Articles by: Maria Laurino

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    Videocracy -- Berlusconi's Jersey Shore

         I write this blog with trepidation because I am reopening on the pages of i-Italy the controversy over MTV’s Jersey Shore -- a controversy that I wish could disappear.  But after seeing the new Italian documentary Videocracy this weekend, it’s hard not to make the comparison between aspiring Italian-American reality TV stars and their aspiring paesani across the ocean.

         Videocracy presents a well-known fact -- that Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister of Italy, is also the President of TV, as filmmaker Erik Gandini repeatedly calls him.

    Berlusconi controls ninety percent of Italy’s TV stations.  Decades ago, Berlusconi realized how to better connect television and the people:  one of his stations launched a quiz show in which every time a contestant got an answer right, an Italian woman would take off a piece of her clothing.  And the rest is television history – Italy distinguishes itself by having some of the dumbest, raunchiest, and sexist television shows in the Western world.  Videocracy documents the country’s obsession with TV and how the possibility of stardom (the American Idol phenomenon here) distracts a nation of people who are trapped in mediocre jobs with little chance of social mobility.  That’s why thousands of girls line up from Italy’s tip to heel to try out to be a velina, a showgirl, who smiles and voluptuously shimmies next to a television host.  In Berlusconi’s Italy that’s not too wacky a career choice since the Prime Minister (and the President of TV) hired an ex-velina to be in his cabinet.

        The documentary is a grotesque portrayal of Italy under Berlusconi.  By the time the audience sees a Berlusconi campaign commercial in which groups of  Italians sing “thank God Silvio Berlusconi exists,” one begins to seriously fret about the future of Italian democracy.  Indeed, it’s chilling to think about  the message of Videocracy alongside that of Roberto Saviano’s brilliant book Gomorrah about organized crime’s control of the southern Italian economy.

          So why does this documentary remind viewers of the reality TV show Jersey Shore? Why does Time Out describe the documentary as "the Rosetta Stone by which we might come to understand Jersey Shore"?

          What surprised me about the Italian-American outrage over Jersey Shore was the accusatory “they-did-this-to-us-again" mentality.  Who is the “they” – all the Italian-Americans lining up to get a part on the show?  The notion that the creators wouldn’t launch a similar show about African-Americans or Jews seems naïve in today’s land of reality TV – if money is to be made and people are willing, a show will be born.  The kids who star in Jersey Shore have the right mix of fit bodies and sexual energy that television wants.  If any other ethnic group meets the bill, they’ll get their own show too.

        Videocracy shows how from the north to the south of Italy, everybody wants to get on TV, no matter how foolish they look (a woman with dyed red hair who looked to be in her sixties took her clothes off for a television audition, and it wasn’t a pretty picture).  And who is the “they” doing this to them, insulting the image of Italians?  None other than the prime minister of the country and the president of TV. 


    IFC Center
    323 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY - (212) 924-7771

    - 1hr 25min‎‎ - Documentary‎ - IMDb
    10:45am  12:25  2:20  4:20  6:20  8:20  10:15pm

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    Reimagining Feminism

    I have been intrigued to watch how Michelle Obama has been introducing Old World ways into a very New World White House (see my blog post "Living in the New World, Choosing from the Old") but I'm even more fascinated with the new type of feminism that she's introduced in the past few months – one that has been sorely missing for decades and is vital to helping improve the lives of women and children.   Mrs. Obama has shifted from the Seventies paradigm of an equal rights feminism to a broader, and long-forgotten vision of the movement, that seeks to protect the interests of mothers and children.


    First, Mrs. Obama moved her mother into the White House to ensure the continuity of care that Marion Robinson has long provided for her granddaughters.  Then she announced that her family would grow a garden. Mrs. Obama is making the garden a national symbol of healthy family eating, and says that she was inspired by the idea because working long hours as a professional woman often meant serving her children fast food.  After the Obama’s pediatrician warned of the health risks of processed, high calorie foods, the family changed its eating habits.


    Both choices have an Old World counterpart.  My grandfather, adopting the traditions of agrarian southern Italian life, planted a large garden in a lot next to the apartment building he owned.   He grew the vegetables that my grandmother would pick fresh each morning for the day’s meals.  Having grandma take care of the children has long been an Old World tradition too.


    But Mrs. Obama’s decisions can also be traced to a very American tradition – the women’s temperance movement.  Indeed, some women scholars argue that feminism wasn’t always as disconnected from the private realm as it is today, but diverged in that direction in the twentieth century and never returned to its more complicated roots.


    Janet Giele’s 1995 book, Two Paths to Women’s Equality: Temperance, Suffrage, and the Origins of Modern Feminism, examined both movements and offered a broader picture of temperance women than the rigid, puritanical teetotaler.  Many temperance leaders took up their crusade because of the profound loss of a husband or a son to alcohol abuse, channeling their grief into creating what they believed was a better society.  The suffragettes, on the other hand, acted more like the precursors to the modern feminist movement, focusing on women’s equality. 


    Giele argued that mainstream feminism would be well served by adopting strategies similar to those of moderate temperance leaders, who also supported the suffrage movement while they fought for causes such as the purification of drinking water.  For the feminist movement to once again achieve broad support, these two strands – one that sought to protect women’s interests as wives and mothers, the other that fought for universal human rights – must converge again.


    Former first lady Hillary Clinton’s feminist’s roots were closer to the suffragette movement; she represented the modern feminist movement’s demand for equality.  In fact, Mrs. Clinton alienated a lot of women when she famously commented that she had no desire to stay home and bake cookies.  In the White House, Mrs. Clinton requested a west wing office and took on a policy role.


    Mrs. Obama, on the other hand, said that her initial responsibility was to be “First Mom” and has been speaking primarily to women’s needs as wives and mothers.  Her charisma and enormous popularity suggest that she can merge these two divergent strands of feminism.


    A feminist motherhood agenda:  To modern ears, the words ring of contradictions.  If, generally speaking, feminism engages us in the world, motherhood, at least temporarily, draws us away.  Feminism looks outward – a bold attempt to change the values of a society in which men hold positions of power and decision making; motherhood turns instinctively inward, fiercely geared toward protecting your child.

    Today, I can no longer dismiss as dusty old relics cultural traditions that sought to protect the sanctity of the family.   I've come to imagine that the Old World's deeply ingrained familial instincts can serve as a backdrop to a broader discussion of care:  Who is going to provide it and who is going to pay for it? 

    Perhaps the nature of being an in-between person, those of us who straddle the competing and conflicting values of our hyphenated ancestries, mean resisting cultural extremes, searching instead for a place that, at least in the imagination, melds what's worth preserving with life-affirming change. 

    Which leads me to believe that the ancestors of immigrants and the ancestors of those who came here on slave ships, using the New World tools of education and its principles of justice, can help fashion a society that will not undermine our ability to work and to nurture but significantly aid it.

    And who better to lead the way than Michelle Obama?

  • Living in the New World, Choosing from the Old

    When I was in college and wanted to sound like an English Major (in capital letters), I'd enjoy musing over the complexities of narrative structure. In my youthful enthusiasm, I even wrote a paper that included a Mobius strip, which is formed by taking a rectangular piece of paper, giving it a half-twist, and then connecting the two ends. The strip produces a continuous surface, as  the inside becomes the outside and the outside the inside.

    More than 25 years later, I better understand why that mathematical metaphor had so intrigued me. As the granddaughter of Italian immigrants, I am curious about time's continuous loop - how the Old World customs of my grandparents, who settled in Maplewood, N.J,,  at the beginning of the 20th century, are circling their way back into 21st century life.
    At first glance, Maplewood's tree-lined streets seem a radically different place from my grandparents' home, a three-story apartment building they owned along the town's busy Springfield Avenue. It's hard to imagine that an ancient Mediterranean culture  - where  women gave neighbors who had wronged them mal' occhio, the evil eye, and chased pigs escaped from backyards up Springfield Avenue  - once laid down its roots in a suburb now filled with SUVs, Hondas and minivans laden with children's car seats and athletic gear.
    But in the essence of how we live  - from how we raise our children to the food we eat  - Old World ways are refurbishing our homes, like a retro sofa that's suddenly become de rigueur.

    The door has been re-opened, for example, for grandma to enter as primary child-care provider. Our new First Lady, Michelle Obama, brought national attention to this idea when she asked her mother, Marian Robinson, to move into the White House to continue to help raise her grandchildren. As more women work long hours and traveling for their jobs, the "old-fashioned scenario" of a grandmother serving as the primary caregiver is "cycling back into favor," the New York Times recently reported.

    This arrangement -  one that also has deep roots in African-American tradition -  brought me back to the Maplewood of the early 1940s, when my mother's siblings began to have children. With my grandmother as matriarch, all the women pitched in (child care never fell to the domain of Italian men), running between apartments, and up and down the stairs, to help rear the children.

    By the postwar 1950s, life had changed as my mom and her three siblings, by now all married and with children, sought the American dream, and moved out of their parents' building to buy their own homes. With no one living within walking distance, and my mother and her sister unable to drive, the cousins rarely played with, or even saw one another or their grandmother. By the time I was born in 1959, the insular nuclear family became the New World model that my family had fully adopted.
    Yet, how naïve of us Americans to believe that grandma wouldn't be needed any longer. That model only worked because my mother stayed home to raise her children. Then 70s feminism came along and helped to radically restructure the American work force. As a society, however, we never figured out how to adequately help families with two working parents. So here in the 21st century, the New World reacquaints itself with the ways of the Old.
    The above story is part of an essay I recently wrote for the New York Times, which talks about some of the themes from my new book, Old World Daughter, New World Mother:  An Education in Love and Freedom (Norton, April 2009). To see the full version of this essay you can click on the following link:

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    A Brief Return to Rationalism

        A few weeks back, I talked about my anger with contemporary Italy.  I lamented the complacency and weary acceptance that’s taken place, which has led to the reelection of Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister and the inability to thwart the desires of entrenched interests.

        As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, when I get annoyed at fatalistic Italians I have an odd knee-jerk reaction:  I read English rationalists.   I find their cool composure and emotional distance an antidote to my high opera inheritance.

       This time, I’ve turned to Bertrand Russell writing about the importance of idleness (to be fair, my reading of Russell is also in response to what I’ve seen take place in my own country in the past few decades – the demand for more and more productivity with only a tiny minority enjoying the fruits of this American labor). 

        Although Russell’s ideas sometimes border on the wacky, he can also be brilliant, formidable, and make enormous sense.  Writing in the 1930s, his words couldn’t be more prescient:  “The notion that the desirable activities are those that bring a profit has made everything topsy-turvy.”

       Or this: “…the world is suffering from intolerance and bigotry, and from the belief that vigorous action is admirable even when misguided; whereas what is needed in our very complex society is calm consideration, with readiness to call dogmas into question and freedom of mind to do justice to the most diverse points of view.”

       I nod along, amazed by how his words apply to both our current fiscal woes and the mess of the Iraq war.   But then, one hundred pages later, I come across this observation in an essay about American homogeneity:

       “Take, for example, what the schools do to southern Italians.  Southern Italians have been distinguished throughout history for murder, graft, and aesthetic sensibility.  The Public Schools effectively cure them of the last of these three, and to that extent assimilate them to the native American population, but in regard to the other two distinctive qualities, I gather that the success of the schools is less marked.”


       And that observation comes from one of the greatest British minds of the twentieth century.

    At least Francis Ford Coppola didn’t allow the schools to rob him of his aesthetic sensibility, thus enabling him to beautifully portray those first two qualities and forever embed them in the American imagination.  

       So much for English rationalists to distract me from Italian dysfunction.  I close the book amazed by stereotypes that were once bandied about in intellectual conversation.

       English rationalism.  Italian fatalism.  I need to find, in Russell’s own words, “a balanced adjustment of opposing tendencies.”

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    New Year's Resolution: Don't Be Too Grumpy about the Motherland

         Here’s my New Year’s resolution:  I want to stop being a grumpy Italian-American.

         Because I’ve been feeling pretty grumpy toward the motherland these days.

         My general malaise about Italy – rather than my usual “I love Italia” demeanor – started about a year ago, when Silvio Berlusconi was reelected as Prime Minister and Gianni Alemanno, a former neofascist, was elected mayor of Rome. 

         At the time, I wasn’t feeling as frustrated about Italy's problems as I do today because Americans had George W. Bush as our president.  Back then, both countries could be discussed together – who has it worse, I’d ask my Italian and Italian-American friends -- Americans or Italians?  Americans usually won.  While Berlusconi has made corruption and cronyism an even sturdier fabric in the Italian system, America’s world power meant that we had harmed many other countries, not just our own.

         But then something miraculous happened – Americans elected Barack Obama as their president.  And from then on, I’ve become an incredibly grumpy Italian-American.  I take Italy’s problems personally because I see in Italian political leaders the traits of all the old relatives I knew growing up.  Their fatalism, their provincialism, their wanting to horde all the goodies for themselves, their intrinsic belief that all is futile – these are traits that my relatives carried from the brutal poverty of their land a hundred years ago, yet these traits still seem to reign in Italy today.

          There had been times of economic promise and hope in Italy, culminating in a position of power in the 1990s.  But as Alexander Stille – probably the most thoughtful American commentator of contemporary Italy points out – the high levels of corruption, inefficiency, and bureaucratic waste that occurred since the end of World War II have caught up with the country today.  Stille describes Italy as “paralyzed and dysfunctional, angry, fearful, intensely dissatisfied but unwilling to take any changes.”

         Sounds like a Sunday dinner with the old relatives.

         Stille also points out how the Berlusconi travesty only grows worse:  In his current reappearance as prime minister, he has placed former show girls in the Italian Parliament.  The New York Times reports how Berlusconi sues journalists (including Stille) who print anything negative about him, even if the facts have been well-documented.  Berlusconi’s millions enable him to harass journalists who must put up their own earnings to fight his charges in court.  One English journalist eventually decided to remove criticism of Berlusconi from the Italian edition of his book, leaving the original copy only for the English versions.  He said he couldn’t afford the legal fees.

          The Italian government is a circus; and the majority of Italian people are too cynical and tired to fight any longer.  For eight long years, I was lulled into thinking that America was politically comparable to Italy – a country that could only make bad, ill-informed choices.  But looking at the damage Italian political and mafia corruption have created – public projects that never get finished, garbage that doesn’t get collected, land contaminated by toxic waste and illegal dumping – I have come to deeply appreciate the sturdier foundations of American democracy.

         Then came the November election, and that watershed vote pointed out some fundamental differences between America and Italy.

         Our pluralistic spirit can be heard in the voice of Walt Whitman, a spirit which has taken centuries to find root, but which is part of the American landscape.  “Individual identity cannot thrive where some people count and others do not,” the great bard wrote.  “The great word Solidarity has arisen.  Of all dangers to a nation as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn.”

         Whitman knew we must move beyond “European chivalry, the feudal, ecclesiastical, dynastic world.”  But has Italy ever disentangled itself from these roots?

         What is the Italian immigration policy?  A child born in Italy of immigrant parents is educated in the Italian school system, speaks and thinks in Italian, but at eighteen must return to the country of his parents and apply for citizenship!

         Or consider the Northern League’s (who are wary of both immigrants and southern Italians) awful recent antics – such as calling for a Pork Day in Bologna to protest the city’s decision to build a mosque.

         For decades I’ve cherished Italy because it preserved the past in a world that rings in a new commercial product daily.  But there are also many things worth discarding, and the Italian people have as much difficulty accepting change as my Old World relatives. So until I’m enchanted again by the smoothness of cobblestones under my feet, faded frescos in ancient churches, and a glass of wine in a secluded piazza on a summer night, I’ll need to do some more work to fulfill my New Year’s resolution.


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    Proverbial Questions, American Elections

        There’s an old Neapolitan proverb:  “Three are the powerful: the pope, the king, and the man who has nothing.”

        To Italian novelist Alberto Moravia, the proverb revealed the essence of the existentialist struggle:  “Being poor is a form of power,” Moravia explained.  “In fact, what is called existentialism was the idea that man exists and that existence is an indestructible strength.”

        I wanted to believe Moravia’s interpretation when I read it years ago, but it always seemed a bit too romantic for me.  I’m not sure if my southern Italian relatives felt particularly powerful.  And to look at southern Italy today, the poor are still poor, and the collusion between the mafia and the government is destroying the land and hopes of the people.  Last week, the New York Times ran an article about the seemingly intractable problems plaguing Naples – the stinking garbage that accumulated on the streets becoming the most visceral reminder of the city’s stagnation.  Artists in Naples – who once believed that their city’s status as a cultural capital could be restored – are mostly in a state of despair.

        Art historian Nicola Spinoza told the Times:  “Today there is no longer a culture of illuminated leadership and Naples has become provincial, closed onto itself.  Now it’s just a producer of poverty, unemployment and trash, and I don’t mean just the trash in the streets, which you can remove, but inside ourselves.”

        Italy’s problems aren’t only in the south.  A rash of racist acts against African immigrants in the north – one man murdered because he supposedly stole a package of cookies from a shop – suggests that provincialism and hatred have no north-south borders .

        I’ve been thinking about Italy during this extraordinary time in American culture and politics.  We are weeks away from the possibility of electing our first African-American president.   We, too, face forces of racism and provincialism that seek to destroy this possibility.  But – and what a lovely but – a strong civic culture is simulatneously flourishing in America today.   Voter registration rolls are growing throughout the country; young people across the land are enthusiastically waiting to cast their vote; and an Internet drive for campaign contributions has helped Barack Obama raise over 150 million dollars in the month of September alone. 

        If Obama wins, his victory may in part be due to another extraordinary phenomenon -- the dramatic downturn in the American economy.  The politics of distraction placed us in a drowsy stupor for too many years.  But this time many Americans are counting the days to depose the king who stole an election eight years ago, and say goodbye to his Republican heir. 

        “Three are the powerful: the pope, the king, and the man who has nothing.”

         We are not the poor to whom Moravia refers.  Rather, we are a rich nation with the ashy taste of loss in our mouthts.  We have lost money, jobs, a sense of security -- the essence of what it has meant to be an American in the postwar decades.

         Can this loss spur us into action?  If Obama wins the presidency, America will have surprised the rest of the world with our optimism and sense of hope.  And why does America's potential feat  seem unimaginable in Italy today -- or in its foreseeable future?  It saddens me that the country of my grandparents seems all the more lost in its past and in its inability to move forward.  For all my longing for an Italian past (and I certainly believe that my past defines a large part of who I am), I am grateful to have been raised in an American political tradition.

        The current political discourse reminds me of an observation James Baldwin made in his collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son:  “What time will bring Americans is at last their own identity.” 

        This election has helped secure my sense of identity -- solidified the two sides of my hyphen.  Genectically, I am the grandchild of southern Italians, but a liberal pluralistic tradition has shaped me politically.

        America today is deeply split – one half wants to move forward, the other, like Italy itself, clings to the past.  But if a majority of Americans decides to move forward, we will have accomplished the most formidable task.  We can again export our hope and optimism to the rest of the world – allowing other countries to believe that anything is possible in America. 

        In the past few decades, I have looked across the Atlantic a few too many times, believing that my dreams might best be answered in Italy.  But today, seeing the reality of Italian politics and the solidification of Mafia control, I am more clear-eyed.  Time will bring Americans their own identity. 

         If the once impossible becomes possible – that the son of a white American woman and Kenyan man can become president of the United States – I can see how far this vision of America has carried us; I can better imagine the hope that my grandfather held.   His family had next to nothing in southern Italy, and in his single most powerful act, he chose to leave that land behind.


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    A Mother's Tongue

    I once asked an Italian-American psychologist why women often seemed more preoccupied than men with passing along their cultural inheritance to their children.


    "Culture is mother's milk," she replied.


    What began with mother's milk quickly moved to parmiggiano and pecorino romano.  I remember taking our son Michael to Sardinia when he was four and asking what was his favorite thing about the hotel at which we stayed.  I was expecting to hear about the pool or the beach or the playground.  Instead Michael told me, "It has the best cheese."


    After food, we moved on to a few of my favorite southern Italian dialect words.  My self-descriptions must have sunk in.  When Michael was in kindergarten he once told his (Italian-American) teacher that sometimes his mother could be a little "stunod."


    So now that Michael is eleven and loves to post video clips of his favorite Italian cars on YouTube (perhaps culture is less mother's milk and more a Ferrari), I asked him if he could make a short video of my discussing dialect words on a San Francisco cable show some years back. 


    I thought I would share this short video primer of Italian-American dialect words.  Our Yiddish, as I like to think of it, but unlike Yiddish, rarely used outside of Italian-American circles.



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    Days of Wine and Fatalism

        This summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about Italian fatalism.  During a recent vacation in France, I decided the appropriate reading material for the flight over should start with Vanity  Fair’s interview with my favorite first lady, Carla Bruni (see Carla Bruni, Old World Italian).  The beautiful and talented former supermodel/singer gushed on every page about her new husband, French president Nicolas Sarkozy to Vanity Fair correspondent Maureen Orth.  She told Orth that it would be a “dream” to have Nicolas’s children (the quote landed on the cover of every French glossy magazine).   “I hope to, if I am young enough,” said the forty-year-old Carla. 

         What about fertility treatments? Orth pragmatically asked. 

         No, Bruni replied, she wouldn’t want to “tempt the devil."

        The cosmopolitan former mistress of French philosopher Raphael Enthoven (the father of her son) is no rational woman.  She happily reveals her fatalistic Italian roots – and here, I mean fatalism in the classical sense – that life is dictated directly from above.  (Roots which I thought ran mainly through the veins of those of us who are southerners).  While most Americans would readily turn to science and invest years in extensive fertility treatments – Carla won’t “tempt the devil.”  That’s why I like Carla -- it’s comforting to see someone as poised and successful as she is as inherently nervous about the world as I am. 

         And still the world seems to shine down upon Carla.  If the gossip rags are right, Carla may be getting this dream too.  After Sarkozy was seen patting her bikini-clad belly this summer, rumor has it that Carla Bruni-Sarkozy is pregnant. 

         The happy fatalist.  I wonder how she feels about airplanes, I thought, closing the magazine to face the rest of my flight…..

          A more brutal fatalism surfaced in several Italian movies playing in New York this summer, reminding those of us who sometimes fantasize about a life in Italy, the difficult, often impossible conditions of those who live there.   Biutiful Cauntri (a play on the southern Italian pronunciation of English) is a devastating documentary about the Mafia control of waste in Campania, and how a compact between corrupt government officials and Mafia bosses contaminated one town for decades with illegal waste.

         The sheep are dying, the crops ruined; the once-prized buffala mozzarella is contaminated.  The film reminds Italian-Americans of the genesis of our fatalism:  man is powerless to the actions of greater forces.  With a corrupt government and no where else to turn, the residents of this village can only lament the land that they once cultivated. One of the town’s activists spends most of his time in this film yelling into the camera, trying desperately to tell his unimaginable story – that for money men become animals, dumping toxic waste and destroying the lives of their paesani. 

         As an American, it’s hard to watch this film and see the impossibility of fixing this problem.  We no doubt have our own deep levels of corruption and lack of government concern (Hurricane Katrina for starters), but it’s hard to imagine that an environmental movement with the help of a state or local government agency couldn’t stop the illegal dumping.  Watching the film, I thought about my old Italian relatives, and their “what can be done?” attitude to life’s difficulties.  They had hundreds of years to cultivate this belief – one that still has ample reason to exist in southern Italy today.

           The second film, Days and Clouds, is set in Genoa, a rather unattractive port city, but still a world away from Campania’s desultory people and desiccated sheep. The film is also about people succumbing to circumstances beyond their control.  Michele loses his high-paying job and hides this fact from his wife, Elsa, for months.  He uses a chunk of their paltry savings to give her a surprise birthday party and beautiful earrings.  He cannot bear to tell the woman whom he loves that their entire life savings is less than 30,000 euros.

         The plot of the film sets this couple on the worst possible course – part of the equity of their apartment was borrowed against Michele’s company, so they lose their home too.   Elsa, earning a degree in art history and working on the restoration of an ancient fresco, must give up the work she loves but doesn’t get paid for, accepting jobs as a phone salesperson and evening secretary. 

         The  ancient fresco that Elsa helps renovates serves as a metaphor for the film:  this gem of a country is stuck in its past.  With little room for mobility, the fatalistic countrymen must accept their lot.  Elsa may write an art history dissertation but there will no room at the academic inn for her talents.  Michele, once displaced from his vaguely described shipping job, ends up working as a bike messenger as his list of work possibilities dries up.

          Italian filmmaker Silivio Soldini leaves us with one piece of hope.  His ending seems to suggest that  what damns Italy may also save it. The country’s traditionalism, its refusal to change, its museum-like quality has also created a tightly connected family.  Michele begins to slide out of his depression by becoming an informal accountant to a restaurant his daughter opens; and both Michele and Elsa realize that whatever happens to their lives, they’ll do their best to remain a couple and help each other.  

        It’s not Carla Bruni's happy Hollywood ending, but maybe it’s a start.


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    The Seven Percent Solution?

         Opening an i-italy dialogue on race, the editors recently posted a video clip of Spike Lee’s classic 1989 film Do the Right Thing.  In the clip, a conversation takes place at Sal’s Famous Pizzeria in the black Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn between the delivery boy Mookie (Spike Lee) and Pino (John Turturro), a son of the pizzeria owner.


         The conversation lets both men clumsily reveal the depths of their racial hatred and mutual envy.  Surrounded by cheap watercolors of Rome and pictures of famous crooners and hitters like Sinatra and DiMaggio, Mookie, angered by the absence of African-American faces, asks Pino to name his favorite stars.  Pino mentions Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy, and Prince.  When asked how he can admire these black men but hate the African-Americans in the neighborhood where he works, an appalled and confused Pino responds, “They’re not niggers.  I mean they’re not black.  Let me explain myself – they’re black, but they’re not really black.”


         In a coup de grace, Mookie asks, “Pino, don’t deep down inside you wish you were black?”  Mookie suggests that the olive-skinned, kinky-haired man resents his African-American nemesis because he resembles him.  “You know what they say about dark Eye-talians.”

         Mookie’s statement about the physical similarities between southern Italians and African-Americans has infuriated some Italian-Americans who, like Pino, don’t want to accept its logical implication.  Yet the southern Italian, living on land conquered and re-conquered, a land that borders Africa would most likely have some African blood.  Mookie’s remark, long haunting southern Italians, has been silenced by denial. 


         Northern Italians have certainly acted upon their own racial prejudice toward their southern countryman.  In Italy the southerner is the symbol of the uneducated “other,” dark as the earth he labored; and political movements like the Lombard League have legitimized northerners’ anger toward the south by claiming that the impoverished Mezzogiorno is draining resources from the heavily taxed north.  The northern judgment that southerners are responsible for their own poverty echoes the generations-old American lament against blacks on welfare.


         There is a large difference, however, between Mookie asking his question in 1989 and posing it today.  Through scientific advances, we now have DNA testing that can reveal our genetic breakdown.  A couple of years ago, my brother, Bob, a prosecutor and expert on DNA testing, was offered the opportunity to learn his genetic makeup at a conference he attended.  He took the simple cheek swab test.


         My brother’s DNA (I’m fifty percent likely to share the same) was broken down as 85 percent European, 8 percent Asian, and 7 percent sub-Saharan African.


         So there is it – our seven percent connection with African-Americans.  Our family is from the provinces of Avellino and Basilicata, fairly “north” on the scale that southern Italians use to judge each other.  We don’t share the tightly curled hair and olive skin of Turturro, who has Sicilian roots.  Dare we ask what Pino’s genetic breakdown might have been?


         Today, unlike 1989, we can no longer deny Mookie’s taunting claim about “dark Eye-talians.”  But can we also move beyond the skeptical taunts and mutual hatred among all the ethnic groups that Spike Lee portrayed in Do the Right Thing?  Can we think and talk about race and identity in more complicated ways, as Barack Obama has done both in his memoirs and on the campaign trail?  For we are more of a family than we may have previously imagined.



  • Op-Eds

    Barack Obama Mamma

          My eighty-six-year-old mother is an enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama.  So is my sixty-two-year-old mentally retarded brother for whom my mother cares.  When I call to check in on them daily, my brother Henry excitedly talks about Barack.  “Looks like Obama hit a home run today,” he tells me.  A few months earlier, before the candidate’s name was fully saturated into the twenty-four-hour news cycle – on which my mother and my brother are fully hooked -- Henry called the Illinois senator “Rock Obama.” Actually, it sounded more like “Rocco Bama,” turning the first African-American presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party into someone’s Italian uncle.

         Go Rocco Bama!

         As my brother Henry tells me, “It would be a dream to have the colored guy in the White House.”

         My mother and my brother are living the dream – and I couldn’t be prouder of both of them.  My brother, born in 1946, raised in an environment in which blacks were called “coloreds,” declares: “I hope and pray, I swear on Grandma and Grandpa -- Rock Obama -- I hope he wins.  The way he puts his whole body into it and everything.  It’s like President Kennedy.”

         My mother, raised by parents who kept “separate glasses” for my grandfather’s black workers, has revealed throughout this primary season her complicated self.  After Obama’s speech on race, my mother related to the candidate’s grandmother, who feared the sight of black men on the street, even as she was lovingly raising a young Barack.  The candidate acknowledged this troublesome side of his grandmother’s character, yet still declared his deep love for her.

         As if Obama personally extended a similar forgiveness to my mother, his articulation of the complexities of race gave my mother the freedom to accept, and the ability to transcend, her cultural limitations.  If the candidate’s own grandmother had race problems, then so, too, can my mother acknowledge her own.

          My maternal grandfather, born in the late 1800s, had his own a complicated relationship with African-Americans.  While my grandfather kept separate cups for the black workers he employed in his construction company, he also chose an African-American man to be his medical doctor.  My mother acknowledges how unusual her father’s decision was in the 1940s, and she also remembers their extremely close relationship.  During my grandfather’s final hours, as he drifted in and out of consciousness after suffering a heart attack, his doctor sat at his bedside, holding my grandfather’s hand.  The doctor cried when my grandfather died.

          Separate cups for workers; a bedside vigil between a black doctor and his white laborer patient.  The two images are testaments to institutional racism and the human potential to transcend it.  The images are also testaments to the American ability to move beyond the past with boldness and promise – characteristics that more traditional societies seem incapable of claiming for themselves.  (Could an Italian-born man of African heritage become the president of Italy?) The nomination of Barack Obama to lead the Democratic Party to the presidency has been the catalyst to ponder this duality in American life.

          I’m proud not only of my octogenarian mother’s responsiveness to Obama, but also my family’s refusal to shift, as so many Italian-Americans historically have done, from the Democratic to Republican Party.  We’ve always been ardent Democrats, still sipping coffee from the red, white, and blue donkey mugs that I bought as a present for my father decades ago.  My father would shake his head at Italian-American neighbors and friends, sons and daughters of push cart vendors, plumbers, and electricians, who broke the historic tie with the working man’s party and became Republicans.

         Sadly, few other family members, share our beliefs.  We try not to talk politics outside our immediate family for fear of hurting feelings.  Italian-American families wound easily -- even over the most trivial matters -- and those wounds can last for years.  “Remember the provolone,” a character in Nancy Savoca's hilarious film True Love gravely explains why two women can't be seated together at a wedding.  Apparently, their irreparable split was over a piece of odoriferous cheese.

         I recognize that my mother’s political journey, enabling her not only to support but embrace an African-American man whom she believes is brilliant and compassionate, is no small feat for an eighty-six-year-old Italian-American woman.  But will a majority of Italian-Americans feel the same way?

         Yes, Henry, it would be a dream if the colored guy got into the White House.