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“Terroni” and “Polentoni” – Revisited … The Culturally Lobotomized Southern-Italian Americana

“Terroni” and “Polentoni” – Revisited … The Culturally Lobotomized Southern-Italian Americana

Tom Verso (August 16, 2013)

Lorenzo Del Boca writes:
“Terroni and Polentioni have become the paradigm for distant worlds, sometimes at odds with each other and often hostile.”

'Right off the Bat' and 'Cutting to the Chase' – as it were, Del Boca sums up the best-kept secret in southern-Italian Americana: North and South Italy are “Distant and at times Hostile worlds.” Why do the southern-Italian American literati persist in ignoring this categorical, unequivocal and demonstrable FACT of HISTORY?
In short: because southern-Italian Americans are “culturally lobotomized" by the “total shock and awe” Culture War offensive of the Northern Italian hegemonic forces such as university Italian Studies programs and the ‘scholars’ of the AAIS.
In November 2011, i-Italy ran a “Special Section Terroni and Polentoni: An Open Debate”, which included a number of articles about the issues surrounding the books “Terroni” and “Polentoni” and discussed at the November Gala ILICA Cultural Event (see: The purpose of this ‘note’ is to revisit this important and pedagogically relevant dialectic I fear has been relegated to the archives of i-Italy and our minds.



Ilaria Marra Rosiglioni … a million and one THANK YOUs for making translations of Pino Aprile’s “Terroni” and Lorenzo Del Boca’s “Polentoni” available to Italian Americans. Translators are the unsung and underappreciated backbone of academics. I look at my bookshelves and I shutter at the thought of how many books would not be there had someone like yourself not taken the time and put forth the effort to translate them into English. I think there should be a Noble Prize for Translations. And, of course, a translation will not count for much if it is not published. Accordingly, all Italian Americans I should think are appreciative and indebted to the publisher Bordighera Press, and the Italian Language Inter-Cultural Alliance (ILICA) for publication funding.

Introduction – Cultural Lobotomy
It is a constantly reoccurring theme of this blog that the near seventeen million Americans of southern-Italian descent are suffering from a Northern Italian cultural hegemony. The evidence takes the form of university curriculums billed as “Italian Studies”, which are de facto Northern Italian Studies.
Further, the teachers of these curricula are drawn from the six hundred strong membership of the American Association of Italian Studies (AAIS) who are de facto philo-Northern Italian Scholars.
Also, the relatively few courses in Italian American Studies are just that: studies of Americans of Italian descent post-Ellis Island. These courses are taught by teachers drawn from the less than two hundred members of Italian American Studies Association (IASA) who specialize in post-Ellis Island history (see in Related Articles box : “Blog Index” – ‘Education’ section).
Accordingly, southern-Italian Americans have virtually literally no formal pedagogical access to their own history and culture prior to the Ellis Island immigration. This loss of southern Italian historic/cultural memory and the substitution of an alternative foreign Northern Italian history and culture is what may be characterized as cultural hegemony. This is to say:
Southern-Italian Americans are led to believe that their pre-Ellis Island history and culture is derived from Northern Italy (especially the Renaissance). 
Pino Aprile reports that this same Northern Italian hegemonic process has been ongoing in Southern Italy since the 1861 Risorgimento, he writes:
“Through a cultural lobotomy, the South was deprived of its self-awareness.”
We no longer know who we were. (p. 8)
Similarly, southern-Italian Americans suffer from the exact same cultural lobotomy” as Southern Italians post-Risorgimento.
Southern-Italian Americans do not know “who we were”.
Without knowledge of who we were, we cannot know who we are.
Without history there is no culture
With false history there is a false culture.
For example, one of the speakers at the ILICA CE (cultural event) 2012 Italian Identity In The 3rd Millennium celebration says:
Defining Italian is the theme of this years ILICA cultural event and gala dinner. And, so we are doing so using the language that has been our heritage for over a thousand years” (see: at 1:30 on You Tube video -
 WOW! Talk about cultural hegemony! Can one find a better example than this? 
“We (i.e. Italian Americans) are using the language that has been our heritage for over a thousand years”
Surely the speaker and the obviously very erudite members in the audience know that the Italian immigrants who came to America circa 1900 A.D. Did NOT speak the Italian language. They spoke the languages of their respective regions! For example:
As recently as 1948, when the renown Luchino Visconti film La Terra Trema, filmed in the Sicilian village of Aci Trezza with non-professional village actors speaking their language, was shown in the North; Italian language sub-titles had to be overlaid on the film, i.e. the northern Italians did not understand the language the Sicilian villagers were speaking.
Further, linguist Joseph Privitera has demonstrated, Sicilian was the first Romance language spoken long before today’s Tuscan/Italian (see his book: “Sicilian: The Oldest Romance Language”).
Another example of cultuaral hegemony on the same ILICA video (at 1:00 on tape), a speaker voiced appreciation for “ILICA scholarships to Asian students to study Italian language in Siena.”
Siena! But of course ... No?
Why not Naples or Palermo? – southern-Italian Americans in the audience might have asked if they had not been culturally lobotomized into thinking that THEIR history and culture originated in Northern Italy, and is embodied in the language of Tuscany.

This cultural lobotomizing hegemonic process of foisting the foreign Northern Italian history and culture onto the Southern milieu is the essence of Aprile’s book and the basis of the debate with Del Boca. These books are vitally important reading for the southern-Italian American literati who presume to be the keepers, teachers and perpetuators of southern-Italian American history and culture.

Terroni / Polentoni – The Issues
Lorenzo Del Boca writes:
Terroni and Polentioni have become the paradigm for distant worlds, sometimes at odds with each other and often hostile.” (p. 11)

Well Now ...  Del Boca nicely sums up the best-kept secret in southern-Italian Americana: 
North and South Italy are “Distant and at times Hostile worlds.” 

Why do the southern-Italian American literati persist in ignoring this categorical, unequivocal and demonstrable FACT of HISTORY? 
In short: because southern-Italian Americans are “culturally lobotomized" by the “total shock and awe” Culture War offensive of the Northern Italian hegemonic forces such as university Italian Studies programs and the ‘scholars’ of the AAIS.
 (see Related Articles - "When Military Wars End  ... Then Culture Wars Begin").

Definitions of Terms:
“The word ‘terrone’ is an offensive term used by people in northern Italy in order to describe those from southern Italy… etymologically it is tied to the term ‘terra (dirt, land)...[thus] it is often associated with that type of person who is ignorant, uneducated, lazy, unwilling to work, rude, and of poor hygiene… [indeed] an Italian court judged that it is a derogatory an offensive term [which carries legal consequences when used to insult a person]” (Publisher’s Note)
“Polentone’ is an offensive term used by people in southern Italy in order to describe those from northern Italy. With an etymology tied to the term ‘polenta (cornmeal). Not dissimilar to terrone, polentone is often associate with that type of person who is ignorant, uneducated, and of poor hygiene usually suffering of pellagra, a vitamin B3 deficiency.” (Publisher’s note)
Book Sub-Titles:
Terroni            All That Has Been Done To Ensure That The Italians of The South Become “Southerners.”
Polentoni        How and why the North was betrayed.
The definitions coupled with the subtitles of these two books perfectly, to my mind, captures the respective themes of these fascinating and profoundly thought provoking Italian social histories: both the titles and subtitles imply victimization
In short, both books posit that each section of Italy (North and South) suffered and are still suffering grave consequences as a result of the unification of Italy (aka Risorgimento) in 1861. However, each describes very different types of injustices done by one to the other.
For example, Aprile writes:
What the Northern Italians did to us [i.e. Southern Italians after 1861 Risorgimento conquest] was so horrifying that still today, the history books do not speak of it. … A part of Italy in full bloom was condemned to regress and was plundered by the other.
With the spoils from their conquests, the North financed their own growth and proceeded to defend their newly acquired position with every means possible, including the law” (p. 11)
“The South was united by force and was emptied of its riches and subjugated in order to allow for the development of the North.” (p. 14)
But, these observations are not just an abstract nineteenth century history lesson. Rather, consequences of the Risorgimento are still felt today by the South. For example, Aprile writes:
“[There is] a daily, inexhaustible hunt for opportunities to assert and establish the inferiority of the South. In one week alone, in 2009 (I chose this recent year but I could have started from 1861), there was a proposal to regulate salaries on the basis of one’s productivity in the lower part of the South.
“ ‘But everyone knows (explains Vito Peragine, economist from Bari) that productivity is conditioned by the efficiency of a place’s infrastructures (energy, transportation, location) which are sorely lacking the South. The railways have excluded the South for the past ten years from their expansion plans.' ” (p. 99)
In response, Del Boca writes in the first line of his book:
“The ‘Polentoni’ of the North Who Suffered the Risorgimento’” (p. 9)
“Amongst those who were defeated by the Risorgimento is the North.” (p.14)
He then goes on to discuss a list of injustices that Northerners suffered as a result of the Risorgimento, historically and still today. Moreover, regarding the differences between the North and South: while both suffered, only the North based on its inherent virtues overcame the injustices, while the South wallows in the past. He writes:
“Now the differences are too great and there is a great inequality in the distribution of the wealth. Half of the country has their sleeves rolled up trying to keep up with all of their work, trying to increase productivity and improve their yield, while the other half [i.e. South] lives off of their [i.e. Northerner’s] income, barely getting by, while waiting for improbable miracle.
Terroni / Polentoni – Implications for Southern-Italian Americans
Both books are must reads for anyone interested in the history of nineteenth century Italy and the events leading up to and following unification. Also, both provide interesting and informative contemporary anecdotes giving insight to Italian politics today.
However, they are absolutely must reading for southern-Italian Americans if they are going to at least begin to study their pre-Ellis Island history and the ‘causes’ of the great migration out of southern Italy to America.
The whole of that great migratory event is typically reduced to ‘it was caused by poverty’. Yes, of course, poverty was the proximate cause. But, poverty is also the cause of virtually all nineteenth century immigrating groups (Irish, German, Chinese, etc.) and contemporary emigration from Mexico and the Caribbean.
Nevertheless, each of these immigrating groups came from unique societies with differentiating cultural histories. To say southern Italians came to the US to escape poverty and gain wealth tells us nothing about the specific political, economic and culture conditions that gave rise to the emigration. In turn, these political, economic and cultural conditions are the chrysalis from which the southern-Italian American culture emerged"Terroni" and "Polentoni" point the way (are a beginning) to understanding those conditions.
“Terroni” and “Polentoni” make a major contribution to answering the questions:
Who southern-Italian Americans were?

Who they are now?

What better way to define the objectives of a Southern-Italian American Curriculum? 

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Smells like civil war...

Smells like civil war...

Valid observations, and

Valid observations, and there's a great need to read backward into la civilta meridionale through its great writers and scholar/observers--from Gramsci, Scottelaro, Teti, and Repaci to Alvaro, Strati, Deledda, LaCava, Verga, and so many others. Care to suggest a place to start?