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Columbus: Forget about Him; Remember the Future!

by Fred Gardaphé
A proud Columbus last year on Fifth Avenue (Photo by Beatrice Bondi)

A proud Columbus last year on Fifth Avenue (Photo by Beatrice Bondi)

The very narratives of Italian American identity deal with the issues of remembering and forgetting both Italy and Little Italys, and today one of the master narratives of Italian American identity appears once a year in the celebration of Columbus Day

 

When Italian immigrants began shifting their focus of practical identity from the old country to the new, they created a change in consciousness that resulted in a loss of cultural memory that would be vital for the continuation of Italian identities in the United States. This condition is similar to what Benedict Anderson addresses in his study Imagined Communities: “All profound changes in consciousness, by their very nature, bring with them characteristic amnesias. Out of such oblivions, in specific historical circumstances, spring narratives” (204). Typically, such have become the basis for studying ethnic identity in classrooms from Kindergarten through graduate school, and they often become the foundations upon which new identities are forged. As Benedict writes: “Awareness of being embedded in secular, serial time, with all its implications of continuity, yet of ‘forgetting’ the experience of this continuity—product of the ruptures of the late eighteenth century—engenders the need for a narrative of ‘identity’” (205). The very narratives of Italian American identity deal with the issues of remembering and forgetting both Italy and Little Italys, and today one of the master narratives of Italian American identity appears once a year in the celebration of Columbus Day.

Piero Bassetti saw the need to renew narratives, and he writes: “updated with the new reality of glocalization. The arrival of Italians on Ellis Island must be reread in a modern key. Just like Columbus’ voyage must be reread” (22). In order to fashion a uniform sense of Italian American identity, the Italian American community needed to find a way of dealing with the figure of one of its strongest symbols. Bassetti tells us that: “in order to save Columbus from a historical rereading that sees him as unpopular because he was an ‘occupier’ or the vanguard of occupiers, we must recuperate the contribution of universalism that Columbus gave to Americans” (48). What this means is that we need to distill the Columbus experience so that it transcends his acts and apply that distillation to what it means to be an Italian American, without Columbus being the lightning rod of Italian American identity.

I could choose any number of examples, but one which helps us understand the precarious position that comes when attaching a group identity to history came through an Editorial that appeared in the October 7, 2002 issue of the St. Augustine Record in which Hansen Alexander wrote, “Tomorrow’s Columbus Day Celebration will go forth undeterred by the fact that the Genoese mariner helped Spain, not Italy stake a claim to the Americas.” Then begins his lament. “The holiday has come to celebrate that which is Italian, or more specifically, that which is southern Italian.” Having made this distinction is interesting, but why it was made in the first place is another story. Alexander characterizes southern Italy as an area more impoverished than the rest of Italy, and the birthplace of “tomato based foods like thin pizza, the notorious Mafia, and poor fishermen like Joe DiMaggio’s father”. He complains that we do not celebrate northern Italian traditions like “the industrial might of Milan, the intellectual heritage of its great universities at Bologna and Padua,” or the genius of da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante and Boccaccio. “No,” he continues, “tomorrow will be about cheap wine and stereotypical visions of Italians as a congregation of vigilantes.” 

While the publisher of the paper later apologized for the publication of this editorial and it has been pulled from its online archives, it is more than the ignorance of one man, Alexander’s words represent the cultural fetishization of an historical figure who has become a rallying point for an outdated and useless Italian American identity. 

One of Italian America’s most outspoken intellectuals, Robert Viscusi, dramatizes the problems that arise when we look to historical figures for contemporary identities. In his epic poem, “Ellis Island” he writes”

 

4

the fact is columbus day will go the way of the dinosaur

along with everything else

meanwhile what about garibaldi

who was fighting for the poor in italy

but after the revolution

lives to see the rich steal italy 

and starve the poor

selling them to labor gangs in suez

shipping them to new york to dig subways (1-2)

 

While Columbus may go the way of cigarette smokers in the U.S., the legacy of the people who help to make America, will continue to live, and this, I believe, is what Viscusi exhorts us to address.

William Connell, holder of the LaMotta Chair in Italian History at Seton Hall University, sought to distill the essence of the Columbus story by providing a different perspective: 

 

The holiday marks the event, not the person. What Columbus gets criticized for nowadays are attitudes that were typical of the European sailing captains and merchants who plied the Mediterranean and the Atlantic in the 15th century. Within that group he was unquestionably a man of daring and unusual ambition. But what really mattered was his landing on San Salvador, which was a momentous, world-changing occasion such as has rarely happened in human history. Sounds to me like a pretty good excuse for taking a day off from work. 

 

Today, Italian Americans need no longer depend on an identity that comes from marching in parades that celebrate the historical acts of one man. They must also steer away from the usual fare of media-made stereotypical images. Italian Americans have been formally complaining about the way they have been portrayed in the media since as far back as 1931 with little or no effect. That year, Fiorello LaGuardia, then Mayor of New York city, wrote a letter to William H. Hays, the first president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, to protest the portrayal of Italians in the film Little Caesar. Obviously nothing has changed, yet over the same 82-year period, other racial and ethnic American groups such as Jewish Americans and African Americans have succeeded in changing the way their images have been presented. So what’s the difference?

Over the years I have spent much time attending so-called summits organized by a national organization (of which I am a member) and a group of local people in lower Manhattan designed to come up with a plan of action for dealing with the alleged defamation that MTV practiced against Italian Americans through its hit program Jersey Shore. I have listened to the best of what all the speakers of national organizations had to say and can only say that nothing new was offered. Protests were suggested, and while that might work for the powerful, showing up with dozens of picketers instead of thousands would set us up for laughter and dismissal. Lawsuits were mentioned that will cost thousands of dollars, and while that might work for the wealthy, for us it is wasting money better invested in our cultural community. These tactics worked for other groups because the other groups did something we have yet to do. If Italian Americans want to move beyond organized crime or organized buffoonery they must find new ways of organizing their culture that must come through understanding their own history. 

In Italian immigrants’ efforts to become American they eschewed education in favor of work; and only later, on the shoulders of money, began to consider the benefits of formal education. They were above the average in income long before we were above the average in education. When they sent their children to school, they thought we were doing the right thing, and so we focused on getting scholarships, money that however well intended, would take their children further away from their Italian-American neighborhoods and families where ethnic identities were formed and maintained. Those children rebelled against earlier generations, who didn’t trust education, who had a natural sense of the changes that would occur in school, and feared what they didn’t know. The basis of fear is ignorance—exactly what we are facing today. 

Just like Columbus, the romance and tragedy of early 20th century immigration can no longer serve as models for Italian American identity. The key to creating a meaningful sense of Italian American culture that speaks to today’s youth is to first insure that they have access to histories, of their families and of their communities. They need to be exposed to historical and contemporary models in the areas of arts, business, and education that they can study, emulate and transcend. The Little Italys that once served as the source and haven of Italian American identity have become little more than cultural theme parks in gentrified land. With the move to the suburbs, Italian Americans have created scholarships for higher education, but have done little to help those applicants understand, or even ask them what they think, it means to be Italian American once they enter those institutions. This knowledge comes best when it is found in the very materials those students study, in the very stories they hear and read from childhood up through graduate school. Writers such as Pietro di Donato, John Fante, Helen Barolini, Louise DeSalvo, Maria Gillan and countless others have been writing and publishing those stories, but how many of their wonderful works can be found in the homes and in school libraries where they can serve as models for present and future writings.

What is needed is an ethnic reinvention, something, as Michael M. J. Fischer tells us, is accomplished through a narrative’s “inter-references between two or more cultural traditions” which “create reservoirs for renewing humane values” (201). By identifying and reading these inter-references we will be able to see that, as Fischer concludes, “Ethnic memory is … or ought to be future, not past oriented” (201). This is an idea that needs to be developed as we begin looking for ways to present Italian American culture in classrooms at all levels and to preserve it in museums and other cultural institutions. 

Fischer tells us that ethnicity, “is not something that is simply passed on from generation to generation, taught and learned; it is something dynamic, often unsuccessfully repressed or avoided” (“Ethnicity” 195). Thus, in the case of Italian American artists, we need to observe the ways in which both an American and an Italian tradition function in their works. Locating and analyzing this juxtaposition requires knowledge of both cultures so as to foster a consideration of the cultural reciprocal relationship between American and Italian culture as evidenced by the identifiable signs of Italian/Americana that appear in the texts created by Italian/American writers. Some insight to the changing nature of Italian American identity can be observed if we take a look at how a later wave of Italian immigration to the United States affected earlier Italian immigrants. 

Between 1920 and 1950, the number of Italians immigrating to the United States diminished each year. No longer were Italians leaving their homeland by the thousands. A few reasons are usually given for this: during this period living conditions in Italy had greatly improved since the late 19th century, the American government had placed limits on the numbers of people who could immigrate to America from any one country, and Mussolini prohibited it. However, the end of World War II brought a new wave of Italian immigration, and these immigrants would change the definition of Italian America.

For us, the children and grandchildren of the first major wave of Italian immigration to America, these new arrivals came as an enemy defeated, the people American soldiers had liberated. They came as our people, and most of us wanted nothing to do with them. But no matter what we wanted, their arrival would change our attitudes towards our own immigrant grandparents, who never did fit into what we believed was American. I, for one, was often embarrassed by of their mixture of Italian and English especially when they would "speaka likea thisa" to me while I was with my non-Italian American friends. And whenever we would do something wrong, they would yell to us, “Look at that ‘merican! as though being an American was something that shamed our family.

We finally became Americans when the Fazzolo family moved in next door. They were the new Italians, and even though our lives were separated only by a picket fence and a small garden that the previous owners had neglected for years, we were worlds apart. Until they moved in, whether or not we wanted it to be, we were America's Italians. In spite of the fact that our speech was only seasoned with the Italian that was the primary language of our grandparents and hamburgers and hot dogs had begun replacing lunches of "pasta e fagioli" or escarole and beans we were still the Italians, if only because others saw us as having different names, noses, or skin color. But this all changed the day the Fazzolo family moved in next door.

It was early spring when their moving van pulled up outside our home. I was playing outside, pretending not to notice them as they carried boxes and furniture from the street onto their front porch. My mother yelled for me to lend them a hand, and I pretended not to hear her. She came out of our house, grabbed me by the arm and dragged me over to where they had gathered to take a break. When my mother tried to speak to them in English, they could barely respond, and so Mr. Fazzolo asked if she spoke Italian. She tried, but she spoke a dialect that hadn't changed in over thirty years that made them snicker and scratch their heads. As though in some form of retaliation, I decided it was OK to laugh and mock their broken English. I helped them, only because my mother had forced me, and throughout the whole ordeal not a word passed between us.

These were the Italians who immigrated to America during the 1950s. We called them immigrants with wings, for they came to America in airplanes, unlike my grandparents, who had crossed the Atlantic in overcrowded boats. These people came with a truckload of possessions, not like my grandparents who were lucky if they could carry along a cardboard suitcase or a sack stuffed with what they had to bring to America. You would have thought that there would have been a natural affinity between the two groups of immigrants, but nothing could have been more different. They came better educated and with a greater knowledge of America than had their turn-of-the-century predecessors. They had been prepared by years of association with American soldiers, and the subsequent media invasion of their culture. They arrived more like Americans, yet they remained quite different. To us they were the new greaseballs, and we wouldn't let them forget it.

It took a few years for the Fazzolos to become more like us, but in the process, we were becoming more like them. Mrs. Fazzolo would send over samples of her homemade cooking. My grandfather worked with Mr. Fazzolo to triple his yearly production of wine. My grandmother joined Mrs. Fazzolo in their backyard for the drying of tomatoes into paste. They rejuvenated my grandparents' Italian and kept the sound alive so that later, when I finally decided to study my ancestral language, my pronunciation would be near perfect.

Years later, after I had learned Italian, I went back to my old neighborhood and spoke, for the first time, at length with the people next door in what I came to call "our language." I learned that Mr. Fazzolo had been a ”partigiano” during the war and had spent six months in a fascist prison until he was freed by Allied soldiers. He told me of having witnessed the machine gunning of innocent people by the Nazis, he told me of how his father had been shot by a firing squad, he told me of how his whole family had been driven out of their village for fear of their lives. And all that he told me made me ashamed of how we had first treated them when they first moved into the house next door.

Essentially their immigration had created two types of Italian Americans. They maintained contact with Italy, and every few years took trips back. But as the years passed, and the trips grew fewer and farther between, the people next door eventually grew to be different from contemporary Italians so that if for some reason a new emigration to America had begun, our next door neighbors would be viewed by the new immigrants as American.

This whole experience forced me to question just what it was that the experience of immigration to America could do to a human being. In our efforts to preserve an American culture, are we just preserving a memory which is frozen in time. It made me realize that with each wave of immigration the experience of being American changes. In their own peculiar way, the people next door, brought me closer to my Italian heritage, but only after I realized that my idea of being American was falsely rooted in trying to distance myself from them. For I thought, and wrongly so, that the only way for me to be American was to alienate the people next door. 

So if Italian Americans are moving away from the experience of immigration, how can and will people continue to identify themselves as Italian American? Until we have studies that explore beyond the possibilities of the European-American identity noted in the recent work of Richard Alba and the “ethnic options” of Mary Waters’ study, we do well to examine how Italian American identities are being reshaped through the culture’s artists, who are often avant-garde that challenges staid notions of identity. 

To learn a culture requires mastery of a set of texts, and what are the texts of Italian American culture? Right now, only the professors and their students know the possibilities of studying and knowing Italian American history.

Before literacy, culture depended on elders for a sense of the past. We are losing generations who learned Italian American culture through oral traditions, through family and ethnic neighborhood communities, without institutionalization of Italian American culture, we must rely on what is presented by others for a public sense of what it means to be Italian American, and these, unfortunately, come to us more often than not through negative stereotypes. In order to enhance the possibilities for Italian American identities to reflect any type of tradition, we need to educate all Americans as to the history and contribution of Americans of Italian descent.

Future Italian American identities will depend on how we understand how cultural education has created gaps between generations that can be bridged only through education. Mainstream American writers such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, Gregory Corso, Philip Lamantia, all the children or grandchildren of immigrants, did not come to identify as Italian Americans until later in their lives, and yet can we say that they were not is some ways, Americans of Italian descent. Certainly they were not minted versions of what was considered to be Italian American during their youth, and for most of them, their entire lives. Their work was never seen as Italian American by neither their critics nor their communities; yet these same writers, known as members of the Beat Movement, have inspired younger generations and continue to be read in college literature courses. This phenomenon is more often the rule rather than the exception when an American of Italian descent becomes famous. Very few of these “Americans” were accepted, let alone acknowledged by the Italian American community for reasons including their inability to self identify as Italian Americans and the fact that their work did not reflect concerns that were considered to be traditional Italian American issues and are often filled with an irony that earlier generations mistake for self-hatred or just plain apathy when it comes to ancestral identity. These artists represent the type of border that has always existed between what was and what could be Italian American culture. Often writers such as Gay Talese, Don DeLillo, in their older years, have taken up the Italian American subject in their work only to romanticize and idealize it in ways that support traditional Italian American identities, ignoring how those identities have changed through the generations. Future studies need to examine how Italian American identity has shaped their perspectives. 

We must understand the impact nostalgia has had on limiting possibilities for new identities; the present is working toward the future; the future is the result of what we do today for tomorrow. With this in mind, don’t you think it’s time to forget about Columbus and to start re-membering the future?


 

Fred*Fred Gardaphé is Distinguished Professor of English and Italian American Studies at Queens College-CUNY and the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute. He directs the Italian American Studies Program at Queens.

** La VOCE di New York thanks Distinguished Professors Anthony J. Tamburri and Fred Gardaphé for this article that is part of the book Meditations on Identitity. Meditazioni su identità. Anthony Julian Tamburri Editor, Bordighera Press, 2014.

 

Works Cited

Alba, Richard. Ethnic Identity: The Transformation of White America. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1992. 

Alexander, Hansen. October 7, 2002 issue of the St. Augustine Record. http://staugustine.com/stories/100901/opi_201315.shtml

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 2006.

Bassetti, Piero. Italic Lessons. Niccolo D'Aquino, ed. Gail McDowell, trans. New York: Bordighera P, 2010.

Connell, William. “What Columbus Day Really Means.” Accessed March 18, 2014. http://theamericanscholar.org/what-columbus-day-really-means/#.UeATX-AT_Jo. 

Fischer, Michael J. "Ethnicity and the Post-Modern Arts of Memory." Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Eds. James Clifford and George E. Marcus. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986. 194-233.

Viscusi, Robert. Ellis IslandNew York: Bordighera P, 2012. 

Waters, Mary. Ethnic Options. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.

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