Articles by: George De stefano

  • Op-Eds

    Bambini, Ragazzi, Giovani

    What do we talk about when we talk about Italian and Italian American families?

    Quite often it's how "the family" is the foundation of culture and community, and how family cohesion enabled poor Italians, in Italy and in the diaspora, to survive poverty and deprivation.

    But children and youth, and their particular needs and concerns, are critical to the discussion, too. That's why this year the theme of the Calandra Italian American Institute's annual conference was "Bambini, Ragazzi, Giovani: Children and Youth in Italy and the Italian Diaspora." The conference, held April 24-25 at the Institute's Manhattan headquarters, lived up to its title, with a transnational focus that brought together academics, independent scholars, creative writers, and journalists from North America and Italy.   

    The two-day event covered a broad range of topics – children's participation in urban planning projects in Italian cities, literary and cinematic portrayals, Italian American fathers and daughters, immigrant newsboys (and girls) in US cities, second-generation Chinese immigrants in Italy, and Mafia murders of children and youths. Speakers also discussed the plight of biracial children of African American soldiers in post-World War II Italy; Italian-Libyan children and youth "forgotten by history"; how Fascism inculcated its ideals through children's literature; and much more. "Bambini, Ragazzi, Giovani," like previous Calandra conferences, attested to the intellectual rigor and fecundity of Italian/Italian American studies in the twenty-first century.

    In the conference's keynote presentation, Raymond Lorenzo, a Brooklyn-born urban planner, described his "personal voyage" working with children and youth in Italy from 1977 to 2014. Lorenzo, affiliated with the Umbra Institute in Perugia, founded the ABCittà Cooperative and heads its scientific/technical committee. The cooperative, based in Milan but operating on the national and international levels, sponsors projects designed to improve the lives of city children and their families. They include urban gardens managed by Milan schoolchildren; a children's "town council" in Lecce; a "places to grow" initiative in the crime-plagued Scampia housing projects near Naples; and a partnership with a Rome-based association to promote the rights and social integration of Rom ("gypsy") children and their families.

    Lorenzo stressed that the full participation of children and youth was a core principle of all ABCittà projects. Their participation – their ideas, enthusiasm, and energy – benefits them and adults, and the cities they live in. Without it, he said, urban planning projects too often reflect what planners think is desirable, not what residents need and want.

    Lion Calandra, a journalist and member of the editorial board of the New York Daily News, gave a revealing, and disturbing talk about organized crime killings of Italian children and youth. They died when caught in gunfights between gangs; or were executed with family members who were mobsters; or were murdered because they witnessed crimes. Calandra said that since 2000, criminal groups have killed eighty children, most recently in 2014. She noted, however, that the killings didn't begin with the current millennium; in fact, they had been occurring at least a decade earlier.

    The Mafia fictions of Hollywood and TV often portray gangsters as family men, who, in the words of Vito Corleone, have "a sentimental weakness" for their children. Calandra demolished this pop culture mythology by putting names and faces to some of the youngest victims of organized crime violence. They included Nicola Campolongo, a three-year-old boy killed with his grandfather in Palermo, both their bodies burned beyond recognition; Annalisa Durante, a Neapolitan teenager shot in the head during a gunfight between two camorra gangs; and Giuseppe di Mattero, an eleven-year-old Sicilian whom Mafia boss Giovanni Brusca kidnapped to keep the boy's father, a mafioso, from testifying against Cosa Nostra. When the pentito father didn't comply, Brusca's thugs strangled Giuseppe and dissolved his body in a vat of acid so his parents couldn't give him a funeral.

    Calandra observed that contrary to the so-called code of honor that supposedly protects women and children, the principle that actually governs Italy's organized crime groups is the primacy of the organized crime "family." Clan members, she noted, must always be available to do their boss' bidding, "even if one's wife is about to give birth or if it means leaving the side of a dying child."   

    In another informative talk, Maryann McDonald Carolan, a professor of film studies, presented and discussed clips from "Miss Little China," a 2009 documentary by Vincenzo De Cecco and Riccardo Cremona about Chinese immigrants in Italy. (The title refers to a beauty pageant organized in Milan by a young Chinese-Italian entrepreneur.) Carolan observed that native Italians often hold stereotypical views of Chinese as insular people who do little but work. Their Italian-born children, however, are developing new, hybrid Italian-Chinese identities. In the film, one teenager, speaking fluent Italian, complains that she does not want to be like her parents, working "tutti i giorni." She, like other young Italians, wants fun, leisure, and long vacations.

    Different Perspectives, Diverse Voices

    Joseph Sciorra, Ph.D., the Calandra Institute's director for academic and cultural programs, explained why children and youth were the focus of this year's conference. "The family is an idea that is often promoted as being fundamental to Italian and Italian American identity and culture," he added. "But sometimes the issues of children are not fully explored when that value is touted. So the idea was to kind of tease out and flesh out what that idea means by focusing on children and youth."

    "Each year, we try to pick a theme that is broad-based enough that we'll get a diversity of submissions and one that resonates with various aspects of Italian American and Italian diasporic studies. We include the larger diaspora to understand Italian migration as a transnational phenomenon, and also Italy, so that the conversation is not bounded by any one border but understood in a larger perspective," whether the theme is children and youth, or, as with recent Calandra conferences, organized crime and language.

    As in past years, the 2015 conference was a multidisciplinary gathering. "Italian American studies, and diaspora studies, are interdisciplinary by definition," said Sciorra. "To create an exciting and rounded program, it's best to allow different perspectives. We're always looking for a diversity of voices."

    "The conferences are important because Calandra is a research institution. But the idea is to present not only our staff's research but to be a public conduit for scholarship that is happening all over the world. Scholars and creative people know about the Calandra Institute. They understand that we offer a forum that is open to different ideas. By having our conferences every year at the end of April, people have come to expect that whether they're a presenter or an audience member, Calandra is the place to be to explore topics related to Italy and the Italian diaspora."

    Migrating Objects: Material Culture and Italian Identities is the theme of the Calandra Institute's next annual conference, April 28-30, 2016. For more information, visit the Institute's website.

  • Art & Culture

    Power and Plague

    Rosi and Taviani, two of the most illustrious names in post-World War II Italian cinema, belong to three film artists: the late director Francesco Rosi, and the directing and screenwriting team of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani. Rosi and the Taviani brothers were the focus of two events in New York this month. At the Italian Institute of Culture (IIC) on April 17, a panel of Rosi devotees paid homage to the Neapolitan director of such landmark films as Salvatore Giuliano and Le mani sulla citta (Hands over the City). At the Tribeca Film Festival on April 20, Paolo Taviani spoke at the American premiere of his and Vittorio's latest film, "Maraviglioso Boccaccio" (Wondrous Boccaccio).

    Rosi, who died last year at age 92, had a career that spanned four decades, from the late 1950s to the late '90s. He was a politically engaged filmmaker who created an investigative cinema that explored and exposed the connections between illegal and legal power. In "Salvatore Giuliano" and "Le mani sulla citta", and in other works such as "Il caso Mattei" (The Mattei Affair) and "Cadaveri Eccellenti" (Illustrious Corpses), Rosi probed beneath the surface of events to uncover occult power relations. He particularly was concerned with how the nexus of legality and illegality fostered inequality and injustice in southern Italy.

    At the IIC event, the panel included Antonio Monda, co-founder and artistic director of Lincoln Center's Open Roads: New Italian Cinema festival and the recently appointed director of the Rome Film Festival; Gary Crowdus, editor of Cineaste magazine; and actor John Turturro, who starred in Rosi's final film, "La Tregua" (The Truce). Roberto Saviano, the Neapolitan journalist and author of the organized crime exposé "Gomorra," appeared via a prerecorded video. (Visa problems apparently prevented him from appearing in person.) Gaetana Marrone Puglia, a professor at Princeton University and the author of a forthcoming book about Rosi's cinema – the first such study in English – was the moderator.

    Rosi's politics, and how they informed his films, was a recurring topic. Gary Crowdus said that in the United States, critics called Rosi a "Marxist director" in order to "pigeonhole and dismiss him." Crowdus read excerpts from several reviews of "Salvatore Giuliano" to support his point. The dismissive and philistine comments by such prominent critics as Judith Crist, Andrew Sarris, and the New York Times' Howard Thompson, were dismaying to hear. But if the 1962 film's nonlinear and elliptical style confounded American critics, "Salvatore Giuliano" now is regarded as a masterpiece, and one that influenced such filmmakers as Costa Gavras, Oliver Stone, and Ken Loach.

    Saviano called Rosi "a genius" and "an immortal." He said that while Rosi's was a cinema of "indagine" (investigation), it also was one of "denuncia" (accusation or denunciation). Saviano, who became friends with the director after Rosi expressed his admiration of "Gomorra," observed that Rosi was "not a documentarian or a journalist but a filmmaker."

    Antonio Monda said that although Rosi was a leftist, he was neither a Marxist nor a "slave of ideology." Monda's comments missed a crucial point about the director: Rosi's leftist politics, far from being incidental to his art, were in fact central to it, and especially to the films he made in the '60s and '70s. As Crowdus noted, "The films were political in structure and content." In them, the "indagine" is an open-ended search for truth that challenges audiences to think and question, and not passively observe. In that regard, and in their treatment of historical events, they reflect the influence of Bertolt Brecht, the Marxist playwright and theoretician who also influenced Bernardo Bertolucci and Luchino Visconti, among other Italian directors. And regardless of whether Rosi was or was not a committed Marxist, he indeed was close to the Italian Communist Party – a "fellow traveler," in American parlance.

    John Turturro provided the evening's most diverting, and moving, comments. His involvement with Rosi began when Martin Scorsese sent him a lengthy letter "about all his [Rosi's] films and how he was one of the great masters." He recalled that he was "blown away" by "Salvatore Giuliano" when Scorsese screened the film for him. When Turturro and Rosi met in the early '90s, they discussed a film version of "La Tregua" (published in English as "The Reawakening"), one of the books in which the Italian Jewish author Primo Levi recounts his horrific experiences as a prisoner in the Auschwitz death camp. After numerous delays, the film was shot in 1996 in the Ukraine, with a thin, haggard, and bald Turturro playing Levi.

    From the start, the production was plagued with problems – bad weather, not enough money, the death of cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis, and Turturro's own battles with Rosi. When Turturro showed the completed film to Harvey Weinstein, the head of Miramax films didn't like it: "He found it not sentimental enough, not obvious enough. He said he wouldn't release it." When Weinstein asked Turturro to make another film for Miramax, the actor agreed – but only if Weinstein would release "La Tregua." Weinstein acquiesced, but he gave the film only a limited release. "It's not a great film," Turturro acknowledged. "It's a very delicate film."

    Turturro concluded on an emotional note, saying that Rosi "changed my life." "He introduced me to so many things, to so many writers, and to the [Southern Italian] world that I come from. I loved him, and love him, very much."

    Not so Wondrous Boccaccio 

    Paolo Taviani appeared at the Tribeca Film Festival without his screenwriter brother Vittorio, who stayed home in Italy. Vittorio's absence was a disappointment; as anyone who has seen their appearances at New York screening of their films well knows, i fratelli Taviani – both in their eighties – put on a very entertaining brother act. Unfortunately, their latest film, "Maraviglioso Boccaccio" (Wondrous Boccaccio), an adaptation of five stories from "The Decameron," also was a letdown. It is pictorially lovely, with its lush Tuscan landscapes and its attractive, mostly young cast. But it's a mild effort that pales next to a far more vivid and earthy adaptation of Boccaccio – Pier Paolo Pasolini's "The Decameron" (1971). Whereas Pasolini's film – set in Naples, rather than Tuscany – is raw, carnal, and bawdy, the Tavianis' is PG-13 Boccaccio.

    Of the 100 tales collected in "The Decameron," the Tavianis chose five to adapt; all of them love stories. They also incorporated a framing device absent from Pasolini's and other Boccaccio adaptations: the 1348 outbreak of the plague in Florence. The film opens strongly, with a young male plague victim hurling himself to his death from a roof. Ten young Florentines, women and men, flee the plague-ridden city to spend a fortnight at the country home of one of them. There, they tell each other stories to while away the time and forget about the Black Death.

    Before the story telling begins, they decide not to have sex during their sojourn in the countryside – an odd and ill-advised choice by the Tavianis. The ostensible reason is to prevent jealousy and hurt feelings among them, but the vow of chastity doesn't feel credible, not with these young, sexy Florentines, and not in these circumstances. Worse, the chasteness colors the stories they tell: there's little erotic tension or heat in any of them; at most, they are mildly ribald, as in the story of a lusty abbess. In "Maraviglioso Boccaccio," two lovers die, one murdered, the other a suicide; a child wastes away from sickness and dies; a wife kills her husband with a rock to his skull. But none of the episodes carries much dramatic force; they come across as charming but sanitized folk tales. Everything, even Florence under the Black Death, is too pretty, too clean, and bloodless.

    After the screening, Paolo Taviani acknowledged that he and Vittorio had taken substantial liberties with Boccaccio, re-writing his stories and changing their endings. He said "The Decameron" was just the "starting point" for their film, much as they used Pirandello's stories as source material for their 1984 film "Kaos." He remarked that he had fantasized about what Boccaccio would think of the film. "He might at first say, 'What the hell did you do to my book?' But maybe on second thought, he'd say, 'You did the right thing.'"  

  • Life & People

    Living by Addition


    The event at the Italian Cultural Institute in Manhattan was billed as An Evening with "Italian" Writers. The quotation marks around "Italian" were suggestive – what is an "Italian writer"? – but also appropriate given the evening's two featured authors, whose mixed identities render them "italiano ma non italianissimo" (Italian, but not very Italian), as one of them remarked.  

    The Institute hosted a panel on April 7 with Amara Lakhous, an Algerian who has become abest-selling author in Italy, and Carmine Abate, born in Calabria to an Arbëresh-speaking family. Both writers experienced immigration (Abate moved to Germany when he was a young man), both are members of ethnic and linguistic minorities, and both regard their diverse backgrounds as assets. At the Institute, they spoke about the complexities of language, ethnicity, and national identity, and how they address these themes in their work.

    Of the two, Amara Lakhous is better known to Anglophone readers; three of the novels he has published in Italy are available in English translations. Abate, a novelist, poet, and short story writer, is highly regarded in Italy and Europe, but only two of his many works have been translated into English. During the panel discussion, Abate spoke in Italian with a translator by his side; Lakhous spoke in English, which he has only recently learned. Michael Reynolds, who edited the English translations of both authors' books for the independent publisher Europa Editions, marveled that "only six months ago we wouldn't have been able to have this conversation" with Lakhous in English.

    Lakhous was born in Algeria in 1970 to a Berber-speaking family; he learned Arabic at school. (His mother, he remarked, still does not speak Algeria's main language.) He worked as a journalist for Algerian radio but fled to Italy in 1995 after Islamic extremists threatened his life.  

    He brought with him a manuscript he had written in Arabic; it was later published in Italian under the title, Le cimici e il pirata (The Bedbugs and the Pirate). His second novel published in Italy, Scontro di civiltà per un ascensore a Piazza Vittorio (Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio), was a 2008 bestseller and won the prestigious Flaiano Prize. The novel, inspired by his experiences in Rome's multiethnic Piazza Vittorio neighborhood, where he lived for six years, uses a murder mystery to examine how people from many different backgrounds coexist, in a multicultural environment.

    Lakhous remarked that the novel's success made him so well known in Rome that when he applied for Italian citizenship, the bureaucrat handling his application quoted his novel's title to him.

    Since then, Lakhous has published two more novels, both available in English translations from Europa Editions: Divorce Islamic Style (2012) and Dispute over a Very Italian Piglet (2014). He somehow managed to find the time to earn a degree in cultural anthropology from Rome's La Sapienza University; his dissertation focused on Muslim immigrants in Italy. Before coming to Italy, Lakhous earned a degree in philosophy from an Algiers university. He remarked that his training in both disciplines, and in journalism, had served him well as a fiction writer.

    Carmine Abate was born in 1954 in Carfizzi, an Arbëreshë village in Calabria. At home, he spoke Arbëresh, a variant of Albanian. (The Arbëreshë descend from Albanian Christians who fled to southern Italy in the late fifteenth century to escape Ottoman invaders.) Abate remarked that the Arbëreshë established 100 towns in Italy, in every southern region except Sardinia. Of these, fifty remain.

    He said that he learned Italian as a schoolboy, an experience he called "traumatic" because teachers would beat students' hands with a stick if they spoke Arbëresh. After graduating from the University of Bari, Abate moved to Hamburg, where his father had earlier emigrated. While teaching at a school for immigrants, he published his first short stories. After more than a decade in Germany, he returned to Italy, settling in Trentino, where he continues to live and work.

    Abate has published several acclaimed novels and short story collections. Europa Editions has published his novels Tra due mari (Between Two Seas) and La festa del ritorno (The Homecoming Party) in English translations by Antony Shugaar. Both are set in Calabria, the second in an Arbëreshë town very much like Abate's Carfizzi. His more recent works, in Italian, include Terre di andata: Poesie e proesie (2011) and La collina del vento (2012); the latter won the Campiello Prize for literature.

    Speaking about growing up in Carfizzi, he remarked, "I don't see myself as different from other Calabrese except for language." His upbringing was unique, though, in that three languages were spoken in his home:  Arbëresh, English (his grandfather had spent some time in the U.S.) and German, or rather, what he called "germanese," the immigrant dialect his father spoke when he lived in Germany. Arbëresh, however, was "the language of the heart," which he distinguished from Italian, "the language of bread," that is, the dominant language one must speak to assimilate and earn a living.

    A "Mosaic" of Identity

    Amara Lakhous and Carmine Abate met for the first time in 2006, and they felt an immediate kinship, as Mediterranean writers who believe that being members of ethnic/linguistic minorities has proved advantageous to their literary careers. "When you are part of the majority, you are very protected. You have all the answers, the language, the religion. When you are part of a minority it's more complicated, more challenging, because you have to find new solutions," Lakhous observed.

    Abate said he preferred to speak of plural identities, using the metaphor of a mosaic to describe one person who carries many cultures and who chooses "the best" from each. "Living by addition," he called this polyvalent condition, alluding to the title of his 2010 short story collection, Vivere per addizione e altri viaggi.

    Lakhous said that when he met Abate, he already had read the Calabrian's books. In one of them, he recognized his own father and family. He called Abate "one of the most original Italian writers" and a "master of narrative."

    He noted, however, that there were differences between them. He called himself a "bilingual writer" who writes in Italian and in Arabic. Abate writes only in Italian – for him, Arbëresh is a spoken language – but he "thinks" his work in his native tongue and then "turns it into Italian."

    Lakhous mentioned that he is writing a new novel in Arabic; Abate said he is studying English while working on a novel set in the United States. He added that he hopes to become sufficiently fluent to speak in inglese the next time he appears at the Italian Cultural Institute.

    Speaking of national identity and citizenship, Lakhous said that he has "constructed an Italian identity" that he called "italiano, ma non italianissimo." He remarked that the Italian he uses in his books is a language "I learned in the streets, talking to people." He added that he found in the Italian language "a new homeland, a new mother." But the Italian of his books often is a hybrid tongue that incorporates Arabic words. As he once remarked, his aim as a writer is to "Arabize the Italian and Italianize the Arab."

    Lakhous, an Italian citizen since 2008, cited the ongoing controversy in Italy over the status of Italian-born children of immigrants. Like in other European countries, Italian citizenship is based mainly on jus sanguinis – literally, right of blood – meaning that it is determined not by place of birth but by having one or both parents who are citizens. A child born to immigrant parents doesn’t automatically acquire Italian citizenship; it must be requested, and before the child is eighteen years old. The application and review processes can drag on for years before citizenship finally is granted.

    Italian law, however, makes it easier for people from the Italian diaspora to become citizens, which rankles Lakhous. Like other critics, he finds it unjust and discriminatory that descendants of Italian immigrants in the U.S., Latin America, Australia, and elsewhere – many of whom do not speak Italian and have no organic connection to Italy – can obtain citizenship more easily than do children of immigrants who were born in Italy, speak the language, and know no other homeland.

    Lakhous said he was pessimistic about the situation changing. Right-wing parties, and especially the Northern League, feed and exploit anti-immigrant attitudes. The League's leader, Matteo Salvini, has been trying to win support for his party's xenophobic program even among southern Italians, whom the League traditionally has disparaged almost as much as immigrants.

    "We [reform advocates] are losing in Italy today," Lakhous sadly concluded.

  • Art & Culture

    Levante Rocks Manhattan

    Levante's March 25 appearance at The Standard in Manhattan's East Village was more of a showcase to introduce her to media and music industry tastemakers than a full-fledged concert. But her brief set was enough to convince this writer that the up and coming singer-songwriter, born Claudia Lagona in Caltagirone, Sicily, is a big talent with the potential to become an international pop star.

    A gifted tunesmith and lyricist and a compelling singer, Levante has been likened to another artist from eastern Sicily, Carmen Consoli. Levante acknowledges La Consoli as a role model and influence, citing her Mediamente Isterica as "the album that changed my life." But although her music sometimes suggests Italian folk styles, Levante leans more toward indie rock than the Mediterranean folk-pop of Consoli's recent releases.  

    Fresh from the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, where she played five shows, Levante, 27, performed in the penthouse suite at The Standard, a hotel that offers live music. Seated in front of a row of floor to ceiling windows that gave a spectacular view of Manhattan, Levante, playing acoustic guitar and capably backed by electric guitarist Federico Puttilli and drummer Alessio Sanfilippo, offered stripped-down and passionate versions of several songs from her 2014 debut album, Manuale Distruzione. They included two versions of "Alfonso," her 2013 hit single that captured the mood of a generation – and a nation – with its chorus, "Che vita di merda!" (What a Shitty Life.)

    Levante was rocking a '90s alternative rocker/skatepunk look, wearing a wool cap over her long brown hair and a sweater over a plaid skirt. Her music echoed that decade, too, with songs that used the quiet verse/loud chorus formula that Nirvana worked so effectively. If she started a bit tentative, she hit her groove soon enough, especially once she opened up her voice. Levante's a powerful singer, and one with taste and a great sense of dynamics. She knows exactly when to let loose her big sound, and when to make it soft and intimate.

    Since this was an "unplugged" kind of gig, Levante's physical presence was restrained; she remained seated throughout the set, unlike in her concerts, where she's much more antic. When she spoke, she came off as winsome, and even a bit shy, although she clearly appreciated the audience's enthusiastic response. A relative novice, she nonetheless is a polished performer whom one suspects will only become more authoritative with time and experience. The versions of the Manuale Distruzione songs that she played at The Standard were as tight and well-paced as the album tracks, but they often rocked harder and felt more emotionally potent. She and her musicians ended the set with "Duri Come Me," one the album's best tunes, an ode to courage and tenacity in the face of obstacles to achieving one's dreams. She and her compadres opened up the song, adding a long instrumental coda that featured some fine slide guitar work by Federico Puttilli. It sounded like rootsy Americana, steeped in the blues, and it was an unexpected delight.

    Two days after her appearance at The Standard, Levante released in Italy her new single, "Ciao per sempre," from her forthcoming album, Abbi cura di te. Her manager told me after the show that her second album "is more like a third one" in that it represents a major leap in her development as a singer and songwriter. Levante will tour Italy this summer to promote the record, with a return to New York City in the fall.

  • Op-Eds

    Littler Italy

    Talk about bad press.

    Joseph Scelsa, director of the Italian American Museum in Little Italy, evidently thought he could kick out an elderly woman from the apartment she has occupied for more than fifty years without anyone noticing or objecting. But the media, traditional and digital, did notice. This week, the story of Scelsa's attempts to evict 85-year-old Adele Sarno from her apartment in a building owned by the museum has blown up on news sites like DNAinfo, Gothamist, on Facebook, on local TV news, and in the "paper of record," the New York Times. And why not? This sad and infuriating saga touches on a number of issues that are top concerns for New Yorkers: housing costs; real estate speculation and landlord greed; the vulnerability of the poor elderly in a hypercharged housing market where "affordable" is an empty buzzword; and ethnicity. Sarno has deep roots in Little Italy. Her father, according to the New York Times, immigrated to New York from Naples, and she grew up in the neighborhood. When she was a child, she was the princess of the San Gennaro feast; in 1945, she was its queen. She owned a candy shop and then an Italian products store below her parents' apartment in the building at Mulberry and Grand Streets. (The building that houses the Italian American Museum and six apartments, including Sarno's, actually comprises three adjoining structures that have been combined.) She has lived her entire life in Little Italy, and most of it in the apartment that the Times called "a mini-museum itself furnished with lamps, marble tables and ceramics from the old country."


    As media accounts have pointed out, Sarno is one of the few residents of Italian origins remaining in what was once a thriving immigrant/ethnic neighborhood. (According to the 2010 census, there are no Italian-born residents of Little Italy.) And if Scelsa gets his way, there'll be one less Italian American living there.

    Sarno pays $820 in rent for her two-bedroom apartment; her only income comes from Social Security and relatives; she also receives food stamps. The Italian American Museum sent her a letter about five years ago telling her the rent would be raised to $3,500, an impossible sum for an elderly person on a fixed income. (Some of her neighbors pay $4,500 a month to live in the kind of building that Italian Americans fled when they could afford to.) Believing that the apartment where she had lived since 1962 was rent-controlled, she, with assistance from a community organization, Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, sought a ruling from state housing officials about whether rent-regulation laws covered her apartment. The New York State Department of Housing and Community Renewal ruled that Sarno's apartment was not protected. She appealed the ruling, but last November, a New York City Civil Court judge allowed the museum to proceed with the eviction. This month she received a notice to vacate by April 6. She intends to be back in court, with new – and hopefully better – representation, on April 2.

    If she is not allowed to remain in her apartment, Sarno evidently has no other option but to move to Wisconsin to live with her daughter, her only child. Imagine being 85 years old (Sarno turns 86 in August) and being forced to leave your home of fifty-plus years and the only neighborhood you've known, for an unfamiliar place far away in another part of the country. But that doesn't mean anything to Scelsa and his cronies. As one of his flacks told the Times, "So the museum should be running a charity or providing residences at discount rates? That doesn’t match the mission.” The museum, according to its website, is "dedicated to the struggles of Italian-Americans and their achievements and contributions to American culture and society." Just as long as the Italian Americans are not struggling old women living on Social Security and food stamps.

    New York City on FIRE

    New York City, as the late radical journalist Bob Fitch observed, is ruled by the three-headed entity he called FIRE – finance, insurance, and real estate.  No matter who is the mayor, whether an unabashed plutocrat like Mike Bloomberg or a "progressive" like Bill de Blasio, these industries really run the city and determine what sort of "development" occurs. As Fitch detailed in his 1996 book, The Assassination of New York, bankers, developers, and their hired hands in politics consciously and deliberately de-industrialized the city, transforming it into a post-industrial outpost of globalization (and magnet for global capital). As another radical social critic, Doug Henwood, observed in The Nation, FIRE's chieftains "used all the instruments of state power – subsidies, zoning laws, eminent domain – to get their way."


    "The landscape of the city – the propinquity of skyscrapers and slums, of the very rich and the very poor – reflected the kind of hollowed-out society that a FIRE-dominated economy created. Neighborhoods that once housed factories and their workers were either emptied out or gentrified," Henwood noted.


    The story of Adele Sarno is just one example of the human consequences of the decisions that New York's power elites have made and that elected officials, Republican and Democrat alike, have enabled and supported.


    Joseph Scelsa, an academic of no particular distinction who also is the disgraced former director of the Calandra Italian American Institute (more on that later), is a very small fish in New York's shark-infested real estate market. But he would like to be un pesce più grande, and his museum is part of his plan. As he told the New York Times in 2013, he intends to sell the buildings that house the museum and the apartments to a developer, for $12 million, as long as the developer allows the museum to remain in any new mixed-use building, rent-free. That's right. The same guy who won't budge an inch regarding Adele Sarno wants to pay no rent for his museum.


    But alas, no buyer has come forward to make Scelsa's dream come true. So he's stuck with his little vanity project of a museum – a barely curated collection squeezed into a cramped space – and the six apartments above it, including Adele Sarno's. 


    And it turns out that Adele Sarno isn't the only tenant whom this self-proclaimed Italian American spokesman and community leader has moved to evict. This month the museum kicked out Il Palazzo, a restaurant that had been located at 151 Mulberry Street for thirty years. The eviction notice came when the restaurant's owners, Annette Sabatino and her husband Perry Chrisciatelli, fell behind on one month's rent because of what they said was a difficult winter season, with few customers. When they tried to pay their rent, the museum refused it, serving the couple an eviction notice that required them to vacate the space in five days.

    Some no doubt will say, well, restaurant owners are in a for-profit business, and if they can't pay the rent to stay in business, too bad. But commercial rents are becoming so exorbitant in New York that restaurants and other businesses that don't have the deep pockets of a major corporate chain, like Starbucks or Chipotle, keep going out of business. It's not only the residential character of the city that's changing, with a glut of "luxury" housing; it's also New York's commerce, as small, independently-owned and often lower-priced businesses keep closing, as the invaluable blog Jeremiah's Vanishing New York regularly, if depressingly, reports.


    But it's the cruel irony of an Italian American institution making homeless a poor, elderly Italian American woman that has galvanized outrage. As Victor J. Papa, director of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, remarked to a Times reporter, his organization is "fighting a museum that purports to exhibit Italian-American culture and then proceeds to evict a living artifact. That’s absolute hypocrisy.”


    Social media commentators were quick to agree with Papa. On Facebook, one directed her outrage to Scelsa and his board of directors: "You're a bunch of heartless, money grubbing, gluttons who are more concerned with your two-bit vanity project than the lives of the people you claim to honor. Shame on you!" Another remarked, "The museum wants to find a developer to buy the buildings and hopes to stay rent free but they don't want to let an elderly woman stay in her apartment of over 50 years because her rent is low. At least she pays rent!"


    Yet another wrote, "The Italian American Museum, under the direction of Joe Scelsa, needed money, because attendance being what it was, was not paying the bills. Ms. Sarno was little more than an inconvenience, and Good Ol' Joe needed to get a buyer for the prime real estate that housed the museum so he could ensure that museum could have a permanent home, rent free."

    I earlier noted that Joseph Scelsa is the "disgraced" former director of the Calandra Italian American Institute, Queens College, City University of New York. I do not use that term lightly. In 2006, two former Calandra staff members, Emelise Aleandri and Gloria Salerno, settled a discrimination lawsuit against CUNY for more than $1 million. They sued because Scelsa had made their work lives miserable after they tried to form a women's support group at Calandra. They decided to form the group to deal with the problems they had already experienced under Scelsa's autocratic administration. An article in a CUNY faculty newspaper reported the settlement and the events that led to it. It is a chronicle of Scelsa's petty, vindictive, and even illegal behavior, as a judge concluded there was significant evidence that he retaliated against the two women for filing a discrimination complaint, which is a violation of federal law.  

    I bring up this episode for two reasons: media covering the Adele Sarno story have failed to mention it, and because it tells you a lot about the character of the man trying to evict her.


    But I'd like to propose a solution to the impasse between Scelsa and Adele Sarno. In exchange for letting her stay in his building, why not make her and her apartment an exhibit in the Italian American Museum? A living museum, one of those places that, as Wikipedia defines, "recreates historical settings to simulate past time periods, providing visitors with an experiential interpretation of history." Scelsa could hire a real curator to create helpful plaques and labels for the Italian American "artifacts" in Sarno's home and charge admission (whatever he wants!) to tourists to visit and watch her make tomato sauce.


    At least until that longed-for developer arrives with his $12 million.


    There will be a demonstration to protest the eviction of Adele Sarno (and Il Palazzo restaurant) Sunday, March 29, 1:00 pm, at the Italian American Museum, 155 Mulberry Street, Manhattan.


  • Life & People

    Frank Sinatra, "American Icon"


    I have found that being an aging baby boomer means coming to grips with the music of my parents' generation. And that means coming to grips with Frank Sinatra. Growing up, I felt I couldn't escape him. He was still on the radio, thanks to hits like "Strangers in the Night," "That's Life," and "Somethin' Stupid." He was on television, in a series of music specials that began in the Sixties. His new movies played in theaters and the old ones on TV. But most of all, he was on our record player. My parents had, and incessantly played (or so it seemed to me) all his albums – the Capitol recordings, the later ones on Reprise, the collaborations with Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Antonio Carlos Jobim.   

    I pretty much hated it all.

    To me, Sinatra represented everything corny and passé that the cultural revolution of the Sixties was sweeping away. Fedoras? "Ring-a-ding-ding?" His overwrought trashing of rock music? No thanks. To my parents and older relatives, he was Paisan Numero Uno, our greatest ethnic icon. To me, though, Sinatra embodied an Italian American style, and masculinity, I found off-putting and outdated.

    But at some point in the past decade or so, I began to appreciate Frank Sinatra, as a complicated public figure, as an Italian American, but especially as a musician. After reading James Kaplan's excellent 2010 biography, Frank: The Voice, I started to listen again to the music I'd scorned as a teenager. Now, somewhat to my surprise, my I-Tunes library is full of Frank. I now can hear what I didn't, or didn’t want to hear – the gorgeous tone, the relaxed but steady swing and rhythmic mastery, the brilliant way with lyrics that turned pop songs into soulful dramatic monologues.

    It's not that the bad stuff – the friendships with odious characters like Lucky Luciano and Sam Giancana, the bullying and sexism, the embrace of Reagan and the GOP – didn't matter anymore.  It's just that they no longer kept me from appreciating the man's artistry, any more than the Republican politics of the great Cuban singer Celia Cruz kept me from enjoying her "Bemba Colora."

    This year marks the 100th anniversary of Sinatra's birth, and the guardians of his legacy – his family, and particularly daughters Tina and Nancy – are making the most of it, with commemorative events on both coasts. So I, the born again Sinatra fan, decided to check out Sinatra: An American Icon, which opened last week at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. The multi-media exhibition, originally curated by the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles, packs quite a bit of Sinatriana into a three-room gallery space. There are photographs and mementos, many provided by the singer's family, that haven't previously been displayed in public. There are videos of concert performances, and audio installations where a visitor can not only listen to Sinatra recordings but also remix them. (If you thought the drums were too loud or the woodwinds too low on "Teach Me Tonight," you can play recording engineer by moving the levers on a mixing console.) Sinatra also liked to paint, and the exhibition includes several of his still lifes and abstract works, in a setting meant to evoke his Palm Springs studio.

    Sinatra: An American Icon is organized chronologically, beginning with Sinatra's early years in New Jersey and ending with videos of concerts from the Eighties, his last full decade as a performing artist. (He gave his final concert in 1995, three years before his death at 82.) One of the first things you'll encounter is a replica of an early twentieth century streetcar; the video seen through the windows gives the illusion of riding through the long-gone Hoboken locales of Sinatra's youth. There's a blow-up photo of the Rustic Cabin, the Englewood Cliffs roadhouse that figures prominently in the singer's early career: Harry James heard Sinatra in a live performance broadcast from the venue, and subsequently gave him his first big break as a singer in James' big band. You can hear what Sinatra sounded like in those days at an audio station; touch the screen for "From the Bottom of My Heart," from 1939, an early instance of his talent for making something interesting out of banal material.

    The section of the exhibit focusing on his movie career includes posters, photographs, and memorabilia, like Sinatra's and Gene Kelly's dancing shoes from "On the Town," placed side by side.  The exhibit's only nod to Sinatra's politics – and it is an oblique one – comes with "The House I Live In," the short film for which he won a "special" Academy Award in 1946. Built around the Sinatra recording of the same name, the film begins with the singer kindly but firmly schooling some New York City kids about anti-Semitism and racism. "The House I Live In" was an exemplar of Popular Front culture – Earl Robinson, a Communist, composed the music, and Abel Meeropol, who later adopted the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, wrote the lyrics – and one of the reasons why J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy thought Sinatra was a Communist sympathizer.

    The exhibit doesn't provide any of that context, however, and in fact, it shies away from any hint of controversy. This is, after all, an official, family-approved tribute, not a warts-and-all portrait. So it's no surprise that there's nothing about his arrests or his FBI file, no photos of him in Havana with Lucky Luciano or performing in apartheid-era South Africa. The sanitizing becomes absurd, though, when it comes to Sinatra's boozing. In front of a large, black and white photo of the singer onstage, his arms extended to embrace the audience, there is a wheeled cart with a decanter containing what is supposed to be Sinatra's favorite whiskey, Jack Daniels. Angelo Lucchesi, who designed the decanter, became a close friend of Sinatra's after he supplied the singer with a case of his preferred libation. In a video, Frank Sinatra, Jr. reminisces with Lucchesi about his father's drinking habits, claiming that he always avoided sweet and mixed drinks, and would just take a sip of Jack Daniels, with a little water. Sinatra, though, was no casual sipper but in reality a functioning alcoholic. But that would be an inconvenient truth for an exhibit that, as the program notes, was "made possible through the generous support of Jack Daniel's Sinatra Select."  

    Sinatra: An American Icon runs through September 4, 2015, at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The Library is presenting a number of events, including film screenings, to commemorate the centennial of the singer's birth. For a full listing, see





  • Facts & Stories

    "Looking" for Daniel Franzese

    Daniel Franzese was frustrated by the movie roles he was offered after he had made a big splash as Damian, the outspoken gay teenager in Tina Fey's 2004 hit comedy Mean Girls. Casting agents called him for parts that he says were stereotypical and insulting. Moreover, because Franzese, who is gay, had played Damian so convincingly, he found it hard to get other, non-gay roles.

    Then came Looking.  It turned out that the creators of the HBO comedy-drama about a group of gay friends in San Francisco were looking for someone just like him.

    "We're coming to a time of gay acceptance in media, but we have had exploitation, with characters who weren't really well written," says the thirty-six-year-old, Brooklyn-born Franzese. "The characters didn't have arcs, with things happening in their lives. They were there for comic relief. And a big guy would be a completely sexless clown."

    Franzese, at six-foot-three and over two hundred pounds, definitely is a big guy. Big and bearded, he is what in the gay community is known as a "bear."  On Looking, his character "Eddie" is meant to represent that hirsute subculture, but he is much more than that. Eddie, HIV-positive but thriving, is a big-hearted social worker who protects and counsels homeless gay and transgender youths in the drop-in center he runs. He is also the object of desire of one of the show's three main characters.

    "I'm an 'out' gay actor playing a bigger guy love interest on a gay show," says Franzese. "I haven't seen anything like that before, which was one of the things that made me really excited to do it. My character is HIV-positive and living healthy with HIV. And the fact that he also works with gay and trans homeless youth – I think it's pretty innovative."

    Looking, now in its second season, focuses on three friends – Patrick, Augustin, and Dom – and their romantic, social, and professional lives. Agustin, whose life is in disarray, falls for Eddie and finds purpose in working with him at the homeless center.

    In an interview before the new season began, Franzese revealed that the show's creators, Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh, developed the part of Eddie with him in mind. When he heard that HBO would produce Looking, he contacted the casting director, whom he knew from a previous project. "I said I'd love to be on the show if you ever need a different kind of dude." He says Lannan and Haigh responded well to his ideas about the character, which just happened to coincide with their own conception of Eddie. "I was so happy they wanted to do it with me," he says.

    Franzese acknowledges that some have criticized the show for not depicting a more representative cross-section of gay male society. "But it's impossible to represent everyone in the community," he says. "This is a story about three people who live in San Francisco. It's their story. It's not the gay story; it's about them and their extended network."

    The show's quality, however, has been uneven, with sharply written episodes alternating with dull ones. The second season thus far has been an improvement over the first, and Franzese has had a lot to do with that. Eddie – funny, strong, and passionate – often is more fun to watch than the three lead characters.

    Franzese, a third-generation Italian American of mainly Neapolitan origins, was born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. When he was eight years old, his family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he experienced culture shock. "I went from being in an elementary school where everyone was Italian, including the teachers and the principal ... and then going to a place where in my high school I was one of only three Italians in a graduating class of 900 kids."

    "The attitudes are different in the South," he says. "I had a teacher call me a 'greasy meatball.' I thought, hmm, there's a little bit of racism here. People were confused by my last name and they made fun of it, and my New York accent."

    After studying acting at the Florida School of the Arts, Franzese returned to New York to pursue a career in theater.  He appeared in plays, including a touring production of Tony and Tina's Wedding, which led to his first film role, in Bully, by director Larry Clark. He was twenty-three then; three years later, as "Damian" in Mean Girls, he convincingly played a character ten years younger than he.

    But if Damian didn't try to hide who he was, the actor who played him wasn't as forthright. Franzese says he kept his sexuality a secret because "there was a lot of pressure from everywhere" – from actors and other industry people, and his family – "to not say anything." 

    "I lied to a lot of people and did a lot to cover it up," he admits. But the furor over Proposition 8, the 2008 California ballot initiative to ban same-sex marriage, as well as the "It Gets Better" LGBT anti-suicide campaign, changed all that. "When everybody was making the 'It Gets Better' videos, it didn't feel right for me to do it because I was closeted," he says. Franzese began to attend rallies against Proposition 8 and photographed them for the video production company World of Wonder and Paper magazine.  

    When he decided to come put publicly in 2014, he chose a surprising but apt approach: he wrote a letter addressed to Damian, his Mean Girls character, on the tenth anniversary of the film's release.

    "I started to receive triple the amount of fan mail I'd gotten over the years because people were discussing the film again," he says. "News articles were popping up and interviewers were asking me to reminisce about it. I was receiving letters from people saying how much the role affected them in a positive way. It really touched me deeply. Because growing up as a chubby gay teen, I wished I had had somebody like that who would have made me feel cooler and more confident and comfortable in my own skin."

    "A lot of the letters began with, 'I don't know if you're gay or not, and it doesn't really matter, but you helped me.' I thought, 'it does matter,' and I should let them know. I felt the way I did it, as a letter to Damian, was the most approachable way for anyone to understand how I was feeling and why I hadn't come out and why it was important I did."

    In the letter, Daniel tells Damian that part of the reason he didn't come out after Mean Girls was that he felt he was hitting a "gay glass ceiling" in Hollywood. Although he wanted to play a range of parts, including macho, heterosexual Italian Americans, he kept being offered "flamboyant, feather-boa-slinging stereotypes that always seemed to be laughed at because they were gay."

    "One time I wanted to audition for a supporting character in a low-budget indie movie described as a 'doughy, blue-collar lug of a guy.' I figured I was perfect for it. But they said they were looking for a real 'man’s man.' The casting director wouldn’t even let me audition."

    Daniel tells Damian that back then he felt the character had "ruined his life." But when the actor realized how important Damian was to the gay men who contacted him, he began to feel differently. "I had the perfect opportunity in 2004 to let people know the REAL Daniel Franzese," he wrote. "Now in 2014 – ten years later – looking back, it took YOU to teach me how to be proud of myself again."

    Italian Mom (and Dad)

    Franzese likes to quote the famous line from the Robert De Niro/Chazz Palmintieri film, A Bronx Tale: "There's nothing sadder than wasted talent." "That resonated with me," he says. "It made me realize if I can do something I should do it, and do it the best I can. So anything I have the ability to do, I'm gonna do. I'm not really afraid of failure. I'll give anything a shot if I think I can do it. In the past five years, I've really tried to stretch myself."

    His projects have included Jersey Shoresical: A Frickin' Rock Opera, a parody of a certain, now-defunct MTV "reality" show portraying the booze-fueled antics of a group of young Italian Americans. Wearing a muscle suit, Franzese played "Ronnie" in the production, which he co-wrote with his friend Hannah LoPatin. The show was a hit of the 2011 New York Fringe Festival (its ensemble received FringeNYC's Overall Excellence Award) and went on to have an off-Broadway run at the Players' Theater.

    Franzese says he thought the anti-defamationist backlash against Jersey Shore was "heavy-handed." "I didn't see the show as representative of Italian American culture – but I do know a lot of people on Staten Island who are like that," he laughs. "Besides, anyone who says 'muzzadell' on TV can't be all bad."

    Several million YouTube visitors have seen another Franzese project, his "Shit Italian Moms Say" videos, in which the actor, in drag and five o'clock shadow, portrays "Italian Mom." The videos broadly, but lovingly and yes, hilariously, send up familiar tropes of Italian American ethnicity and family life. Franzese and his friend Lisa Mastroianni have written and produced two "Italian Mom" videos and an outtakes reel. "I would love to make more," Franzese says. "But they cost a lot. I could do some sort of crowdfunding and I think it'd do pretty well because people want to see more. But I'd have to shave my beard which is definitely a problem because everything I'm booking right now requires me to keep it."

    "All of our Little Italies across the country are dissolving," Franzese added. He says he made the "Italian Moms" videos to "celebrate Italian American cultural references and laugh about them." 

    How does Franzese's own Italian mom (and his other family members) feel about his success as an openly gay actor? "My mom and grandmother are very supportive; they've been like rocks for me through all this. I don't know if it's as easy as for my dad. I don't know if my dad's going to be able to watch Looking." When Franzese and I spoke in January, his father had not yet seen the show.

    Franzese's upcoming projects include the film comedy Mind Puppets, in which Franzese plays a gay Italian American man. In the fall, he begins production as a series regular on the new ABC Family show, Recovery Road. He also appears in parody music videos that don't require him to shave his beard – "Please Go Home," a spoof of British pop star Sam Smith's mega-hit "Stay With Me," will entertain anyone who is put off by, or just tired of, the lachrymose ballad.

    And this year, Franzese received some recognition he surely couldn't have imagined when he was a lonely, "chubby gay teen" – the national gay magazine Out listed him as one of 2015's Most Eligible Bachelors.


  • Library: Articles & Reviews

    Race, Racism, and Italianità

    When the great wave of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century immigration from Italy began, Americans had already gotten the word that the new arrivals, and especially those from Italy's south, were undesirable. European pseudoscience defined them as racial and cultural inferiors predisposed to crime, political extremism, and social backwardness. European newspaper articles about organized crime in Sicily and Campania alarmed a predominantly Anglo-Saxon United States, and nativists seized on them to denounce the new immigrants as a threat to America. A 1903 editorial cartoon titled "The Unrestricted Dumping Ground" depicted southern Italian immigrants as dark-skinned, half-human, half-rodent creatures labeled "Mafia,"  "anarchist," and "socialist."

    But if the American press used its power to defame Italian immigrants, the newspapers startedby Italian immigrants defended their co-nationals by distancing Italians from other ethnic and racial minorities: Asians, Native Americans, and above all, African Americans. The Italian immigrant press insisted that contrary to nativist claims, Italians not only indeed were white; as heirs to a glorious European civilization, they would "save" America from the perils of race mixing.

    In his new book, A Great Conspiracy against Our Race: Italian Immigrant Newspapers and the Construction of Whiteness in the Early 20th Century, Peter G. Vellon chronicles how the Italian American press treated race and ethnicity, from the peak years of immigration in the late nineteenth century to the early 1920s, when U.S. authorities began to impose restrictions on southern (and eastern) European immigration. Vellon, who teaches history at Queens College, shows how "prominenti" newspapers –those owned by politically conservative businessmen and self-proclaimed community leaders – shaped and reflected ideas about race and ethnicity among Italians in America.  

    During a presentation earlier this month at the Calandra Italian American Institute in Manhattan, Vellon focused on several of the many immigrant papers (at one time, there was one newspaper for every 3.3 Italian New Yorkers). One of them, the weekly Il Cittadino, deplored racist attitudes against Italians, claiming that the newcomers, rather than diluting the white race, would save it. Without the immigrant influx, the paper warned, African Americans, then 10 percent of the US population, might reach dangerously high levels. Italians, the paper claimed, would keep the United States from becoming a nation of mixed blood.

    Il Cittadino and other newspapers developed and disseminated an identity steeped in class-based and racial conceptions of italianità, Vellon said. The notion of Italian-ness was foreign to the immigrants from the south, who thought of themselves as Sicilian, Calabrian, or Neapolitan, rather than as Italian. The immigrants landed in America at a time when the recently unified Italian state was engaged in what Vellon called "a top-down construction of what it is to be Italian, a mythic identity constructed on the notion of being a civilized race that produced the Renaissance and Columbus."

    The Italian immigrant newspapers, Vellon said, embraced this newly constructed identity and sold it to their readers. The papers "were working through notions of how immigrants should act and behave while at same time defending Italian Americans from nativist attacks," which, Vellon noted, were not limited to defamation in the press. Lynch mobs were murdering Italian immigrants, mainly in the South, but also in the Midwest and Northeast.

    Southern Italians, Vellon said, were often seen as an "in-between" people, not black, but not "fully" white, either. The immigrant newspapers, well aware of the "heavy stigma" of being viewed as nonwhite, opposed such classification, even objecting to descriptions of Italian immigrant schoolchildren as having dark hair and eyes. (The title of Vellon's book comes from one paper's indignant response to such descriptions.)

    Early on, Vellon noted, the immigrant press had demonstrated some sympathy for the plight of African Americans, with editorialists expressing horror over lynching and other instances of racial oppression. World War I changed that. The war brought "hyper-nationalism and Americanization campaigns"; at the same time, the African American mass migration from the south to northern US cities was underway.  The prominenti newspapers, Vellon said, responded to these conditions by forcefully asserting that Italians, "by dint of their race and Italian-ness," were "part of the solution of keeping America American."

    How effective were the papers in inculcating racial ideology? Vellon remarked that although the press "provided a master narrative" of Italian and Italian American identity, the immigrants also "were learning at the workplace what blackness and whiteness meant, how labor unions organized Europeans but not African Americans, and who lived in which areas and who didn't."  

    The papers, by endorsing Italian colonialism in Africa as a civilizing mission, espoused the same racial ideology as the emerging Fascist movement, Vellon observed. They sowed the seeds of Fascism among Italian Americans; Generoso Pope, the publisher of the largest-circulation paper, Il Progresso, became Mussolini's "mouthpiece" in the United States.

    With A Great Conspiracy against Our Race, Peter Vellon has made an important contribution to the history of immigration and race in America, by showing how Italian immigrant newspapers promoted an us-against-them ideology to defend Italians and gain their acceptance by a hostile nation. The consequences have haunted Italian American and African American relations ever since.

  • Life & People

    Family Drama. What Happens When There is Mental Un-Wellness

    Immigration is literally an unsettling experience, especially when harsh conditions – poverty, war, political oppression – push people from their homelands. If immigration can be traumatic, resettlement can bring new problems.  When mental illness enters the picture, it not only affects individuals. It also can ripple through and destabilize the structure that should provide material and emotional support – the family.

    Immigration and mental health was the topic of a January 22 roundtable at the John D. CalandraItalian American Institute in Manhattan, co-sponsored by Calandra and the Italian Language Inter-Cultural Alliance (ILICA).  A new, Off-Broadway production of Snow Orchid, a 1982 play by the Italian American author Joseph Pintauro depicting the effects of mental illness on an Italian American family, inspired the event.

    Donna Chirico, a psychology professor at York College and the new president of ILICA's U.S. branch, said the play explores "a topic we often don't like to discuss – what happens when there is mental un-wellness in a family." 

    The roundtable panelists – two clinical psychologists, one of the stars of the Snow Orchid revival, and playwright Pintauro – took the play as a point of reference for the evening's discussion.

    Set in Brooklyn in 1964, Snow Orchid focuses on the Lazarra family – American-born Rocco; his Sicilian-born wife Filumena, who came to America after World War II with her G.I. husband; and their two sons, Sebbie and Blaise. Rocco returns to his family after a year in a psychiatric hospital following a violent breakdown; he has been diagnosed as manic-depressive (a condition now called bipolar disorder). The family members are uncertain how to welcome Rocco, who had been an abusive husband and father. Filumena, who has never adapted to America, longs for her native Sicily; agoraphobic, she hasn't left the house since before her husband's hospitalization. Sebbie, who is gay, wants to escape the family; Blaise longs for the love Filumena has never shown him.

    If the "upheaval and anguish" of the Lazarra family is "painful to experience as an audience member," it is "heart wrenching and difficult to treat as a clinician," observedMariaLa Russo, one of the roundtable's two clinical psychologists. La Russo, who has treated Italian immigrant and Italian American families, praised Snow Orchid for its "raw portrait of a family in crisis trying to reconstruct their lives."

    In 1980, La Russo began to work with families in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. She said that although Italian culture often is nostalgic about family, she has encountered "a high degree of anger, anxiety, and despair; feelings of betrayal and disrespect," as well as "cut-offs from nuclear family members and extended relatives." When treating troubled families, she doesn't "focus on any one individual" but works "to help the family unit examine the patterns of communication between members, from a multigenerational perspective."

    Harry Pitsikalis, also a clinical psychologist, referring to Rocco Lazarra's institutionalization, said that forcible hospitalization itself traumatizes, especially when police bring the distressed person – in handcuffs – to the hospital: "Not only do you have a mental illness, but you're treated like a criminal."

    Donna Chirico, however, noted that the experience of mental illness – and treatment – varies with economic class. Affluent people have more resources, they can maintain privacy so that no one outside the immediate family knows, and they can retain more autonomy. "Obviously it's very different to be taken in handcuffs by police to a psych hospital than to go to the nice sanitarium in Connecticut," she observed.

    Speaking after the psychologists, Joseph Pintauro remarked, to laughter, "I'm a little bit afraid of being Italian American, afraid of my own anxieties, which resurfaced in listening to you."

    "It's not an easy thing to be an Italian American," he observed. "But I don't think it's easy for anyone in this country to be from anywhere else."

    Pintauro said the genesis of Snow Orchid was an experience he had as a social worker in his grandparents' Brooklyn neighborhood, in 1964. A Sicilian immigrant woman had become a familiar figure as she enacted public expressions of grief, weeping outside her apartment building and pleading with passers-by to "please do something for me, I want to go back home."

    "Everybody considered her crazy," Pintauro recalled. He referred her to two Italian psychiatrists who, in their Queens practice, treated Italian immigrants. One of the psychiatrists told Pintauro that there was nothing wrong with the woman other than being homesick.

    "She touched my heart," Pintauro said. "I started writing what I thought was about her, and then other things sort of came in." His character Filumena, like the Sicilian woman in Brooklyn, immigrated to America after World War II. Pintauro also drew on the experience of a playwright friend who committed suicide, as well as conflicts within Italian American families over homosexuality. Pintauro is gay and much of his work deals with gay experience. Perhaps the most powerful scene in Snow Orchid is the explosive confrontation late in the play between Rocco and Sebbie, the gay son he has never really loved or understood.

    Angelina Fiordellisi, the accomplished stage and film actor who plays Filumena in the Snow Orchid revival, and Valentina Fratti, its director, also spoke briefly at the roundtable. Fiordellisi, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s, said that in playing Filumena she is "channeling my mother, who was very volatile, felt dislocated, and torn from her family" in Italy.

    The Calandra-ILICA roundtable was, said Donna Chirico, the first of a series of "conversations" between Italians and Italian Americans. A group Italian business people founded ILICA, a nonprofit foundation, to promote Italian language and culture.  Vincenzo Marra, an ILICA founder and its past president, said the foundation aims "to present Italy as it is today." He said many Italian organizations in America are losing members because "people are looking for something new, especially new Italians [immigrants]." He said that the Italians who have come to the United States in recent decades are not like earlier generations – they are better educated and more culturally confident.

    Left unsaid, however, was the fact that the new immigrants, like their predecessors, are being pushed out of Italy as much, if not more, as they are pulled to America by the opportunities here. A weak and stagnant economy; high unemployment, especially among young people; rampant political corruption and dysfunction; and the intractable North-South divide – these contemporary conditions are not very different from those that spurred prior mass migrations. Like the earlier, more proletarian immigrants, today's newcomers – advanced degrees notwithstanding – are leaving a madrepatria that doesn't love them enough to keep them.    

    The new production of Joseph Pintauro's Snow Orchid, directed by Valentina Fratti, begins performances February 3 at the Lion Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, Manhattan. The limited engagement opens officially February 8 and runs through February 28.

    For more information about ILICA, visit the foundation's website.


  • 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 jokes from that show: "I'm forty-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."