Articles by: Ottorino Cappelli

  • Facts & Stories

    Guido: A Generational Rebellion. Interview with Donna M. Chirico

    What do you think of the MTV show Jersey Shore? Is the show as much a depiction of Italian Americans in general as it is the 'guidos' themselves?
    Given the endless stereotypes depicted on television, it is hard to understand why one particular negative portrayal garners criticism while others go unscathed. The irony with Jersey Shore is that the controversy within the Italian American community has added to the popularity of the show. Yet, Jersey Shore is mild when compared to other shows with respect to language and overt negative behavior. Cops, the first reality television show that aired in 1989, with its graphic accounts of hate, violence, and abuse presents highly disturbing imagery that is not tempered by the intervention of actors or any need for figuring out what is real. The show has no narration, the camera just follows the police officers as the crimes or accidents unfold. Jersey Shore is a trifle, comic not brutal in the same direct way. 
    I am more offended by the gender stereotypes in Jersey Shore than by the ethnic ones as these are more insidious. Reality shows continue to send the message that men and women have gender specific behaviors and roles. Bad Girls Club, The Swan, Married by America, all offer outrageous depictions of women, their intellects, and their ambitions. Watching these shows leads one to assume that every American woman wants to be surgically reconstructed so she can land a rich, hunky guy and live an indolent life poolside while sippingpiña coladas. Jersey Shore now adds a specific ethnicity to this mix. My sense is that guido/guidette is another version of the gender split that nonetheless supports distinctively American prejudices about men and women. The male characters on Jersey Shore use the same epithets used about women that other shows use. Women are the generic bitches, sluts, whores, or worse. Listen to how this languaging has made its way into adolescent culture. You will hear 10-year-old girls refer to each other in these terms. Being called a guidette seems innocuous.
    College Hill on BET presented the first Black reality show with its own set of ethnic stereotypes shares similar party images with Jersey Shore. Perhaps being set on a college campus rather than in a beach offsets the negativity. 
    Read our special issue
    As a psychologist, what is your take on this 'guido culture/style' and its relation with the Italian American experience in New York/New Jersey area?
    I am not sure why mimicking the guido style is any better or worse than folks in a previous generation trying to be like James Dean or the pre-Godfather Marlon Brando. It is one generation’s rebellion against the previous generation. This rebellion is needed to move toward establishment of identity as a new group that is independent from the previous generation. (It is also different from the establishment of individual identity.) Frank Sinatra engaged in despicable personal behaviors, especially toward women, through much of his early life. Somehow these behaviors are blotted out and instead certain Italian Americans canonize the singer as a model Italian American success. Imagine if we had video images of these behaviors. It was the disobedience and unruly behavior, now “forgotten”, that helped to make Sinatra an icon for a particular generation.
    Again, the current guido culture is taking the prevailing traits out there and applying them to a specific ethnic group. It makes sense that for a group that is so far removed from its original ethnic identity as is the case for 3rd, 4th and now 5th generation Italian Americans that any attempts to recoup that primary sense of ethnicity would now include aspects common to all in a particular age range. The concept that assimilation precludes maintaining ethnic ties is out of date; but the original culture is so distant that what is seen among younger members of a group are the stereotypes, caricatures, or idealized images of that culture that have been handed down along with a cherished family recipe or photograph.
    How much of what a 20-year-old knows about Italian culture comes from authentic experience and how much comes from watching films like The Godfather? And, what is more disturbing: Nicole (Snooki) of Jersey Shore saying “What up, bitch?” or Carlo in The Godfather beating his pregnant wife Connie because she is acting like a bitch? Both images are similar and need to be scrutinized. 

    Finally, what is your opinion on "anti-defamation" with reference both to this particular episode (including criticism of the Calandra Institute's colloquium on Guido) and, in general, as an "identity mobilization" tool?
    I am a scholar. The word itself comes to us from the Greek via Latin for school. The implication is that a school is a place where lectures are given, where conversations and philosophies are discussed and debated. It is outrageous that anyone should claim a specific topic is forbidden ground for interchange. Conversations about Jersey Shore, Cops, College Hill and similar shows are taking place in classrooms throughout the United States. It is essential that young people discuss what they are seeing so they can process these ideas and images in rational way. The Calandra Institute as the leading center of research on Italian American concerns is obliged to take the lead on this issue and present the controversy in a scholarly way open to debate by all. 
    Identity formation is a central component in the movement toward maturity and psychological health. Young people must role play. They must explore identities to find identity. In the arena of social psychology, Multicultural Theory argues that having a strong in-group identification and by implication a secure sense of ethnic identity allows the individual to display greater tolerance for the out-group. In this model having a strong Italian American identity allows a person to explore alternative ways to assimilate or achieve from those particular to Italian American culture because these would not be seen as repellant or being at odds with Italian American culture per se. One can then accept being Italian American as part of a personal identity that includes other dimensions as opposed to claiming to be solely Italian American on the basis of what the in-group deems acceptable. This individual is able to live outside the “old neighborhood” and not feel that doing so threatens personal identity; one can be Italian American and be part of mainstream society simultaneously.
    This ability requires a confidence of personal identity that must be achieved during adolescence through early young adulthood to further identity development through adulthood. In American society at large, it is exceedingly difficult to keep young people away from cultural influences that caregivers may deem inappropriate or detrimental.
    My observation is that just as the adolescent must first come to terms with personal identity before moving through adulthood, the Italian American community must establish a sense of group identity before it can have a fully embodied voice in American culture at large that goes beyond the frivolous. I do not assume that there will be solidarity in this identity; yet, there must be a concordat on matters of mutual interest. It is in the reasoned discussions about such topics as guido culture that can help us as a community reach a consensus.

    * Associate Professor in Psychology

    Chair, Department of Behavioral Sciences

    York College of The City University of New York

  • Life & People

    S.O.S. UNICO Challenges MTV

    Titled S.O.S. (Summit On the Shore), the meeting was sponsored by the Anti-Bias Committee of UNICO National, the largest Italian American service organization in the US. It featured several guest speakers, including UNICO President Andrè DiMino; writer and TV host John DiPietro; former NJ assemblyman Paul DiGaetano, prime sponsor of the legislation that gave birth to the NJ Italian & Italian American Heritage Commission; Toni DePaola, a newly elected councilwoman in Point Pleasant, NJ; the Chairman of Italian American OneVoice Coalition Manny Alfano; and Brandon Pergola, a 28 year old member of the Passais Valley Chapter of UNICO who represented the bond with new generations.

    One guest was noted for her absence. It was the MTV CEO Judith McGrath, who the organizers lamented had not even bothered to respond to their repeated invitations. The chair assigned to her was symbolically kept empty at one end of the table. UNICO president DiMino, however, told the audience that MTV Director of Programming Tony DiSanto did respond, but had to decline due to serious health reasons. DiMino tanked him and wished him well.

    This episode characterized the atmosphere of the meeting: even if all of those who were present were harshly critical of MTV and firmly requested that the show be suppressed, the discussion was extremely calm and civil. Given the fact that in the last few weeks some exponents of the community—also noted for their absence on Saturday—had gone over the line with inordinate rage and offensive personal attacks, this was in itself quite an achievement that must be credited to the national leadership of UNICO and the other organizations attending.

    After watching an interesting video containing various examples of negative portraits of Italian-Americans both from Jersey Shore and other TV programs, as well as a collection of television appearances of Mr. DiMino on the subject, the discussion focused on three subjects: the term “guido”, seen by the participants as a derogatory term to indicate Italian-Americans; the existence of groups of young people who identify themselves as “Guidos,” considered a marginal phenomenon, unrepresentative of Italian-American youth as a whole; and the negative impact of the MTV show on how Italian-Americans are perceived in the US.

    John DiPietro gave a brief introduction on the power of television today and the damage the “Guido stereotype” is doing to the whole community—especially outside the NY-NJ area where people have little or no knowledge of “real” Italian-Americans and form their perceptions on the basis of what the media broadcast. At the end of his talk, Di Pietro gave the telephone numbers of a few MTV executives, urging everyone to call them and ask for the series to be cancelled.

    Manny Alfano showed his proverbial eloquence by starting with a quote from Steven Spielberg, the much-criticized producer of Shark Tales: “We are in a race against time for the conscious mind of our people.” The prejudice against Italian-Americans, as he continued, “is the most tolerated intolerance in the US,” and all Italian-Americans should stand up against such humiliating bigotry and raise their own, united voice: “If you say nothing, if you do nothing—you will surely become nothing” concluded Alfano.

    Nowadays what you see on TV “is real”, said former Assemblyman Paul DiGaetano noting that this applies by definition to so-called “reality shows” such as Jersey Shore. And this explains why MTV is not only insulting Italian-Americans, but the whole New Jersey. DiGaetano said that travelling around the country he noticed that New Jersey is known mainly for two things: the Sopranos, and corrupted politicians; to which this “Guido thing” is now to be added.

    Differences of opinions

    DiMino acknowledged that not all Italian-Americans have the same feelings on the subject. He said he had spoken with “many” people who advised him not to make a big deal out of this. “Live us alone, we made it, after all.” Respectful, but unconvinced, DiMino’s answer to these objections is clear-cut: “if you want to think this way, do it—but please, get out of our way and let us do our business.”

    Brandon Pergola somehow echoed him, offering a different generational perspective: “Many young people tell me “don’t put the show down, I enjoy it, I love it!”. I understand why they may enjoy it, said Pergola, “but don’t they see what it is doing to us?” Because of MTV many young people have come to accept the fact that it is all right to be a ‘Guido!’”.

    This was not readily understandable to everyone and indeed the generational gap may be the explanation. Assemblyman DiGennaro, for instance, said that “In my 56 years of life I have never heard the 'G' word used in a positive manner.”

    Councilwoman Toni DiPaola, insted, acknowledged that young people who proudly call themselves “Guidos” are an established reality within the Italian-American community. They have been out there “playing bimbos and buffoons for decades,” she said, “and they are not improving.”

    However, DiPaola stressed that they are a marginal phenomenon: “These Guidos are not the kids we are raising,” and the world should know about “our college educated, heritage conscious children.” The vast majority of Italian-American youths behave very differently than the Guidos, confirmed Bradon Pergola: “We were told by our parents that it is OK to go out and have fun, but you should never disgrace your family and the place we came from.”

    During the Q&A section the same issue was brought back and looked at from different angles and in the same calm, though indignant tones. An interesting point of view was proposed by

    Santina Haemmerle, president of the Commission for Social Justice of OSIA, who underlined that, if the Jersey Shore does a disservice to Italian-American men, what it does to Italian American women is even worse, referring to the way female characters are depicted in the show. And others in the audience added with disgust that the show also features “girls kissing other girls,” thus adding insult to injury.

    The last speaker from the floor was Fred Garadaphe, Distinguished professor of Italian-American Studies at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute/CUNY. Referring to a recent controversy born from the Institute’s decision to hold a colloquim entitled “Guido: An Italian American lifestyle,” he lamented: “we wanted to understand more about Guidos, but you criticized us!” Professors may not be as effecive as others but this is what they do, they try to understand things, as he continued: “And we do need to know more, we need to understand why some of our kids behave like this.” Garadaphe recognized of course that not all the children of Italian Americans are guidos, noting that his daughter is a university teacher and his son works at the White House (“something untikable in the past.”) This notwithstanding, he stressed that the Guido phenomenon is there, it is an existing subculture within the Italian-American community and it is not a creation of the media: “it is part of us and it is first and formeost our responsibility to go to these kids’ parents and ask them ‘aren’t you ashamed of your kids? what did you teach them about us and our heritage and culture?' This is what we should do. Meanwhile—the Professor concluded—shame on MTV.”

    In the meantime, however, Jersey Shore has reached almost 5 million viewers and, on the very same day of the S.O.S. meeting, MTV announced a second season of the show this summer with 12 new episodes. We shall have to wait and see whether the protests of the Italian-American organizations will have any effect on that decision.

  • Facts & Stories

    The Guido Controversy: Dirty Laundry and Deep Rugs. An Interview with Gianfranco Norelli

    There has been a wave of protests lately from the Italian-American community about MTV’s reality show “Jersey Shore.” Recently though some people have harshly criticized the Calandra Institute, a research institution at CUNY, for sponsoring an academic colloquium on the guido lifestyle. What is your opinion on these issues?
    I only saw a few excerptsof "Jersey Shore" and it did not appeal to me. I can see why peopleconsider it demeaning and offensive. But I think it is important to keep our focus on the fact that if there is a phenomenon among the Italian American youth that is similar to that portrayed in the show, we need to study it, we need to understand what causes it and what are the consequences. Only if we undestend it we may prevent these stereotypes from becoming common currency in the media.
    So I think the Calandra Institute is doing a very important job in sponsoring an academic discussion of this subject—this segment of the Italian American youth culture, not just the MTV show. In any group there can be some problematic experiences, but they don’t go away just by not talking about them. In a sense, I think we have the responsibility to appropriate this kind of investigationa and discussions—it is our business, as Italian Americans,more than anybody else’s. An there could be no better place than the Calandra Institute, and a colloquium with a social scientist who has studied this phenomenon for a number of years...

    In other words, it is one thing if the media exploit a phenomenon for commercial reasosn, and maybe circulate offensive stereotypes, but it is a different matter when a cultural institution affords the same phenomenon with the purpose of investigating it...
    Yes. If we are trying to understand the roots of a problematic behavior of some Italian American youths, we are not "endorsing" it in any way, and surely we are not "glorifying" it. These phenomena may be more or less widespread or isolated, representative or unique, but once we get to the point we are at, we cannot deny that they do exist. And if they exist, only by bringing them into full light and by exposing them to serious intellectual scrutiny can we really undestand them. And beacuse we are talking about youths... this is also the only way we can provide young people with the tools to understand whether there is any value for them in this phenomenon, whether there is any good in being associated with it, or if it has negative consequences.
    A scene form Gianfranco Norelli's 'Pane Amaro', produced by RAI (in Italian)
    You have had a somewhat similar experience with “Pane Amaro”. Your film too has been accused by some people of touching upon subjects that “make us look bad”, of talking about things that should not be mentioned...
    We have shown Pane Amaro in a lot of places, in New York, in Washington, in New Jersey. Recently we showed it in twelve different venues in California, in Nevada, and in Canada. And occasionally, yes, we did have some people lamenting the fact that some scenes... Because, for instance, we talk about things like the lynching of early Italian immigrants a century or so ago. All in all, 39 Italians were lynched across the United States. And some viewers were very disturbed and said we souldn’t be talking about this. It was offending them maybe because it was too graphic, too traumatic... a kind of dark page of our history that some don’t want to remember. The majority of the viewers, however, found that learning about these episodes that were unknown to them was important and found it very valuable. But occasionally you do find some people who, when faced with difficult, uneasy subjects, react by closing their eyes; they prefer not to know about them and even try to prevent you from talking about them. They use a metaphor, you know, they say that we shouldn’t "wash our dirty laundry in public". And I think it doesn’t advance the conversation.
    It is also important to emphasize that such attitude of denial is not necessarily the typical reaction of all Italian American associations. Your film for instance has been supported by the National Italian American Foundation.
    Sure. NIAF was among the important funding sources for “Pane Amaro”. They understood the value of serious investigation into our history.
    You have investigated soo deeply the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of today’s Italian American youths... Would you think that a subject such as this “guido lifestyle” would make an interesting topic for one of your next documentaries?
    Well, yes... first of all, of course, I’d like to know more about it. And this is why I value any serious investigation on this subject. Documentaries can be a useful way to study an issue and to have it come alive for an audience. And I do believe that we need to explore difficult issues such as this. Sweeping it under the rug will not make it go away.

  • Facts & Stories

    Italian Americans Between Guidos and Columbus. An Interview with Nancy Carnevale

    I would like first to ask your opinion, as an Italian American and an academic, about this discussion born out of the MTV show “Jersey Shore”—the existence of a “Guido youth culture” and the legitimacy of intellectual investigation of this phenomenon.
    As an Italian American, I can attest that the “Guido culture”—a Northeastern, urban, working-class/lower middle class youth style — does exist although the degree to which it coincides with the representations of that culture in the media is a separate question. As an academic, I am always in favor of open discussion and examination of the issues, whatever they may be. To avoid doing so in this case is to perpetuate the myth that there is a right way and a wrong way to be Italian American when of course there are many ways; we are a diverse group in terms of generation, lifestyle, politics, etc. I do understand why some Italian Americans feel defamed by certain characterizations of Italians in the media. The stereotype of Italian Americans as unsophisticated and lacking in intelligence goes way back. In the early years of Italian migration, children who fell asleep in school because they had to stay up late nights helping their mothers finish garments or make artificial flowers so that their families could survive were labeled intellectually inferior. American schools steered them into “steamer classes” for slow learners. Other factors went into this characterization of Italian Americans as unintelligent, but that label stuck and it has been damaging. But to try and suppress exploration of a segment within your ethnic group because it doesn’t conform to your self-image and the public face you want your ethnic group to present, I can’t condone that.

    This is not the first time that the "prominenti" try to shape the public image of the Italian-American community in ways that do not entirely reflect the views of people of different classes, generations, etc. Would you give us some examples?
    These conflicting understandings of ethnic identity between different segments of the Italian American community that we are seeing now remind me of recent tensions around the celebration of Columbus Day. Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1934, but some Italian Americans had long been advocating for that and with good reason. For years, Italian Americans were a marginalized group. Identifying with the discoverer of their adopted land was an ideal strategy to gain full inclusion into mainstream America. But in today’s era of multiculturalism with a rhetoric that celebrates cultural diversity, the “discovery” of America by Columbus is equated with the beginning s of the demise of native peoples and their cultures. Although Columbus was not unique in his attitudes or actions, he has come to embody the destruction left in the wake of Western expansion. It is hard to see how Italian American children growing up today who are taught this more critical historical view will be able to express their ethnicity through Columbus day festivities. There are already many Italian Americans who do not celebrate Columbus Day because of what Columbus has come to represent. I understand why many in the Italian American community have trouble hearing alternative opinions on Columbus Day. Traditions are important to Italian Americans and many remember a time when they felt excluded. Columbus day has been an important public expression of ethnic pride for many years. But like all ethnic traditions, it is an invented one; another one can take its place, one that would not impose a particular vision of italianità on the community. It seems to me that this desire to squelch any consideration of the so-called “Guido culture” is a similar attempt by some to impose a uniform identity on a diverse group .

    In your current book "A New Language, A New World: Italian Immigrants in the United States, 1890-1945" you dug into this subject by focusing specifically on the language maintenance efforts...
    In New York City beginning in the 1920s, leading members of the Italian American community including educators like Leonard Covello, began advocating to have Italian included as an offering in the junior highs and high schools. Covello and others felt that teaching Italian to the children of Italian immigrants would help raise their self-esteem, which suffered in this era of blatant prejudice against Italian Americans. Essentially, their aim was to create a pan-Italian American identity which was in reality a fiction since few of these children would have heard standard Italian spoken in their homes and their parents most likely identified with their regions of origin or their paese, not with the Italian nation itself. Rather than help Italian American kids take pride in their local, peasant origins, including their dialects, Italian American leaders sought to impose their own views of what it meant to be Italian, ie, to speak standard Italian rather than dialect, to revere Italian high culture, etc. While not all of the prominenti disparaged local identities (Covello was respectful of them), many other leading figures did. So there is nothing new in certain segments of the community trying to impose their views of what it means to be Italian American on others, nor is this phenomenon limited to Italian Americans.

    *Nancy C. Carnevale is an Associate professor of history at Montclair State University (NJ). She specializes in the history of immigration, race and ethnicity in the U.S. with a focus on Italian immigration.


  • Facts & Stories

    Italian Americans in the Trap of Television. An Interview with Maria Laurino

    As our readers know, the MTV reality “Jersey Shore” provoked a wave of anti-defamation prostests from several Italian American organizations. When the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute of CUNY announced a colloquium on “Guido: An Italian American Youth Style” (January 21st, 10am) some exponents of the Italian American community objected that even holding such a colloquium may be considered an “anti-Italian” act, and called to boycott it. In its continuing search for a dialogue, i-Italy decided to offer this controversy a forum where all positions can be articulated—including unofficial, dissonant voices.

    Here we meet Maria Laurino,* a writer and an adjunct professor of creative writing at New York University. A former chief speechwriter to NYC Mayor David Dinkins and a staff writer for the
    Village Voice, her books include Were You Always an Italian?, a national best-selling memoir about ethnic identity.

    What do you think of the way ethnicity—and Italian Americans in partular—are portrayed on American television?
    I haven't seen this particular MTV show but from what I have read it reminds me of other sitcoms and reality shows with Italian-American characters. One of the problems in portraying ethnicity on television is that television, in general, tends to caricature reality; it likes showing things that are over the top. The media, and especially television, tend to see everything in broad strokes. Television—and especially reality TV shows—are not interested in nuances as a novelist or an essayist would be. The reason is simple: the media have their own agenda, they have to get the ratings up, they have to make money; they are more concerned about the marketplace than about the issues.
 And one of the difficulties in portraying ethnic groups is that all these groups have been here for a long time, and when you get, for instance, to the fifth generation of Italian Americans, it is so much harder to get at the nuances of their identity. In the past ten years or so, I think the whole culture has become cruder and less interested in nuances, and so the portrayal has become even less sophisticated. Just as more and more Italian Americans become assimilated, their ethnic identity is portrayed in a way that actually reflects a very small group of people... but nobody is really interested in a more nuanced work.

    Some in the Italian American community think that such misrepresentation of ethnic identity in the media is something that regards Italian Americans more than other groups. We often hear that a show like Jersey Shore would have never been mad about Jews or African-Americans

    I don’t think so. A couple of months ago, I went to a talk to present my newest book in Staten Island, and there were many questions about this. "Why do they portray us this way?" people would ask. I responded that this is not about Italian Americans—it is about the media, it's about "reality show." If you read newspaper accounts of the making of reality shows, you see how participants are denied sleep, offered lots of alcohol—all to get them to do something outrageous. And people are ready and willing to do this just to get on television. There was nothing “ethnic” about the “Balloon Boy” spectacle. Ethnic groups will always be appealing to broadcasters because they can fall back on certain images and stereotypes. I think that the media would do anything to improve their ratings to earn money, so they push the boundaries of taste. And it seems that the American people are responding, and even fighting for their fifteen minutes of fame. In that way, I think the culture has shifted a lot in the past few decades.

    Talking about the "Guido phenomenon", its roots can be traced to the character of Tony Manero, played by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever

. So, again, we have an interesting interplay between Italian-American reality and its representation...
    There is something fascinating about the relationship between Italian American identity and the image of Tony Manero. When I was researching my book, Were You Always an Italian?, I came across an article by Nik Cohen, a British journalist who wrote the feature story about young people from Bensonhurst in New York magazine that the film Saturday Night Fever was based on. Years later he published a confession in New York magazine that the feature story he wrote was made up. This was supposed to be a piece of journalism about Italian-Americans in Bensonhurst. He wrote that his editors wanted a certain image of Italian Americans and he went and spent some time in Bensonhurst, but he realized he could not really figure out who they were. He found that he could not make inroads into a culture he was not part of. So, based on what he saw, he created Tony Manero out of his imagination.
What fascinates me is indeed that Tony Manero is the fictional creation of an English journalist born in Northern Ireland. What is this telling us about ethnic identity? How real is it and to what extent do we just imitate what we see in films? 
It's really hard to figure out because it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg question: who came first, the Guidos or the Guido portayal that someone then decided to imitate?

 John Travolta was such an appealing character, an amazing dancer, a handsome man in an enormously popular movie. So many kids must have thought, "Hey, I am from Bensonhurst, I can form some sort of ethnic pride out of that — I'll act like him." They bought into that fictional creation.

    You are talking about questions that do not seem to allow for easy answers, including how Italian-American identity is constructed, perceived and modified. May I assume you must be in favor of scholars and experts investigating these issues?

    Of course. And I am very interested in this symposium at the Calandra Institute.
 All these issues of otherness, of identity, of course, push some buttons and touch upon things that might be unpleasant. But it is very dangerous to react by not talking about them. It is only through dialogue that you are going to better understand these complex issues of ethnic identity and further the discussion. Censoring dialogue is always a dangerous act.

    Why do you think this censoring attitude is so widespread among ethnic leaders in America, not just among Italian Americans? It seems that the immediate reaction to any disturbing issue is censorship. In this case we go from attempts to stop MTV from "defaming" Italian Americans to an invitation to boycott an academic colloquium about the "Guido lifestyle"...

    I think this is a phenomenon that you can see all over the world. It’s the result of a sort of fervent nationalism. This kind of ethnic nationalism is only about pride and doesn’t allow for any kind of questioning or dissent. Look at the case of Ohran Pamuk, the first Turk to receive the Noble Prize for Literature. A few years ago he was brought to court for having “offended the Turkish identity" by stating to a Swiss journalist that you can’t talk about the genocide of Armenians in Turkey under the Ottoman empire. Of course we don't have trials against dissidents here in the U.S., but I think the root of the problem is the same: the notion that national pride, or in this case ethnic pride, should never be challenged.

    Is there anything that can be done about these issues?

    Surely not by watching television reality shows! I think Italian Americans should put an end to their obsession with their image in the television media. Everything in the media is going to be crude and there is no way you can change this, especially if you start from the wrong assumption—that this is something that just regards Italian Americans. I understand the frustration of the people who are offended by this — I am offended by these portrayals — but this is what American pop culture is becoming. If they really want to think about nuanced images of their own ethnicity—including sometimes controversial images—they should buy and read books by writers from all ethnic groups who are similarly struggling with these issues. And this includes Italian-American writers. Instead of trying to correct the media by censoring them, we should work towards giving these books and ideas much more widespread circulation.

    * Maria Laurino has been contributing to i-Italy since its inception. Visit her blog "Old World, New World"

  • Art & Culture

    SDIFF—The San Diego Italian Film Festival Brings Italian Culture to Southern California

    Meet the San Diego “odd couple”—two very peculiar, energetic Italian men who traveled around the globe for a good part of their lives before ending up friends in the very south of Southern California. Victor Laruccia: born in Santiago, Chile; he learned reading/writing “as an Italian Catholic” in Western Pennsylvania, went to Yale, found the West Coast better, got his PhD at UCSD, and spent 3 years in the US Marine Corps. Victor taught film studies at Brown University, RI, then at UCSD, left for City of Pasadena to work in the telecom industry, and retired in 1995. He started SDIFF (Sand Diego Italian Film Festival) with a few other “crazy Italians” at The House of Italy, in Balboa Park, SD, in 2004.



    Among them was Roberto Ruocco: an attorney who graduated in Naples, Italy, served 25 years as an Officer of the Italian Air Force, settled in San Diego as Italian military liason to the U.S. armed forces, and then became an immigration law expert and the Honorary Vice Consul of Italy. Roberto is an indefatigable man and—as Victor says—“ in true Neapolitan fashion knows and visits practically every Italian (citizen or not) in San Diego county.” Roberto is SDIFF president, Victor is its vice president.


    SDIFF incorporated in 2007 as a non-profit organization aimed at promoting the art of Italian cinema in Southern California. After showing Italian movies for a couple of years at The House of Italy, Victor and Roberto, together with the other founders (Giuseppe Annino, Pasquale Verdicchio, and Don Santamaria) started to look for a bigger venue. The Museum of Photographic Art assured them a theatre, and the the first edition of a proper festival took place there. It was a success of unexpected proportion. Victor recalls: “The first night’s show had 90 in the audience, second 150, third 190, and the average since then was over 220 for a 230 seat theater.” And the last day, while a terrible fire that was burning huge swaths of San Diego county reached its peak, “people were sitting in the aisles because there were no more seats.”


    Who helped them to start all this? The Italian Consulate and the Italian Cultural Institute of Los Angeles assisted in obtaining subtitled movies. But no money. “And so,” says Roberto, “we dressed as franciscans and with our three knots of our ropes in our hands we knocked to several doors to collect money to pay the Museum of Photografic Art and organize a logistic structure. Business, restaurants, colleges, and most of all private families of Italian compatriates ... In other more important venues like Los Angeles, producers and movie corporations finance  and launch the italian movies: here we do everything by ourselves.”


    San Diego... how is it that “things Italian” are so popular here?


    Roberto Ruocco: “According to consular data, there are about 1,300 Italian citizens in the City of San Diego, half of them holding dual citizenship. But in the County as a whole there are almost 3,000 dual citizens. Moreover, regardless of the possession of the italian citizenship, I may well say that I serve about 10,000 Italian Americans between the County of San Diego, Imperial, Riverside e Orange. And believe me, the thirst and hunger of Italian culture and in particolarly movies is humongous!”


    Victor Laruccia: “Historically, San Diego has had a very important and strong Italian presence for a very long time, and San Diego’s Little Italy may be one of the strongest in the country. There is a very big appetite here for Italian culture, at least for what is conceived of as Italian culture. A very large percentage of restaurants, for example, are Italian up and down the gustatory range, from some dreadful pizza parlors to really excellent and imaginative chef driven restaurants. But beyond the cuisine, there is a genuine affection for Italian culture in general.  Part of this stems from the physical nature of San Diego – sunshine, sea, and an impulse to enjoy the natural beauty of the place; this impulse is channeled by some very bright business people, many of whom are Italian. And then there is the demographics of San Diego tending toward people who have more disposable income and who seek quality of life options, where Italian culture has a major impact.”


    From your words it seems that there are rather different ideas of what “Italian culture" is ... in San Diego as everywhere else.


    Victor: “Indeed, many of the older families, dating back many generations and most rooted on the fishing industry, still have a strong presence here, and represent an older style of Italian culture. There are several very strong Italian clubs here, The House of Italy being the oldest. There is also a very important Italian language school, the Italian Cultural Center, with over 150 students per period, and a membership of over 400... At the same time many new Italian arrivals find Little Italy a very sympathetic place and bring a more modern sense of Italian culture. But, interestingly, we have encountered many Italians and Italian Americans, of high professional and social status, whose notions of an “Italian community” seem to be rooted in the old Mustache Pete image, and for this reason they do not normally associate with the Italians in the clubs or the older immigrant families.  But that is changing, quite a bit due to the universal appeal of the Italian movies we bring in.  When we show these movies, everyone joins in celebrating Italian culture, even if not everyone has the same notion of what that is.”



    Who chooses the films to be screened at the SDIFF and what is your main target?


    Roberto: “A board made by professor Verdicchio of UCSD, prof Clo of SDSU, prof Laruccia and others indentify a pool of movies which are then requested through the ICC of Los Angeles to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. About 8 months of negotiations and correspondence  amongst these organizations ensue to bring us the best we can get.

    The first year the serie Cinema Sud  was obtained. This year we tried to get the best of what is available. The logic is to show the Italian excellence. I always repeat at our presentations that we are promoting  one of the “Fs” of italian excellence: after Fashion, Food, Football, Ferrari, we promote Films!


    Victor: “Of course, the festival would not exist without the strong support of IIC Los Angeles, especially Director Francesca Valente. Currently we work primarily with Mr Massimo Sarti, who is himself a big fan of movies and despite heavy demands manages to give us a great deal of attention. But while most of our films come through our relationship with IIC LA, we also try to recruit filmmakers to our festival.  For example, Annino, who loves the Italian film festival circuit, met and invited Graziano Diana to join us and to bring his film ‘La Vita Rubata.’ This year we are bringing both director Giuseppe Gagliardi and musician Peppe Voltarelli to our festival.  While we have a home at the Museum of Photographic Arts, we also are moving into other neighborhoods that can help us in our mission to spread Italian culture. Two such neighborhoods are La Jolla and North Park.  La Jolla will attract many who are interested in the more artistic and academic aspects of Italian culture, while North Park resembles very much a neighborhood in an Italian city, with many areas for walking, lots of interactions among residents, visitors, small businesses, and this area promises an even greater vitality in the future. We want as many people who self-identify as Italians, but we spend a good deal of effort trying to bring in Italophiles, too.”



    What's happening this year at the SDIFF?


    Victor: “Choosing films is a combination of seeing what’s available that fits our needs through the IIC, working with contacts we’ve made with filmmakers, and accidents. Many of us attend film festivals, for example Palm Springs in January which shows over 12 Italian films, and several of us keep track of what’s happening in the Italian film Industry.

    We also try to develop personal contacts for certain films, and sometimes that helps. We will show ‘Notte Blu Cobalto’ this year because of a contact made with Grazia Rendo from Catania.  And we are working on developing relations with other nearby festivals that show Italian movies in the hopes that some cooperative ventures may bring more movies to each of us at lower costs.  We did that this past year with the Cinema Society, sharing costs to show ‘Ti voglio bene Eugenio,’ a very big success, with combined audience attendance numbering over 900.  We have several criteria we use, and since we’re so young, we have nothing set in stone.  Of course we want a range of films that show several aspects of Italian life.  We are also concerned about the quality of the director and actors.  We try to balance our choices between films we expect will be crowd pleasers and those which might be somewhat difficult; for example, we chose ‘Basta un niente,’ which is fairly frivolous but enjoyable and ‘Uno su due,’ a film that is rooted in fear but overcomes it.  The accidents come via other organizations.  This year we learned that the Houston Film Festival was showing ‘Il Vento Fa Il Suo Giro,’ and we asked to use it, too. The producers were very amenable, and we had a very good crowd in La Jolla.  ‘La seconda Notte di nozze’ will close the festival.



    Roberto: “The results of our prior two years show that the Italian art of making movie is the natural alternative to the standard, computerized, good ending format of the american movies. More than 5,000 people viewed our movies during last season.  My request, or rectius my plea to the reader, is to support groups of genuine heroes like Laruccia et all to bring high the flag of Italy, which means not only money but elimination of  the corporate interests which make  difficult obtaining movies  for us abroad.”



    Victor: “We are moving into a growth phase where we wish to do more business with Italian distributors, or directly with filmmakers, and we would like to include a greater variety of cinematic material in our offerings since right now we focus almost entirely on recent theatrical releases.  We would like to begin attracting cortometraggi, and we hope to find other north and south American sources for our films.  Our philosophy is that Italian culture is not limited to the Stivale, but is rooted there; we hope to explore the various expressions of that culture as they are found around the world.  That is a future goal.”

  • Op-Eds

    Between Black and White. The First Columbus Day of the Obama Era

    Since Barack Obama was elected to office in November last year, many things have happened in America “for the first time under an African-American president.” On January 15, the 80th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s birth was celebrated just days before the first negro president was sworn in. A few months later, Americans celebrated Independence Day for the first time under a non-white president. The symbolism of these and other events did not escape notice.

    Nor should the fact that October 2009 is the first “Italian Heritage and Culture Month” of the Obama era. And, of course, on October 12 we shall celebrate the first Columbus Day of this era of racial and ethnic change in America. To my mind, there is some food for thought here. For those at least who believe that in order to reconstruct Italian/American identity we need to engage in a new, progressive discourse on race and ethnicity in this country and, by extension, in Italy and around the world.

    At first, this may sound as wishful thinking. Both the racial and the progressive components of the Obama phenomenon did not seem to resonate well with many Italian Americans. To the extent that there is an Italian/American vote (and many doubt that such an entity exists) it did not go overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008. To take just one well-known example, New York City’s most Italian borough – Staten Island – was also the sole of five boroughs in the city to give the majority to McCain. We at i-Italy are certainly not going to deny this. Our contributors (we call them ‘Bloggers’) have been discussing at length the issue of the Italian/American attitude towards the first African American candidate to the presidency (see for instance Maria Laurino’s “Obama Mamma” and Jerry Krase’s “Obama ends in a Vowel” and “Obamania or Obamaphobia: Italians in a Post-Bush America.”) Coming to the more general issue of interracial relations, we have never falthered before the task of exposing anti-blacks sentiments and even violence when these emerged among members of the Italian/American community (see for instance Joe Skee’s “The Vergognosi of Staten Island.”) And we have been writing extensively on racism, ethnic intolerance and xenophobia in Italy as well (see our special online issue entitled “Criss-crossing Migrations.”)

    But there is one theme that should be brought up with more clarity in this first October of the Obama era, and it is that of the Italians’ “blackness” (or negritudine). Many Italians both in this country and in Italy, were not born white; they became white, but they were born, i.e. perceived, as black—or quasi-black: an ethnic and sociological hybrid.

    After Italy achieved unity as a nation (by way of the Northern kingdom, based in Turin, conquering militarily the Southern Kingdom of Naples, or “of the two Sicilies,”) ministerial envoys sent to inspect the new land found that its inhabitants were “worse than Africans”: “Altro che Italia! Questa è Africa: i beduini a riscontro di questi caffoni, sono fior di virtù civile” (Italy? This is Africa! Compared to these cafoni, the bedouins are an example of civic virtue,) wrote one of them, Farini, in a report to then Prime Mister Cavour. And still hundred years thereafter, Southern Italian peasants migrating to Northern industrial areas such as Turin and Milan, found it difficult to rent an apartment, as signs reading “We do not rent to Southerners” hung outside many buildings.

    Little wonder thus, that a similar, if even bitter fate awaited them in the U.S. in the very same decades. We all know that in Luisiana, at the end of the 19th century, several Italian immigrants where “lynched like niggers”—and we shall only urge the reader to watch Gianfranco Norelli’s wonderful documentary Pane Amaro to learn more (it is now available in English as “Bitter Bread,” thanks to a grant from NIAF). Nor did the likening of Italians and blacks belong only to the most racist areas of the American South. In the “Race” column of their entry papers at Ellis Island, many Italian immigrants were listed as “Southern Italians”—an indication that these people were viewed “as a different race entirely,” writes Stephen Puleo in The Boston Italians. And the possibility that (especially Southern) Italians may have been considered “part Africans” by many in the US has been discussed by several historians and social scientists (google-books offers a quick way to read excerpts from Thomas A. Guglielmo’s White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, and Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno’s Are Italians white?: How race is made in America.)

    This is not to say that Italians or Southern Italians ever endured anything like the hardship of slavery and segragation, either in America or in Italy. Indeed, as far as the U.S. is concerned, Italians did become white in less than a century after their arrival. So much so that a not-so-black African American in the 1950s could escape segregation in Virginia by... pretending to be a not-so-white Italian! This story is told in a fabolous 1995 book by Gregory Howard Williams I came across only recently (my fault): Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black. Here is how Williams, a Law professor and Civil Rights advocate who has been The City College of New York's eleventh president, recounts his experience as a boy, when he had his first doubts about his father’s (and his own) ethnic-racial background:

    “I didn’t understand Dad. I knew I wasn’t colored, and neither was he. My skin was white. All of us are white, I said to myself. But for the first time, I had to admit that Dad didn’t exactly look white. His deeply tanned skin puzzled me as I sat there trying to classify my own father. Goose bumps covered my arms as I realized that whatever he was, I was. I took a deep breath. I couldn’t make any mistakes. I looked closer. His heavy lips and dark brown eyes didn’t make him colored, I concluded. His black, wavy hair was different from Negroes’ hair, but it was different from most white fol’s hair, too. He was darker than most whites, but Mom said he was Italian. That was why my baby brother had such dark skin and curly hair. Mom told us to be proud of our Italian heritage! That’s it, I decided. He was Italian. I leaned back against the seat, satisfied.”

    And here is Williams’ reaction when he finally learned the truth:

    “I never heard anything crazier in my life! How could Dad tell us such a mean lie? I glanced across the aisle where he sat grim-faced and erect, staring straight ahead. I saw ny father as I never had seen him before. The veil dropped from his face and features. Before my eyes he was transformed from a swarthy Italian to his true self—a high-yellow mulatto. My father was a Nigro! We were colored! After ten years in Virginia on the white side of the color line, I knew what that meant.”

    Italians thus, are no blacks. And Italian Americans are not African Americans. But this truism notwithstanding, the historical experience of these two minorities (in a global world we’re all minorities) does have some common roots, a fil-rouge that can bind them together in bonds of cultural solidarity  and political understanding. And rediscovering those roots could contribute to cure the racist desease both in Italy and in America. As Patrick Gallo once wrote (see his Ethnic Alienation. The Italian Americans) “What is needed is an alliance of blacks and whites, white-collar and blue-collar workers, based on mutual need and interdependence and hence an alliance of political participation.” The last thing that is needed, I would add, is one of those glorious celebrations of ethnic pride and achievement that pit one group against the other—each nourishing the dream of being accepted into the American mainstream and thus, metaphorically, of “becoming white.”

    To go back to our original question: how can we use the symbolic coincidence of “the first Italian month under an African American president” to foster a white-(Italian)-black cultural alliance? I am not going to propose a strategic plan for action here—i-Italy has more adroit contributors than me at this, including Bob Viscusi and Anthony Tamburri, to name just two.

    However, as a "part-African" who was born in Southern Italy in a post-war, anti-fascist era, I have noticed one event that is going to take place during this Italian/American month and that suggests one of many ways we could procede along this path. On october 6, the Italian Consulate General in Philadelphia and the African American Museum of that same city are co-organizing the presentation of award-winning film documentary “Inside Buffalo” by Fred Kuwornu, an Italian filmaker of African heritage (his father is from Ghana) who was born and raised in Italy. The film tells the story of the 92nd Buffalo Division, the all-African-American segregated combat unit that fought with outstanding heroism in Italy during the Second World War.

    The “Buffalo Soldiers” fought two wars at the same time, one to liberate Italy from Fascism and Nazism, the other against racial discrimination in their own country and army. Upon returning to the US, the survivors of the Buffalo Division found that their contributions had gone unnoticed at home and some of them started a long process to obtain recognition of their unit’s heroism. Director Kuwornu reconstructs this important piece of African American history and of Civil Rights history, and fills it with an underlining political message that unites Africans, Americans, and Italians beyond all possible racial and ethnic barriers. A courtesy appearance by president Barack Obama is also featured in the film.

    To be sure, "Inside Buffalo" has already been screened under the auspices of the Italian Cultural Institute in Washington and elsewere in the US. But by chosing to co-sponsor its presentation at the African American Museum in October, the Italian Consul General of Philadelphia Mr Luigi Scotto has generated a powerful symbolism, suggesting an original, progressive, non-hagiographic way to celebrate the first “Italian month” in Obama era’s America.

    May this initiative be one of many in the future. After all we are going to have three, and potentially seven more Columbus Days in the Obama era...

  • Op-Eds

    “Cucina Italica”? An Exercise in Post-Colonial, Mutual Understanding

    In the past few days, while i-Italy has been reporting so intesively about the Italian presence at the Fancy Food Show 2009 in New York, I have been wondering: Why are there so many Italian restaurants in America, but none (to my knowledge) depicts itself as Italian-American? Or, to put it differently, why is it that so many experts engage in such a humble and endless search for “real” Italian cuisine in the New World, while systematically ignoring—if not deriding—real-life Italian-American cusine?

    It seems like a sort of colonialist attutude to me: well over a century after the first Italian immigrants landed in America, their descendants can’t cook really Italian anymore; they invented a hybrid, contaminated taste that bears little resemblance to “the original”—therefore it cannot have any merits of its own. This, nonetheless, should not take way from the Italianate cuisine they have indeed created, a cuisine that has its roots in Italy and has developed, rightfully so, into its own being here in the United States, if not equally so in other parts of the world outside of Italy where we find the progeny of Italian immigrants.

    While immersed in these toughts, I perused my google newsreader and I found an article by Star-Ledger’s Teresa Politano, which I suggest everybody read.

    Here Politano talks about Joe Cerniglia, a chef who used to work at Gallagher's Steak House in New York and whom you may know from his television appearances.

    The way she describes Cerniglia’s cuisine at his Bergen, NJ, restaurant Campania—which he bought and re-styled with the help of guru chef Gordon Ramsay—struck me.

    From the outside Campania “doesn't appear the least bit atypical,” but when you enter “you know you're not in a typical Jersey red-sauce-and-eggplant-Parm Italian restaurant.” There, says Politano, chef Cerniglia serves “amazingly progressive and innovative food” plus “traditional Italian-American dishes prepared with such clarity that they seem to transcend their origins.”

    How does Cerniglia achieve this? Precisely by being himself—i.e. an Italian-American, not an Italian chef:

    "Cerniglia is an Italian-American, but he's third generation; as a chef, he doesn't try to replicate some dinner from some far-off restaurant in Italy. He uses American methods, and New Jersey produce, local honey."

    That’s supposedly a high crime, isn’t it? Well, maybe not. Cerniglia just “brightens traditional dishes with a modern energy. ... [E]ven though he knows his way around a chicken Marsala, he's also a progressive foodie.”

    "He re-interprets standard-issue bruschetta, for example (because it's just wrong to serve tomatoes before they're literally hanging off the vine) with lush zucchini over mascarpone with a hint of lemon zest. He also serves what have to be the best meatballs in New Jersey. ... Veal Saltimbocca ($23) will not disappoint the old-school traditionalist ... But those meatball ($5)! These are hands-down Cerniglia's must-have dish. Even Pasquale's Sicilian grandmother would humbly respect these meatballs. Cerniglia would not divulge his secrets, but he did tell us that he doesn't believe in the traditional trinity of meats; beef, he says, makes a meatball taste too much like meatloaf. So his meatballs are made with just pork and veal."

    I am not a food expert, and I have never been to Campania (though I believe I will pay it a visit, sooner or later). Nor do I know Teresa Politano (my fault).

    But I just believe that this little article raises a number of issues—some, no doubt, involuntarily—that merit serious attention. It seems to suggest that there might indeed be some room for a good, even “progressive” Italian-American cuisine, even though—or, perhaps, exactly because—it doesn’t try to imitate some distant, “original” Italian recipe... and does use American methods and local produce. You might, in other words, “trascend your origins,” run a restaurant that is not “a typical Jersey red-sauce-and-eggplant-Parm Italian restaurant,” while at the same time serve some creatively modified version of meatball-and-spaghetti... and still your food may be good, even excellent. It may be appreciated by Sicilian grandmothers and it may even command some attention on the part of learned “cuisine critics.”

    I can see several eyebrows raising here at once. But, rest assured, we’re not going to call this Italian cuisine.

    Our friend Piero Bassetti in Milan would probably call this post-modern phenomenon Cucina Italica: a hybrid indeed, a contaminated, creative, independent product of “civilizzazione italica” that still awaits to be recognized, appreciated and judged on its own merits. There will be, of course, a bad and a good Cucina Italica...

    Yet, if anything along these lines could at all be argued, then we might start abandoning the colonialist equation: “real Italian = good cuisine; Italian-American = bad cuisine.”

    The cultural, historical, even political implications of such an approach would be beyond the reach of a short blog post; but, to my mind, they would be enormous. Just try replacing the term “cuisine” in the equation above with anything else, or skip it altogether. Italians and Italian-Americans are still two worlds apart, rarely amenable to inter-cultural dialogue, even at the kitchen table.

    Creating a bridge requires architects better equipped than myself, but i-Italy has been trying something of this sort for over a year—and with some results. Now I wonder whether my friends, who are just starting an ambitious “TasteBook” section here at i-Italy, think I’m just fool.

  • Op-Eds

    Italian, American & Jewish

    How is the your Institute involved in the celebration of Remembrance Day?
    “The reasons are numerous. First, we are dedicated to research and promotion of all things and events dealing with Italian Americans. This, for many of us, extends to a wider population that includes Italians living in the United States and Italian culture overall. Second, while the predominant religion among Italian Americans is Catholic, not all Italian immigrants and their progeny are. Third, while much of what is commemorated during this period may deal specifically with Italy, we see this, too, as a component to our overall mission. For to understand more profoundly and more extensively the Italian/American experience, a more intimate knowledge of Italy and its culture and history can only have a most constructive and, henceforth, productive outcome.”
    Read the online issue
    Download the print issue in pdf format
    Being Italian and then being Jewish Italian. Did this make life more difficult? What do we know about the experience of this sub-group of Italians who arrived or were born in America and were Jews? 
    “Considering the bigotry that existed at the beginning of the century, I believe it made things more difficult. Being an Italian was automatically identified as being part of the Catholic minority, which wasn’t easily accepted here by the mainstream Protestant culture. But then you were also a Jew, so a “minority within a minority”... And also, of course, you are part of a group that has a certain percent of its population that may also be bigotted against Jews.”
    Sure, most Italians were Catholics and then some of them became Fascists, of course. It’s a peculiar clash, or overlap, between mutiple identities: national, religious, cultural, political. Which would prevail? Would “italianità” be enough to create a sense of solidarity within the community?
    “Historically, I wouldn’t know. It’s an interesting question and we should ask it to our panelists. I don’t know of any specific study on this subject. Based on my personal experience, I grew up in Stamford, CT, in a small Italian/American neighborhood where we had a non-Italian Jewish family, and they were very well accepted. Actually, there were also a few African-American families and they, too, were very much part of the neighborhood. The bond, in retrospect, may have bean class, as the neighborhood was clearly working-class.
    In broader “sociological” terms, we must keep in mind that there is a difference between someone who came here, say, in his or her thirties, and maintains his “Italian” identity, identifying as an “Italian in America,” as opposed to an immigrant, and happens to be Jewish. Then there is someone who was born here and raised by Italian parents who were Jews, and thus grew up as an Italian/American and Jewish. The latter has not been studied to any great length, that I know of. On the other hand, being a minority group—as Italians and as Catholics—may in some instances have helped to be more understanding towards other minorities... certainly within that group itself. And finally, there are well-known, successful instances of Italian Americans who managed multiple overlapping identities. Think of the famous New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who was the son of Jewish mother: he could speak Italian to an Italian neighborhood, he could then go to an upper-class, wasp neighborhood and speak English, and when he went to a Jewish neighborhood he spoke to them in Yiddish.”
    Speaking of memory—in what ways can memory help our understanding of the present situation and our capacity to move towards the future? You often say, for instance, that the memory of “passage” is the foundation of Italian/American identity. But I have also heard you say that memories should be handled carefully, for they may conceal some dangers...
    “I guess that my initial answer would be pretty much a stock answer—we should learn from memory in order to be able to move forward. But if we want to elaborate a little bit, there are two issues that come to mind. First regarding the notion of memory: if memory leads to nostalgia we need to be careful, for nostalgia may sometimes also be a trap and block us from moving forward. The other issue is—and this is where the concept of lived experience comes into the picture—that it is one thing to recall our Italian/American experience, and it is another thing to recall the Jewish experience, that has the horrible component of the holocaust. To have a parent or a grandparent who remembers, that is something we can intellectualize, but we cannot really identify with it in a real visceral sense. In that we need to be accepting of people’s notions, ideas, and feelings that we may not be able to “feel.” For the Italian American who is not Jewish, for instance, we might think back to the Enemy Alien Act, when our grandparents had to register as Enemy Aliens in this country, and some were even interned. That is painful enough when you think of it, but it pales in comparison to what the Jews have gone through.”
    Definitely. However, as an Italian American would you say that this Remembrance Day—which incidentally comes only few days after the first African-American has been sworn in as the President of the United States—could be seen as a universal message of peace and tolerance among all races and ethnicities?
    “Yes, of course! With a caveat though: I would not speak of “tolerance.” I actually think we should go beyond tolerance in a multicultural society. I would rather speak of mutual “acceptance,” a concept that evokes a horizontal relationship among equals.”
    On January 30 (11:00 am-2:00pm), The John D. Calandra Italian American Institute will host the conference “Memoirs and Memories”. The event is divided into four sections: (1) John Locicero and Martin Begun, “Growing Up Italian and Jewish: A Conversation among Friends,” (Discussant: prof. Vincenzo Pascale); (2) prof. Robert Zweig, “Return to Naples: My Italian Bar Mitzvah and Other Discoveries;” (3) Gianna Pontecorboli and Simona McCray-Pekelis, “A Conversation” (Discussant: prof. Fabio Girelli Carasi); (4) prof. Stanislao Pugliese “Primo Levi and the Double Bind/Bond of Memory.” (For more info click here)



  • Facts & Stories

    Our First Year in the Internet Piazza

    i-Italy is one year old.

    We launched it in October 2007 in an incredibly packed conference hall offered by the Graduate School of Journalism of the City University of New York. We were then part of an international project funded by the Italian Government and directed by the Sapienza University of Rome. Our goal was to create the first online community and information network dedicated to Italian and Italian American affairs. It was a fascinating experience, thanks especially to our partners and supporting institutions, in particular America Oggi, the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute (Queens College, CUNY), and theCasa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò of NYU.

    The backing of the Consulate General of Italy in New York has been also essential. An entire section of our magazine (“Italy in New York”) is managed in collaboration with them. The Consul General Francesco Maria Talò has even started a “blog” on i-Italy (called “Sistema Italia”). Such institutional support is by no means common, and we take it as a genuine appreciation of our work and passion.
    One year later, that seminal project is ended, as well as the Italian government fundings – but we have grown more ambitious, and we are still around. We know that we are on the right track. We have incorporated a not-for-profit organization (The Italian American Digital Project, Inc.) to take care of the organizational and fund-raising activities of i-Italy. We are on our own now and need the support of all of you!
    The success of i-Italy is the living proof that the Internet can be a powerful “piazza” for the Italian American community.
    We have 50 regular contributors and columnists (we call them “bloggers”) from the U.S., Canada, and Italy, including amateur and professional journalists, academics, and “public intellectuals”. Our online magazine (  has reached 250.000 readers, one-quarter of whom are frequent vistiors of our site.
    But we are particularly delighted by the synergy between the journalistic activity in our magazine and the grassroots-level contributions on our open-access community and social network ( One good example of this is the issue of preserving and expanding the Italian language in America.
    In both the online and print issues of our magazine, we have often touched upon this subject which is considered to be a cultural imperative by the Italian American community at large. We have also been actively supporting the campaign to save the Advanced Placement Exam in Italian, which is still in jeopardy as we write.
    Last June, we published a special issue of i-Italy dedicated to this topic. At that same time, members of our community at started two lively discussion threads on this subject: “Studying Italian: Why and why not” and “Why most Italian immigrants do not teach Italian to their children.”
    In these forums, dozens of multi-generational Italian Americans from all over the U.S. shared their experience with the Italian language: their desire to speak the language, connect with their heritage, their frustration at the obstacles they encounter, and their proposals to improve the situation. 
    And all of them testify to something that is sadly missing. Many lament that Italian is not offered in their school districts. Others point out that Italian is not even offered at college level. Even when Italian is offered in colleges, its absence from high schools may have already determined its future. What emerges from these forums, as well, are the real-life problems related to the experience of children of Italian immigrants, such as mediating between English, Italian, and a regional dialect.
    There are “local” discussion groups created by people who want to stay in touch and share information about their place of origin in Italy. These include regional and town-based groups such as Calabria, Abruzzo, Ciociaria, Emilia Romagna Group, Pugliesi in America, Piemontesi of America...and beyond, Guardia dei Lombardi (Avellino), Furore (Costa d’Amalfi), and Roseto Valfortore (Foggia).
    Several discussion groups unite those with artistic interests, such as Italian American Writers and Editors, Cinema Italiano, Italian American Actors and Performers, Italian American Architects, and Fotografia. One active writers’ group, called Cicchetti, was created by essayist, poet, and cultural critic Mary Cappello, who writes: “In the interest of cutting through the logorrhea produced by new information technologies, I write to announce a call to cicchetti makers—a new literary form that I hope we can inaugurate together....[w]ith the idea of the small snack…in mind…I want to use this blog space to post cicchetti…and to ask you to do the same.” In addition to animating this community of writers, Mary also contributes to our magazine where she has recently started a series of conversations with “mostly gay and lesbian writers, artists, filmmakers, and public intellectuals who have some link to Italian or Italian American life and letters.”
    Greenwich Village Italians (created by Emily, a freshman at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst), intends to be “a forum for young adults to express what Italy means to them – whether your parents are the first generation to come to America or the fifth.”
    One of the largest and most active is Women in Italy and Italian Women in the World, “a forum for sharing ideas, information, and announcements pertaining to the intellectual and creative work of women in Italy and the Italian diaspora.” Understandably, this group has been thoroughly discussing Hillary Clinton’s candidacy during the Democratic primaries. Many interesting issues have emerged here, including a debate about the remnants of the “macho culture” in some segments of the Italian American population in the U.S. This group is definitely worth a special mention and more than a cursory visit.
    Last but not least, some discussion groups have been created by Italian citizens residing in the US.
    One of them, Terre Promesse (Promised Lands) invites people to share critical thoughts about the “unfulfilled promises” of both Italy and America. Another, Movi-Menti, is managed by Italian supporters of Barack Obama who hope to replicate the “Obama phenomenon” in Italy. They ask provocatively: “Obama. Here, We Can. There, Can We?” In the latter case, an interesting relationship exists between the community and the magazine, where several articles analyze both the “Italians for Obama” phenomenon in Italy and the attitude of Italian Americans to Obama in the U.S.
    Even Italian Fulbright students who participate in the 2008-09 BEST (Business Exchange and Student Training) program have created their own group in our community. The program was started in 2007 by US Ambassador to ‘ Italy, Ronald P. Spogli. It trains PhD students and post-doc researchers in business to help them establish technology-based companies in Italy. Participants work as interns for six months in select Silicon Valley companies and attend executive MBA lectures in the evening. Once they return, participants will hopefully start new technology-based companies. We are pleased that i-Italy can provide them with tools to stay in touch and share their experiences.



    Ottorino Cappelli is Project Coordinator of i-Italy.

    He teaches Political Science at the University of Naples "L'Orientale"