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Come on, people! Don't Get Sidetracked Trashing Each Other

Come on, people! Don't Get Sidetracked Trashing Each Other

Dominic Candeloro (February 5, 2010)

It is indeed ironic that the Jersey Shore TV show not only negatively stereotypes Italian Americans, but that it has Italian American leaders and scholars at war with each other----weakening further any hope of a serious longterm effort to disseminate and popularize the authentic history and culture of Italaian Americans.


It is indeed ironic that the Jersey Shore TV show not only negatively stereotypes  Italian Americans,  but that it has Italian American leaders and scholars at war with each other----weakening further any hope of a serious longterm effort to disseminate and popularize the authentic history and culture of Italaian Americans.

We are shooting ourselves in the foot by arguing with each other if we are sufficiently offended by the MTV pot boiler when we should be directing our outrage and our money and resources toward the establishment of permanent and well funded institutions to set the record straight---to register protest, yes.  But to become proactive, to fund and use the full range of cultural tools---media productions, Internet, book publications, libraries, professorships to tell our story, rather tahn sit by and complain when someone else tells OUR story for THEIR benefit.  With all due respect, I'm not talking about small  scale, volunteer club leaders setting our to tilt at the windmills of corporate media giants.  We need experienced players who understand the politics of multi-cultural America with a real budget to get the job done.
Come on,  people.  We don't have much time to get this done.  Let's not waste valuable time and energy bickering with each other while the our history and culture are at risk of being lost.

Below is an essay I wrote almost 20 years ago.  Though some of the references and examples are no longer applicable, the essence of the message is that we need a serious, savvy aproach to the preservation of Italian American culture and our response to negative stereotyping, I think, remains relevent.

Some five millions Italians journeyed to the United States between 1880 and 1920 searching for a new livelihood. Perhaps a third of them returned to Italy with various degrees of success. The migration brought Italian folk culture into contact with American industrialization and urbanization and with the ethnic cultures of many other immigrants groups. The result for the first generations was a multiform experience. Italian Americans, like other ethnics in America, developed a culture of work, religion, family, and local community that was neither authentic Italian nor American. One hundred years after the start of heavy immigration from Italy to America, we, the descendants of this remarkable mass migration, stand at the brink of full participation in American society. Lee Iacocca, Mario Cuomo, And Antonin Scalia are symbols of the rise of Italian Americans.
We have arrived. But who are we and who will we be in the year 2000? At this critical point in our history, many of us feel compelled to discover, preserve and analyze our cultural heritage in order to define ourselves in relationship to Italy, to other Americans and to the very nature of American society. For it is culture rather than wealth or occupational status or voting patterns or any other characteristic that makes Italian Americans different, interesting, or special. Our identity is meaningless without a sophisticated understanding of our culture.
We have maintained our culture more than some ethnic groups and less than others. But the function performed by the family, church and neighborhood in reinforcing ethnic identity in the past can no longer be relied upon. If we do not do something about it quickly and effectively, authentic Italian American culture is in danger of extinction.
We have choices. We can let it happen. We can throw in the towel and say that we are tired of resisting the melting pot. We can melt. We can become doctors and lawyers and professionals with Italian names and only the vaguest notion of how we got there.
We can pretend that we are maintaining our identity. We can cling to Italian American organizations as a source of moral and political support to help us compete with other ethnic coalitions for the rewards of American society. There will always be ethnic organizations because they offer a personalized refuge from the anonymity of modern urban society. At banquet after banquet we can assure our “man of the year” and ourselves that we are just as good as anybody.
We can even raise large amounts of money to fight diseases and help crippled children. And we can feel good about “helping another Italian today”. But we will be, we are, losing that creative ethnicity, that cultural duality that was the curse and the blessing of the immigrant experience. As Richard Gambino has pointed out, we can be more creative and more interesting people, living more fulfilling lives because we have access to two cultures. The first, second and even third generations did not have to work too hard at maintaining the culture. The language, the family patterns, the cuisine – it was all around them in their homes, their ethnic neighborhoods, their churches and their clubs.
We, however, live in a different world. Universal education and the mass media have increased in influence. The old neighborhood has disappeared and given way to the urban lifestyle. The modern Italian American family is being challenged just as is the general American family by divorce and the need for both parents to work. Mixed marriages hold out the prospect that we could be at the “Twilight of Ethnicity” (Richard Alba). The Church, and especially the Scalabrini Fathers, have made an heroic effort to preserve Italian culture, but they need help.
Simply put: the old methods that we have used to transmit Italian and Italian American culture from generation to the next are no longer adequate. If we value our ethnicity, we have to create and support formal cultural institutions to do the job of preserving, disseminating and promoting our authentic ethnic heritage. It is a full time job. And we have to put our money where our mouth is. Modest one year, $1000 scholarships to a few bright Italian American kids is not enough. We are talking big bucks here for cultural centers, endowed university chairs, fellowships and language programs to carry on first class activities that will reach a wide cross section of Italian Americans and the general public. We are talking about serious programs that concern the language, literature, history, sociology, anthropology, music, social psychology, art, politics and folk culture of our Italian American heritage.
We are not talking about parading a few explorers and inventors to prove that we are just as good as anybody else. In addressing the issue of ethnicity in the year 2000, we have to say arrivederci to the “Kiss me, I’m Italian” mentality. We have to realize that the younger generation of adults consists of many confident and sophisticated college graduates who are embarrassed and turned off by much of what passes for Italian American culture today. We must minimize the use of ethnic activities whose purposes are to achieve social acceptance and we must maximize the opportunities to use ethnic studies for self-actualization and growth. That means fewer banquets and more lectures, operas, films and language classes. Fewer fashion shows and more group discussions, plays and concerts. Fewer debutantes balls and more local history projects. And (ugh!) more reading of books.
Impossible? Not at all. Right now, in 1989, we have organizations and institutions upon which to build this dream for the year 2000. There are cultural centers and small museums like the ones in Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit and San Francisco. In New York, we have the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, part of City University of New York. There is a nascent Italian American Studies Center designated for Catholic University of America. There are at least a dozen distinguished Italian language and literature programs in American universities.
There are scholarly organizations such as the American Association of Teachers of Italian (1000 members). There are Italian and Italian American theaters groups, radio and television programs and newspapers. There are dozens of published creative writers and travel study programs, and thousands of Italian named people in the media and films.
The talent is there. Many of the institutions are there. They need to be linked via communications and funding systems. The result will be a veritable Italian American renaissance, when those who pursue the creative arts and academic fields, related to Italian Americans, can make a living at it and can find sizeable and appreciative audiences for their efforts.
Impossible? No. We can also have in place an organization with the potential to bring together the critical mass of Italian American cultural talent and institutions. The National Italian American Foundation could provide the leadership if it could recognize culture rather than politics as its highest priority and if it could achieve a financial status that would allow it to act as a major funding source, disbursing sizeable sums on a continuous basis to a wide variety of cultural projects around the country. Both conditions are necessary. Though there might be some question as to whether or not NIAF could gain economic prosperity if its highest priority were culture, let us assume that NIAF could play that role. NIAF could bring the cultural agencies together to share ideas, to develop “road show” programming, and to avoid duplication of efforts. A major grant to an organization like the American Italian Historical Association would free its talented leaders to focus their energies on projects in their field rather than on penny ante fundraising.
What about the Italian government? The current policy of the Italian government is to support the dissemination of Italian language and culture worldwide. It is obviously in the economic, political and cultural interest of Italy to keep the 50 million Italian ethnics in the world linked to Italian culture. In the United States, the Italian government has established a number of cultural institutes to promote modern Italian language and culture. The American Italian Historical Association and other groups have benefited from grants for publications and conferences.
All this help is welcome as is the occasional access that we might have to Italian television via satellite and the various opportunities for travel exchanges offered by the regional governments of Italy. But it is not healthy to rely too heavily on the Italian government for support for Italian American cultural programs. First, we Italian Americans are wealthy enough as a community to do it ourselves. In a very important sense, if we are not willing to pay for the preservation and dissemination of Italian American culture, we don’t deserve it. Second, the Italian government has a different agenda. Theirs is a public relations campaign that focuses on modern Italy, we as Italian Americans in pursuit of our culture must not let others set our priorities. Perhaps a better understanding of poverty-stricken southern Italian villages in the early 1900s is more important to us than Italy’s current status as the fifth largest industrialized nation in the world. We should of course, work on mutually beneficial projects with the Italian government and the various private Italian foundations.
The resources are there. All we need is catalytic leadership to make our ethnic dream come true.
My dream of the potential ethnicity for Italian Americans in 2000 is ambitious…
I see us creating a lifelong regimen of learning and self-discovery that will complement the standard American experience. Grade school children will have access to Italian classes both in school and out. Classes will be conducted with a Sesame Street approach to make learning fun. Italian American young people will have no trouble finding high school Italian language instruction. United States history classes would give ample emphasis to ethnicity in American life, and our young people would routinely do family and community histories using oral history techniques. American literature classes would have Italian American writers such as Piero di Donato and Jerre Mangione on their reading lists. Every sizeable Italian American community by the year 2000 will have developed – as a result of grants and leadership from NIAF and local initiative – an historical exhibit, a photograph archive, an oral history collection and a library to serve people of all ages. Through the heavy development of student exchange trips, every young Italian American would have access to low cost travel to Europe. At the college level, our young people will routinely opt for the junior year abroad - in Italy. Italian travel sells itself, and the teenager who travels to Italy will automatically return to Italy many times during her/his lifetime. This Italian experience can only enhance the level of participation in Italian American activities.
My dream is that in 2000 there will be a half a dozen prestigious universities with well-established Italian American studies programs. In the year 2000 Italian television will be available live via satellite and cable TV to everyone in the United States who wants it. Italian cultural centers, all over the country, will offer a full range of programming that covers the language, literature, art, sociology, history, music, politics, cuisine, and folklore relevant to Italian Americans. And, if we take our responsibilities seriously, them, maybe, in the year 2000 we can walk into a bookstore and see a best-selling novel by an Italian American that does not focus on organized crime.
As long as I’m allowed to dream, I might as well go all the way. In the year 2000, Italian cultural institutions will flourish due to the development of an open checkbook loyalty to Italian American causes. Never again will we have to go through the endless charade of “man of the year” banquets, fashion shows and other fundraising gimmicks. Italian American of moderate means will, by the hundreds of thousands, do their share with straightforward contributions, membership payments and registration fees for cultural services. If we could only organize ourselves to focus on serving young people, the rest will take care of itself and Italian American ethnicity will have been preserved and enhanced for the year 2000.
Is my dream world a dull one, populated by narrow Italophiles who are isolated from the larger community? Not at all. The cultural regimen that I have laid out is in addition to all the education and cultural stimuli that would be available to all young people in America. What we hope to create is a cohort of Italian American creative ethnics who have a strong sense of their own identity, who are at home in both cultures and who have the confidence to apply their dual perspective to life’s challenges. Ideally, they would be super-achieving citizens and professionals who would add the humanity of Italian culture to American life and who would serve as natural ambassadors between the two countries. If I had to choose between my vision and the often-expressed dream of an Italian American as President of the United States, I would choose my vision. On the other hand, if we achieve my vision, could the presidency be far behind?
To summarize, culture is the element that makes Italian Americans or any ethnic group what they are – different and special. Italian American culture in anything like its current form cannot last to the year 2000 unless we update the mechanism for transferring the culture to one generation to the next. We already have some cultural institutions that are capable of preserving and disseminating our culture. They have been traditionally under-funded and ignored. Strategic planning and leadership by a group such as the National Italian American Foundation, the Sons of Italy, Unico, or the Scalabrini fathers could provide these institutions with the resources and the organization that they need, not only to preserve the culture but to enhance it and to disseminate it more widely even than in previous generations to a new cohort of college educated Italian Americans. It is indeed possible that there might be more Italianita’ among Italian Americans in the year 2000 than there is today – a dream. But, if we are serious about our ethnic identity, we cannot ignore this dream.

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