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Italians Can Understand Italian-Americans

Italians Can Understand Italian-Americans

Dom Serafini (November 15, 2008)

An article written for "Las Vegas La Voce"


By Dom Serafini. This month ends my regular column in English, so it’s a “goodbye for now.” But I’ll continue to contribute with articles in Italian. So this is also arrivederci.

Before migrating to another section of this publication, I’d like to leave you with a thought. On this page, I’ve strived to present to you the real Italy –– the same Italy that Italians in Italy see and experience daily –– but devoid of pettiness. Something that manly Italians outside Italy, thus with a different perspective, can assess and present. 
In the process I have discovered, however, that the real Italy doesn’t bode well on the minds of Italian-Americans. What most of you like to read about Italy is only the fairytale aspect, and I understand why. Today in the U.S. there are three different types of Italians:
1)    The Italian-Americans. Those who were born in the U.S. and, perhaps, have never visited Italy.
2)    The Italians in America. Those who were born in Italy and immigrated to the U.S., many of whom still keep a home in Italy.
3)    The Italians who commute back and forth between Italy and the U.S. (people, and their families, in the media, business, finance, diplomatic corps, students, etc.).
Among these three groups there is little dialogue and cultural exchanges. If all were to be found in a single room, each group would not mix, but rather group together among themselves.
The first group, those who were born here, tends to be very sensitive about the perceived image of Italian-Americans. They object to movies like The Godfather, or to TV shows such as The Sopranos. Conversely, Italian-born tend to enjoy those types of shows and are not offended by Italian typecasting. The fact remains that Italian culture, its society and its lifestyle is entertaining and Hollywood makes money with entertainment. Have you noticed how boring French movies are? Who would put anyone through a BBC TV drama, if not a masochist?
It is also a fact that American-born Italians tend to be sensitive to steotyping because, while growing up, they were subject to all kinds of ridicule and insults. To escape this predicament, some of them even changed their names or simply distanced themselves from anything Italian, especially the Italian language.
Just imagine today’s standing of all things Italian in the U.S., if the early immigrants were able to withstand the cultural assault (as the Hispanics are now doing) and teach their kids to speak the language!
Italian-Americans are still offended by such words as “WOP,” while Italians from Italy see them as signs of historical pride, because are the letters that the early immigrants wore on their coats which stood for “Work Out of Passage.” That meant they did not ask or receive anything for free. They crossed the ocean and worked on the ship in exchange for fare payment.
Incidentally, when this discrimination was felt the most by American-born Italians –– during the ’50s and ’60s –– the Italian-American culture in the U.S. reached its peak with personalities such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Liberace, Jimmy Durante, Joe Di Maggio, etc.  This wave of Italian popularity in the U.S., in turn, favored personalities from Italy such as Domenico Modugno, Primo Carnera, Sophia Loren and even Topo Gigio. Something that today Italians and Italian-Americans are not able to replicate or duplicate either in Italy or in America.
While early Italian immigrants were distancing themselves from Italy, they were creating a new culture all their own, with its own language, its own music, its own food, its own dress code and even its own home furnishing. This culture, at times, clashed with the one from Italy, which pushed the Italian-Americans to become even more insular from their mother country.
The basis of this new Italian-American culture was the imagining of a “new, improved” Italy, an Italy only with good things: Good food, good music, good fashion, good wine, good manners, good neighbors, good family and religious values and especially fun-loving. Something that only Madison Avenue could have dreamed of for a TV commercial.
Well, even if that Italy really existed at one time or another, now non piú. Today Italy is a mess: Corruption, organized crime, violence, rudeness, rampant petty crime, secularism, and family disintegration. All stemming from a vulnerable Constitution, a feeble political system devoid of real leadership and frail moral standings all wrapped around a strong sense of partisanship instead of common good.
Today Italy needs help and it doesn’t have the strength to help itself, like it did after World War II. It is important that Italian-Americans face this responsibility, like the American Jewish community has done for Israel.
The numerous Italian-American organizations seem to be just meeting places for people who have nothing better to do: Sort of tourist offices promoting cultural tours or playing Salvation Army. In unison, these Italian-American organizations don’t want to be involved with politics in Italy, thus washing their hands of the degrade we’re witnessing in Italy today.
Working towards the well-being of Italy is now left to various, if only small and poorly financed, regional organizations scattered throughout the U.S., such as Abruzzesi, Sicilians, Calabresi and Campani. The involvement of these groups in the Italian politics has been highlighted since Italians in America could vote for the Italian Parliament elections and the fact that in Italy every aspect of the public and private sectors is dominated by politics. And this is why this column, aptly called “Inside Italian Politics,” could only present the real Italy. At times, it could be perceived as too harsh, but reality is what it is, plus, as they say, knowing the problem is half of the solution. I hope it was able to inspire you to contribute to the solution. #


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WOP stood for "Work Out of

WOP stood for "Work Out of Passage"? Since when? It came from the word guappo, a corruption of what Anglo Americans thought they were hearing when Italian labors greeted one another. And, where did you come up with this: "They crossed the ocean and worked on the ship in exchange for fare payment."? This is the first I've ever heard of something along these lines. Please cite sources. Thank you.