Italian Americans are in the midst of an identity crisis and that swashbuckling vagrant isn’t helping. Genocide and rape were once overlooked crimes in the cause of colonialism — “Those heads just kind of came off with my sword!” — especially in those pesky history textbooks, but we live in a time when systematic murder, mass rape, and enslavement are universally regarded as disgraceful. “But it was the tiiiimes he was livin in, they wer awl were like daat.” And these are the times we’re living in. If the same level of forgiveness was given to the Nazis the Holocaust would be regarded as a brief historical indiscretion. Those in our community who insist on defending Columbus actions are making fools of us.
Anyway, this is a digression, because the root cause of this debate has nothing to do with him. Our obsession with Columbus is merely the symptom of a deeper, sadder, cultural reality. Being Italian American has less significance and weight as it used to and as each passing generation cares less about being Italian American (who under the age of 50 is passionate about the Columbus conflict?), we become desperate for significance and cling onto outdated cultural beacons, like Columbus.
We are no longer sure what it means to be Italian American. It’s 2018 there are more ethnic groups vying for attention and for people who are used to being the center of the ethnic white universe we’ve ceased to know where we really are anymore. Our Godfather-meets-Sopranos identity is hack and mostly a source of amusement for the masses. “How stupid can they be?” Our sparkling reputation for racism, misogyny, and homophobia, sometimes warranted and sometimes unfair, precedes us. We’ve failed to create a new story of ourselves that reflects more than the stereotype.
One problem is that we do not acknowledge more than the same old stories (how many possible ways can The Bronx Tale be produced?) and we do not support our contemporary culture makers. When I get together with my Italian American artist friends the one thing we can agree on is that the community doesn’t support us. They want the same predictable stories, mostly from the straight male point of view. The organizations aren’t supporting new work from fresh voices on a significant level, and the last thing they’ll do for artists is pay us for our work. When we get a chance to showcase the best of ourselves, like a “cultural” festival, our lack of imagination turns it into a Zeppoli convention.
There’s a large Italian American contingent around NYC, but even that has ceased to be a cohesive group with significance. Last year I was speaking to a prominent New York publicist about promoting one of my projects. I said, “How about pushing this out to the Italian American community?” He replied, “They’re not enough of a group for them to matter.”
To cope with our erasure we GRIP onto stereotypes, even against our greater judgement. We complain complain complain about all the mob movies and shows, but then we watch them compulsively and talk about our own family’s connections to anyone who will listen. Where you find two Italian Americans together, you find guido pissing matches.
Then we go onto those housewives shows to showcase our cartoonish identity. Some in our community cry foul — inaccurate representation! — but even more watch and emulate. Watch and emulate. I love to imagine what people in the middle of America who have never met an Italian American say when they watch:
“Gee, honey, those eyebrows are a funny shape!
“And that hair is so big! I hear it’s the hair gel.
“I read in TV guide their skin is that crazy color because of compulsive tanning.
“They’re the clowns of white people!”
And so we’ve made ourselves. We are upset about our vanishing identity because we subconsciously know it’s hallow, filled with vague shadows of Italian culture. When Italy won the World Cup a few citizens in my Italian American community painted their garage with the colors of the Italian flag. I asked one person mid-brush stroke, “Who is the prime minister Italy?” He looked back at me and tried to kid, “Mozzarella!” Ha.
Our disconnection from authentic Italian culture crops up as this odd racism towards Latinos. “But we learned English!” Perhaps better framed: We were in such a rush to assimilate, to be seen and accepted into the white community, we put our Italian tail between our legs and came begging, dropping our language and sometimes our last names.
And now decades later, now that Italian Americans have ceased to be a group of any consequence, we get mouthy with Latinos who speak languages other than English for having the guts to do so. We were cultural cowards and now we regret it; we’re racist because we’re jealous.
Italian Americans have become the worst of ourselves. We made Columbus into the representative for the vestiges of a vanishing identity. Interestingly, perhaps subconsciously, we have selected someone whose conquests align with an ultra-masculine identity we deem as authentically Italian American.
I came to experience that outsized and outdated machismo first hand. I had just come back from college after coming out. I had spiky hair and boy jeans, and got a warm welcome from my Italian American community. “Dyke!”
At that point I almost swore off the Italian American community. You won’t accept anyone who does not align with your narrow views, I don’t want to be a part of you. Then I realized, being Italian American is a part of who I am. The parts I emulate have nothing to do with that psychopath and what he represents, nor the basest parts of this fading culture. I found my own way to be a proud Italian American without any of these things. If we are going to maintain our solvency as a group finding a new way to pride is the only hope we have left.