is a “members only” organization where men who immigrated from Castellammare del Golfo (Palermo province) gather nightly to play cards and drink espresso. The association’s calendar is marked by its annual religious procession in honor of the Madonna of Succor in August. These are just the kinds of mundane activities many come to expect when hearing the now coded phrase “Italian-American social club,” and fans of a certain cinematic genre hearing the adjective “Sicilian” added would be inclined to embellish their imagination with dark and mysterious thougths of the illegal and the violent.

    Instead, Bensonhurst’s Castel del Golfo Social Club is a bastion of the arts and its members connoisseurs of verse in ottava rima. It is a cultural haven where former contadini, fisherman, and artisans and now aging landscapers, retired seamstresses, schoolteachers, and businessmen gather to revel in that the quintessential Sicilian poetic meter. 

    I’ve been familiar with the club since the early 1980s, when I began documenting the art of poet and wire sculptor Vincenzo Ancona.  On December 1st, I had the good fortune of attending one of the club’s many poetry readings dubbed “Sicilia Poetica.”  The evening was curated by poet, barber, and vice president of Arba Sicula Antonino Provenzano and realtor and community scholar Giuseppe Turriciano. Joining me in the audience were Sicilian-American actor Michael Badalucco and screenwriter Brandon Cole (Mac). The night was dedicated, in part, to the work of contadino poet Vito Monticciolo and was an element in the ongoing cultural retrieval of this unique artist and his verse. The program brochure offered a brief biography (in Italian) of Monticciolo, that I have edited and translated here:

    The poet Vito Monticciolo was born in Castellammare del Golfo on April 28, 1891 and died on February 8, 1974. Monticciolo was a contadino and his best poetry exalts the bucolic life. He did not attend school but the young Monticciolo was an autodidact, writing and reading for his entire life. He had memorized Torquato Tasso’s “Gerusalemme Liberata,” Ludovico Ariosto’s “L'Orlando Furioso,” and a good part of Dante’s "Divina Commedia.” But his great love was Sicilian poet Giovanni Meli and he was familiar with all of Meli’s works. 
    Unfortunately, Monticciolo’s poetry has been lost. After his death, no one thought to collect his writings. All that remains is a cassette recording made by Provenzano and Turriciano, and those poems Antonio Turriciano, who, having a formidable memory himself, wrote down. 

    Provenzano told the audience in Italian that Monticciolo was a common man, who dressed somewhat shabbily but who possessed a wit that repeatedly challenged the town’s signori and spoke truth to justice with his trenchant verse. Provenzano was kind enough to email me these two verses by Monticciolo along with Calogero Cascio’s translation for this blog post:

    “Ode a Don Caloriu Finuri”
    Cu e` chi avi favi a siminari,
    issi ni Don Caloriu Finuri. 
    Avi lu cori granni quantu un mari,
    pari lu patri d’ogni zappaturi.
    Ma quannu sparti, senza esaggerari,
    si pigghia la sulami ‘stu signuri,
    e si ‘na fava c’e` di differenza,
    spicchia la fava e sinni pigghia menza.
    “Ode to Caloriu Finuri”
    Whoever has fava beans to sow,
    go to landowner Caloriu Finuri.
    His heart is as big as the sea.
    Every hoer’s father he appears to be.
    And when harvest is done and he halves the goods,
    truth be told, even the scraps he claims.
    But it’s when he cuts in two the last fava bean
    that you know, a more generous man,
    this town has never seen.

    It is important to note that western Sicily, where Castellammare del Golfo is located, was historically one of the poorest and most neglected regions of Italy.  Widespread poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy, as well as the repressive and violent mafia, were rampant well until the 1960s. An articulate and sympathetic writer of the working poor, Scottish author Gavin Maxwell lived in and wrote about this area during the 1950s dedicating a chapter of his book The Ten Pains of Death (1959) to Castellammare.  Maxwell painted a harrowing portrait of the agricultural and fishing laborers by allowing people to speak for themselves about their daily lives, their beliefs, and their circumstances, often transcribing dialect poetry and song.  It is those social conditions that situate the caustic counter-hegemonic force of Monticciolo’s improvised verse.  As Provenzano notes in the emailed translation: “The above two verses made Caloriu Finuri a household name and a permanent object of ridicule.”

    We were all glad to hear that Provenzano and Turriciano are working diligently to make this lost poet’s work available to a new audience, retrieving the cultural practices of the Sicilian agricultural working poor from a social club in Bensonhurst.

  • Op-Eds

    Gramsci’s Presepio

    Since 2000, I have assembled an annual presepio in my home with figures purchased in shops on Naples’ famed Via San Gregorio Armeno. In keeping with the Italian tradition, the Nativity scene is more than a mere crèche; it is a Lilliputian topography of the imagination crafted anew each year with a changing theme. Like many domestic presepi found in Italy and across the diaspora, my presepio is an anachronistic fantasyscape breaching the time-space continuum in which the New Testament Nativity is situated across a series of changing temporal and spatial planes. In 2007, the Christ Incarnate is depicted born in an underground cave below war torn Baghdad. 

    Italian scholars and journalists have done a great disserve to the living folk art of the Italian-style presepio. Ever burdened by the an elite tradition in the visual arts, writers of various stripes inform us ad nauseam of St. Francis’s 13th century manger scene in Greccio, the hyper-realistic work of 17th and 18th centuries Baroque artists Giuseppe Sanmartino, Salvatore di Franco, and Saverio Vassallo, et al, and the ever hyped Via San Gregorio Armeno. Again and again, we read that presepio artistry is in decline and the tradition is dying. Rarely do we find a mere description, let alone an ethnography or serious analysis, of a simple presepio made at home.

    The contemporary domestic Italian presepio is not preoccupied with showcasing individual examples of fine art collectibles. Instead, the inexpensive handcrafted and plaster cast figurines, while often treasured family heirlooms, are part of an artistic assemblage and theatric presentation constituting a holistic and complete creative entity.  The presepio is a not a static art object admired solely for its formal aesthetic attributes, but an ephemeral assemblage enlivened by narrative and performance in the service of Christian pedagogy, autobiography and family history, and the engendering and strengthening of community affiliation.

    The aesthetics and meaning of the domestic presepio tradition of working people in Italy, let alone immigrants and their descendants, have received scant scholarly attention as compared to that of Baroque art work displayed by museums, multinational corporations, and the Italian government. Writing about Sicily, anthropologist Antonino Uccello notes that scholars of arte popolare often concentrate on the high art and artisan traditions as opposed to the lesser studied figures crafted by the pasturara (Il presepe popolare in Sicilia, Palermo: S. F. Flaccovio, 1979, 132-135). We know very little how everyday people conceived, constructed, and interacted with their domestic presepio. The few descriptions of subaltern-created presepi are extremely revealing despite the authors’ disparaging intentions. Writing in 1923, T. G. Crippin informs us that children were the principal presepi builders in Rome during the first quarter of the twentieth century:


    … the construction frequently includes the surrounds of Bethlehem, imagined in complete ignorance of geography and history; “an orgiastic medley of chaos and luxuriant riches, a radical negation of all the notions of time and space, this is what the bold Roman boy gathers around the crib, in which after all they sometimes forget to place the Bambino” (Christmas and Christmas Lore, London: Blackie and Son Ltd., 1923, 80).


    Since temporal and spatial disruption is an element in contemporary presepi built by adults, we are left to wonder about the aesthetic intentions of these poor, young presepio builders. 

    Journalists are quick to pick up on political commentary expressed in contemporary Italian presepio, if even addressed in cursory fashion. Yes, we hear about Neapolitan craftsmen on Via San Gregorio Armeno depicting topical figures based on national and international politicians such as a decapitated Umberto Bossi of the separatist Lega Nord party and the media tycoon and Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi flanked by national police after he was brought up on corruption charges for the second time. Sometimes the politicians are simply portrayed as devils.   This tells us more about Nepolitan craftspeople's ability to generate media attention than how presepio builders use these political figures in their creations and in turn interpret them.

    We know less about the priest in Livorno who, in 1996, used a black baby Jesus in an effort to draw attention to Italian racism against African immigrants and to the suffering of Africans in Rwanda and Zaire. At a school in Castel Maggiore (Emilia-Romagna), a 1997 Christmas display consisted of a framed print of the Nativity among contemporary ruins in a commentary on the destruction and government response to the earthquake that struck the Umbria region that year.

    In my study of Italian-American presepio in New York City, I discovered the religious and political explications were found here. Presepio builders speak of their dioramas as places where the “true” meaning of Christmas is made manifest, a future-past utopia where the Christian ideals of humanity, peace, and harmony reign (“Imagined Places, Fragile Landscapes: Italian American Presepi (Nativity Crèches) in New York City,” The Italian American Review, 8.2, Autumn/Winter2001, 140-173). It is a site inhabited by the lamb and the lion (as in my father’s crèche), and by shepherds and kings. Lorraine Iachetta’s anti-gun and pro-animal politics overrode family tradition when she banished from her tableau figures depicting hunters with guns and butchers with slaughtered animals and hanging cuts of meat. A multitude of sheep is prominently displayed in their place: “They take precedence over everyone else; all the little lambs first. It’s your own personal statement, a little subtle hint that we should have reverence for animals” (December 10, 1989). Lorraine’s ascribed meaning is an integral part of the story or stories that her presepio makes manifest.

    I conducted my primary research in the winter of 1989-90, just four months after a mob of Italian Americans killed African American teenager Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. His murder shocked the city and the public outrage shaped that year’s mayoral election. Antonio Vigilante used his presepio, located in the basement of St. Athanasius Church, that year to comment on the racial strife that plagued his community and New York by featuring a multiracial cast of figures. Troubled by the racial killing, he drew my attention to the various statues and pointed out that they included “blacks, Mexicans, Arabs, and Neapolitans” all standing together. “É proprio quello che cercavo, un presepio con differente persone, differenti popoli, differenti lingue. Uno vede un tipo nero, un messicano e cosí da' l'impressione di essere tutto differente. É un misto e va tutto bene.” (“It was just what I was looking for, a presepio with different people, different languages, different voices. You can see a black guy, a Mexican, and it gives the impression of being different. It's a mix and it’s good” [December 21, 1989].).

    Multicultural inclusion is expressed in a variety of ways. For the 2000 Christmas season, Frank De Bernardo of Kensington, Brooklyn incorporated plaster images of a nun, a priest, a police officer, and a hooded penitent found in Holy Week processions in Spain that he purchased while on vacation. For De Bernardo, the figure with the high-peaked hood represented the historic Roman Catholic Inquisition and the grouping was a simple but creative critique of what De Bernardo saw as religious persecution in the Vatican’s investigation, prohibition, and ultimate silencing of Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent for ministering to gay and lesbian Catholics in Maryland.

    I had herad of a presepio in a Queens home made in December 2001 that set the Nativity amidst the ruins of the World Trade Center but I was never ever able to locate the maker.

    It was with this understanding that I began building my presepio in 2000. I knew what mattered was not the individual pieces but the creativity of the piece.  Each year, I chose a different theme, e.g. Roman ruins, Italian hill town, Puerto Rico beach, etc. While inducting the help of my children Akela and Lucca, I found it difficult to release my patriarchal control. But in 2007, they decided that they were taking over the presepio. They conceived of this year’s theme and executed its creation. I contributed ideas, assisting under close supervision, and implemented only pre-approved scenes. I negotiated, i.e., begged, for some presepio “real estate.”

    A couple of years ago Lucca had the idea for a “World War III” presepio that would include some of the model airplanes he was building at the time. As this idea was kicked around, Akela thought of placing the Nativity underground after seeing a diorama of a Viet Cong tunnel at the International Spy Museum in D.C. before actually beginning, I was referring to this year’s theme as “apocalyptic,” cringing at the born again/Christian right implication. As things developed and we grabbled with both our original vision and our limited technical skills, Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq came to permeate our humble creation, guiding its look and its politics, as we came to refer to this year's presepio simply as “Baghdad.”

    Massacre of the Innocents, 2007.

    All to often, vernacular cultural practices like the presepio are stripped of their contextual and historical presence, their counter-hegemonic potential dismissed as “quaint folklore” a safe relic from the past. People’s ability to be agents of their own lives, through vernacular knowledge, discourse, aesthetics, and skills are rendered indivisible. Each Christmas, the presepio imagination is set loose and all you have to do is look and listen.