My Italian heritage is a mammoth part of my identity. You wouldn’t know it from my last name, but I descend from a long line of men and women who have vowels at the end of their own. They painted frescoes on the ceiling of St. Peter, taught the world that the Earth revolved around the Sun, were experimenting with flight centuries before the Wright brothers, turned the last gasps of breath of doomed Violetta into heartbreaking music, walked us through the Valley of Death, up the steps of Purgatory and through the gates of Heaven, and fed us the only food that fills the soul, beyond satisfying the stomach.
My Irish-French-Swedish (but mostly Irish) father had no problem with my indoctrination in “Italianita`” because he himself had been enchanted by his wife, a Sophia Loren lookalike who brought as her wedding dowry the civilization of emperors, aqueducts, orators and myth. If anything, Irish Teddy was even more Italian than my mother, often joking in an off-color way that he was “Italian by injection.” And it’s no coincidence that his hero, Cicero, shared his birthday: January 3rd.
I write all of this not as an excuse for what follows, but as my certificate of authenticity, presented to you so that you will know my allegiance. My pride comes from a source so deep and inexhaustible that I have taken any affront to this heritage as a personal attack. The people who tried to have the statue of Columbus torn down from its place of honor in South Philadelphia’s Marconi Square were assaulting me, trying to steal from me my birthright, insulting my intelligence and crushing me under the weight of their ignorance and bigotry. It was personal, and that is why I despise them, along with the mayor who supported them. Don’t dare come after me, bigots, because I have the Roman Legions at my back.
Of course, I am also able to laugh at myself, which is something Italians can do in a way that virtually no other culture can manage. We are “solare,” a word that can roughly be translated as “sunny,” even though that does not accurately express the fundamental meaning. Italians are people who, when passing through the darkness, look for light. We love life. We do not fear death, because it motivates us to enjoy the days and moments of “la bella vita” while we have it in our grasp. It’s no surprise that the phrase, “carpe diem” is from the Latin (which is basically Italian without the pasta.)
So I can laugh at Tony Soprano when he obsesses over the ducks in his swimming pool, and I’m not offended when he whacks a rival mafioso (or a civilian informant). I laughed at Father Guido Sarducci on “Saturday Night Live” and his over-the-top accent (and cigarette). I laughed at the malooks on the “Jersey Shore” franchise, all tattooed and bouffanted and buffoonish as they were. I can laugh at these things, because I know in my heart that they do nothing to change the magnificence of my heritage.
Also, I have seen other groups become offended over nicknames, traditions, policies and cultural artifacts that might be considered somewhat anachronistic but don’t fit neatly under the increasingly vast tent of “prejudice” and “bigotry” and “misogyny” and “intolerance,” and am proud to belong to strong immigrant stock that dealt with a hell of a lot more than stereotypes.
We were lynched in New Orleans, and no one cared
We were electrocuted on trumped-up charges of domestic terrorism, and no one did anything.
We were herded into camps during WWII while our sons were fighting for the country that held us hostage, and we stayed to raise more sons.
We had our politicians accused of being members of the Mafia, and we kept voting for them because they were better than anyone else.
We survived, and flourished, and we have showed it to this country for generations. One month is not enough to showcase Italian genius.
That’s why I can watch “The Godfather” trilogy, and see the poetry of family devotion (give or take a brother killed while fishing.)
That’s why I can laugh at comics like Sebastiano Maniscalco, who make annoyingly accurate jokes about facial hair on women.
And that’s why I intend to watch “The Many Saints of Newark.”
But I don’t speak for every Italian, not even the ones I agree with 99.5% of the time. My dear friend Dan Cirucci, who is actually one of the greatest sources of my pride in heritage for who he is, and what he’s accomplished, has a bone to pick with me. And since I love him, and I respect my readers, I’m going to let him have the floor. (While I go and have a cannoli )
As usual Christine has made a convincing argument and she’s coupled it with such praise, you might think I’d be at a loss for words.
But where would anyone of our heritage be without the words, the arguments, the conviction, the passioné that make us who we are? So, here goes.
Christine is right. We’ve suffered terrible indignities, over and over again. And we’ve fought back to rise higher and higher each time. Today, we stand on the shoulders of giants. But that’s precisely the point. This story, this inspiring story of our triumph; this story of indefatigable determination, faith and sheer courage, has never been sufficiently told. We’ve not been given our due in the popular culture – in the movies, in the theater, on TV. Too often we’ve been depicted as compulsive, combustible and dangerous – as likely to kill as to kiss.
Quite simply, our story has been sacrificed to the saga of the mob and all its worst elements. I saw this as a kid with the popularity of The Untouchables on TV. I watched Al Capone and Frank Nitti were needlessly mythologized. And this has played out over and over again, most notably with The Godfather trilogy and now with The Sopranos. It’s an easy buck for those who perpetuate it. And it cements the worst type of cliche. What’s more, it’s damaging. I’m sure there are young Italian-Americans who pretty much accept this ongoing carnival of carnage as the true story of their heritage. Why? Because that’s all they’ve seen from the media.
Just to give you an idea of how pervasive this is, due to my surname, I’ve actually had people ask me if I know or have known anyone in the mob. Or, they’ll make a crack like: “I don’t wanna get in trouble with you because you might send one of your relatives after me.” Even if they mean this as a joke, it just ain’t funny!
Yes, there have been some admirable exceptions to the way we’ve been depicted. The outstanding film Big Night is high on the list among them. And, you may be able to come up with one or two other examples. But, sadly, they are few and far between.
Instead, it’s more of the same. And the depictions have actually become more and more brutal and graphic as the years go on.
So, I’m having none of it. Basta! Enough!
Instead I’ll admire a beautiful painting by Frank Stella or enjoy the music of Henry Mancini or savor Stanley Tucci’s journey through Italian cuisine or take in a Broadway musical starring Bernadette (Lazzara) Peters or marvel at an expertly crafted legal dissent written by Justice Antonin Scalia or just simmer in a Jacuzzi.
But beyond all that, I’ll also support The Russo Brothers Italian American Film Forum which funds creative artists efforts to craft films that honestly explore the Italian American experience. This program, created by honored filmmakers and supported by the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) and the Italian Sons and Daughters of America (ISDA) cinematically showcases the very best of our rich and varied culture and experience in this country. It deserves our admiration and encouragement.
There are so many more positive and authentic ways to tell our story. Let’s pursue them – now!
Christine Flowers is an attorney. Her column appears Sunday and Thursday. Email her at [email protected],com.
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