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Articles by: George De stefano

  • Op-Eds

    Tom Ammiano, Standup Politician



     

    When Tom Ammiano fled New Jersey to settle in San Francisco some fifty years ago, he hardly imagined that one day he'd become one of his adopted state's most prominent politicians.  


    In the early 1960s, Ammiano was an unhappy, closeted young gay man who felt that he was "suffocating," and he craved the freedom he believed existed in California. "I moved to San Francisco to be gay," says. "My big thing was to escape. I just wanted to go, to get the hell out of Jersey so I could be myself.”


    A half-century later, Ammiano, now 73, looks back on a remarkable career as a grassroots activist, local elective officeholder, and member of the California State Assembly. At the end of 2014, Ammiano left the Assembly (due to term limits) after having served three terms representing his district, which comprises most of the consolidated city-county of San Francisco.  


    During his time in the Assembly, Ammiano, a left wing Democrat, was an uncommonly effective legislator. In one year alone, – 2013 – Governor Jerry Brown singed thirteen bills sponsored by Ammiano, including his Trust Act, which offers undocumented immigrants greater protection from deportation.


    Ammiano hardly coasted during his last year as an Assembly member. As the Los Angeles Times observed, "his legislative agenda for his final year in the Assembly is full of issues that many Democrats wouldn't dare touch, like reclassifying certain sex offenders and changing how commercial properties are taxed under Proposition 13."



    As the Chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, he fought to reform California's corrections system and criminal sentencing. His other assignments included the health, human services, and transportation committees, and the Joint Committee on the Arts. He also was a member of the legislature's LGBT and environmental caucuses.


    During an interview in late 2014, shortly before he left office, I remarked to Ammiano that his success at advancing progressive and even radical political positions as an elected official led me to think of him as "the gay Vito Marcantonio." Like the East Harlem attorney and tenants' rights activist turned US Congress member, Ammiano comes from a working class, Southern Italian immigrant family. He also had years of experience as an activist before he entered electoral politics. And like Marcantonio, he is a leftist maverick who has put dedication to principle above party loyalty, often challenging his party's leadership and the political establishment.


    Ammiano admitted he was unaware of Marcantonio until a friend gave him a biography of the Congressman, remarking, "This guy puts me in mind of you."


    "I didn't know about him," Ammiano said. But after reading the biography, he said saw the parallels with Marcantonio, who represented his East Harlem district in Congress over several terms, from 1935 to 1951.


    Ammiano, however, had one tool in his skill set that Marcantonio didn't: standup comedy. He began to perform professionally in 1980, when he established a gay comedy night at San Francisco's Valencia Rose Cabaret. The self-described "mother of gay comedy" (he has never shied from camp humor, which in some gay circles is now considered passe') performed nationally. I saw him in New York in 1990, and during our interview I recounted one of the joes from that show: "I'm firty-nine." Pause. "That's ninety-four in gay years." The now-septuagenarian Ammiano laughed, and then sighed, "Forty-nine..."

     

    He says his comedy experience has served him well in his political career, from his days as an activist schoolteacher to his years in the Assembly. "I use humor a lot, and I think that helped me in Sacramento." In 1993, when a conservative member of the San Francisco School Board said, "Surely, Mr. Ammiano, you don't endorse condom availability in the schools?", Ammiano replied, "Not only do I endorse, I am wearing one right now. And here's one for you -- a lifetime supply." 


    In 1999, Ammiano was at the center of a controversy involving the Catholic archdiocese and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a street theater cum activist group whose members dress in drag as Catholic nuns. The Board of Supervisors, at Ammiano's request, granted the Sisters a permit to close a block of Castro Street for their anniversary celebration – which just happened to fall on Easter weekend. San Francisco's archdiocese demanded that the event be moved to another day; the archdiocesan newspaper compared the Sisters' event to neo-Nazis celebrating on Passover. The Knights of Columbus took out a full-page newspaper advertisement denouncing Ammiano for his support of the Sisters.


    When one Supervisor criticized Ammiano and the Sisters as anti-Catholic, he suggested she refrain from such rhetoric until "you've walked a mile in my pumps."


    That was "classic Tom," remarked Tommi Avicolli Mecca, like Ammiano a gay Italian American from New Jersey who relocated to San Francisco, where he has become a prominent LGBT and housing rights activist.


    The controversy evidently helped make the Sisters' anniversary party a resounding success; 5,000 attended and the event raised thousands of dollars for local AIDS and LGBT charities.


    The Personal and the Political

    Tom Ammiano says he came to leftwing politics through personal experience. His impoverished immigrant grandparents were from small towns outside Naples. "They did not romanticize Italy," he recalls. "In fact, they hated it. They were dirt-poor and illiterate."


    "They left," he says, "because they felt there was nothing there for them."


    His American-born parents were poor, and he remembers them "scrambling to pay the rent every month." When they no longer could afford to pay the rent on their Newark apartment, they moved the family, Tom and his two older siblings, to Tom's grandfather's house in Montclair.


    His parents both suffered ill health. His father, a taxi driver, put off seeing a doctor for his hypertension because he had no health coverage. He suffered a major stroke and died when Ammiano was in college.


    "I knew about class issues without having gone to a Marxist study group," he says.


    Ammiano, with his fey mannerisms and voice, was unable to pass for straight, and he says he was bullied and beaten up "a lot" when he was in high school. Although he jokes that he was gay "in utero," he didn't come out officially until 1975, when he co-founded a gay teachers group to confront homophobia in San Francisco schools. This made him the city's first openly gay teacher, during a time when right-wing efforts against gay and lesbian educators were gathering force. (Those efforts culminated in the 1978 Briggs ballot initiative, which would have amended California's constitution to bar gay men and lesbians from teaching in public schools. Ammiano, activist Hank Wilson, and San Francisco's openly gay political leader Harvey Milk led a campaign against the initiative, major political figures opposed it, and voters overwhelmingly defeated the initiative at the polls.)  


    Ammiano's mother did not react well to his very public coming out. "My mother just blew her lid," he recalls. "She said, 'what did I do wrong?' It’s always about them, you know."


    After he came out, his parents wondered why he had to do it. "My mother’s big thing was not wanting other people to know – what would they think! That comes from Italian village life, I think."


    But, when he introduced his partner, Tim Curbo, to his family, they accepted him. "He was OK, I guess. He was handsome and didn't seem gay to them." Ammiano and Curbo were together for sixteen years, until Curbo died from AIDS in 1994.


    Once Ammiano leaped into political activism, there was no looking back. Voters elected him to the San Francisco School Board in 1990, and he became its president before leaving in 1994, when he won citywide election to the Board of Supervisors. He remained a member of the Board until his 2008 election to the California Assembly. As a Supervisor, he spearheaded the San Francisco Health Care Security Ordinance, which made the city the nation's first to provide universal healthcare access. He also was the main architect of San Francisco's Domestic Partners Ordinance, which provided equal benefits to municipal employees and their domestic partners.


    In 1999, Ammiano mounted a successful write-in campaign in the San Francisco mayoral contest, preventing the incumbent Willie Brown from achieving a victory without a run-off. Ammiano lost the December runoff election, but his campaign galvanized left-leaning voters. The Los Angeles Times reported that one of Brown's aides acknowledged that the mayor "was nudged leftward by Ammiano, who used his perch on the Board of Supervisors to loudly contest Brown’s pro-development bent." Ammiano ran for mayor again in 2003, but failed to make the run-off when Matt Gonzalez, a city Supervisor, entered the race and split the progressive vote.


    Throughout his political career, his priorities have included workers' rights, the homeless, immigrants, youth, and the LGBT community.

    As an activist, leftwing Democrat, he often has criticized his party’s timidity and conservatism. Now that he has left office, some of his supporters, including Tommi Avicolli Mecca, are urging him to run again for mayor of San Francisco. There currently is no organized effort behind a potential Ammiano candidacy. But activists like Avicolli Mecca see Ammiano as a forceful and effective advocate who will oppose the neoliberal economic development and housing policies that have made the city increasingly unaffordable to all but the rich.

    Ammiano says that he's not ready to retire from public life, and that he indeed is considering running for another office. In fact, he has opened a 2016 campaign finance account for a possible California State Senate run. He also hasn't ruled out running for San Francisco mayor against incumbent Ed Lee.

    He does not intend to give up performing, either; he says he is working on a new one-man show.


    In the meantime, Ammiano enjoys life with his partner, Carolis Deal, whom he married in 2014, and with his daughter Annie, her husband, and their three children. He says that Annie – who was conceived by a friend via artificial insemination – resembles him. "She loves being half-Italian," he says.


    Ammiano says that in San Francisco he has "tried to mirror what the family structure was in New Jersey, but on my terms – by creating alternative family with other gay people." That experience, he says, was "transformative" and enabled him to grow. And he now feels that "the Italian milieu, despite its flaws and perversities, also offered support.”


    "I had to get away from my family," he says. "But the family really did give me something – a sense of self-worth."

     

     

  • Facts & Stories

    Italian Americans in California




    I recently wrote about Finding the Mother Lode, the first-rate new documentary about Italian immigration to California by filmmakers Gianfranco Norelli and Suma Kurien.  Under the new – albeit less evocative – title, Italian Americans in California, the film will be made available as a three-part miniseries to Public Broadcasting System (PBS) stations nationwide on Friday, January 16, 2015, via satellite feed from the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA). 



    Preview the three, thirty-minute episodes at the following links using the password “CaliforniaItalians”: 


    Episode 1: Finding the Mother Lode 

    Episode 2: The Making of Italian San Francisco 

    Episode 3: Little Italys and Beyond 



    Italian Americans in California had its Public Broadcasting System (PBS) premiere December 24, on KVIE-Sacramento. Other PBS stations, however, will decide to broadcast it based on audience interest. So if you would like to see this important film get the exposure it deserves, contact your local PBS affiliate and voice your support.


    To find your local PBS affiliate, visit the PBS website.


    The first documentary to recount the story of the Italian Americans of California, the film focuses on seven communities where Italian immigrants settled and built communities: San Francisco, Sonoma County, Amador County, Stockton, Monterey, San Diego and Los Angeles.


    Italian American history in California began with the Gold Rush of 1849-50. Italian Americans in California starts there, and goes on to depict important milestones through the first-person accounts of individuals, woven together with comments from scholars who provide historical and social context. The film not only shows the challenges the immigrants to California faced and their achievement of remarkable social and economic success. It also examines how ethnic identity is both maintained and transformed with the passage of time. 


    Pane Amaro, an earlier documentary by Norelli and Kurien, focused on the experiences of southern Italian immigrants to the East Coast of the United States. Italian Americans in California tells a strikingly different story, one that is indispensable for a fuller understanding of the epic, and ongoing history of Italian immigration to America. 

  • Events: Reports

    Italian Americans in California

     

    I recently wrote about Finding the Mother Lode, the first-rate new documentary about Italian immigration to California by filmmakers Gianfranco Norelli and Suma Kurien.  Under the new – albeit less evocative – title, Italian Americans in California, the film will be made available as a three-part miniseries to Public Broadcasting System (PBS) stations nationwide on Friday, January 16, 2015, via satellite feed from the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA). 

     

     

     

    Preview the three, thirty-minute episodes at the following links using the password “CaliforniaItalians”: 

     

     

     

     

    Episode 1: Finding the Mother Lode 

     

    Episode 2: The Making of Italian San Francisco 

    Episode 3: Little Italys and Beyond 

    Italian Americans in California had its Public Broadcasting System (PBS) premiere December 24, on KVIE-Sacramento. Other PBS stations, however, will decide to broadcast it based on audience interest. So if you would like to see this important film get the exposure it deserves, contact your local PBS affiliate and voice your support.

    To find your local PBS affiliate, visit the PBS website.

    The first documentary to recount the story of the Italian Americans of California, the film focuses on seven communities where Italian immigrants settled and built communities: San Francisco, Sonoma County, Amador County, Stockton, Monterey, San Diego and Los Angeles.

    Italian American history in California began with the Gold Rush of 1849-50. Italian Americans in California starts there, and goes on to depict important milestones through the first-person accounts of individuals, woven together with comments from scholars who provide historical and social context. The film not only shows the challenges the immigrants to California faced and their achievement of remarkable social and economic success. It also examines how ethnic identity is both maintained and transformed with the passage of time. 

    Pane Amaro, an earlier documentary by Norelli and Kurien, focused on the experiences of southern Italian immigrants to the East Coast of the United States. Italian Americans in California tells a strikingly different story, one that is indispensable for a fuller understanding of the epic, and ongoing history of Italian immigration to America. 

     

     

  • Life & People

    Far from Mulberry Street



     

    “California is not what people generally think of when they think about the Italian immigrant experience,” remarked Suma Kurien after a screening of Finding the Mother Lode, the new documentary she produced and wrote with her husband, Gianfranco Norelli, who also directed. 


    The filmmakers presented and discussed their latest work, which will be aired as a three-part miniseries on the Public Broadcasting System in February, at a December 15 event at New York University’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò.


    The documentary is a companion piece to their acclaimed 2007 film, Pane Amaro, which portrayed the Italian immigrant experience on the East Coast.


    Kurien said that when they showed Pane Amaro to Italian American Californians, they said, “Great film. But it’s not our story." 



    Intrigued, the filmmakers decided that their next work would tell that lesser-known story of Italian immigrant experience in California, which markedly differs from the more familiar East Coast narrative. The result of three years’ research – and sixty hours of filming – is an engrossing, revealing, and beautifully made work. Finding the Mother Lode eschews the clichés of ethnic documentaries (the triumphalist narrative of immigrants achieving the “American Dream” and the focus on outstanding individuals, usually men) to provide a more complex account of the California immigrant experience.




    Purchase the DVD online from Amazon.com

    Prominenti do appear in the film. They include Amadeo Giannini, the California-born son of immigrants who founded the Bank of Italy, later the Bank of America; Andrea Sbarbaro and Pietro Carlo Rossi, the founder and director of the Italian Swiss Colony winery; and newspaper publisher Ettore Patrizi, who paid dearly for his ardent support of Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship. Joe di Maggio also makes a brief appearance.


    But the filmmakers wisely concentrate on how the immigrants achieved remarkable economic and social mobility in the Golden State, using the skills and experience they brought with them from Italy, and how their status as white Europeans fostered their assimilation. The film’s exploration of the Italian experience in California moves from Sutter Creek to San Francisco, to Stockton, Monterey, San Diego, and Los Angeles.


    Italians first came to California in large numbers during the Gold Rush of 1849-1850. Most who tried to find gold did not succeed, and they instead became farmers, fishermen, bankers, lumberjacks, winemakers, construction workers, merchants, and entrepreneurs.


    Unlike the majority of Italian immigrants to the East Coast, who came from Italy’s south, the earliest immigrants to California came from northern regions, mainly Tuscany and Liguria. (One of the film’s interviewees jokes that a “mixed marriage” meant one between a Tuscan and a Ligurian.) They generally had higher rates of literacy and were more skilled. Many of them – more than forty percent – chose to settle in rural areas, whereas only about eight percent of East Coast immigrants did so. They hastened to become naturalized citizens so that they could own land in northern California, where the climate was similar to that of the places they had left.  

    In Pane Amaro, Norelli and Kurien depicted the discrimination southern Italian immigrants faced when they arrived. But the northern Italians who constituted the majority of the early arrivals to California generally were welcomed by the native, Anglo-Saxon population. They enjoyed white privilege – unlike Chinese or Mexicans, they could own land. Moreover, some practiced discrimination against other immigrants – the Italian Swiss Colony winery refused to hire Chinese workers.

    But Finding the Mother Lode highlights two historical incidents that demonstrated that the snake of anti-Italian prejudice lurked even in sunny California, the state that folksinger Woody Guthrie described as a “garden of Eden.”

    In 1909, Italian immigrant workers at the McCloud River Lumber Company went on strike to protest wage cuts and discriminatory practices by the company’s mangers, including segregated housing in the lumber camps and higher prices in the company store. Although they made up two-thirds of the McCloud workforce, the Italians were subjected to repeated slights, insults, and abuses from other workers. The two-week strike ended when Governor J.N. Gillet sent in the California National Guard to break it – the first such occurrence in the United States.

    Norelli, during the discussion after the Casa Italia screening, noted that the McCloud strikers were immigrants from northern and southern Italy (Calabria and Sicily). He said the company tried to exacerbate divisions between the two groups, even offering “white” status to the northerners if they would end the strike and return to work. Instead, as Norelli noted, “The northern and southern workers stuck together, as they did in other strikes,” such as the 1913 strike by textile workers in Paterson, New Jersey.


    During the World War II era, Italians in California came under scrutiny as potential “enemy aliens” – even San Francisco’s American-born mayor Angelo Rossi was considered suspect. In 1942, some 1,800 Italian-born Californians were taken into custody and detained under wartime restrictions; others were relocated outside California. Their fate, however, was far less harsh than that of Japanese Americans. Unlike the Italians, who were deemed “enemy aliens” for only nine months and who were mostly non-naturalized California residents, the Japanese – some 120,000, most of them U.S. citizens – were forcibly relocated to internment camps for the duration of the war, losing their homes and livelihoods.

    Finding the Mother Lode presents two types of ethnic consciousness, one epitomized by those immigrants (and their descendants) who, seeking to preserve and transmit their culture, married only their paesani/paesane. Another, more expansive ethnicity is embodied in the figure of Sabato “Simon” Rodia, an immigrant laborer from Campania who, working for more than thirty years, built the Watts Towers – seventeen interconnected sculpture-like structures, the tallest reaching nearly 100 feet, in the eponymous, working class Los Angeles neighborhood populated mainly by African Americans, Latinos and Asians. Rodia called his masterwork – which has been designated a National Historical Landmark – “Nuestro Pueblo” (“Our Town”). His Spanish-named installation is decorated with found objects and designs reflecting various cultures; one of the towers, the "ship of Marco Polo,” has a twenty-eight-foot spire.


    Suma Kurien remarked that while planning Finding the Mother Lode, she and Gianfranco Norelli wanted to “explore how one lives in a multiethnic, multicultural society and maintains one’s culture.” Some, Kurien said, did this by marrying only other Italians. Sabato Rodia, she said, “was able to hold on to his Italian identity and heritage in the midst of a very multiethnic community, to be a part of that community, and build a ‘nuestro pueblo’ with a place for everyone.”


    Kurien – born in India, raised in Africa, and a New Yorker for decades, the partner and collaborator of an Italian immigrant, and a fluent speaker of Italian – said that Rodia’s way “certainly speaks to me.” 


    PBS will broadcast Finding the Mother Lode in three, thirty-minute segments in February 2015. Check local station listings for details.


    The full-length, 104-minute version of Finding the Mother Lode is available on DVD from Amazon.

     

  • Life & People

    Louise De Salvo's "personal effects"

    Louise De Salvo, the subject of a new book of critical essays about her writing, admitted to being overwhelmed by the attention. At a December 1 event at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute in Manhattan to celebrate the release of the book, Personal Effects: Essays on Memoir, Teaching, and Culture in the Work of Louise DeSalvo, the author spoke about, among other things, the effect reading the essays had on her.

     “When you sit down at the desk and you’re a writer of memoir, you have to be very unselfconscious, you have to do what you do and figure it out as you go along,” she observed. “One of great fears I had was that I would stop being unselfconscious once I got back to my desk.

    I tried to read the book as if it weren’t about myself, because it was too overwhelming. I can only read this book as if it really isn’t about my work, as if it’s about a writer called Louise De Salvo.” 

    The writer called Louise De Salvo heard her work – a diverse and distinctive oeuvre that comprises memoir, essays, fiction, biography, and literary criticism – praised by Edvige Giunta and Nancy Caronia, the co-editors of Personal Effects, and by four of its contributors. They hailed De Salvo for what they called her “fearlessness” in tackling issues such as immigration and ethnicity, sexuality and gender, violence and war, physical and mental illness, and trauma, from the perspective of an Italian American woman of working-class origins.

    De Salvo, 72, has published sixteen books, the most recent being The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity. Her memoir Vertigo won the Gay Talese Award and was a finalist for Italy's Giuseppe Acerbi Literary Prize. Another memoir, Crazy in the Kitchen: Food, Feuds, and Forgiveness in an Italian American Family, was selected as a Booksense Book of the Year for 2004.

    De Salvo established herself as a Virginia Woolf scholar, having edited a new edition of Woolf's first novel Melymbrosia, as well as writing two books on the British author, Virginia Woolf's First Voyage: A Novel in the Making (1980) and Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work (1989). The latter book, which argued that Woolf’s sexual abuse by her half-brother significantly affected her as a woman and a writer, roiled the field of Woolf scholarship.

    At the Calandra event, Edvige Giunta called De Salvo, who is a professor of English at Hunter College, “an exemplary teacher.” Two of her books – Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives and The Art of Slow Writing – offer insights and advice, as well as practical strategies.

    Contributors to Personal Effects include emerging academics and writers, some of them former students of De Salvo, as well as established scholars in Italian American studies. Not all are Italian American; writers of Greek, Puerto Rican, British, and African American backgrounds also have contributed essays, which Giunta said attested to De Salvo’s stature as  an author “who speaks to and for a multiplicity of constituencies.”

    The book is a landmark in that it is – amazingly, or perhaps shockingly -- the first critical volume devoted to an Italian American woman writer. Its genesis was a conversation between Giunta and co-editor Caronia during the 2008 conference of the Italian American Studies Association (then called the American Italian Historical Association). Giunta and Caronia noted that although there were many conference panels devoted to male Italian American writers, there were none on Italian American women writers. Moreover, there existed no scholarly books devoted to the work of an Italian American woman.  

    Caronia, a lecturer at the University of Rhode Island, and Giunta, a professor of English at New Jersey City University, set out to remedy that situation. They aimed to create what Giunta called “a book that was usable, for students and scholars, and for a wide readership.” The book is structured along three sections – memoir, teaching, and culture – but, said Giunta, the sections are not intended to be discrete and self-contained. Rather, the essays were meant to be “in conversation with each other.”

    Fordham University Press has published the book as part of its Critical Studies in Italian America series edited by Laura Ruberto and Nancy Carnevale. Fredric Nachbaur, director of the press, spoke briefly at the Calandra event.

    At Calandra, the four contributors expressed their appreciation of different aspects of Louise De Salvo’s work. The British Virginia Woolf scholar Mark Hussey said that Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work “changed the conversation about Woolf.”

    Jennifer-Ann Di Gregori-Kightlinger, noting that although “food is central” to De Salvo’s work, that focus “serves not to elevate Italian American culture but to reveal our very past.” In her writing, food is “less about nourishment and more about loss, and this loss is intimately tied to loss of Italian language, including its regional dialects.”

    Joshua Fausty located De Salvo’s memoir writing in “the tradition that includes Montaigne, Emerson, and Woolf.” De Salvo, he said, writes essayistic memoir “to explore all kinds of profound and often unconscious forces to discover something she doesn’t know when she starts writing.”

    Peter Covino praised the “working class rhythms of De Salvo’s phrasing” and her unapologetic use of earthy, expressive language. He noted that in writing about her sister’s suicide, De Salvo demonstrated how “traditional middle class American values can be unsafe and unsettling.”

    An obviously moved De Salvo commented, “Hearing people talk about the work you do is one of the greatest honors any writer can have.” So many writers, she noted, “work without getting the attention they deserve.”

    De Salvo read a piece she’d written about how her southern Italian family “stopped being Italian, or stopped showing as far as they can …that they are Italian.” Her parents, the children of immigrants, never raised “the subject of ethnicity.” In school, she didn’t read about Italian history or culture until she “heard about the Renaissance in college and grad school.” But she didn’t “identify with them or see their accomplishments as being especially significant to me.”

    She said she had to “become” Italian American, and writing her memoir, Crazy in the Kitchen, was critical to that becoming. In researching her family background, she discovered her grandparents came from Puglia. “Learning where they came from” was “an event of tremendous moment for me, for I never knew we came from the south, that we were pugliesi.”

    “In trying to unlock my grandparents’ past, I read scores of books about the Italian diaspora,” she said. From her reading, she learned “what has been denied me, what I don’t know about these people who are my forbears.” De Salvo learned “what being southern Italian means, more specifically what being poor and a farmworker and pugliesi meant during the beginning of the twentieth century.”

    “The great loss that underlies my work is this: that everything I learned about my people that I needed to know I learned after they vanished.”

    “My entire life’s work,” she said, “has been chasing the ghosts of my forbears.”

  • Art & Culture

    Addio, Cosimo

    Cosimo Matassa, who died September 11 at age 88, was a son of Sicilian immigrants to New Orleans who, like so many of their connazionali, settled in a working-class, multiethnic French Quarter neighborhood. Matassa became a pivotal figure in American vernacular music through his role in creating “the New Orleans sound” in his recording studios. According to music historian Jeff Hannusch, “Virtually every rhythm and blues record made in New Orleans between the late 1940s and early 1970s was engineered by Cosimo Matassa, and recorded in one of his four studios.” Matassa made hit records with many renowned African American artists, including Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Big Joe Turner, Roy Brown, Little Richard, Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, Aaron Neville, Smiley Lewis, Guitar Slim, Ernie K. Doe, Lloyd Price, Clarence “Frogman” Henry and Roy “Professor Longhair” Byrd. 

    Matassa collaborated with some of New Orleans’ best musical minds, including the bandleaderand arranger Dave Bartholomew, whom Matassa called his best friend; pianist, songwriter, and arranger Allen Toussaint; the drummer Earl Palmer, who invented the rock ‘n roll backbeat; pianists Huey “Piano” Smith, James Booker, and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack, and the saxophonists Lee Allen, Herb Hardesty and Alvin “Red” Taylor.  

    The night before Matassa died in a New Orleans hospital after a long illness, Toussaint and Bartholomew were at his bedside to say their farewells to "Cos," their longtime friend and collaborator. "Cosimo was the doorway and window to the world for us musicians in New Orleans," Allen Toussaint told the New Orleans Picayune. "An expert, with a lot of heart and soul. When the Beatles heard Fats Domino, they heard him via Cosimo Matassa. He touched the whole world." 

    Matassa wasn't a musician, and he always was modest about his role in the creation and development of the New Orleans sound. He told interviewers that he was a “facilitator” who strove to “get the performance and the performer on the tape with the least interference and the least resistance.” But his contributions far exceeded that. “Cosimo built the institution where we musicians all had to go through. It was our university. We all came through Cosimo,” said Toussaint. In his biography, Backbeat, Earl Palmer, recalling the early days of his work with Matassa, said, “I think Cosimo was a genius. I’ve seen engineers use two dozen mikes to get the sound he got with three. He knew how to position mikes and he knew each mike like it was a person.” 

    Challenging Racial Barriers

    But Matassa wasn’t only a recording engineer, studio owner, and producer. He also was a cultural broker who introduced African American artists, marginalized by music industry and societal racism, to a broader audience. Matassa didn’t consciously aim to challenge racial barriers. “We didn’t intentionally seek out black artists in those days,” he said. “I grew up in the French Quarter where blacks and whites lived side by side. We didn’t have black neighbors or white neighbors; they were just neighbors. We were integrated -- we just didn't know it.” 

    According to jazz scholar Bruce Boyd Raeburn, Matassa was “among those who grew up in New Orleans and responded to the cultural opportunities that the environment provided. In his case, as in so many others, the process of attraction to black culture was a result of his daily experiences in the neighborhood where he grew up.”

    In other American cities where African Americans and Italian Americans were in close proximity, there have been conflicts, sometimes violent, between the two communities. But Cosimo Matassa remembers the French Quarter as a neighborhood where blacks and Italians (the latter predominantly Sicilians) lived “cheek by jowl” and even shared traditions, such as St. Joseph’s Day celebrations.  

    Matassa was aware that his association with African American recording artists did not endear him to “respectable” white society. “The uptown folks thought of me as the ‘nigger studio,’” he recalled. “Even though I did people like Pete Fountain and Al Hirt, what stuck was that I worked with blacks. The studio was never in the newspapers, there were no tea dansants for me. An Italian was kind of an outcast down there, too.”  

    Cosimo Matassa’s life and career represent an aspect of New Orleans history that has yet to receive its full due: the role of Sicilian immigrants and their descendants in shaping the Crescent City’s unique and celebrated culture. Like the popular entertainer Louis Prima, Cosimo Matassa was born in New Orleans to Sicilian immigrants and grew up in the French Quarter. Matassa’s father, Giovanni Cosimo Matassa, emigrated from Cefalu, Sicily in 1910; his mother, Domenica Leto, had arrived earlier, from Palermo.  

    When Matassa was growing up, the French Quarter was full of music. His uncle, Vincent Matassa, was a clarinetist who played in New Orleans Italian brass bands. His mother’s family was even more musically inclined; her sister Cicetta played piano in what Cosimo calls their family band; Cicetta’s husband, Joseph Di Guardi, was the band’s clarinetist. “I came up hearing the mazurkas, polkas and schottisches and marches," he recalled in a 1993 interview. "And of course I also heard them because in those days the jazz bands on the streets played them a lot more than they do now.”  

    In 1924, Matassa’s father bought a grocery store at the corner of Dauphine and St. Phillip streets. The senior Matassa, by then known as John, also owned a saloon. There young Cosimo first heard commercial music on his father’s jukeboxes. He also was exposed to racial segregation, since his father’s saloon actually was two establishments, one for whites, and one for blacks. 

    “His arrangement was unique,” Cosimo recalled. “The wall between them had an arch big enough for a wide door and they built a phone booth in that. So the telephone was accessible to either one. There was a door on each side of the phone booth. Imagine a phone booth with a door on each side. That’s the way it was. And it was a jukebox in the white bar and it was a jukebox in the black bar. So I got to hear country tunes, blues tunes, the whole thing. I was hearing what black people listened to and what working class white people listened to at the same time.”  

    After graduating from high school, Matassa went to Tulane University to study chemistry. But after two years, he decided that field wasn’t for him. He went to work for a jukebox company, J&M Amusement Service, which his father co-owned. He also enrolled in the Gulf Radio School for several months, where he learned “basic electronic circuitry,” enabling him to repair jukeboxes. In 1945, the company, renamed the J&M Music Shop, and the building that housed it extensively renovated, began selling new and used records, home phonographs and radios.  

    Making Musical History

    A small backroom in the J&M Music Shop became Cosimo’s first recording studio. Earl Palmer recalled that the studio “was hardly bigger than a bedroom. Everyone faced Cos, who was in the little bitty booth. Cos never had an assistant; he came in and out and set them mikes himself.”

    One of Matassa’s first recordings was “Pizza Pie Boogie,” a novelty tune by New Orleans jazz trumpeter Joseph “Sharkey” Bonano and his Kings of Dixieland.  

    In 1947, singer Roy Brown recorded "Good Rockin' Tonight," the song that popularized the term "rockin,'" at J&M Studios. Two years later, on December 10, 1949, a twenty-one-year-old Antoine "Fats" Domino cut eight songs in J&M's tiny back room, including his first single, "The Fat Man." The record reached number one on the Rhythm and Blues charts, launching both Domino’s career and what has come to be called “the golden age” of New Orleans R&B. In 1956, Matassa relocated his studio to 523 Governor Nicholls Street; two years later, he moved the studio to 525 Governor Nicholls when a building at that address, formerly a cold-storage warehouse, became available.  

    During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the hits just kept rolling out of Matassa’s studio – “Tutti Frutti,” “Lucille,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Slippin’ and Slidin’” by Little Richard; “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” by Lloyd Price; “Ain’t Got No Home” and “I’m a Country Boy” by Clarence “Frogman” Henry; “I Hear You Knocking” by Smiley Lewis; “My Blue Heaven” and “I’m in Love Again” by Fats Domino; “The Things That I Used to Do” by Guitar Slim; “Tipitina” by Professor Longhair; “It’s Raining’ by Irma Thomas; “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” by Huey “Piano” Smith;  “Ya Ya” and “Working in the Coal Mine” by Lee Dorsey; “Sea Cruise” by Frankie Ford; “Tell it Like it Is” by Aaron Neville, and many more. 

    The British label Proper Records has released two, four-disk boxed sets of Matassa’s recordings, The Cosimo Matassa Story, (2007), and The Cosimo Matassa Story Vol. 2 (2012). The two compilations total 229 recordings, and although not every track is first-rate, even the lesser ones are full of the exuberant spirit and rhythmic excitement that characterized “classic” New Orleans rhythm and blues and rock ‘n roll.  Not only that – The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and other British rock groups covered songs recorded in Matassa’s studios, so, as Allen Tousssaint observed, his work also influenced the 1960's British Invasion. 

    Matassa relocated his studio once again in the mid-60's, to Camp Street. But by this time, popular tastes were changing. The last major national hits to come from Matassa’s studio all were recorded in 1966 – Lee Dorsey’s “Workin’ in the Coal Mine,” Robert Parker’s “Barefootin’” and Aaron Neville’s “Tell it Like it Is.”  Several independent record labels that had recorded at Matassa’s studios went bankrupt and couldn’t pay for their sessions, and New Orleans banks refused to make loans to Matassa. The IRS eventually confiscated his studio for nonpayment of taxes and auctioned off the equipment. 

    As that unfortunate outcome makes evident, Cosimo Matassa did not get rich from his work as a studio owner and recording engineer. He estimated, in fact, that he lost more than $200,000 over the years. Bruce Boyd Raeburn observes, “Cosimo never got the backing he needed locally to capitalize on the hits he produced, so they had to be licensed elsewhere for distribution, which meant the big money also went elsewhere. Local bankers were not about to invest in collaborations between Sicilians and blacks.” 

    Retirement and Recognition

    Matassa continued to work as a recording engineer at Sea Saint Studio, owned and operated by his friend Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn. He retired from music and, in the 1980s, returned to the grocery business. In 1999, fifty years after Fats Domino recorded “The Fat Man,” Matassa’s studio at Rampart and Dumaine streets was declared a historic landmark. Today, it is a laundromat, but photographs lining the walls commemorate the building’s storied history as the foundry from which emerged so many hits that would change the course of American popular music. 

    In recent years, Matassa received more of the recognition his accomplishments merited. In 2007, he was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and received a Grammy Trustees Award from The Recording Academy. The following year, the Italian Cultural Institute of Los Angeles honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award, in a ceremony held in New Orleans's Piazza d’Italia. In 2012, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received its Award for Musical Excellence. 

    Bruce Boyd Raeburn agrees with Matassa’s description of himself as a “facilitator.” “He wasn’t musical himself,” says Raeburn. “But he loved to fiddle with gadgets and he was attracted to black music. He ‘produced’ by creating a place where black musicians like Professor Longhair and Earl Palmer and Little Richard could do their thing, and he was willing to put in the time, money and ingenuity to experiment until they found the sound they were all looking for." 

    "Without him, the history of American popular music would look very different.”

  • Op-Eds

    Italy in Retrograde


     

    Happy to be Different (Beato chi è diverso)

    Directed and Written by Gianni Amelio

    Distributed by Luce/Cinecittà

    Open Roads: New Italian Cinema: 2014, June 5-12

    Film Society of Lincoln Center  

    When it comes to gay rights, it is no secret that Italy lags behind the rest of Europe, North America, and even ultra-Catholic Latin American nations. The most modest initiatives to counter discrimination and guarantee rights face concerted, often hysterical opposition from the Catholic Church and its allies on both the right and the left. Violent attacks on gay males, lesbians, and transgender people are common and cultural stigma is widespread and deeply rooted.

    When I heard that the film director Gianni Amelio was making a documentary about gay male life in Italy, from the Fascist era to the present, I had high hopes that this prominent, respected, and talented artist – whose films Lamerica and Il ladro di bambini I greatly admired – would bring to the subject his usual insight and critical intelligence.  Instead, Happy to be Different (Beato chi è diverso) is a near-total failure. Rather than a breakthrough, Amelio's film is yet another example of how retrograde Italy can be when it comes to homosexuality. How disappointing that it comes from one of Italy's few openly gay filmmakers; Amelio came out last year, at age 68, although his sexuality had been an open secret in gay and film circles for years.

    The documentary, which takes its title from a poem by Sandro Penna, comprises personal testimonies by eighteen gay men and one transsexual. Amelio's subjects are filmed mostly in close-up or medium-long shots, speaking directly to the camera; the narratives are interspersed with photographs, newsreels, and clips from TV shows and films. The men speak about their experiences of being "different," and predictably, most of their accounts are sad and depressing, even tragic. One recalls how his violent, virulently homophobic father tied him to a horse for two days and nights as punishment for his sexuality. It's clear that most of Amelio's interviewees were deeply wounded by their experiences, and remain so.

    That is about all Happy to Be Different  has to say – it's hard being gay in Italy. You can't help wondering, for whom did Amelio make this banal and superficial film? Liberal Italian heterosexuals? Italian gays?  For the former, Happy might flatter their sensibilities – oh, isn't it awful, that terrible father tying his son to a horse. They can leave the screening room content in the knowledge that they wouldn't abuse their gay son or lesbian daughter, if they had one. For the latter, nothing that it has to say would be new or informative. And for audiences of any nationality or sexuality who are used to well-crafted and challenging gay documentaries – The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, Before Stonewall, Paris is Burning, How To Survive a Plague, to cite just a few – Amelio's film will be very weak tea indeed.

    Several themes are introduced and recur, although none is sufficiently developed: familial and societal homophobia, homosexuality as gender nonconformity, sex, and relationships. An older couple – two of the film's most engaging subjects – talk about the joys of their long-term relationship; another man, who calls himself "frivolous," exults in promiscuity and decries relationships as "boring." One man says he always wanted a family, so he found a lesbian to marry.

    But what struggles did the happy couple experience? How have they dealt with the issues – social, economic, and sexual – that long-term male spouses often face? What do they think about the current status of gay Italians? The film never tells us.

    And the man who married the lesbian – did they have children? How have they managed to stay together? What do their friends, families, and larger community think about their arrangement?  We never find out. Instead, we get an irrelevant and puzzling comment from the lesbian wife about a civic monument to a "frocio."

    Maddeningly, the film doesn't identify the interviewees until the closing credits. So until then, we don't know their names, their ages, or, except when they tell us, where they live.  

    If the film glosses over regional differences, its treatment of class is just as shallow. The opening sequence depicts a distraught woman, in a hospital bed, listening to a male voice explaining that her son's sexuality will cause her great grief because she lives in a working class community. Had she come from an aristocratic milieu, things would be much easier for her. Later, one of the interviewees speaks of the middle class fear of scandal. So, the upper class either is tolerant or unconcerned, the middle class repressed and uptight, and the working class bigoted.

    Yet we encounter several men from working class backgrounds whose families did not reject them, including Ninetto Davoli, a Calabrian who, as a teenager, became the muse and lover of Pier Paolo Pasolini. Speaking of Pasolini, one of the most glaring failures of Amelio's film is its treatment of the great director, poet, and social critic. Italy's gutter press, the political Right, and the Catholic Church were absolutely vicious toward one of the nation's most important cultural figures, and the film shows us that. But it never provides a sense of Pasolini's stature as an artist and gadfly, or of his contradictions. Moreover, Amelio skims over Pasolini's murder – and doesn't even acknowledge the unsolved mysteries surrounding its circumstances -- showing us only an image of the murder weapon and of Pasolini's covered corpse. It's shocking that a filmmaker of Amelio's stature – and a gay one with leftist politics – could botch this topic so badly.  



     You'd hardly guess from the film that Italian gays have organized to fight the conditions that oppress them, yet Italy has had a gay movement since the 1970s. (Fuori, founded in 1971, was Italy's first liberationist organization.) One man mentions having known Mario Mieli, an influential theorist and activist during the movement's early years. But unless you know the historical context – and how many viewers will? – The reference is meaningless. 


    But perhaps the most infuriating thing about Happy to Be Different is its failure to address the role of the Catholic Church and the Vatican in promoting homophobia and oppressing sexual and gender minorities. This is inexcusable, given the Vatican's relentless anti-gay politicking, and that Italy's family-centric and masculinist culture is rooted in Catholic ideology, whose precepts even some on the left (the so-called theodems or catti-communists) uphold.


    Happy to Be Different may not be the worst film in this year's edition of Open Roads. But I can't imagine a bigger disappointment, or greater missed opportunity.  

     

     

  • Facts & Stories

    "If Only I Were That Warrior"

    "The past is never dead. It's not even past," wrote William Faulkner in Requiem for a Nun. The author’s famous observation fits one of the most ignominious events in recent Italian history – the decision to honor a Fascist war criminal with a mausoleum and park, built with taxpayers’ money.

    In 2012, the right-wing administration of Affile, a village east of Rome, dedicated the memorial
    to Rodolfo Graziani, a general who was known as the “Butcher of Ethiopia” for the war crimes he committed while leading the military campaigns of the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

    In 1935, Mussolini sent Graziani to invade Ethiopia. The Italian troops, with their superior weaponry and use of mustard gas, defeated Ethiopia’s army in less than a year. Italy’s dictator made Graziani the Viceroy of Italian East Africa, which comprised conquered territories in Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia. After Ethiopian resistance fighters tried to assassinate Graziani in 1937, the general ordered a swift and ferocious reprisal against civilian populations. Thousands of Ethiopians subsequently were massacred or imprisoned.

    But Graziani’s Ethiopian atrocities weren’t the first he committed on the continent. In the 1920s, while leading Italian forces in Libya, he brutally suppressed an anti-colonial uprising, imprisoning and killing thousands of Libyans, earning him the nickname “the Butcher of Fezzan.”

    After Mussolini’s dictatorship fell in 1943, Graziani, still loyal to il Duce, became the minister of war of the Italian Social Republic, the rump Fascist government set up by the Germans in Salò, and, along with Nazi troops, fought the Allied forces in Italy. After the war an Italian court sentenced Graziani to 19 years in prison for collaborating with the Nazis, but he received a suspended sentence that was later commuted because his attorneys convinced a court that Graziani had “acted under orders.” His crimes in Africa went entirely unpunished.

    Unpunished, but not forgotten. Valerio Ciriaci, a young filmmaker from Rome now living in New York, is making a documentary, If Only I Were That Warrior, which focuses on Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia. Ciriaci, and producer Isaak Liptzin of the independent production company Awen Films, have launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to complete the film. Donations will help cover expenses such as airfare, equipment rental, and interpretation. The campaign, which began in February, ends March 21.

    I recently interviewed Ciriaci about If Only I Were That Warrior. The following is an edited version of our conversation.

    Why did you decide to make this film? I know that the monument to Graziani in Italy inspired it. But why was it important for you to address this issue, in a documentary?

    I felt it was important to make a film that could take an unprecedented look at the brutality of the Fascist invasion in Ethiopia. Though Italy’s uncomfortable relationship with its colonial past has been challenged by some historians and intellectuals, the events that took place during Mussolini’s campaigns in Africa never became part of a widespread public consciousness. The lack of coverage in the media, in conjunction with the nostalgic sentiments of those who took part in the invasion, led to imprecise and mythologized representations of the occupation of Ethiopia. And the monument to Graziani proved that the issue is very urgent.

    The film is set in Ethiopia, Italy, New York and Dallas. Can you talk a bit about what each place represents in the film, and what can viewers expect to see in those geographic segments? 

    The four places correspond to the four main characters we follow in this journey. They represent four different communities: Italians in Ethiopia, Ethiopians in Italy, and Italians and Ethiopians in the United States. Each of these communities helped us tell a part of this history: the propaganda that led Italians to support the invasion, the war crimes committed during the occupation in Ethiopia, the subsequent attempts of revisionism in Italy, and the events surrounding the construction of the monument to Graziani. Our viewers will see different landscapes and hear different languages, but they will also recognize a common narrative: these communities abroad formed as people left their native countries in search of better lives. We find stories of integration and stories of isolation, the result of different cultures brought together by the currents of history. 
     

    What kinds of reactions have you gotten to this project, from both Ethiopians and Italians? I would imagine Ethiopians are more aware of this history than Italians. 

    Yes. Especially the Ethiopian community in the U.S., which has been incredibly supportive of our work since the beginning. In fact they were the most active in opposing the monument to Graziani, and organized protests all around the world. In Italy the issue of the Ethiopian occupation is not discussed much, but we have received support from members of anti-Fascist organizations such as ANPI (National Association of the Italian Partisans). In Affile itself there were mixed reactions — some people were suspicious of yet another film crew coming to the town attracted by the monument, but others welcomed our presence and appreciated our desire to learn more about their side of the story.

    What is the contemporary relevance of this story? Why is it important for people to know about what Italy did in Ethiopia?

    The Italian-Ethiopian conflict still has repercussions today. It became evident when the monument to Graziani provoked such strong reactions all around the world. And, unexpectedly perhaps for those who chose to build it, the monument has brought the subject of Italian colonialism back into the press and into a wider public conversation. Our film aims to become a part of this conversation, seizing this unique opportunity to clarify the facts of the past and dispel the myths accumulated over decades of revisionism. We believe that this film can help keep alive the memory of Fascist war crimes, and in so doing be an important reminder that we have to work to defend our democratic values from the existential threat posed by xenophobic and militaristic ideals. 

     -----

    Visit Awen Films’ Kickstarter page to learn about the fundraising campaign and to make donations. For more information: If Only I Were That Warrior

  • Events: Reports

    Noise in the Waters: the Sounds of an Ongoing Tragedy


    Rumore di Acque (Noise in the Waters)

    La MaMa 
    Through February 16, 2014


    Yusuf, a teenager from Western Sahara, drowns, along with all the passengers he has promised to take to Europe, when a wave swamps their overcrowded dinghy.


    Jean-Baptiste, a small boy, eight days adrift on a raft packed with desperate and dying adults, leaps into the sea, thinking he is going home to his mother in North Africa.


    Jasmine, a young Tunisian, flees her homeland, and, after enduring a grueling sea crossing, arrives in Sicily where, to survive, she sells sex to an 80-year-old man.


    Then there are those whose names we never learn, like the seventy-seven who, thrown overboard after their boat breaks apart offshore the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, are hacked to death when a careless Italian admiral forgets to turn off the propellers of the launch he commands.

     

    We never see these tragedies in Rumore di Acque (Noise in the Waters), a dark and intense production by the Italian theatre company Teatro delle Albe currently having its American premiere at La MaMa in Manhattan. In the show, a dramatic monologue accompanied by live music, an unnamed Italian general tells us about them. Clad in a military tunic adorned with medals, his eyes hidden by sunglasses, the general relates his horrifying stories of desperation and death in a barking, guttural voice, full of scalding sarcasm, frustration and rage.

     

    As superbly impersonated by Alessandro Renda, the general is an impotent observer of the terrible plight of refugees from the global south who, seeking to escape political and random violence, poverty and hunger, board unseaworthy vessels and set off for European shores. Obsessed with imposing order on chaos, the general totes up the numbers of the living and the dead, compiling his lists with maniacal intensity. He alternates his compulsive numbering with stories about the refugees, who, in his vivid accounts, become so real to us that although we never actually see them, we do.

     

    Marco Martinelli, a co-founder of Teatro delle Albe, wrote the play in 2010 from news accounts and from interviews he conducted with immigrants who had made it to Sicily. (The production debuted four years ago in Ravenna, the Teatro delle Albe’s home base.) He researched the work during a year’s worth of trips to Mazara del Vallo, which, though in Sicily, is, according to Martinelli, “the most Tunisian city in Europe.” There, he reports in the program notes, he and his colleagues heard not only “stories and testimonies,” but also “the song of the muezzin on Italian soil.”

     

    That sound is evoked by Onofrio and Lorenzo Mancuso – aka Fratelli Mancuso – Sicilian musicians whose work is rooted in Sicilian and other Mediterranean traditional music. Seated upstage from the general, wearing matching brown suits and a somber mien, they accompany the general as he rants, and perform alone at moments when his torrent of words subsides. They play a variety of Mediterranean instruments and sing, in close, piercing harmony, performing one song – “Lamentazione,” from their album Cantu -- as an a cappella duet. The brothers’ music, rich in the Arab, Byzantine, and Italian influences that have come into Sicilian culture over millennia, is consistently affecting, and an essential element of the production’s emotional power.


    Rumore di Acque has been brilliantly directed and designed, respectively by Marco Martinelli and Teatro delle Albe co-founder Ermanna Montanari. Alessandro Renda as the general speaks to us from within a circle of volcanic rocks suggesting an island. He delivers his soliloquy in Italian (the adequate, but at times attenuated English translation is projected on a rear wall) and in English. Renda, throughout the 90-minute production, performs with focused intensity and great gestural and vocal resourcefulness. Speaking into a microphone he sometimes wields as a weapon, he’s a strutting, arrogant, and disturbing figure, but Renda makes him a compelling one, too. And, more than that -- someone who, as a comfortable and privileged Westerner, isn’t too remote from us, the audience.


    In a Brechtian touch, the play ends on an unresolved note. There is no catharsis, and little hope, and how could there be, given the continuing crisis in the Mediterranean and the ongoing failure of "Fortress Europe" to respond in a humane manner. (The play bitterly mocks the empty buzzwords of government -- "progress," "freedom," "open-door policy.") The “noise in the waters” reaches our ears through this remarkable production, which demands of us: now that you’ve heard this, what will you do?


    Rumore di Acque (Noise in the Waters) runs through February 16 at LaMaMa, 74a East Fourth Street, Manhattan.       

  • Events: Reports

    Remembering “Marc”


    What does a leading light of the “Old Left” have to say to 21st century progressives?

     

    Plenty, according to the New York activists who have founded the Vito Marcantonio Forum. The fledgling organization held a fundraising event on November 3 at Gaetana’s, an Italian American restaurant in Greenwich Village. At the fundraiser, the Forum's organizers spoke about the continuing relevance of Marcantonio to today's activists.

     

    Marcantonio, who has been called “the most consequential radical politician in the United States in the twentieth century” by no less an authority than the venerable left-wing journal Monthly Review, served seven terms in the U.S. Congress, from 1934 to 1950, representing his East Harlem district, a community comprising largely working class and poor Italian Americans and, beginning in the late 1940s, Puerto Ricans.

     

    Beloved in his district – his constituents called him “the bread of the poor” -- he achieved national prominence as a fiery orator and skillful parliamentarian. He was an early advocate of African American civil rights, denouncing lynching and the poll tax that Southern segregationists used to disenfranchise black voters. In his iconoclastic study, A Renegade History of the United States, Thaddeus Russell called Marcantonio “one of the greatest champions of black civil rights during the 1930s and 1940s.”



    He repeatedly introduced legislation to prohibit the poll tax and make lynching a federal crime while also fighting for labor unions, civil liberties, immigrants and the independence of Puerto Rico. He supported the Social Security Act, while faulting it for not going far enough – he favored “living wage” policies. In Congress, Marcantonio opposed McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee and was an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy, particularly towards the developing world.

     

    Although he was close to the Communist Party, he was not a member. In the late 1930s, he joined the left-wing American Labor Party and remained a member until his death. He ran for mayor of New York City in 1949 on the ALP ticket but lost; the following year he lost his seat in Congress after a concerted, and often vicious campaign waged against him by the political establishment and the right-wing tabloid press. When he died of a massive heart attack, he was only 51 years old. Francis Cardinal Spellman, the ultraconservative head of the New York Archdiocese, denied Marcantonio a Catholic burial.

     

    This ally of the poor and disenfranchised who so discomfited the powerful was an exemplar of a type of politics that remains relevant today, according to historian Gerry Meyer, one of the founders of the Vito Marcantonio Forum.

     

    Speaking at the November 3 fundraiser, Meyer noted that Marcantonio, despite his Italian origins and proud italianità, has been “written out of the Italian American experience.” (But not entirely out of American culture. The central character of Tony Kushner’s 2009 play, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures,” was a fictional cousin of Marcantonio, and the stage set was dominated by a large framed photograph of the former Congressman.)  “He simply disappeared from [accounts of] the Italian American experience, and even from books about civil rights, even though was a major civil rights leader.”  

     “I wanted to do something about that,” Meyer said, and he did. In 1989, he published Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1954, the first political biography of the East Harlem radical. The book, which is now in its fourth printing, remains the best source for understanding how Marcantonio achieved what might seem impossible – having an impact as a radical in a system designed to thwart radicalism.

     

    Looking Back to Look Forward          

    In 1991, Meyer and other longtime activists who admired “Marc” formed the first Vito Marcantonio Forum.  (Other founders include Gil Fagiani and Maria Lisella of the Italian American Writers Association, performance artist LuLu LoLo, whose father, Pete Pascale, was an associate of Marcantonio, and culture activist Roberto Ragone. At the fundraiser, Ragone delivered Marcantonio’s anti-poll tax speech, dressed, like the Congressman, in a rumpled suit and fedora.) The group disbanded after several years’ activity but was reconstituted in October 2011.

     

    According to its mission statement, the Forum promotes awareness of Marcantonio’s life and work and of the American Labor Party. The Forum also aims to inform about “the radical political tradition of East Harlem, the cultural backdrop of Italian Harlem and El Barrio that explain the emergence of the ‘Vito Marcantonio Phenomenon,’ that is, a successful progressive politician who never compromised his principles.”

     

    “But we are not just looking back,” the statement continues. “We are looking forward to inserting Marcantonio's legacy” in today’s discussions about immigration, civil liberties and civil rights, foreign policy and military interventions, as well as offering Marcantonio as a model for “younger and new politicians.”

     

    Meyer said that Marcantonio personified “a style of politics, a certain political practice no longer present, what we used to call base-building. It occurs in specific sites, in community, in unions, and leadership stayed in those sites and developed over time. It was a model of community service, of helping people with their basic needs.” Meyer stressed that Marcantonio not only emerged from East Harlem’s Italian community – his father was a first-generation Italian American and his mother an immigrant from the Basilicata region-- he was immersed in it and never distanced himself from his origins. When he died, he had been living in a house just blocks away from his childhood home.

     

    “He kept his childhood friends, marched in the religious processions, and didn’t contradict the basic culture of the community but was part of it,” Meyer noted. “This is why people didn’t give a damn about what the press said about him. The more the press attacked him, the more they felt they and their community were being attacked.”

     

     “This is how the Left can win,” Meyer maintained. “If somebody knows you and sees who you are on a daily basis, the media can say anything they want to say and it will have no effect.”

     

    Today’s political landscape, however, is far different from Marcantonio’s time. The Left is weak and disorganized. There are no mass organizations like the American Labor Party or the Communist Party that can speak for and mobilize large and diverse constituencies. Progressives and radicals tend to work in sectional movements focused on war and militarism, immigration reform, civil liberties and civil rights, environmentalism, women’s and LGBT rights. Organized labor, historically the Left’s main institutional base, has been relentlessly battered by big business and its political allies. Union leaders too often are compromised by their ties to Democratic politicians, including Barack Obama and New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who have been indifferent and even hostile to unionized workers.

     

    Re-building the American Left in an age of Democratic Party neoliberalism and “Tea Party” hyper-conservatism will require new strategies. Marcantonio-style urban coalition building – independent of the Democratic Party -- is a good place to start. Restoring class – and economic inequality -- to the center of the Left’s agenda is another. That doesn’t mean minimizing the importance of social categories like race, gender and sexuality, but instead focusing on how they are articulated to class. Otherwise, there’s just identity politics. The Human Rights Campaign, the leading LGBT organization in the U.S., has demonstrated the pitfalls of an identity politics detached from class and economic concerns. In advocating for marriage equality, the HRC has allied itself with wealthy, “socially liberal” corporate and political figures, including Republican donors, whose economic agenda is inimical to the interests of working and middle-class Americans, straight and gay.  

     

    The Vito Marcantonio Forum currently comprises some 14 activists but welcomes new members who support its aims and want to build the organization. (The Forum plans to obtain nonprofit tax status, enabling it to apply for grants and receive tax-deductible contributions, but not to engage in partisan political activity.) Contact the Vito Marcantonio Forum at vitomarcantonioforum @ gmail.com

     

        

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