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Articles by: Ottorino Cappelli

  • Click the image to watch the video interview
    Life & People

    The Rocky Road to Italian American Success

    This interview was aired on our weekly TV show i-ItalyNY on NYC Life - Ch. 25,  and you can watch it on demand on i-Italy.org and on our YouTube channel. The text here has been edited for publication.
     
    Let’s start with your parents. They were both born in Italy? 
     
    Well, my paternal grandfather Pietro came to the United States for the first time after the First World War; he worked and sent money to Italy and traveled back and forth. His family stayed in Italy at first. My dad was born in the Molise region, in a small little town just outside of Isernia. It’s called Macchia d’Isernia, I think it literally means “a spot of Isernia”. He came here in 1927. My mother’s family instead is from Giulianova, in the nearby region of Abruzzo. She was born in America, but just six months after her parents immigrated, so she always said she was from Giulianova. 
     
    Both your families settled in Philadelphia. They lived in Italian neighborhoods, I presume. How was life in Italian Philadelphia back then? And what about the relationships with other immigrant groups?
    Well, in my father’s neighborhood they were all Molisani. My mom’s family lived nearby in a 4-square block Italian neighborhood, which is where I grew up.  Mom and dad met at a church social, in this Italian national parish of Our Lady of the Angels.  It was unique in the United States, certainly in Philadelphia. This is the story: originally there was a very large Irish parish close to where my parents lived, called Our Mother’s Sorrows.
     
    They weren’t happy with the arrival of other Catholics like Italians, Poles, and Ukrainians, and they actually wanted them to go away. They said, “You will have to say Mass in this little room, and really what you should do is build your own church!” So in 1911 these immigrants built a church and it was called a national parish. The  Catholic Church was ok with this, so the groups could be separated. So my parish was Italian, and  in order for me to go to the grammar school they built, I had to be of Italian descent. 
     
    This  national parish system stayed in place for decades—I believe when I was a boy there were 35 or 40 of them in Philadelphia, not just Italian, but also Ukrainian, Polish. Then in 1976 the Archdiocese decided this system was discriminatory because each of these enclaves had their own school, and even though their neighborhoods were changing, they didn’t change-- as long as they had a school they stayed there. When they eliminated the national parishes, people fled to the suburbs. And my grammar school closed.
     
    At one point you had to mingle with other ethnic groups. How was that experience? Were there episodes  when  you felt discrimination because of being Italian?
     
    I grew up in a world of Italians. And they were not “just” Italians, but almost all of them came from Abruzzo. In fact my grandparents settled there because other relatives were there.  And I must tell you, my parents had never taught me about prejudices, I didn’t think prejudice existed. But later in life, people would look at me and say you’re an Italian, and to me that was a foreign thing.
     
    Give us an example.
     
    Well, I will give you the prime example that was really shocking to me. I had the opportunity to work to pay for my own tuition. I worked in high school and I worked when I went to college at an industrial bakery for Acme Markets, a big supermarket chain in Philadelphia. I had very good grades from Villanova University as an engineer and I went to work for General Electric when I was 22 years old. There were no other Italian Americans in the group I worked in.
     
    One day a guy came up to me and said, “How come you went to Villanova?” And I replied, “I wanted to be an engineer, that’s why.” “But of all the Italians I know,” he said, “the only ones that go to college are the children of the Mafia. Was your father in the Mafia?” “No! My father was not in the mafia…” “Well, you’re an exception…” I thought about it after, and I remember I told my mother. “Don’t let it bother you, “ she said, “just show them that you’re better than that.” I know it’s a lot less now, not as much as my parents or my grandparents had to put up with. It was really difficult for them.
     
    How was it for them? 
     
    My parents and grandparents really had problems. My mom had to quit school because of this. It’s a true story. She went to the Irish Catholic grammar school—there wasn’t the Italian American Catholic school at that time. One day my mother came home and complained that the nuns kept calling her “Dago,” and so my grandfather took her out of  that school. She went to public school for the last two years before she went to work. So, it’s always been there. Today it’s not as bad as it used to be because there are lots of people who have proven to the world that Italian Americans are very valuable members of society and they have added a lot of value to it—that’s why my children feel none of that today.
     
    You went to Italy several times in your life. Do you recall the first time? Your emotions?
     
    I was maybe 29 years old working for General Electric and they asked me to head a joint project with FIAT. So, I went to live in Turin for nine  months. My parents insisted that I visit the family while I was in Italy. Now, I have to tell you—as a boy growing up, I wanted to be an American; but when I went to Italy and I visited the families, I fell in love. I remember the first time I went to Giulianova on a train from Turin. I kept asking myself, “How are they going to know it’s me? I’ve never seen these people.”
     
    But when the train came into  the station my mother’s first cousin and his son came running to me, grabbed me and brought me home! When I asked, “How did you know who I was?” they showed me a book with photographs of me as a child, when I made my First Holy Communion, when I got confirmed, when I graduated from high school--not just me, but my brother, aunts, uncles, and  cousins, all in a big book! My folks used to send photographs and they would save them. I wanted to be in Italy! It was family, it was loyalty, it was… you just felt embraced and after I came back from Turin, I  wanted to know more about my Italian background, more about who I was, where I came from.  I became very proud of my background.
     
    This is why you got involved in the Italian-American community and NIAF? 
     
    Exactly! After I sold my last company, my desire to be closer to my roots got stronger. I became actively involved with NIAF and I was a member of the Columbus Citizens Foundation, where I met the former chairman of NIAF, Joe Del Raso,  who introduced me to the American University of  Rome...
     
    Now you are the chair of the  University’s board, which includes other members of the NIAF Board of Directors. What is the American University of Rome and why is it so dear to you?
     
    I became chairman five years ago. The American University of Rome is a fully  accredited university  with credits that are valid for transfer in the US. The school was founded in 1969 and we are moving it forward. We have established four master’s degrees. We are working  to enroll more four-year students,  and not just study abroad students. For me it’s a way to lead people—not just Americans, because last year we had graduates from 17 different counties—to recognize the culture and the value of Rome and Italy, and its contribution to Western civilization. So my participation is driven by my love for Italian culture. And even though everything is taught in English, the students live  physically immersed in Italian culture.
     
    We cannot avoid mentioning your career, though it may not have a direct connection to your Italian ancestry. How did you develop this passion for science and engineering? You had an intuition about the power of the Internet even before it became what it is today. 
     
    Well, there is an Italian connection. My parents encouraged me to try everything, and said, don’t worry about failing, if it doesn’t work try something else. I was a strong early devotee of the internet, and  left as the CEO of Cable & Wireless to join Network Solutions—a small company, but one that was on the forefront of the internet.
     
    They recruited me when the company had 50 people, and we were going to build a big company. It was a tremendous success, but again it was pushing the envelope, asking, what else can it be? That’s what helped drive my success. I ended up being CEO of three companies and then at age 59 gave up all of that to get back to my Italian roots, and add value to the Italian American culture. I told myself, I am done, I made enough for me and  my family, I can live the way I want now. what I wanted to do was directed to Italian American things.
     
    As the co-chair of NIAF, what is in your view the “right thing” the Foundation should be doing today? 
     
    NIAF is a great organization. Its original focus was the recognition of the valuable things Italian Americans had done in this country. Today, there are millions of stories, all of us may tell you stories about our parents and our grandparents and so on. But there are so many young Italian Americans who don’t relate to the culture. We don’t want them to become Italians—they are Americans—but they do need to have a feeling for Italian culture and embrace it. Italian culture is marvelous and when anybody understands it, they fall in love with it.
     
    So I think the most important thing for NIAF today is to figure out how to reach people who are a generation or two generations younger than me, so they can feel the value of their ancestral culture, understand it, be proud of it, be part of it. I think that’s important if we want to keep NIAF going for the long term. 
     
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    "Italian Leadership in America" is a series co-produced by i-Italy and NIAF
  • Patricia de Stacy Harrison with John Calvelli at the National Italian American Foundation Gala
    Op-Eds

    Heritage, Politics and Women Empowerment

    Ms. Patricia Harrison, we’d like to start with your maiden name, which is de Stacy. But it’s not that in Italian. What’s the story?

    My name is really De Stasio. My uncle Lou was a stockbroker in the early 20s, when there was a lot of prejudice against Italian Americans. So he changed his name to de Stacy because he felt it would be better if it sounded French! As a child I didn’t even know it used to be De Stasio.

    Growing Up Italian American in Brooklyn

    Where did your ancestors come from?

    My grandfather Nunziato De Stasio (he didn’t change his name) was born in Salerno and came to this country when he was 16 years old. My grandmother Elisabetta was born in the United States but came from the same village as my grandfather. My grandfather was a big influence on my life. He was the unofficial mayor in our neighborhood of Bay Ridge! As a matter of fact, he had a barber shop where everyone went, including elected officials and policemen, and everyone respected him. I don’t want to make him sound like the godfather of Brooklyn, but they all counted on him. Bay Ridge was very Italian back then and I grew up understanding tradition and how important it was. Every Sunday we would go eat at my grandparents’ house. There was music, everybody talked and smoked, and I thought they were all the most glamorous people on earth. I still think that.

    Did they talk to you about Italy?

    Sure, and they always talked about it in a positive way. I did not go to Italy until I was in my 20s, but I had all these stories about family and what Italy meant and I felt I had a personal connection to Michelangelo or Machiavelli! My grandfather talked about Machiavelli so much I thought he was a relative. And there were all the great Italians in our lives, people like Perry Como. Every time he was on television, my father would say, “He’s Italian.” Dad was so proud of him. And Tony Bennett, Dean Martin—and Frank Sinatra, of course!

    This E. Bruce Harrison you met. Who isn’t Italian...

    No, he’s not! He’s still trying to figure me out.

    How did your family react to the fact that you were going to marry a non Italian? How did his family?

    For his family it wasn’t so much that I was Italian, but that I was from Brooklyn. His family was from the south so being from Brooklyn was like being from Mars. And when I went to meet his family in Alabama I got off to a bad start... But over time we got to know each other.

     

    And what about your family in Brooklyn? 

    They were fine with it, and thought my husband was like Prince Charles, nice and very polite. At our gatherings, with the whole family talking a mile a minute, my husband could never get a word in edgewise. I told him to talk more–and not wait for them to stop. Eventually, everything worked out.

    An Italian Woman in American Politics

    Then you discovered another important part of your life: politics. How did you get to run for co-chair of the Republican National Committee?

    First of all I am a Republican and I felt that the party really needed more women, more people of different backgrounds. I didn’t know anything about the Republican National Committee, or about running for co-chair. You needed three Committee members to give you permission to run, but I didn’t know anyone. It took forever to find out who was on this mysterious committee. But I picked three members at random, and got on a plane to ask them for their support just to run–they didn’t also have to vote for me. They agreed, I ran, and I won! It was a lot of hard work.

    That was in the late 1990s. Republicans were out of power then, but in 2000 they won the White House…

    Yes, and I count my four years on the RNC a success because it led to a Republican President. In 2001, I was appointed by President Bush to be Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs under Colin Powell. Oh my goodness, I admired General Powell so much! Working for him was an incredible experience; I learned so much about leadership and management, and had an opportunity to do things that made an impact. 

    In the meantime, were you also involved with NIAF?

    Oh, I’ve been part of NIAF forever, 25 years. I had to resign when I was Assistant Secretary of State, but I still worked with NIAF, bringing young people from The Boys Home in Naples to meet with Colin Powell I would bring so many people from Italy to meet him that NIAF made him an honorary Italian American at its gala. He was proud of it.

    Fighting for Women Empowerment

    Another part of your life and career is related to women’s empowerment, and you’ve written books about new women entrepreneurs. Why this special interest?

    When we look at our sons and our daughters and we look at creating a world where people can live in peace, what disturbs me most is that the first people to suffer in oppressive countries are women. I couldn’t solve all the world’s problems, but I could start at home. I wanted to make sure that more small businesses were being started by women, for instance. So eventually I was named to the Small Business Administration advisory council and I also wrote a book about the qualities of a successful woman-entrepreneur, like attitude, vision, persistence, and confidence. They’re the same for men, but it was a challenge for women to get that self-confidence; even today there’s a conference every five minutes on how women can succeed in corporate life or as an entrepreneur. 

    You are a successful woman, a leader, and an Italian American. Are there strong women in your family who were mentors?

    My grandmother, whom I was very afraid of because she wore black all the time, as it used to be common in Southern Italy. My grandfather was also afraid of her! My mother was an incredible person who always found a way to meet a challenge. If there was a problem she would never let me give up, saying “You are not thinking, you are not thinking enough! Go figure it out.” She was creative and she never stopped thinking. When I would ask her whether I should do something, her answer was always the same—use your own judgment. So when I came to Washington I too became a very strong woman.

     

    You’re a strong woman, and you have strong women in your family, but the role of women in traditional Italian American culture has been to follow rather than lead. Do you feel you’re different?

    To tell you the truth, inside those families where, as they say, “men are making speeches and women are making coffee,” women are pretty much running the show behind the scenes. I was fortunate in my career to have other women help me. And I would observe them closely. How did they dress? What do they do? Why are they talking like this? I just learned so much.

     

    At the Helm of CPB

    In 2005 you were named to be the President and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. You have been there for ten years and you must have shown a bipartisan attitude, for you were confirmed by President Obama too. Tell us about this ongoing experience.

    In a way it’s a continuation of everything I had done. Through public media, I have an opportunity to really change lives from the youngest citizen’s to the oldest, with programming that treats people as more than just consumers. We are not trying to sell something.

     

    How can the Italian American community take advantage of the opportunities offered by PBS?

    Well, after five years in the making, when we broadcast John Maggio’s documentary series The Italian Americans, we heard from so many Italian Americans as well as Americans of all backgrounds. So many people watched, and some were watching PBS for the first time. Local stations also produced companion documentaries on the Italian Americans of New York and New Jersey. That’s what a lot of other stations have done to connect to their Italian American viewers. The story is a story of success, of people coming here and working so hard, who found joy with their family and who also welcomed anyone to their home, no matter how poor, with food and wine. I think that’s what’s passed down. You know, my father always made the pasta in our house, and whether there were four people or fourteen, he would make enough food to feed a neighborhood. “Someone might come by,” he’d say. I think the lesson of those early immigrants was that no matter how hard it was, they were not going to let society beat them down. They had pride and courage and would not be destroyed by work. This is what we have to communicate to the new generations of any background—that it may not be easy but you have tools to emerge as yourself on the other side.

     

    Let’s end our conversation on a litghter note. What’s your favorite Italian dish?

     [laughing] Well, something I could eat over and over and over and over is linguine with white clam sauce. Tons of clams.

     

    Can you cook it?

    Of course I can cook it! And I also make a lasagna that could be used as a murder weapon, it’s so heavy and has everything in it. Really, really good. But after you eat it and you go into a coma, so I like linguine and clam sauce better.

    Thank you very much for this talk, Ms. Harrison.

     

    Thank you! I enjoyed it, it’s like visiting a psychiatrist! You can charge me!  

    Click here to see the interview between Ottorino Cappelli and Patricia de Stacy Harrison

  • Op-Eds

    The Reasons for Change

    The petition appeals to Republican electors to assert their constitutional right to change their mind and refuse to elect their party’s nominee—to behave, in other words, as “faithless electors.” This appeal would be in line with the constitution, as well as with our modi ed quote from Il Gattopardo: “If we want things to change, things will have to stay as they are” (or better, they will have to revert to what they were or were supposed to be according to the Founding Fathers). However, I am afraid this would run against common wisdom. Americans today perceive their country not as a “republic” but as a “democracy.” Realistic change must accommodate this historically modified self-perception, or it won’t work. But in a democracy, the majority of the people must rule.

    The “lter”  devised by the Framers to insulate the selection of the president from the masses, is inconsistent with this principle. So we’re back to the question: Should the Electoral College be abolished altogether and replaced with a straightforward popular vote? Not necessarily. And this is where the Italian experience may again come in handy. 

    An Italian Contribution

    If nothing else, Italians understand the perils of democracy. Mussolini himself came to power through elections and established a dictatorship with the consent of the masses. Italians, on the other hand, understand little about the American system of government —judging at least from the bewildered expressions of my students when we tackle the subject in our comparative government class in Naples. When we study the US Electoral College, however, they are very attracted by the underlying “as if” doctrine. And when I pose the question, “How could the system be reformed with- out necessarily abandoning it?” discussions flow. They seem to have Il Gattopardo in their blood. No wonder.

    The Italian political system is almost the polar opposite from its American counterpart. Italy is a unitary state, not a federation; it has a parliamentary (as opposed to a presidential) form of government and a multi-party (as opposed to a two-party) system. And its election system, after much experimentation, has come back to the tradition of proportional representation. None of this applies to the US.

    Italians, however, are specialists in devising “as if” situations and in making things change behind the scenes while looking “as if” nothing had really changed. Indeed, they have been trying hard for 20 years to grad- ually slide towards a presidential form of government, a two-party system, and even a federal system by applying apparently mi- nor formal changes to their constitution, or even none at all.

    The latest—and, admittedly, very controversial—concoction is called the “premio di maggioranza” (literally: majority premium). Here’s how it should work in Italy: To form a government and elect a Prime Minister, Italy needs a majority of votes in the Parliament. But it is near to impossible for one single party to get the majority of the popular vote needed to gain enough seats and thereby enough parliamentary votes. Thus major parties must beg smaller parties into forming a parliamentary coalition capable of electing and supporting a government. This allows an array of little factions to practice their “blackmail power.” Not surprisingly, under such an arrangement, governments are highly unstable.

    To get out of this stalling situation, the proposal under discussion in Italy is not to change the system altogether, but to create an “as if” situation. Provided that a single party is capable of getting at least a plurality of 40% of the popular vote, it will be automatically awarded “a premium”—an extra quota of “reserve seats” required to elect a govern- ment. It is “as if” it got 51% of the vote. The “premio di maggioranza” thus arti cially transforms a plurality into a majority: it makes the (relative) winner of the popular vote look “as if” it were the (absolute) winner—which it was not. The system of representation stays proportional, the multi-party system is preserved, and the Prime Minister is still elected by the Parlia- ment (“things must stay as they are”), but a more stable, one party government would be the outcome (“things will change”). How would this Italian version of the “as if” logic translate in the American context?

    Exactly by turning our reasoning on its head: provided that a candidate is able to get the majority of the popular vote but not of the electoral vote he or she would be automatically awarded “a premium,” an extra quota of “reserve votes” needed to be elected president. That is: the “premio di maggioranza” would make the system work “as if” the vote of the Electoral College coincided with the popular vote—even when it doesn’t.

    In other words, such an arrangement would allow the un-democatic system of the Electoral College to be preserved, including its anachronistic non-deliberative meetings (“things would stay as they are”), but it would modify the outcome to make the system look “as if” it were a true democracy (“things would change,” really). Or, to put this in yet another way: a democratic principle would be introduced to correct an un-democratic outcome if and when it arises. Which seems necessary, if nothing else because a great country—and great democracy—cannot afford to have over half of its citizens convinced that they did not choose their president (a conviction supported by hard numbers). 

    Post Scriptum

    Perhaps ironically, this mechanism that seems to me so Italian bears resemblance to one devised by two influential American legal scholars of Indian origin, Vikram David Amar and Akhil Reed Amar. Called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, or NPVIC, it is an agreement underwritten by 10 American states and the District of Columbia to assign their electors to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote. It will come into force only once enough states have joined the NPVIC to guarantee the winning candidate 270 electoral votes (participating states now total 165 votes, or 61% of what is needed). The difference with the Italian model lies in one crucial detail: the NPVIC risks being perceived as a definitive departure from the Electoral College system and therefore could be rejected as too radical, while an automatic Italian-style “premio di maggioranza” would only click should the discrepancy between the popular and the electoral vote arise. It thus would seem more respectful of tradition and might have a better chance of being widely accepted. A little more hypocritical and much more Italian. I believe Il Gattopardo would approve. 

  • Life & People

    Italian Americans and the Future of Columbus Day

    At the recent weekend-long celebrations for the 40thAnniversary of the National Italian American Foundation in Washington, DC,  a very unusual public forum was held on the Future of Columbus Day. 

    Leaders of the Conference of Presidents of the Major Italian American Organizations met in a crowded hall to talk as well as to listen— seeking a common strategy to deal with the issue. Until a few years ago, such delicate matters were discussed behind closed doors; by contrast, this public discussion revealed a fresh spirit of openness recently brought to NIAF by a new generation of leaders in their thirties, as embodied by President John M.Viola.

    Our interviewee John F. Calvelli could perhaps be seen as a bridge between  two generations of italian-Americans, facilitating the transition from past to future. Mr. Calvelli is the Executive Vice President of Public Affairs for the Wildlife Conservation Society.

    Prior to that, he served as the senior staff person to Congressman Eliot Engel (D-Bronx) in Washington, DC. The son of immigrants from Calabria and a graduate of Fordham University, he is a member of the NIAF board of directors and Executive Vice President and Chair of the Italian American Leadership Council. Mr. Calvelli is widely credited with being an influential advocate of Italian American interests at the national level.

    What is at issue with he debate over Columbus Day? What are the positions in the Italian-American community, and what’s yours?
    The conversation at the NIAF weekend meetimg in October really helped raise awareness within the leadership of the community, about the deep beliefs that exist within the community.

    And I think they spanned the whole gamut. On the one hand there was a sense that Columbus Day should be eliminated as an Italian-American holiday.

    And it was interesting to hear that perspective from those who say “Look, we have so much to offer as an Italian-American community, we have so much that we’ve done, why are we holding ourselves accountable for the dreadful acts of Christopher Columbus? We have so many other ways: let’s celebrate Dante’s birthday, Da Vinci’s birthday.” I think this is probably most prevalent in the younger community—and I think that is shame on us.

    We have stood by and allowed other people to define Columbus. On the other extreme are those who say we should, as we say in English, “double down,” and we make sure that we continue to support this holiday, that we make it even more Italian, that we make sure that people don’t forget the important role that Columbus played as an Italian.

    People who stand by this position probably tend to be of the older generation, those maybe less amenable to change. And then, you know, betweenthesepositions therearemany different positions, and one that is really a little bit outside of that spectrum, which is my position, is that in a sense we kind of forget what Columbus Day was about.

    I heard you expressing it at the NIAF forum and I thought it was a very well thought of point—not just a middle-of-the-road compromise, but a fresh new look at the whole matter, an innovative one. Would you elaborate a little more for our readers?
    What I think is that we should always remember this started as a non-Italian holiday, it started as a holiday to celebrate the explorer and his mission of discovery, and the fact that he helped to bring Christianity to this country (that was one of the major issues with his arrival), but there was also this idea that America and what he did represented a new age of discovery and opened up what was the “Columbian exchange.” The exchange of goods and resources between two great continents, the Western hemisphere and Europe.

    So that’s the core. From a political perspective, it became Italian because Roosevelt was looking for Italian-American votes in the thirties, and wanted to tie this holiday to the Italian-American community that was looking for symbols at time when they were in many ways an oppressed immigrant community. Therefore, they took pride in Columbus, and they took pride in what he stood for and the respect that he was given within the larger American society.

    Now, fast-forward fifty years, and Christopher Columbus has become the villain, imbued with all of the negativity of the Columbian exchange. He is being blamed for slavery, for the diseases that came about, for the deaths of Native Americans. In a sense, he is being blamed for everything that was wrong with the 16th century. And at some point we need to step back and realize that he was indeed a product of his time. You cannot hold Christopher Columbus accountable using a 21st-century morality. You shouldn’t take him out of his historical context. Would we do that to George Washington? Thomas Version P { margin-bottom: 0.08in; } Jefferson?

    They both owned slaves! Are their names any less esteemed because they were living within a certain set of moral principles that was peculiar to their times? What else would you see in him other than, say, either a great Italian explorer to be honored or, a slave-hunter responsible for all the sufferings of the continent he discovered? From my personal perspective, we should have a balanced position.

    Yes, let’s honor what Columbus did, and let’s honor the legacy of his exploration. But, fundamentally to me, let’s realize that Christopher Columbus and his vision, opened up this country to literally millions of immigrants and this created the greatest experiment for democracy and liberty that the world has ever known. If you look at things in this perspective, you see that this is a day where we should be celebrating not just Italians, but all immigrants. If you go back and read what P { margin-bottom: 0.08iPresident Kennedy had written, for instance, it was a date to celebrate immigrants, all of them. Obviously, the Italians, because Columbus is Italian, maybe at the lead, but it was really all about immigrants. Somehow we have walked away from those original concepts. So let’s go back and look at this from a holistic perspective, as opposed to the very narrow vantage points of a vocal minority trying to portray Columbus in a negative way.
     

    Besides, if Columbus Day were to be renamed Italian Heritage Day, if it weren’t any longer just about Columbus and the discovery of America, how could it be a national holiday?
    You are absolutely correct. If we allowed this to happen, the holiday would be gone!

    What’s your opinion about why this decadeold discussion is taking off again today? It is because of the wording of the latest Obama proclamation?
    I think what President Obama tried to do was to give a balanced portrayal of the issue. And I think when you look at the whole text what you see is, obviously, praise for the Italian American community, and praise for Columbus, but also that this is a day that is looked on by Native Americans in a negative way.

    Now that is factually correct: when you speak to Native Americans, many feel that way. Now, having said that, Native Americans have a month, which is November, when they celebrate their heritage. As a matter the fact, this past Saturday was National Bison Day, one of the days within the month of November where they celebrated Bison, which for religious and cultural reasons is a very important animal for that community.

    But the bottom line is that November is Native American Month. So if you want to have an indigenous people’s day, they have it already.
     

    Do you see a chance to unite the Italian-American community around a common position on this subject?
    I am cautiously optimistic that we can. You know, there is a broad spectrum of people looking for leadership to help resurrect the good name of Christopher Columbus, and help put Columbus in context. Personally I feel that we need to come together as a community and reach out to other ethnic communities that share our love for this country, and realize that America has given so much to all immigrant communities. And that happened because of Columbus. After all, in many Hispanic communities, and many West Indian communities, he is still seen in a very very positive light. So this is a real opportunity for us to cross the immigrant spectrum and say, “Come with us on this journey together to celebrate Columbus and the greatness that is America.”

    Have you had any discussions with Italian authorities?
    Are they helping, advising, or anything? No, you know, we have not had these conversations. In years past, the Italian government has always been supportive of Columbus celebrations. But I think everybody has not grasped the significance of what is going on today. And I worry that we are losing a moment to educate the public. We need to have this conversation not only among ourselves but with educators, with school boards. This is a conversation that needs to go across the United States. And yes, it should be understood in Italy, too.

  • Life & People

    The Mission of Being Italian in a Global World

    Though nowadays he resides in Washington D.C., John M. Viola tirelessly commutes to New York City to visit his girlfriend Nicole Di Bona. He is still a regular at the local feasts of the “Madonna della Neve” and “Giglio” in his native Brooklyn. And, at 31, he is the youngest president in the four- decade history of the National Italian American Foundation.

    John traces all of his ancestry to Southern Italy. His paternal ancestors emigrated from the Vallo di Diano, Campania, today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. His maternal grandparents hail from Puglia (Palo del Colle) and Sicily (Palermo).

    John’s father Vincent, himself a native Brooklynite who became a successful businessman, has been a vice- chairman of NIAF and a well-known philanthropist who, among other things, played a crucial role in the NIAF relief efforts in the aftermath of the Abruzzo earthquakes in 2009.

    Family origins and a strong paternal role model must have been an important influence for someone who, as John says, feels “both fully American and fully Italian and a mix of the two.”

    President Viola holds a dual degree in Sociology and Anthropology from Fordham University, and made an early career in community leadership and development in Brooklyn. He also has experience founding and managing international and domestic programs. But leading NIAF is definitely his most challenging initiative to date, and John tackles it head-on.

    An exponent of a new generation of Italian Americans for whom being Italian is “a state of mind,” he envisages redefining NIAF’s mission by transforming it into a global institution, a worldwide ambassador of the “Italy” brand.

    As John puts it: “We represent an important addition to the global promotion of Italy.” His innermost dream is to help Italian Americans shed their previous “colonial” identity as captive buyers of Italian products, and instead engage them “as Italians, as people who are an integral part of ‘being Italian’ in today’s globalized world.” As NIAF prepares to celebrate its 40th Anniversary this coming October, i-Italy sat down with John Viola not only to revisit the organization’s past achievements but to explore more deeply this project of Global Italian-ness that he feels is so important “in a world where geography means so much less than it ever has, and a person can be of two shared identities.”
     

    NIAF was established in 1975. Who were the main founders and how did they come together?
    It’s hard to identify NIAF’s founders. There is a list of names attached to the first meetings in 1975. There’s our first Chairman, Jeno Paolucci, or our second, Frank Stella. There are names of families whom we all recognize—politicians, professors, priests, and community activists.

    NIAF was started by a collective of Italian American men and women who saw that there could be more for our community than just fraternal organizations. There needed to be some central voice in the nation’s capital that could advocate for access where other groups couldn’t. NIAF really came together to fill a need in our community: the need for an institutional presence at a different level, not so much grass roots but pioneering.
     

    What would you say have been the major steps of NIAF’s development and its major achievements over the past 40 years?
    That would hardly fit in a short answer! I think our foundation has really done incredible work first of all in breaking into the halls of power here in Washington. If you look at where our community was in 1975 and where we are today, it’s a different story. Today we have two of nine Supreme Court Justices, a Speaker of the House, Italian Americans in major Cabinet positions, and an incredibly healthy, active, and diverse membership in the Italian American Congressional Delegation; members of both parties who rally around their heritage. All of that has been a big part of NIAF’s work.

    In terms of our educational mission, we have given tens of millions of dollars in scholarships and grants throughout the United States and Italy. We’ve been a major part of the leadership around saving the AP Italian Language Exam. We also mustered and directed resources, in a first of its kind public-private partnership, for earthquake relief in L’Aquila. I could go on, but needless to say I’m proud of all this organization has accomplished in 40 years. 
     

    At one point in its history, NIAF was perceived as an “elitist” organization, sort of removed from “the real people” in the Italian American community, especially from young people. How come?
    I can understand how NIAF earned that reputation. Sometimes there’s a certain pomposity that comes with trying to show the world an organization that is serious about its work, and perhaps over the years we’ve gotten a little too comfortable in that position. But I don’t really think of us as removed from real people.

    I like to think of us as built from real people. The truth of the matter is, there’s a fine line between being elitist and being preeminent, and we strive every day to be preeminent: in what we do, in how we answer the needs of our Italian American community, in making courageous decisions, and in being made up of people who are self-selected, unique and, in a certain sense, elite.

    Not financially elite, but elite in their commitment to their Italian American heritage and to serving their Italian American community. The word elite should be used carefully. It should not be taken to mean those who have the most, but those who care the most, who are the most active, and who want to make a difference. In this sense, yes, we do want to be the elite of the community.
     

    What does it mean for you, a young professional in his 30s, to be an Italian American? And what relationship do you have with your “Italian side” and today’s Italy?
    What being Italian American means to me is a lot different than what it meant for my parents and my grandparents. For me, being an Italian American means I get to enter a global world with a shared identity. I get to feel both fully American and fully Italian and a mix of the two. Even before I took this job, which requires my spending a lot of my time in Italy and participating in Italian society, I was there a lot. My family has always been back and forth. And my self-identifying with my Italian side has defined who I am.

    It’s hard to explain, but I feel as though I fully pertain to both cultures, and I think that’s okay in a modern context. I think in a global world where geography means so much less than it ever has, a person can be of two shared identities. Frankly, that’s also the future of our community and an organization like ours; a global context of being Italian American.
     

    What’s the difference between an Italian Italian (even one living abroad) and an Italian American? Traditionally these two communities have had some difficulties in talking to each other, in understanding each other. Why? What can be done to foster their mutual understanding?
    I think there are a lot of differences between the two communities but I also think they are quickly disappearing. Like I said, nowadays what you identify as is self-selective. People can get on the Internet and see any place in any corner of the world and have every opportunity to access as much information about that place and its culture as they want. You could live in the middle of New Jersey and feel Italian. Sure, you have to go and participate, but all of the resources are there. I think a major difficulty the two communities have in communicating is literally talking to each other.

    The language is a big divide. Italy has focused on improving the number of English language speakers and I think it is imperative that our community make the effort to take back the Italian language. People don’t want to talk about it, but we gave it up under a lot of anxiety and under the dark cloud of Second World War. The numbers drop drastically during and after that struggle. I think it’s time we said, as fully engaged and integrated Americans, it’s okay for us to be productively bilingual. And our second language should certainly be the tongue of our mother country. That way, when we go to Italy, we are not going out of a sense of nostalgia or because we have a vowel at the end of our last names. We are going as active and full participants.

    Tell us about the upcoming anniversary. It will be a little different this time. What’s in store?
    The 40th Anniversary is going to be by far the most exciting event we’ve put on in a long time. I think it’s fair to say that over the 40 years of this Gala Weekend, people’s expectations have changed and the younger generation is not looking for a head table and a veal chop. Now, we want to make sure that our event is accessible to everyone. We want to put forth something that’s dynamic and multifaceted.

    We want to hold events throughout the weekend for those who are passionate about their Italianness: chances for people to meet, network, and celebrate the feeling of being amongst their own. Ultimately we want our Gala dinner to be one of the premiere events on the social calendar in the nation’s capital—again.

    This year’s going to be incredibly different from anything you’ve seen in the past, and I don’t want to spoil all of the surprises we have in store, because there are many, but I will say that if you’ve been to our Gala every year for the past 39, this is going to be unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. I’d hesitate to leave the table for long if you don’t want to miss something really special. I suppose you could say this is our take on the Italian Oscars.

  • Facts & Stories

    Telling Naples to the World

    I sat down with Mons. Gennaro Matino in his office in Naples before his departure for New York where he was invited to participate, togetherwith the Mayor of Naples Luigi de Magistris, in an international conference on immigration at the Calandra Institute entitled “The Gold of Naples” (June 3 at 6 pm). But that’s not all. Matino is also here to launch a major cultural exchange project that he has been working on for years. Evocatively named “Naples in the World,” it will provide an innovative platform for talking about Naples—a city of solidarity and hope, rather different than the one stereotypically depicted in the media. And he has chosen New York as the site to lay the foundation for his project. In this exclusive interview Gennaro Matino discusses the details of his trip and his view for the future.

    Why “Naples in the World?”

    Naples has an extraordinary wealth of cultural, historical and humanitarian resources. Thanks in part to the massive waves of southern emigration that, in a way, Naples epitomizes. To the rest of the world, this city is synonymous with Italy; Italy is Neapolitan. I remember many years ago, in honor of a President of the Italian Republic traveling to Moscow, the Soviets sang “O sole mio,” as though it were our national anthem. To be Naples, to speak of Naples, means to tell the world the story of this population’s culture, its identity. In his Italian Journey,Goethe wrote that to “enter” Italy you had to pass through Naples. By necessity. Vienna, Paris and Naples were the European capitals. 

    You have to start there to understand how, in recent decades, Naples could turn into Gomorrah, into a symbol of criminality, the Camorra and unspeakable violence. A city with two thousand years of history reduced to a hopeless image of hell. That is where you have to start in order to reverse course. Because this city has enormous cultural potential. It is profoundly humane and deeply spiritual. Naples possesses many virtues. It’s an incubator of social ferment, a multicultural city with much to offer that lies at the heart of the Mediterranean, the cradle of civilization. We have to communicate that to the world. Naples is making its comeback and wants to occupy its former standing in the world.
     

    Which Naples do you mean to describe?

    The authentic Naples, the city as it is, with all its contradictions, the dark and the light. There’s a lot of light in Naples. And that light doesn’t just come from the sun that strokes—and occasionally blinds—the city 300 days out of the year. Naples, the center of the Mediterranean, has a message to bear, one of peace, integration and acceptance that today’s world desperately needs to hear. 

    ‘Naples in the World’ begins in New York. Do you see a vital connection between the two cities?

    It’s no coincidence that Naples and New York are both on the 41st parallel. A penchant for the new is written in their DNA. The ancient Greek name for Naples is Neapolis, the new city. ‘New’ because it was born of diverse civilizations, of the combination of cultural sensibilities that produced “the new” almost naturally. It was a Greek city, a Roman city, an Arab city, and later Norman, French, Spanish. It was a major capital and a land of conquest. It was a point of departure for the great waves of southern emigration, and today it receives immigrants from the southern part of the world. It’s almost a natural symbol of the melting pot that, in Naples as in New York, doesn’t assert itself on its own—we have to work at it, partly to keep people from merely assimilating into an indistinct dominant culture. Like New York, Naples gains strength not by smoothing over its differences but by its ability to coexist and commingle. The mission of “Naples in the World” couldn’t begin anywhere but New York. But then we’ll travel far. We’ll get as far as New Delhi, another city with “new” in its name.

    The project has a broad scope. But, as you get ready to leave for New York, tell us more about what you’ll do and how you’ll do it. Where will you start?

    First I’ll be participating with the Mayor of Naples in an international conference on immigration at the heart of which is the parallel between Naples and New York, both past and present. I have known and admired the Dean of the Calandra Institute, Anthony Tamburri, for many years, and I’m grateful that he thought to invite me to be among their guest speakers. Then we’ll go to Little Italy, where we’ll launch our project. 

    Historically speaking, Little Italy is a Little Naples, insofar as Naples has played the role of representative for primarily southern immigration in the US. It’s no surprise that Little Italy and Naples share the same sad fate of becoming a vague and confusing “brand” in recent decades. In the United States, Italian immigration has been associated with the mafia and crime; with a traditional, even medieval culture. And yet Italian immigrants—southerners and their descendants—are the ones who can convey the message of peace we’re launching from Naples and get through to the world. Through a series of initiatives, Naples in New York seeks to contribute to rebuilding a relationship between the two cities.

    The foundation of your project is spiritual.
    It all began with the twinning of your parish and the Church of Most Precious Blood, historically speaking the church of “San Gennaro” in Little Italy. And that’s based on the special relationship you developed with the new pastor, Donald Sakano, who is also a quarter Italian.

    Yes, one of the reasons people come together and learn to coexist and appreciate one another is spiritual in nature. You don’t have to be a believer to know that. We met Monsignor Sakano, and the admiration was mutual. He’s a very active and practical man. He wants to revitalize Little Italy. He wants to reverse the current trend by which this historic place is losing its identity.

    He appealed to Naples, and we listened.
    By twinning the two parishes, we are building the first bridge. We are creating an opportunity for all Neapolitans and New Yorkers—not only people of faith—to get to know one another. We’re starting with spiritual exchange, but we’re casting a wider net—cultural, laic. We’re organizing something brand new for the Feast of San Gennaro, as well as a big event in December: an exhibit of the Neapolitan nativity scene in New York. There will be a lot of side events too, involving the culture, arts, food. But that’s just the beginning. 

    Through “Naples in the World,” we’re bringing hundreds of Americans and Italian Americans to Naples to get married (for civil and religious ceremonies), see the city—its hundreds of churches as well as its museums, piazzas, sidestreets and theaters—and get to know our thousand-year-old culture, its rich contemporary scene, and the terrible and fascinating underbelly of Naples. We are gearing up to bring American guests to visit the villages where their ancestors emigrated from. We’re bringing Naples to New York and New York to Naples. It’s a major intercultural exchange project that begins from afar and will ultimately travel far. 

  • Facts & Stories

    Mario Cuomo: The Italian Who Made America Better


    We want to remember Mario Cuomo by offering you this video of his hyper-famous "A Tale of Two Cities" speech (read the full text here).


    It was the keynote address by which Mario Cuomo,  then Governor of the State of New York, opened the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. At the time Cuomo was on the rise as a figure of presidential stature in the Democratic Party. It was the Reagan era, and Cuomo was considered one of the best anti-Reagan orators in town, a Great (Democratic) Communicator.



    In that speech, he attacked President Reagan for saying that he didn't understand the fear of many Americans who were "unhappy, even worried, about themselves, their families, and their futures." "Why?" Cuomo reported Reagan as asking, rhetorically, his audience, "This country is a shining city on a hill!"


    And here came the lunge: "Mr. President -- Cuomo erupted -- you ought to know that this nation is more a "Tale of Two Cities" than it is just a "Shining City on a Hill." Then he elaborated:
     
    “A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there's another city; there's another part to the shining the city; the part where some people can't pay their mortgages, and most young people can't afford one; where students can't afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.
    In this part of the city there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can't find it. Even worse: There are elderly people who tremble in the basements of the houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn't show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people, without a job or an education, give their lives away to drug dealers every day. There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don't see, in the places that you don't visit in your shining city.”
     
    It’s not by chance that such speech came from an American of Italian origin. For Mario Cuomo, in fact, the “Two Cities” argument was strictly connected to a “Tale of Immigration.” Here is how he elaborated it, turning the story of his Italian immigrant family into a universal symbol:
     
    “I watched a small man with thick calluses on both his hands work 15 and 16 hours a day. I saw him once literally bleed from the bottoms of his feet, a man who came here uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language, who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example. I learned about our kind of democracy from my father. And I learned about our obligation to each other from him and from my mother. They asked only for a chance to work and to make the world better for their children, and they -- they asked to be protected in those moments when they would not be able to protect themselves. This nation and this nation's government did that for them.
    And that they were able to build a family and live in dignity and see one of their children go from behind their little grocery store in South Jamaica on the other side of the tracks where he was born, to occupy the highest seat, in the greatest State, in the greatest nation, in the only world we would know, is an ineffably beautiful tribute to the democratic process.”
     
    It should not be forgotten that by that speech Mario Cuomo was introducing to the Democratic Convention the Mondale-Ferraro ticket, where fellow Italian American Geraldine Ferraro was to be, in his words: “America's first woman Vice President, the child of immigrants, and she -- she will open with one magnificent stroke, a whole new frontier for the United States.”
     
    True, the Mondale-Ferraro ticket was defeated. And seen 30 years later from the perspective of the Obama era, all this may seem political archeology. But we like to think that Mario Cuomo’s 1984 keynote address did contribute to future events in the Democratic Party and in this country at large. And it proved that the Italian-American community is capable of generating political figures of high profile who can mobilize the dreams and hopes of the American public at large. 
     
    Definitely this was a man who made America better.




     



     

     

  • Art & Culture

    Language as a Strategic Imperative


    In a seminal article that appeared in 1990, entitled “Breaking the Silence”, you noted that Italians in America had been deprived of their own language and thus, reduced to silence, had failed to to develop their own discoursive power. Accordingly, you indicated three “strategic imperatives” for the Italian American community, the first being that of reagining their language. The historical context of your appeal was the aftermath of the Bensonhurst ethnic disorders involving Italian Americans and African Americans.

    Could you briefly recall that moment and the reasons of your appeal about the political-cultural need of an Italian American bilingualism?

    “At the end of August 1989, U.S. news media filled up with stories about the murder of Ysuf Hawkins, showing protest marches at the site of the crime in Bensonhurst and featuring the loud, crude, and angry responses of people who lived in the neighborhood, many or most of them Italian Americans. The news media did not interview any public intellectual with an Italian name. Why was this? I wondered. How had Italian Americans been reduced to violence and dumbshow as their only means of public expression? I offered as a theory that Italian Americans had lost the ability to speak seriously in public about or problems (to engage in what I called authoritative discourse) when they gave up the ability to speak, read, and write Italian. This had severed any living connection with Italian American history, any living connection with other peoples of Italian descent, whether in Italy or in any other parts of the world”.

    Language was the first of your “strategic imperatives”, the other two being narrative and dialectics. To gain capacity of authoritative speech the Italian American community needed to be both bilingial and bicultural. What is the relationship between language and culture? Why an can’t an Italian American culture just “speak English”?

    “Italian American culture without the Italian language loses its connection with the rhetorical, political, and philosophical traditions of Italian culture. The lack of living connection with Italian discourse goes further than any other single factor to explain the apparent inability of Italian America to represent itself adequately in the market of cultural exchange that constitutes the public sphere in the United States. If what calls itself Italian is restricted to food, music, fashion, film, and gangsterism, then the representation of things Italian and Italian American will find it hard to rise into the sphere of authoritative discourse – that is, either to articulate effectively what it has meant, does mean, and can mean to be an Italian in the world, or else to represent persuasively the thoughts and purposes of Italians in the United States. When Italian Americans “just speak English” they silently submit their histories and their collective interests to the hegemonic order of Anglo-American culture, which has a place for Italian Americans as such among the silent and the marginalized. This of course does not mean that Italian Americans have made no social or political progress in the United States, but it does mean that often this progress has of necessity implied the sacrifice of any articulated understanding of their own specific histories, either as Italians or as Italian Americans”.

    In 1990 your appeal quickly became a manifesto for political-cultural action, a call to arms. What has been accomplished in the 18 years that have followed since? What, in your opinion, remains to be accomplished? And, in particular, is language still a “strategic imperative” for the Italian American “nation”?

    “What has been accomplished? Italian Americans have continued to open new discoursive spaces – the Italian American Writers Association and Malia, a Collective of Italian American Women are two leading examples. Many colleges and universities now teach courses in Italian American literature, film, and other forms of cultural expression. The Journals VIA and Italian Americana have continued to provide for the discussion of historical and cultural issues.

    The central question of my essay – how to develop Italian American discoursive authority by opening full access for Italian Americans to the study of Italian language and culture – has begun, but only begun, to be addressed. More students are studying Italian in secondary schools and colleges. This is good, but it scarcely begins to address the catastrophe of linguicide that took place during the Second World War. How can this be done?


    1. Encourage the study of Italian in American schools and universities. The AP Exam in Italian, recently instituted, is a powerful stimulus to the institution of curricula in Italian in the United States. It needs to be supported at every level, from local civic associations to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.


    2. Encourage Italian Americans and other Americans to study Italian in Italy. There is no better way, almost no other way, to develop the substantial bilingual American/Italian community that can advance the work of cultural recovery that is basic to the development of Italian American discoursive authority.


    3. The work of cultural recovery must go forward both in English and in Italian. The study of Italian American and Italian cultural, economic, and political history are basic to the Italian American wish to have direct access to the sources of their discoursive authority. The project, now under way, to translate Francesco Durante’s monumental anthology Italoamericana: Storia e letteratura degli italiani negli Stati Uniti 1880-1943, is a major step forward in expanding Italian America’s knowledge of its own history.


    Robert Viscusi is one of the foremost critics of Italian American literature and culture, and the president of the Italian American Writers Association. He is is Professor of English at Brooklyn College, CUNY, and Director of the Ethyl Wolfe Institute for the Humanities.

  • Op-Eds

    Bill de Blasio, Mario Cuomo, and “The Tale of Two Cities”


    On September 19, The New York Times published an article with the following incipit:

     
    "Bill de Blasio’s path to the Democratic nomination for mayor was built in large part around his theme that New York has become a tale of two cities. New data being released on Thursday by the Census Bureau lend support to that argument, showing that even as the recession has ended, the city’s poverty rate continues to inch up and the gap between the rich and poor remains stubbornly large."
     
    The Times did not elaborate further on the origin of de Blasio’s well-known slogan. 
    It is generally little known, for instance, that A Tale of Two Cities is a world-famous novel by Charles Dickens, written in 1859 and set in London and Paris at the time of the French Revolution. With 200 million copies sold, Dicken's book has been an enormously influential denunciation of the social and political situation in Europe at the time. 

     
    To be sure, pundits have linked the expression "A Tale of Two Cities" to its more contemporary version -- the hyper-famous keynote address by which Mario Cuomo opened the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco (see video above). Then Governor of the State of New York, Cuomo was on the rise as a figure of presidential stature in the Democratic Party. It was the Reagan era, and Cuomo was considered one of the best anti-Reagan orators in town, a Great (Democratic) Communicator. In that speech, he attacked President Reagan for saying that he didn't understand the fear of many Americans who were "unhappy, even worried, about themselves, their families, and their futures." "Why?" Cuomo reported Reagan as asking, rhetorically, his audience, "This country is a shining city on a hill!"
    And here came the lunge: "Mr. President -- Cuomo erupted -- you ought to know that this nation is more a "Tale of Two Cities" than it is just a "Shining City on a Hill." Then Cuomo elaborated, using a language and arguments that have no doubt inspired Bill de Blasio’s progressive rhetoric:
     
    “A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there's another city; there's another part to the shining the city; the part where some people can't pay their mortgages, and most young people can't afford one; where students can't afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.
    In this part of the city there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can't find it. Even worse: There are elderly people who tremble in the basements of the houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn't show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people, without a job or an education, give their lives away to drug dealers every day. There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don't see, in the places that you don't visit in your shining city.”
    (Listen to the whole speech in the video above, or read it here).
     
    This is not the place to elaborate further on a political parallel between 2013 Bill DeBlasio and 1984 Mario Cuomo. They are different under many respects, and 30 years have passed since that path-breaking speech. But it is intriguing that these two politicians are both Americans of Italian origin, a fact that is often ignored or presented as a mere coincidence. But it’s not just a matter of shared ethnic origin. For Mario Cuomo, in fact, the “Two Cities” argument was stricly connected to a “Tale of Immigration.” Here is how he elaborated it, turning the story of his Italian immigrant family into a universal symbol:
     
    “I watched a small man with thick calluses on both his hands work 15 and 16 hours a day. I saw him once literally bleed from the bottoms of his feet, a man who came here uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language, who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example. I learned about our kind of democracy from my father. And I learned about our obligation to each other from him and from my mother. They asked only for a chance to work and to make the world better for their children, and they -- they asked to be protected in those moments when they would not be able to protect themselves. This nation and this nation's government did that for them.
    And that they were able to build a family and live in dignity and see one of their children go from behind their little grocery store in South Jamaica on the other side of the tracks where he was born, to occupy the highest seat, in the greatest State, in the greatest nation, in the only world we would know, is an ineffably beautiful tribute to the democratic process.”
     
    And it should not be forgotten that by that speech Mario Cuomo was introducing to the Democratic Convention the Mondale-Ferraro ticket, where fellow Italian American Geraldine Ferraro was to be, in his words: “America's first woman Vice President, the child of immigrants, and she -- she will open with one magnificent stroke, a whole new frontier for the United States.”

     
    True, the Mondale-Ferraro ticket was defeated. And seen 30 years later from the perspective of the Obama era, all this may seem political archeology. But we like to think that Mario Cuomo’s 1984 keynote address did contribute to future events in the Democratic Party as well as in the country at large.

     
    Be it as it may, the fact that de Blasio – an Italian American who has married and African-American woman – is rediscovering Cuomo’s “Two Cities” slogan, goes beyond they shared ethnicity or political similarity. It suggests is that the Italian-American community has grown into a mature and sophisticated segment of the American society, capable of generating political figures of high profile who can mobilize the dreams and hopes of the American public at large. Their appeal is definitely not limited to Italian Americans nor, of course, to those who put themselves on the liberal end of the political spectrum. Indeed national-level politicians of Italian origin in New York include people as diverse as the archi-conservative Senator Al D'Amato and the Republical-Liberal Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The above are just a few names from the past decades, to which one should definitely add Mario's son Andrew -- a former Attorney General and former Secretary of Housing in the Clinton Administration, who became Governor of New York in 2010 after defeating fellow Italian-American Carl Paladino, a very vocal if inconclusive tea-party-style Republican. 
     
    In closing, and leaving aside any political consideration about Bill de Blasio and his future as a possible Mayor of this city, we want to point out that he is but the most recent manifestation of the enormous path traveled by the children and grandchildren of Italian immigrants in America. This fact alone cannot but bode well for the future of multi-ethnic integration in the U.S. and in Italy as well, where an African-Italian, Ms Cécile Kyenge, just became a Government Minister for the first time ever (she recently visited New York’s Italian community – see our video here.) The “Tale of Two Cities” is indeed a world narrative; so is the struggle to overcome it.
     

  • Op-Eds

    Food for Thought: Not All Popes Resign for the Same Reasons

    Benedict XVI’s resignation on Monday threw the world into a tizzy. Pundits have noted that there are just a handful of precedents in the 2000-year history of the Catholic Church, the most recent being 600 years ago, when Gregory XII resigned in 1415. So, there would seem to be little in those ancient experiences that can help reflect on today’s events. Or is there?

    I believe there is. For the lay public, in Italy at least, the most famous precedent is Celestine V, who resigned in 1294, just 4 months after being appointed. Most people may know the case of Celestine V, because Dante Alighieri – the world-famous Italian poet and coeval of Celestine – mentioned him derogatorily in his Divine Comedy. Dante, who put Celestine in Hell, accused him of cowardice. Basically, however, Dante hated Celestine because his resignation paved the way for Boniface VIII, whom Dante considered the symbol of corruption of the Church in his times.

    But to students of contemporary Italian literature, Celestine is known (and mostly dear) for being the main character of a successful novel by renowned writer Ignazio Silone. In his L’avventura di un povero cristiano (The Story of a Humble Christian, Harper and Row, 1971. Available on Amazon.com), published in 1968 and winner of several literary prizes, Silone offered a reinterpretation of Celestine's life, his ascendancy to the papacy and his resignation, which put the whole story in a much more favorable light. Celestine, who lived in the same century as St. Francis of Assisi, the famous friar who preached poverty as the only true Christian lifestyle, would resign in an act of extreme, radical protest against the degeneration of the Church into political intrigues and enormously corrupt behavior.

    Though Silone's book makes very pleasant reading to those interested in Italian history and literature, it would also appeal to anyone with an interest in the long history of the relationship between Church, politics and – as we would say today – business.

    In order to offer our readers some food for thought on this matter, we have reached out to Stanislao Pugliese, Professor of modern European history and Distinguished Professor of Italian and Italian American Studies at Hofstra University. Prof. Pugliese is the author of an important biography of Ignazio Silone (Bitter Spring. A Life of Ignazio Silone, 2009), which has won numerous prizes in Italy, England, and the U.S.

    Professor Pugliese, would you please summarize for us the plot of Ignazio Silone's The Story of a Humble Christian dedicated to Celestine V and his resignation? And what is the "moral" message of that novel?

    A papal conclave in Rome after the death of a Pope is bitterly divided between rival aristocratic families, the Colonna and Orsini, neither of which wishes to see the other ascend to the Papacy. A compromise is reached: the conclave will call on Pietro Da Marrone, a famous monk, in Abruzzo. Pietro, in order to flee crowds who insist he is a holy man and seeking his intercession, has exiled himself to the Maiella, a famous mountain in the Abruzzo. Thinking they can dominate a naïve “cafone” monk, the cardinals arrive at his cave with the news of his election and a magnificent white horse to take the humble monk to Rome.  Pietro, trembling before the awesome task before him, decides to take the name Celestino, but rejects the horse saying he prefers to travel to Rome on a donkey, thereby endearing him even more to the peasants.  (Even into the twentieth century, peasants in that part of Italy still greeted each other with a Biblical “La pace sia con voi.”)

    Upon his arrival in Rome, Celestino is shocked by the moral, financial, political and sexual corruption in the Church. So begins his moral crisis, a crisis resolved only when he decides to renounce the Papacy; hence Dante’s characterization of his as “colui che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto” (he who made, through cowardice, the great refusal; Inferno, III, 60). 

    In Silone’s imaginative re-telling of the story, one friar remarks “Like Job, Celestine seems the object of a wager between Satan and God.”  I think the message is that Silone was using an ancient drama to illuminate what he felt to be the moral failings of the modern Church.  

    Ignazio Silone was a Communist, an heretical communist I should say. How did his personal biography intermingle with the writing of this book? Considering too that it was published in 1968, a very symbolic year of turmoil in Italy and Europe when the leftist movements of students and workers were in full swing...

    Ironically, it was a religious view of the world that had sent Silone into the PCI (Italian Communist Party). But he then grew bitterly convinced that the party had betrayed the workers and peasants of Italy. (As he may have betrayed the PCI in a long exchange of letters with a police official in Rome, as has been alleged.) Hence, the impossibility of Silone remaining in the PCI. He had expelled himself from the Church and was eventually expelled from the PCI in 1931. 

    In an interview with a French journalist, Silone tellingly described himself as “A Christian without a Church and a Socialist without a Party.” The tragedy of his life was that he could find redemption in neither politics nor orthodox, organized religion. He had been a student of Saint Luigi Orione and drawn to the ethical impulse of Christianity, but the hypocrisy of the Church was unacceptable. Another monk in “The Adventure of a Humble Christian” declares Silone’s motto: “Conscience is above obedience.”

    The polemic against the moral as well as the material corruption of the Catholic Church traversed the whole history of Italy and Europe and at one point precipitated the Lutheran reformation and the birth of Protestantism. As a professor of European history, how topical you think this polemic is today? 

    In the wake of the sexual abuse scandals and continuing revelations of financial corruption, (witness the unfolding Monte dei Paschi di Siena investigation), where is our contemporary Luther? But perhaps it may be dangerous to wish for a modern Luther, who turned out to be more authoritarian than the Papacy. As someone exiled from the Church, I see no need for another stern theologian, but long for another Papa Giovanni or another Albino Luciano (but look what happened to him!) 

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