Reconnecting to an
Italian-American Ethnic Self

James C. Mancuso

March, 2001

The text of this essay offers a discussion of the ways in which people develop, maintain, and, in some cases, seek to reestablish, self identities based on associations with a particular cultural group. The author attempts to offer a foundation of psychological theory for framing one's views on self identity functioning. The general propositions of the author's theory emerge from constructivist positions. The content of this essay, except where direct quotations are reproduced, is the responsibility of the author.

For the convenience of the readers, many hypertext links have been built into the text of this account. By clicking the mouse on any of the links, the reader may connect to those world wide web sites that give more information on the topic that is linked. In such instances, the same term is linked more than once.

Introduction: Some General Psychological Considerations.

Social scientists seem to argue excessively about ways in which to describe human psychological functioning. One description of one aspect of human psychological functioning can, however, gain widespread agreement. A very strong case can be made for acceptance of the following description of a central psychological function (See Mancuso, 1977, Mancuso & Hunter, 1983, Mancuso & Adams-Webber, 1982, Mancuso & Sarbin, 1998, Mascolo & Mancuso, 1990):

Humans, as they develop, acquire a psychological system from which they can build internal representations of objects and events. (At various points, below, I shall call such internal representations psychollages.) Whenever a person encounters an object or event, he/she can function relative to that object or event in terms of the internal representation (the psychollage) which he/she usually builds in order to "know" that object or event. When something happens to demonstrate to the person that his way of "knowing" that event does not "work," the person is put into a state which most people will find to be "uncomfortable." (Another way of saying this is; whenever a person finds that there is a discrepancy between the psychollage that he/she tries to use in order to "know" and the information he/she gets through his/her senses, he/she prepares for action. Most people dislike the experiences created by the bodily reactions that accompany preparation for action .)

In everyday language, one can say, "Most people become quite uncomfortable when they are contradicted." People prefer to carry on their psychological functioning on the basis that their way of "seeing things" or "knowing about what is going on" represents the "correct way" of "seeing" and "knowing." When a person develops his/her systems of "knowing" in one social environment, and then try to take that system into another social environment, he/she probably will find that people in the new environment do not "see things" as does he/she. Thus, he/she will enter many situations in which he/she become uncomfortable.

One could say, a person prepares for action when he/she is "unsure of what is going on." As the body prepares for action, many signals are sent off by changes in the body. Persons, as very young children, usually learn techniques to reduce the signals sent out as a result of the body changes that come from preparing for action. In general, persons develop techniques that bring about a reduction in preparation for action.

The workings of this rather straightforward psychological principal has been at the base of some of the most profound and far-reaching historical events. Millions upon millions of people have died, have been tortured, and have been slaughtered by efforts to build a world in which persons can function psychologically without needing to experience contradiction of their way he of "seeing" and "knowing" particular objects and events. Over history, people have been found that it is easy to eliminate other people who cause "uncertainty." People have perfected techniques for getting rid of other people who insist on using psychollages (representations of knowledge, collages of meaning "in-the-head) that differ from the psychollages generally used by the established population who inhabit a particular geographic area. If the people who run things in a Italy believe that the sun circles the earth, they would become "unsure of themselves" if someone does some tricks to show that the earth rotates on an axis. For generations people have watched the the sun and they have "seen" the sun moving. The psychollage (collage of meaning "in-the-head") that they have used as they have watched the sun includes "moving," "westward," "bright," "warm," etc. If someone comes along and insists that the psychollage should include the dimension "stationary," rather than the dimension "moving," that person can be eliminated. Perhaps the simple threat of eliminating that person will serve to force that person to stop introducing discrepancy into the psychological systems of the people who view the sun in terms of "moving."

Usually, these kinds of efforts to build a "discrepancy-free" world are justified by the claim in that the builders are merely attempting to be sure that everyone interprets the objects and events of the world according to one or another "TRUTH." People who attempt to create a world in which their psychollages (collages of meaning "in-the-head") are never contradicted will claim that any alternative psychollage represents an inferior and UNTRUE "collage of meaning in-the-head" about particular objects and events.

Fortunately, people also have developed the means of building a world in which people can comfortably deal with contradiction. That is, many people have developed ways of living in worlds in which people can live side-by-side while holding alternative "collages of meaning "in-the-head"." Societies have developed institutions and procedures within which persons can function together despite their using psychollages that differ from those which are used by their neighbors. Societies have developed elaborate means of exchanging psychollages, debating, engaging in dialogue, and so forth. By using these more "humanistic" methods, people can come to agreements about how to deal with contradictory ways of knowing the world.

For example, citizens of a city called Toptown might readily take up the practice of tossing garbage, night wastes, and others trash into a ditch running down the side of city streets. Toptown's officials might make reasonable arrangements for regular removal of this waste. Some of Toptown's citizens might visit Santown, which has abandoned the practice of dumping trash into the city's street. Instead, the citizens of Santown place their trash in closed receptacles Those who visit Santown observe that the citizens of Santown are healthier, that the ambiance of Santown's streets is far more pleasant, and that the trash collectors in Santown are much more efficient. When they return to Toptown, they attempt to have their home town's trash removal system changed.

When they present their proposals to the citizens of Toptown, they will clearly provide contradiction to their fellow citizens' ways of "seeing things." Toptown's citizens, by a variety of means, can attempt to maintain their psychollages relative to garbage collection. They can ridicule the proposals generated by the visit to Santown by noting that the citizens of Santown are an effete bunch of weaklings who do not have the strength to tolerate the pungent smell of garbage. They can argue that the ancient founders of Toptown had instituted the current garbage collection system, and that an effort to alter that system would constitute an affront to the wisdom of those ancestors. They can argue that if the system of garbage collection were changed, the pigs that feed on the garbage in the ditches will have no source of food, and the owners of the pigs will need to find other ways to get their pork.

Eventually, some of the wise men of Toptown might build a reasoning chain that connects an epidemic of illness to the presence of stagnating garbage. The wise men then began to advocate the adoption of a new system of garbage collection. Gradually, more and more citizens will build a psychollage by which to "know" garbage in the streets as a "health hazard." At that point, the presence of garbage in the streets will contradict the psychollages (the collages of meaning "in-the-head") that most citizens use as they perceive garbage in the streets. At that point, their actions will be guided by what they believe to be a new TRUTH.

Any study of any history shows that over the millennia during which humans have tried to develop functioning societies, persons have struggled with issues about how to develop and promulgate the psychollages that will guide the actions of members of a community. As one observes these struggles, he/she must agree that the method of choice, in the majority of cases, involves the use of violence or threats of violence by people who have attained the power to carry out violence against others. Of course, the use of violence does not guarantee that those who hesitate to adopt new "truths" accept those "truths." At least, however, the use of violence will force compliance.

One must also agree, however, that human institutions have evolved to the point where such use of violence evokes negative judgment. To avoid those negative judgments, those who would attempt to induce the use of one or another psychollage must work out other methods by which to prompt the use of a particular way of viewing an event or object.

The Problem of Immigrants as a Source
of Discrepancy

Throughout history, large groups of people have moved from one geographic space to other geographic spaces. Historic records show that immigrants have always brought their views of the world - their "TRUTHS" - into the territory they will occupy. Thus, the immigrants have inevitably provided a source of contradiction to the resident populations of a particular geographic area. In many cases, the immigrants attempted to remove the resident populations through the use of violence. The Hyksos people moved into Egypt, subjugating the local populations and imposing on them the psychollages they preferred to use as they viewed objects and events in the world. The Israelites moved into one corner of western Asia and, claiming that they were acting on the instructions of their god, massacred and enslaved the inhabitants of that land who carried on their lives using "truths" that contradicted those that the Israelites had developed.. The Puritans left England and attempted to establish a New England in which they could live according to their "TRUTHS" - a new Jerusalem where contradiction of their psychollages would not be tolerated. In that New England there resided a group of first settlers known as The Pequot people, who carried on their actions on the basis of alternative "TRUTHS." The new residents of that New England demonized the Pequot people and found several ready justifications for savagely eliminating those first settlers.

Benjamin Franklin, esteemed as one of the wise men among the people who had moved into the English colonies in North America, found that in Pennsylvania he could apply his refined literary skill and political acumen to gain authorization of the Puritans' views of first settlers. He skillfully developed positions that encouraged the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians to push offspring of the indigenous people ever westward. He opposed slavery, as did the Society of Friends. Using psychollages that differed from those used by the Quakers, however, he based his opposition on the view that by importing Africans, the Europeans were reducing their hegemony. By importing slaves they were bringing to Pennsylvania people that used psychollages that differed radically from those used by the descendants of immigrants from England - black people who simply did not "know" the "TRUTHS" that the English had "discovered."

Penn's generosity toward the Palatine Germans stimulated Franklin's major concerns about introducing a source of contradiction of British-endorsed "TRUTHS." To avoid the possibility of Pennsylvania becoming a colony of "aliens," Franklin advocated schooling for the children of the German immigrants. Those children were to learn English ways by learning the English language and by studying the King James version of The Bible. (It should be noted that the efforts to "Americanize" the German children through public supported schools ended in 1763. The "Pennsylvania Dutch" maintained their cultural identity for three hundred years, contributing immensely to the economic and cultural life of Pennsylvania. Their ways of "knowing" objects and events did not impede their successful adaptation to the lands of Pennsylvania!) Franklin also turned his rhetoric to the task of opposing the British Parliament's decision to treat Roman Catholicism as a tax supported state religion in Canada, after Wolfe's decisive defeat of the French forces in that area. How could the Parliament allow the possibility that the "TRUTHS" promulgated by the Roman Papacy might be regarded as valid at those of the Protestant churches that English immigrants had established in the colonies populated by the English??

In effect, Benjamin Franklin provided some of the first important intellectual foundations for devising means by which to create a nation in which people would encounter a minimum of contradiction of their ways of viewing the world - of experiencing contradiction of the psychollages that would earn the stamp of authority. Franklin, who had achieved the status of a wise man, helped to provide the basic justifications for "Americanizing" the people who would immigrate to the United States.

Franklin gave voice to an important way of viewing immigrants - to an important psychollage that was to be applied to people who immigrate to The United States. In exchange for the opportunity to live and work in "The New Jerusalem," the immigrant was to accept the "American Way" of viewing objects and events, and was to disclaim any affinity to the culture of the people who had occupied the geographical space from which he/she had emigrated. The new immigrants were to dress as did the established citizens. The were to stop using the languages they had used in the lands from which they immigrated. The established citizens also would find it more comfortable if the new immigrants would not insist on the higher palatability and healthfulness of the food of the country of their origin.

Through education the immigrants were to gain insight into the "rightness" of adopting the approved view of their status. Through education they would learn the advantages of accepting the "TRUTHS" of the established citizens. The official view of the process of the Americanization of immigrants placed a negative value on the use of physical violence as a means of gaining conformity. Though immigrants might be killed if they took definitive action against the interests of industrialists, officials would overtly condemn those who did the killing. Lynchings, beatings, and murders could conveniently intimidate immigrant groups, but officials could not openly admit that such methods had had the approval of those who held power.

Despite the allure of education as an acceptable means of Americanizing the immigrants, modern scholars now debate the effects of such campaigns. Many published works offer a variety of perspectives on the use of public-supported education as a means of prompting immigrants to accept the "TRUTHS" which have been endorsed by the holders of power in The USA (for example, Carlson, 1987; Salins, 1997).

In short, the debate centers on the issue of whether use of education to achieve Americanization involves psychological violence, rather than physical violence.

Violation of a person through constant contradiction. In the first section of this piece, I laid out the formulation that contradiction of the psychollages that a person uses to "know" objects and events puts a person into a state of preparation for effort. I noted that most people regard such preparation for effort as negative - as discomfort.

If a person spends the first, very influential, formative years in a family that follows particular cultural practices, endorses particular values, and views the world in particular ways, he/she will develop a psychological system that will allow him/her to view the world as his/her parents view the worlds. That is, as a general rule, a person will develop a psychological system that will allow him/her to put together the psychollages that his family will endorse. As long as he/she associates with his/her family and other families that endorse the view of the world held by his/her family, he/she will rarely face contradiction and will rarely experience the effects of preparation for effort to undo the contradiction.

Consider a child born into an immigrant family who adopts her family's ways of "knowing" the world. When that child goes into communities outside that in which she has been reared, she will certainly encounter situations in which other persons will contradict, either directly or through their actions, her psychollages (collages of meaning "in-the-head"). During his/her middle childhood the law might require that the child participate in an "educational situation." There the child will encounter authority figures who are employed to prompt that child to adopt "TRUTHS" that have been endorsed by the power holders of the community. The teacher believes, of course, that he/she serves the interests of the child by teaching him/her the "validated ways" of the broader society. According to the formulation which I have laid out above, any time that the instructor presents the child with a view of an events or object that differs from the view which the child might have regularly applied to that event or object, the instructor prompts the child to prepare for action. As noted, persons generally experience their selves in such preparations for action by using the dimension "uncomfortable." As a person builds a psychollage of his/her self in a discrepancy state, he/she will undoubtedly use the dimension "uncomfortable." The body changes - strong heart strokes, emptying of stomach contents, changes in blood vessels surrounding major muscles, stop in the production of saliva, etc. - that accompany preparation for action produce signals. As a rule, persons "dislike" receiving those signals. They "know" that they "feel uncomfortable."

The teacher might, for example, attempt to carry out a lesson plan aimed at prompting the children in his class to adopt particular views of certain foods. He intends to have the children become aware of the dangers of over consumption of fats. He asks the child of the immigrant family, "What did you eat for breakfast, this morning?" The child responds, "I had coffee with milk, a fried egg with a tomato, and a piece of bread with olive oil." It happened that the teacher recently had sat with his family on the front porch of their home as a religious procession from the church attended by the child's family. The teacher's father, a foreman in the mine in which the child's father worked, had remarked. "Here come the greasy dagoes. Can you believe those people? They use olive oil like it was water. They even fry eggs in olive oil. I hear that some of them even use it as hair tonic." Thus, the teacher has a difficult time restraining a smirk when the child tells of having eaten a fried egg for breakfast. And a tomato! For breakfast? He quickly passes from the immigrant child to Johnny Newell. Johnny will give a report, the teacher is sure, of having eaten a breakfast that he can endorse. Johnny reports, "Shredded wheat, with milk and banana." The immigrant child wonders why the teacher did not elaborate effusively to his report as he did to Johnny's report. "Now we see that Johnny's breakfast was a low fat breakfast. We should try to eat foods that are low in fat. If we eat too much fat food, etc., etc." The immigrant child senses that the teacher's ignoring of her report and the effuse response to Johnny's report represents an implied reprimand of her eating habits. The child "knows" her bodily reaction - the changes that automatically accompany discrepancy - as "shame." She will recall her "shame," when her mother next prepares a delicious, nutritious breakfast for her.

The child's teacher, of course, did not intend to induce a condition that the child would construe - "know" - as shame. The teacher simply intended to "educate" the children about proper diet. The teacher had never heard of "preparation for action that accompanies discrepancy between inputs and the psychollage that the person had attempted to used to construe an object or event." He might have heard of shame, anxiety, fear, and so on. A long course of instruction might lead him to see that these terms are terms that persons use to construe inputs associated with preparations for action at those times when they discover a discrepancy between the psychollages they would use and the ensuing sensory inputs. The choice of "emotion-knowing" psychollage would depend on the social situation. The immigrant child "knew" - construed - the inputs from her body changes as shame. "I have said the 'wrong' thing. I have eaten the 'wrong' breakfast. The teacher thinks I am stupid." The child had created a situation, as she sees it, in which the teacher construes her in ways that the child does not wish to be construed. In other situations when the child confronts discrepancy, she might interpret the signals associated with her body changes as fear, or anger, or sadness.

The point to be made: Children, as they develop in the ambiance of their infancy and early childhood, develop a psychological system from which they will build the psychollages that they will use to "know" the objects and events that they will encounter. (One must assume that a person must constantly "know" his/her self. In terms of psychological functioning, the self stands as an object. The psychollages that a person builds to "know" his/her self represent the most important psychollages that she/he will use as he/she interacts with the world about him/her.) If they take that system into a novel ambiance they will build and attempt to use the psychollages they had developed in their "native" ambiance. One can expect that other persons in the novel ambiance will act in ways that will signal the invalidity of many of the psychollages they attempt to use.

Following from these premises, one can conclude that the child reared in the ambiance of an immigrant family will confront many discrepancy situations.

I will note here that I will use the term venturers to signify those persons who have been reared in an immigrant family and who then are required to adapt to a surrounding society.

In the ensuing text I will review the writings of authors who had been reared in the ambiance of an immigrant family and then had made efforts to adapt to the social context that surrounded their families. The writings that I will review offer insights into the ways that those authors, as venturers, acted in response to the kinds of discrepancy situations to which they had been subjected. A reader of the following text will find that I concentrate on three books written by offspring of people who emigrated from Southern Italy to North American countries - The United State of America (The USA) and Canada.

Scholars (Gordon, 1964; Stonequist, 1961; Thomas, 1971/1921) have regularly produced analyses of the psychological processes of venturers in The United States. One readily finds lengthy treatises (Salins, 1997, Alba, 1985, 1990) on a process that writers label by the use of the confusing term assimilation. Use of ther term assimilation produces confusion, because writers often fail to make a clear statement regarding what is being assimilated. Is the venturer assimilating - digesting and incorporating into his/her self (his body) - a system that allows him to build and use the psychollages used by the dominant society? Is the dominant society assimilating - digesting and incorporating into its body - the venturer? Has the venturer assimilated or has he/she been assimilated?

As a result of the confusions, one can conclude, the studies and conclusions regarding the "assimilation" of venturers offer little clarification of the psychological processes that accompany venturers' efforts to adapt to the surrounding dominant society.

Three Books That Offer Personal Accounts of Connecting to and Maintaining a Self Identity as a Descendant of Italian Immigrants to North America.

As is often the case, one can turn to the productions of creative writers to gain insight into the psychological processes involved in venturing from an immigrant community into the broader society. Over the last two years, three exceptional texts offer the kinds of insights that such creative writers can produce. These three works prove to be particularly exceptional in that they aptly chronicle the journey taken by three writers who moved out of their Italian immigrant ambiance and into the broader world, as well as chronicling their reconnection to their Italian heritage. One might say that these writers not only adapted to the broader society, they also "reconnected" to their Italian roots, bringing to that reconnection the ability to analyze carefully their reactions to their journeys. Joe Fiorito gives a very moving account of how his close interaction with his dying father uncovered the deep roots he had to his family's history. Paul Paolicelli wrote about the way in which casual remarks concerning his Italian immigrant background led him on an obsessive search for information about his grandfather. Maria Laurino has written a decisive account of her experiences as she, the daughter of an Italian immigrant family, grew up in a comfortable New Jersey suburban community, moved out of that community, and then eventually became aware of and fascinated by her family's origins in Southern Italian culture.

Joe Fiorito's The closer we are to dying.

Joe Fiorito (1999) gave the title The Closer We are to Dying to his book. The title stimulates many allusions. The closer we are to dying, the more simulated we are to review our past. The closer we are to a dying person, the more likely we are to seek to understand the sources of that person's persona.

Fiorito had been called to his father's side when it became clear that his father, known as Dusty, was close to death. To arrive at his father's bedside, he needed to travel from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, to Thunder Bay, Ontario. Fiorito had settled in Toronto where he was at the nadir of his career as a communicator. He had made his way to that position by having once worked as a station manager to a Canadian Broadcasting Company in Iqaluit, the capital city of the recently-created territory of Nunavit, in Canada's Arctic North. He had worked as a radio producer in Regina, Province of Saskatchewan, where his Italian-Canadian background became public as he produced the "Food Show." After leaving Regina and settling in Montreal, Quebec, he turned his writing talents to writing a food column for a food magazine. A collection of columns selected from those he had written were published in a book Comfort Me with Apples . After the high critical acclaim he received for Comfort Me with Apples, a collection of Fiorito's essays appeared in the book Tango on the Main. These essays had first appeared to in the The Montreal Gazette. Fiorito had won high praise for his colorful descriptions of characters that could be observed in the city of Montreal. In Toronto he wrote, three times each week, a column for the National Post. In the book About Closer We are to Dying Fiorito describes being called to his native town by his mother.

Fiorito's return to Thunder Bay, under the conditions of that return, revived the intensity of the tangled emotions that wove through his relationship with his father. The text in which Fiorito introduces readers to his father eloquently reflects the nature of their father-son relationship.

"My father was a bush town band stand idol."

"Everybody knew his name. For 50 years he played the trombone, the banjo, and the stand-up bass in bars and meeting halls and little dance joints: self-taught swing and blues and Dixieland tunes in trios, quartets, quintet's. He strutted in the city marching band, blew comic trombone raspberries at the elephants when the circus came to town. He was not ours."

"He belonged to the crowd."

"He was handsome. His skin was olive, his hair was dark and wavy. He was trim, neatly formed, and agile the way some smaller men are. He had high cheek bones, small feet, and strong hands. His upper lip was flattened slightly, from years of being pressed against the mouth piece of the trombone; the imperfections made them looks slightly dangerous." . . . . .

"He was a star. We were broke. He was a musician, performer. We made sacrifices for him; he worked for us. We wore hand-me-downs. My mother's dresses were shabby. Her best clothes were the crisp white uniform she wore when she waited tables or tended bar. Together, they made barely enough to get by."

Everybody in Thunder Bay knew Dusty, the letter carrier/entertainer. Everyone knew him as a person who never pass up the opportunity to share a stiff drink and a good story. Joe Fiorito and his siblings also knew him as a man who, in fits of desperate rage, would beat their mother mercilessly.

Through the retelling of family myths and stories during the 21 nights that Fiorito sat with his father, as the cancer slowly ate away Dusty's life, Joe gathered together the narratives that framed the existence of their colorful Italian-Canadian family.

A brother, Matteo Fiorito, and a sister, Filomena Fiorito, formed two sides of the triangle on which the family had been built. Giuseppe Silvaggio, Filomena's husband, formed the third side. This trio fled to Canada after Giuseppe (Joe - the uncle after whom the author had been named) had commited a violent act against a rival in the town of Rippabottoni, Province of Molise, Italy. In Canada, Matteo met and married Angela Maria Delvecchio. Each pair of that quartet acquired a homestead in northern Ontario, 25 miles southwest of Fort William, a town which ultimately became a part of Thunder Bay. Each family had 160 acres that they, working together, turned into relatively prosperous farmsteads.

The success of their farmsteads was foretold by the extreme resourcefulness of the members of the quartet. Fiorito described Dusty's father, Matteo, as follows;

"He was a hard worker. Everyone loved him. He didn't say much, there was not much to say. He made good wine. He could dress a hog, make cheese, and cure sausage. He could clear a field, blow a stump, plant a garden, and build a house."

Matteo and Angela Maria reared a family of five girls and seven boys - the last of the children being Dusty. The Silvaggios matched the Fioritos in fecundity.

When Dusty, Joe's father, was a young boy, Matteo Fiorito had given up the working of the homestead and had moved into Fort William with his 12 children. The vigorous young men of the clan responded vigorously to the constant invalidations of the selves that they had created under the guidance of Matteo and Angela.

"[M]y uncles sang, they made wine, they cooked when they were in the mood; and though they were not often in the mood they cooked well enough by instinct and made all the dishes Angela had made."

"[For my uncles] There were no unexpired grudges. Nothing was forgotten, no one forgiven. You had to keep track of the score. Fuck 'em if they can't take to joke."

"Dominic said, 'A man can call you a wop, but he better have a smile on his face. If he's smiling, you smile back. But if the man calls you a dago, you hit him hard.' "

"Dusty said, 'Hit 'em first and hit them hard.' "

"Dave said nothing; he smiled."

Though Joe's uncles were not much interested in anything that happened before they were born, they could not escape the identities they had formed in their Italian immigrant family. Carrying those identities, even their very family name , created conditions of invalidation and humiliation. Joe was the heir to the consequences of his uncle's reactions.

Thus, young Joe Fiorito not only stood to experience invalidation on the basis of his own identity as a Canadian-Italian, he also faced constant invalidation of his self as worthy on account of the reputation of his uncles and cousins.

Everyone recognized Joe as a Fiorito. He could not escape the family's reputation.

At an early age, young Joe developed an incipient understanding of the ways in which the surrounding society stood ready to invalidate the collages of meaning "in-the-head" that he had developed through his association with this huge family.

"When I went church, I was in the habit of kneeling at the railing of the choir loft. I liked to stare down at the bald spots of the important man of the parish. They were rich, we were poor; they were respectable, Dusty drank. And so they excluded my father from the honor of being an usher, nor was he allowed to take up the collection. My revenge was to take pleasure in mocking their vanity."

". . . They may have had money and new cars and fat Knights of Columbus rings on their finger; my father had a fine head of hair."

Young Joe also could understand the text and subtext of the sermons delivered by Father Corrigan, as he castigated the congregation for not supporting the building fund.

"I don't want to single out any one group."

"Corrigan did not like Italians. In particular, he did not like Fioritos. He refused to say the funeral mass for my uncle Tony, who had returned from the trenches of France an atheist. Corrigan despised my uncle Dave the Communist freethinker; my uncle Dominic the profligate, my uncle Frank the brawling union man. He sneered openly at my father for his late nights, his fondness for women, his love of the bottle."

"[A]s far back as I can remember, no one but another Italian has ever been able to say 'Fiorito.'"

"But from the moment I entered school, I insisted my new friends and my teachers learn to pronounce my name correctly. I stood up to Mrs. Spears, who was blue-haired, fat and ferocious, prone to dislike me because she'd had my older brother and had failed my wildest cousin the previous year. I got the benefit, not of her doubt, but of her certainty that I was going to be trouble, just another little prick."

"And so when she called me the first time - ' I see we have another Freedo!' - she glared; she'd had experience with my kind. I stood and said,' That's not how you pronounce by name.' And I pronounced it for her, and there was a hush, because no one had ever stood up to her."

She had mispronounced my family name for years; I had plenty of cousins, she had a long memory. She'd glared at me. I held my ground, waited until she said, 'Very well,' and told me to sit down."

However it happened, through this all, Joe was stimulated to uncover the background of his family.

"I wanted to know about Ripa [Ripabottoni - the town from which his grandfather had emigrated.] my grandfather had died before I was born; he couldn't tell me. My uncles were born in Canada; they weren't much interested in anything that happened before them. But I thought if I listened closely I might learn what made them what they were, and what made me the way I am, as if my roots lay in their deracination."

And, however it happened, Joe Fiorito developed a very profound set of insights into his family and its history.

"Most men do not become refugees of their own free will."

"They leave their homes because they have no choice, because they are expelled by war or by poverty, a disaster or by - don't speak of it! - the failure of the human heart. They flee bad luck, bad weather, the whims of kings; they race to keep a step ahead of the world's mighty armies; they squeeze themselves into steerage with their steamer trunks, their wives and their children, their tools and their photographs."

"They make a bargain on arrival; We are strangers here. We know it is necessary for us to work hard, learn fast, give birth to many children, and endure much humiliation in order to survive. All we ask for is a chance."

When Joe's father's impending death became apparent, Joe's curiosity about his family and his family's history became more insistent.

"When he first became ill, before there was an urgency about his illness, in the days when the notion of the clear and inevitable end seemed somehow indecent, I went to Italy. To my grandfather's village."

"To Ripabottoni on the hillside."

"I went with a vague notion: I thought it might be possible to see something that would help my father die. I knew he was curious about his father's birthplace: but he'd never had the money to travel. There might be some clue about us in Ripa, some answer to an unposed question."

Joe Fiorito describes his visit to his grandfather's hometown in ways that will revoke strong associations for anyone who has similarly visited the town from which their Italian ancestors had emigrated - the intense curiosity of the current citizens of the town, the courtesy of the employees in the offices where records of births and deaths are kept, the strong emotion associated with knowing that you are walking on the very stones that your grandfather had walked as he left his native village for the last time. Even today, in those villages, it is not difficult to visualize the poverty and misery that existed 100 years ago, and had forced the illiterate peasants to launch into an adventure that would set the course of the lives of their children and grandchildren who would be reared surrounded by a society in which their family-derived identities would be tested constantly by the people who had already established themselves in that new world.

Fiorito has used the highly emotional event of accompanying his father toward his death to produce a highly artful work in which he masterfully chronicles the emotion-laden process of coming to terms with and asserting the validity of one's identity. In doing that, he not only recorded his family's history as he searched out the source of his own identity, he also provided a universally applicable framework within which to understand the ways in which venturers confront the problems of achieving comfort with the identities that they take into their interactions with people who stand ready to invalidate core central self constructions.

Paul Paolicelli's Dances with Luigi


Paul Paolicelli (2000) reconnected to an Italian American ethnic identity under very different circumstances. At the time of the beginning of his reconnection, Paolicelli was of the news director for the NBC television affiliate in Houston, Texas. Paolicelli reports two incidents that spurred his reconnection. At one point, he happened to be in the city of San Francisco during an earthquake. He gave himself the assignment of doing an on-camera report of the earthquake. The CEO of the parent company sent the executive of the Houston affiliate a note; "that new Italian reporter ain't bad."

Shortly thereafter, Paolicelli was invited to to a reception for the Italian Premier, Giulio Andreotti. The reception was hosted by the Houston Italian-AmericanCultural Society. The woman from the organization told Paolicelli that she was trying to invite all the "prominent Italians" from the Houston area. When he attempted to explain that he was not Italian, that he was American, the woman proceeded to ask whether not his name was of Italian origin. Paolicelli responded that his grandparents had come to the United States from Italy. The woman proceeded to insist that that being the case Paolicelli would be considered to be an Italian.

"I didn't so much mind, it was just that I didn't know much about being Italian. My family was as American as you could get; I was raised in the suburbs, had been a Cub and Boy Scout, had played in Little League, was the beneficiary of excellent dental care and public schools, and was a veteran of the U.S. Army. Italian, especially at this time my life, just wasn't a ready or often-used adjective when I was describing myself."

These incidents occurred at a crucial time the Paolicelli's life. He was past age 40. His connections to his Italian American family in Pittsburgh, PA, had dwindled into the memories. His dream of having children remained an unfulfilled dream. He had recently undergone a divorce. He had money in the bank - money that he had saved with the intention of providing an education for the children that he never had. He decided to put the money into a bank account, to go to Italy, and to "get back to something spiritually important."

Paolicelli's spiritually important task involved his becoming more familiar with the story of the man for whom Paul had been named -- a man that Paul had never known. Paul Paolicelli's grandfather, Francesco Paolo Paolicelli had immigrated to New York City's Greenwich Village. Paul's father was born there. Francesco Paolo's wife insisted that the family move to Clarion, PA, where her brother had become a foreman at the Carnegie Steel Company. Paolo was killed in a steel mill accident when Paul's father was nine years old.

Paolicelli recounts the family's utterly moving story of Paolo's death. While working in the steel mile, Paul's grandfather slipped and fell on a railroad track. The vehicle moving down the track severed his legs from his body. The man who reported Francesco Paolo's death to the family had rushed over to cradle Paul's dying grandfather in his arms. The friend reported that Francesco Paolo repeated over and over, "poveri figli mie,' poveri figli mie';" - "my poor kids, my poor kids."

"I thought about my grandfather's dying words, 'my poor kids.' The phrase hung in my imagination. I wanted to know more about this man for whom I was named - more than just the sad scene at the end of his life. I wanted to know about the beginning. I wanted to know this man."

Paolicelli took some Italian lessons; and, in 1991, through friends, he found an apartment in Rome.

In Italy, Paolicelli readily absorbed the tremendous amount of data that allowed him to comprehend Italy, the Italians, and Italian-Americans with insights that would be acquired by very few descendants of the Italy-to-The-United-States venturers. Additionally, he traveled to and explored the villages from which his grandparents had emigrated. His accounts of these explorations should stimulate any descendants of l'avventura to undertake similar explorations.

Paolicelli's insights allowed him to spell out the framework into which he could fit his experiences:

"In America, where many of the villagers [of the town of Gamberale] had emigrated, the [Second World] war ended many of the ties to this village, this country, and to Europe in general. Because of the war the people in America changed. Their attitudes and their outlooks were thoroughly American now. A new generation took over - a generation born in the United States, whose primary definition of themselves would be simply 'American.' The birthplaces of their grandparents would become only distant curiosities."

"For those first-generation Americans, Europe had become an embarrassment. The new third generation, those of us from the noisy, self-centered, postwar group called baby boomers, were far more interested in being the envied and victorious Americans than in identifying with any of the war's losers. We spent our childhood riding in the back seats of huge American gas guzzlers, studied abundant textbooks in what was then the world's best school system, and watched gripping American TV dramas like Father Knows Best on an unbelievably broad distribution of television sets."

Paolicelli vowed to overcome the mistaken abandonment of interest in the heritage of the participants in l'avventura"

Paolicelli, among other assets that allowed him to overcome that abandonment, had the advantages of having Luigi for a mentor and of being able to play the cornet. He had been an avid student of music. Luigi facilitated Paolicelli's navigation through the social and bureaucratic networks of Rome and South Italy. Eventually Paolicelli became involved with four amateur music groups. His skill in trumpet playing gave him access to a wide social circle, and eventually led him to the best lead he had on the origins of his namesake grandfather.

In Rome, Paolicelli met Luigi - the man whose name is (unfortunately) woven into the title of the book Paolicelli eventually published - Dances with Luigi. (This reader is inclined to skip the main title, and to focus on the subtitle, A Grandson's Determined Quest to Comprehend Italy and the Italians.) Luigi had been married to a woman from Boston, MA. His familiarity with American ways; and his being bi-lingual, allowed him to help Paolicelli past the rough spots in which Paolicelli's mastery of Italian did not suffice.

With Luigi, Paolicelli discovered the ways in which Roman dance halls differed markedly from the dance halls in The USA. In Rome, few of the dancers drank alcoholic beverages. Popular ballads represented sons singing to a mother, inviting her to go dancing. Whole families sat at little tables and took turns dancing with each other.

Paocelli learned about the ways in which the attitudes of Italians toward mendicanti differ radically from the attitudes of Americans.

Stewart, an Australian who begged in Rome reported, "Italy's the best," he said. "People here don't look down their nose at you. I was always being hassled in England. One night in Germany a policeman broke my arm with his club because I didn't move fast enough. I was drunk and couldn't move very fast, so the bastard hit me. The Italian police leave you alone or take you to a hospital."

"They are god's children, " Luigi said at one point. "And it could be you or me if things were just slightly different in our lives."

Of course, as most visitors to Italy have proclaimed, Paolicelli found Italian food to be remarkable. Like millions of other visitors to Italy, he found it hard to believe that food with which he was familiar in the USA took on entirely different texture and taste qualities in the kitchens of Italy.

While on a picnic with several newly-discovered Italian members of his family, Paolicelli reports, "We munched on homemade sausages, several breads, a couple of eggplant dishes, arancini - wonderful deep-fried balls of rice, tomato sauce, cheese, and spices - cold pasta salads, roasted peppers, olives, and cheeses. It was a sublime feast."

He learned about the tremendous contributions that the Italian immigrants had made to American society, while contributing significantly to the well-being of Southern Italy. "At one point there were more American dollars used for money in the five Southern regions then Italian lire."

He learned about how Mussolini had used men who had immigrated to The USA and had become unusually successful in their adopted homeland. Paolicelli was surprised to learn that his mother's father had succumbed to Mussolini's propaganda-making overtures. There should be no surprise, however, in learning that Paolicelli's very successful grandfather had accepted paid passage to return to his home town of Gamberale to receive recognition and honor while being induced to believe, as many leaders in The USA wanted him to believe, that Mussolini was good for Italy. "Mussolini," the saying went, "drained the swamps and made the trains run on time." And everyone - including Italian-Americans - who followed the image-making of the press and other media, "knew" that the Italians, being somewhat like most Latin types, "lacked the whip." Mussolini brought to the Italians not just the whip, but the fasces; the bundle of rods and the axe - clear symbols of punishment and power. And, there should be no surprise that Paolicelli's grandfather, after having made an overt bow to Mussolini, experienced extreme invalidation of his self images along with devastating embarrassment when the leaders of The USA did an about face and declared Mussolini to be a "typical Italian" - a back-stabbing dictator.

Paolicelli learned about the fabled self-sufficiency of the Southern Italian contadini - the same self sufficiency that allowed those who had emigrated to The USA to save very high portions of the meager earnings that they garnered from their low-paying jobs. While visiting a cousin of his father, he noted:

"These olives are sensational."

And asked, "Where did you get them?"

The reply to his question was one that any Italian-American will hear over and over from his proud relatives in Italy; "From our farm. We grow most of our summer vegetables on our little piece of land."

He learned that even at the rest stops on the autostrada the snack bars "rival the best Italian-American restaurants. The traveler is offered a complete array of food, ranging from prepared hot meals to cold sandwiches, packaged meats, all sorts of sausages, huge mounds of cheeses, fresh breads, pastries . . . ." etc.

At the same time, Paolicelli learned about the problems that stem from the elitism of the northern Italians, and how that elitism had rubbed off on to Italian-Americans - those Italian Americans who go to great lengths to claim that their families originated in northern Italy or had been impoverished nobility who had fled to America.

Paolicelli began to become aware of the conditions, beyond poverty, that preceded l'avventura. His grandparents' marriage record revealed that they were analfabeti - "without alphabet," illiterate.

"My grandmother had always been ashamed of her lack of literacy. Suddenly it hit me that the system of poverty in which she had been raised had failed her - grandma had not failed."

" . . . . . What kind of system couldn't educate its children?"

Thus, Paolicelli had first-hand introduction to the utter ineptitude of the governments that had dominated Southern Italy and Sicily - particularly that of the notorious Bourbon dynasty that had ruled Italy from 1734 until Garibaldi's invasion of their kingdom in 1860.

As he traced out his family, Paolicelli learned about the traditional practice of naming sons - the parents gave the first son the name of the paternal grandfather, and they gave the second son the name of the maternal grandfather. This practice made it easy for him to locate his father's cousin, a second son whose maternal grandfather also was the maternal grandfather of Paolicelli's father.

Most important to Paolicelli, he found the records of births and marriages of his grandparents. His father's parents, Caterina Maria Buono and Francesco Paolo Paolicelli were married in the tiny town of Miglionico, in Province of Matera, in September, 1907. He discovered that his grandfather, known as Paolo, though living in Miglionico at the time of his marriage, had been born in another Basilicata city, Matera.

Tracing out his mother's parents proved to be relatively easy. His maternal grandfather, Pietro De Pasquale, had achieved a high level of status in Pittsburgh, having established a road-building firm. He had returned to the town from which he had left Italy, Gamberale - in the Province of Chieti - several times after he had achieved that success. His grandfather had arranged to have moving pictures made of one of his visits, in 1922. A cousin transferred the ancient silent movies to a video-tape and presented the tape to Paolicelli.

Finding the record of the birth of his namesake grandfather required extreme patience as Paolicelli followed one after another frustrated lead. Finally, as he was nearing the end of the period allotted for his stay in Italy, he was given a lead that took him to the ancient basilica of Santa Maria Bruno, in Matera, Province of Matera. There a priest, Don Doneti, heard out Paolicelli's search and the known details of his grandfather's history.

As Paolicelli reported that his grandfather, two other brothers, and a sister had emigrated to The USA, he told that the three brothers had died in rapid succession shortly after their arrival in their new country. Don Doneti interrupted the account.

"Those poor people . . . . All the heartbreak, the suffering they went through."

"Yes, it was difficult for their children," replied Paolicelli.

"I was thinking more so of their parents. The children, after all, had a future. But the future for your great grandparents was their children. Imagine to send three boys off to America and to lose them all so quickly and forever."

Here, Paolicelli developed an insight that few descendants of l'avventura can develop. How difficult it is to imagine the emotional scene of parents parting from their loved, adult children. How difficult it is to imagine their efforts to hold back the thought that they would never again see those children. How easy it is to imagine the shock, the grief, and the despair that would follow having received a message that one of those loved ones had died during an epidemic, or that a son had been killed in a mine or mill accident, or that he had died of following years of suffering from anthracosilicosis or abestositis, or that a daughter had died during childbirth, or that she had been killed in a raging mill fire.

"Why had I never thought about this?" asked Paolicelli.

The other significant revelations that Don Doneti managed to provide: He found the record of Francesco Paolo Paolicelli's baptism!! "Born at eight o'clock on the evening of September 29, 1881."

Paolicelli not only shared his grandfather's name, he also shared his birthday.!!

". . . . I felt a closeness with Francesco I knew would always be there.

"And respect for a man I never knew in life."

Paolicelli now understood the full impact and significance of the frequently used Italian phrase that guided the parent-child relations of many Italian and Italian-American parents - ti voglio bene: I want you well.

"It was sacrifice, after all, that made all our American lives so much better. It was Francesco's sacrifice and ambition, Pietro DePasquale' self-assuredness and determination, it was all of them having the desire, the youth, the sheer guts to get up and go; to find America and to define it for us. To forge a home there, despite their lack of language skill or formal education. To be willing to leave their parents and families and to establish new ones across the ocean."

Maria Laurino's Were you always an Italian?

Maria Laurino (2000) very explicitly narrates the ways in which she responded to validation of the self images that she had built in her Italian-American family. The title of her book symbolically summarizes her narration. She tells that after she had achieved success as journalist/writer she had the opportunity to interview Governor Mario Cuomo. The governor asked her, "Were you always an Italian? - thus, the title of her book, Were you always an Italian.

"With childlike guilt, I shook my head no."

Laurino clearly outlines the source of her abandonment of her Italian-American ethnic identity.

"Shame seems to me to play an important part in the way many Italian-Americans have come to see themselves in relationship to the larger world. The Italian-American searches for social status and intellectual respectability, hoping to escape a role cast long ago for the dark white ethnic. When I was a child, we tried to mask our susceptibility to shame by keeping 'ethnic' details, the keys to our identity, under lock and key. Secrets and shame converged daily in our use of southern Italian dialect."

Laurino knew the shame that she experienced following the invalidation of her self- guiding psychollages when she told one of her brother's playmates that she enjoyed eating chicken feet. She knew the disdain that golfers directed to her father when they found him, a twelve year old caddy, picking dandelions for the family table, and the shame that followed his having to respond to the question, "You eat grass??"

Laurino tells us of needing to face the fact that when her classmates in high school called up their psychollage for Italian-Americans they included the attribute smelly.

"Gym class wasn't the only time I heard the words 'Italian' and 'smelly' placed together, like a pungent clove of garlic sweating in a pan of warm olive oil. A few months later, I was sitting in the cafeteria with my new gym pal and a friend of hers, sharing gossip and news between bites of our sandwiches. The other girl mentioned that her father was planning a trip to Italy, and my friend and I swayed in delight at the idea of traveling to Europe.

"Are you going with him?" we asked in an enthusiastic chorus.

"Are you kidding?" She replied with the girlish laugh, "and be around all those smelly Italians?"

Laurino could later insightfully recount her reaction to the kinds of invalidations that she had experienced in high school:

". . . My grandfather, who started a small construction company, earned his money by digging the earth; sweat and dirt were part of me, an oath of fealty to my family's past. Yet I preferred to bury the memories of his labor, which provided us with some material comforts but not enough to rid me of the label of 'smelly Italian girl.'"

"In the interval between the accusation of being smelly and an unspoken admission of my guilt, a denial of my ethnic self emerged. Unprepared to confront my fears, I responded like a criminal who'd do anything to get the charges dropped. If the cause of being called smelly were my Italian roots, then I would pretend not to be Italian."

Laurino questioned why her mother would have named her Maria. She wondered why the family had not changed their name to Laurin. She tried to make sure that any "Italian smells" would not emanate from her body. She did her best to remove the dark dense hair that grew profusely on her legs.

Laurino has written an especially valuable, careful, and understandable review of the ways in which esteemed scholars have helped to generate invalidations of the self images that had been developed by people who were reared in households of families of l'avventura. Any reader can appreciate her analysis of the effects of the work of academicians such as Edward Banfield (1958) and Glazer and Moynihan's (1963).

Banfield established much of his fame by writing a book, titled The moral basis of a backward society. Laurino colorfully describes being "haunted by his thesis and brutal word choice, this notion of a peasant's 'amorality' compared to the more virtuous traits of an Anglo-Saxon citizenry." She notes the widespread acceptance of Banfield's thesis that the personality trait "amoral familism," not centuries of poverty and exploitation defined the people of Southern Italy and Sicily.

Laurino aptly describes the kind of reaction that Italian-American students might have when they are assigned to read this book. "Do I bear the atavistic traits of my ancestors? Was my father raised by a tribe of 'amoral familists' in New Jersey, and did he inherit their fatalism and passed it along to all us?" Such concerns would surely arise in the student who had heard many times during his/her childhood "you can only trust your family," or "blood is thicker than water."

Fortunately, writers like Laurino can offer an entirely different interpretation of what Banfield characterized as amoral familism. Her understanding of how families could be brought to trust only its own members were heightened by the fact that her brother was born with physical defects that prevented him from developing the kinds of abilities that most children would develop. She knew firsthand the nature of public humiliation of members of the family and the ways in which the community regularly offered frustrations to the family's efforts to have her brother treated with respect. She knew that from constant experience with exclusion, families could turn more and more inward in an effort to solve their problems. She knew that these kinds of experiences were the kinds of experiences to which the Italian contadini had been exposed during centuries of feudal and church rule.

"We may have acted as 'familists;' certainly we were outsiders discouraged from participating in an idealistic vision of American citizenship, especially when our family member was acknowledged as a public burden. If church and school authorities dictated how people were supposed to behave, the powerless had to find a place for themselves within those limits."

While reading Laurino's analysis of Glazer and Moynihan's (1963) book, it would not be difficult to imagine that Mario Puzo (1968) solidified the main themes of his best seller as he read a highly esteemed text written by well-placed sociologists.

Laurino cites the following, among several other passages, from Glazer and Moynihan's book:

"[T]he contemporary American ethnic values self-advancement, whereas the Italian variant still values family advancement. Thus, even in the case of Italian gangsters or racketeers, there is a surprising degree of family stability and concern with children, brothers, systems, and other relatives."

Laurino notes the parallel between Glazer's commentary and Puzo's work:

"The seductive image of Glazer's concluding sentence, and his belief that the family-centered Italian-Americans were superior in running organized crime, pre-figures the famous image The Godfather's Don Corleone in which he conducts the family business during the elaborate spectacle of his only daughter's wedding."

Through this chain, one may be led to believe, the assumed defensive inward-turning of Southern Italian families becomes a pillar on which the descendants of l'avventura built the assumed success of assumed Italian-controlled organized crime.

And, we can expect, any Italian-American who might agree that his/her family demonstrates this kind of "amoral familism" who then would read works like those of Banfield, Moynihan, and Glazer would find negative evaluation of his/her family. It would be no surprise that by reading those works a young Italian-American would be prompted to demonstrate that he/she has little connection with this kind of family.

Laurino also tells of her use of an oft-used strategy for accomplishing the disconnection to self images created in the household of Southern-Italy-to-the-USA immigrants. She notes that, given today's love affair with Italy, the descendants of l'avventura attempt to create a pseudo-heritage by a claiming an affinity with Northern Italian culture - a culture that is only tangentially connected to the culture of southern Italy. To illustrate the use of this technique, Laurino recalls Geraldine Ferraro's reference to her children going to Italy and enjoying the art, architecture, and literature of the country - "the true component of their roots." Laurino rightly questions whether Ferraro's roots in southern Italian culture could be claimed as being roots in the culture of the Italian north.

Laurino does not spare herself from a critical evaluation of her having used a similar technique:

"Convinced that I was 'Italian,' believing that Rome held a promise for my future because of blood ties from my past, I adopted the image maker's technique of constructing reality from my own myopic view."

. . . "I once justified my refusal to travel South by congratulating myself that I had 'become,' an Italian-American, that it was good enough to no longer be ashamed of the country of my ancestors. Rome was the perfect midpoint between the two disparate worlds of northern and southern Italy, and I performed a kind of cultural eugenics, modifying and enhancing the characteristics of my Italian past. Like the young girl who didn't want to be known as an Italian-American, once again I was an impostor, a cultural thief, hoarding Northern Italy's riches as if they were my own."

As with many other Italian-Americans, Laurino's strongest connections to her Southern Italian heritage came through food and the ways in which Southern Italian dialects were sprinkled through daily conversation and social interaction.

She recounts the fascination she experienced when she consulted with a professor of philology at UniversitÓ Federico II, in Naples, to discuss the origins of the mangled dialect words that she had heard in her home in New Jersey. In that conversation she discovered, for example, the roots of word that she had heard as stunado - the New Jersey variant of the dialect version of the Italian word stonato - untuned, out of tune; but signifying someone who is generally out of tune with what is happening around him/her. Considering the colorful quality of such terms, the descendants of l'avventura can understand the persistence in the use of a term that they have heard as squistomato (scustomato - without customs, poorly reared) or mortatavahm (morta da fame - a death of hunger).

Laurino's book goes beyond the other two books discussed in this essay/review. She takes up a salient set of issues that the must be considered by any Italian-American who would reconnect to or attempt to maintain a connection with his/her Italian-American heritage. Laurino does not label her text as a consideration of these issues, but clearly she has given much thought to the consequences of asserting one's connection to his/her Italian-American heritage.

Anyone who asserts that his/her identity is tied to his/her Italian-American background must consider, as Laurino has carefully considered, his/her position on: (1) How an Italian American identity relates to the constantly-present imagery of Italian Americans as goons and buffoons. (2) How to relate to the Roman Catholic Church. (3) What to claim as the most positive features of Italian-American culture. (4) How to think about family members and family loyalty, particularly to family members who still live in Southern Italy and Sicily.

The media of the USA has indelibly fixed the imagery of Italian-Americans as goons and buffoons. Would an Italian-American take the risk of asserting his/her connections to an Italian-American identity if doing so would immediately allow him/her to be categorized as a member of an ethnic group which has assumedly produced a heavy crop of goons and buffoons?

Will maintaining an identity as an Italian-American allow others to perceive one as a member of a group that produces an oversupply or goons and buffoons? While a steady stream of film and written text has clearly established the imagery of Italian-Americans as movers and shakers in the world of illicit activity, other very carefully gathered data attests to the way in which Italian-American involvement in crime has been exaggerated. Any knowledgeable person who wishes to claim an Italian-American identity can easily overcome any reservations that he/she might experience as a result of the possibility that by a doing so, he/she will be required to account for excessive criminality among Italian-Americans. He/she can point to the many analyses of the ways in which the producers of popular media have promoted the "Godfather image." He/she can point to data about the extent of Italian-American involvement in crime, comparing that data to data about the involvement of other ethnic groups. In short, a person claiming an identity with his/her Italian-American background need not be defensive about an assumed over production of criminals within the Italian-American community. Instead, he/she can justifiably criticized the media producers for having produced the imagery of Italian-American involvement in criminal activity.

In one of the chapters in her book, Laurino takes up the other aspect of the goon/ buffoon imagery. In a chapter entitled Bensonhurst, she carefully discusses a theme that Torgovnick (1994), another Italian-American writer, has discussed. She, however, goes directly to the personal core of her reaction to clear-cut incidents of buffoonish and deadly racism that has been expressed by a sizable segment of the population of the area of Brooklyn known as Bensonhurst. As a journalist she wanted to write about the ways in which the views on race and ethnicity held by some young Italian-Americans had intensified to the point where several racially-associated killings had occurred. She had collected a mass of data, but was unable to assemble a suitable article.

"I had pages and pages of interviews, reams of information and in my notebook to shield me from false interpretations like a protective amulet, containing the 'truth' about people whom I did not know, but with whom I felt an uneasy kinship. As an Italian-American, I was conflicted, unable to articulate my deep embarrassment; as an outsider, I secretly hoped that the neighborhood's unsightly response was a caricature, performed solely for the hordes of television cameras." Laurino honestly reports that she used the armor of class distinction to separate herself from the stereotype of the Brooklyn Italian-American. Regretting that she needs to do so - "It's a terrible trade-off to think of oneself as different kind of Italian American" - Laurino must come to terms with her commonality with the people of Bensonhurst.

To understand her kinship, as a descendant of the Italy-to- the- USA avventura, to other descendants of that same social movement; Laurino engaged in a very careful analysis of the ways in which the culture of the people of l'avventura had transmuted into a culture that would allow its youthful members to mock African-Americans who protested the killing of an African-American adolescent. She developed insights which tied that behavior to matters of validation and invalidation of self identities.

Bensonhurst, over the years, had solidly acquired its identity as an Italian-American community. Despite the evidence that Italian-Americans makeup 65 percent of the population of Bensonhurst, a steady influx of Russians and Asians has changed the character of the neighborhood. The view of many of the inhabitants of Bensonhurst is expressed by a woman quoted by Laurino; "The neighborhood is going to shit."

In other words, the arrival of new immigrants, as is always the case in neighborhoods undergoing an influx of venturers, threatens to provide a steady stream of invalidation's of the self definitions that the Italian-Americans had developed in the community in which they had been reared.

Also, as is often the case, one defense against this invalidation would be to denigrate the culture of the new arrivals. The new arrivals can be accused of importing crime into the neighborhood. And, as many Italian-Americans know, new arrivals can be accused of being unsanitary and dirty. New arrivals can be accused of having sexual aspirations toward the women of the established community, and so on.

Laurino summarizes her perspective:

"Rage has found a secure home under the shingled roofs of Bensonhurst's row houses. To many residents, Bensonhurst's ability to isolate itself and preserve Italian-American culture for generations is its major appeal; when threats to the dominant culture arise, the neighborhood reacts, often violently. In the past few years, more bias crimes have been reported in southern Brooklyn, one of the few remaining white enclaves, than anywhere else in the borough. The community predictably closes in on itself during divisive times, defending its boys as good kids and branding others the enemy."

In a place like Bensonhurst, the situation becomes especially complicated. If the residents attempt to defend their culture, precisely what are they defending? Laurino observes, "The culture is a melange of fact and fiction, a result of the struggle that takes place in ethnically insular pockets of American cities. . . . Bensonhurst residents' tenuous hold on memory is based on a belief that once upon a time there was bread and wine and boccie and laughter that, without their fortitude and determination, will be lost forever. They are forced to cling to a distant culture they will never fully know."

As she dug deeper into the meaning of their Italian-American ethnic identity, Laurino concluded that many of the young people of Bensonhurst, particularly the young males, had been poisoned by the stereotypes that have been presented to them by unethical and exploitative media. Bensonhurst's residents have observed the popular endorsement of the slick sexuality embodied in the characters portrayed by John Travolta. Many thrill at the possibility that they share the mindless, self punitive dedication of Stallone's Rocky. Many admire the bravura of the shady character played by Palminteri in the movie The Bronx Tale. Many of the young man regard the "guido" image as the "coolest"self identity that a young man may adopt. The young women are pressured into adopting the role of the "guidette." - the The young people of Bensonhurst who do attempt to avoid adopting a self identity based on that "guido" imagery will have that identity thrust on them by even those teachers in their schools who address them using terms associated with that imagery and then lower expectations for their students' intellectual achievements.

In a way, Laurino has moved to a position from which she need not defend her own affinity to her Italian-American heritage from the charge that that heritage has produced people who act on the basis of crude racist psychollages (collages of meaning in-the-head). Her thesis, which can easily gain credence, is that buffoonish behavior like that shown by some of the young people of Bensonhurst who share her heritage follows from adopting self images based on a poisonous version of that heritage. That unsavory version represents an effort to assert and protect an Italian-American identity that stands to be invalidated by the influx of a population that brings a different culture to the neighborhood. Irresponsible and exploitative media producers have unduly influenced many young people who adopt that identity. At the same time, the ease with which that version has been promulgated reflects the fact that the culture of the original immigrants has dissipated into a vague, hazy screen of memories. The poisoned version easily rips through that flimsy screen and throws up a seductively "real" set of images.

How does a person who maintains a connection to his/her Italian-American heritage relate to The Roman Catholic Church? In another chapter of her book, Laurino takes up the issue of her relationship to the Roman Catholic Church. How may she relate to the Roman Catholic Church, whose practices and definitions of personhood thoroughly infused the culture of the Italian-Americans? How might she bring about an alignment of her newly developed self definitions as an Italian-American and the religious practices and orientations of the Italian immigrants that Orsi (1985) described in his thorough book The Madonna of 115th Street

In her chapter on faith, Laurino gives her readers clear indications of why this question had become particularly important to her. During her developing years she witnessed the ambivalence of her mother toward The Church. Not only did her mother treat her church attendance somewhat lightly, she strayed very overtly by having become temporarily involved with evangelical protestantism. Laurino expresses her own ambivalence: "I continually feel the tug between a spiritual sense and a nagging frustration over the notion of infallible dogmas and the wagging fingers of papal condemnations."

Quite surely, Laurino's relationship to the Roman Catholic church was influenced by her youthful admiration of people from a Jewish background and her eventual marriage to a man from a Jewish background. She does not discuss her choice of marriage partner, as did Torgovnick (1994). She does tell, however, that she and her husband did agree to have their child baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. She indicates that that decision became acceptable because she had made the acquaintance of a Jesuit priest who offered his parishioners "a vision of goodness and abundance, not a weekly reminder of sacrifice and suffering."

Laurino only briefly alludes to the anti-clericism system that can be found in southern Italian ideologies, particularly among the educated and democratically oriented population. Thus, she does not discuss the ways in which an awareness of that anti-clericism might have influenced her attitudes toward Roman Catholicism. Even if one who tends to maintain a connection to his Italian-American background is willing to remain attached to The Roman Catholic Church by focusing on the ways in which some clerics infuse secular humanism into their practices, he/she would need to justify any effort to support the religious power center that had collaborated in the exploitation and degradation of the contadini of southern Italy and Sicily.

Laurino indicates that she has arrived at a satisfactory position through her contemplation of these issues. "I have come to realize that not one Church but many churches stand, and within the larger community I may seek comfortable place." "I know fondly that I have been shaped by a culture that allows a poet to call some saints scoundrels, but that needs its baroque pageantry of martyred heroes to carry the hopes and prayers of their people, sisters and brothers in search of mercy." There are, of course, other formulations that other Italian-Americans may use to satisfy their questions about their relationships to their Italian-American identity.

Which values can be identified as values endorsed by a large portion of Italian Americans? Laurino takes up an issue related to to the third question that one must carefully consider when asserting an Italian-American identity; namely, what are the salient positive values of Italian-American culture? Certainly, a person would expect little validation from the surrounding social ecology if he/she could not articulate several salient values that one would incorporate into his/her self definition as an Italian-American. Laurino spells out and elaborates on two central values in separate chapters in her book -- chapters that discuss work and ancestors.

In her chapter on work, Laurino describes her mother's father, Natale Conte, who started a construction firm. At one time a brother, Uncle George, of Laurino's mother tried to operate the firm. Though Uncle George could labor on a grand scale, he could not work from a basis of sound capitalist business principles. The firm founded by Tony Conti, nee Natale Conte, collapsed.

Eventually Uncle George's son, Nat, who had been well-trained to labor by his father and grandfather, started a new version of Conte construction company and built the firm that currently employs over 600 workers. Uncle George worked for Nat. He worked up until his death at age 75, despite serious heart ailments.

Laurino draws out comparisons between work like that in which her father engaged and work like that in which her Uncle George engaged. She notes that those who work in careers such as construction tend to feel their fatigue "along the spine;" whereas those who spend time trying to work out problems requiring reflection experience the kind of weariness that sleep doesn't cure.

"In my family whose ancestors signed their named on documents with an 'X,' there was no place for books or spare hours of reflection; man had to be a maker to survive. These men understood that they were alive by the sharp ache along the spine, welcomed the brief respite of the teasing night only to repeat the rigors the next morning, and accepted the lifelong pain that men had died under their watch. They embraced their work but knew that later generations would seek to abandon manual labor, giving up the satisfaction of making a finished product to pursue the vague security of becoming middle class."

To Laurino, Uncle George was the paragon of people who "worked" - who could stand back at the end of the day and survey the progress that he had made toward the completion of a project that would represent a concrete accomplishment.

"My grandfather and uncle sought perfection in their shared trade - they would not allows a ripple of cement on a sidewalk: they cut patches of grass with a knife before digging the earth to install waterlines; they made sure that every corner was perfectly tooled, every job built to code."

If one values dedication to the skilled and precise work that creates fatigue "along the spine," and can readily find exemplars such as Grandfather Tony Conti and Uncle George Conti among any a group of Italian-Americans, then he/she should also find it easy to claim a relationship to his/her Italian-American heritage. Laurino makes it clear that she accords such labor high positive status, and by carefully spelling out her position, she should induce other Italian-Americans, like herself, who have moved into work requiring contemplation, to avoid denigration of and to accord honor to the work of those ancestors who signed their name with an "X"

What psychollages might an Italian-American use when thinking about family? Laurino includes extended discussion of the psychollages that are used regularly by Italians and Italian-Americans as they construe family and family organization. As noted in a forgoing section, Laurino comments on the ways scholars and popular writers have discussed family values as they are commonly expressed in Italian and Italian-American culture. From the perspective of writers such as Banfield, the collages of meaning "in-the-head" - the psychollages - used by Italians as they construe family represent a negative (amoral familism). Certainly, anyone who would carefully consider his/her connections to his/her Italian heritage might be cautious about announcing those connections if that announcement might suggest that he/she would endorse the kind of family values that writers such as Banfield consider to be negative.

From a perspective different from that held by people who accept Banfield's orientation, the kind of cohesion often expressed in Italian families can be taken as a defensive reaction deployed by people who regard themselves as having been marginalized by the surrounding society. Laurino makes a strong case for holding to this latter perspective.

Perhaps the most effective way to demonstrate the positive aspects of the kind of family cohesion often expressed in Italian and Italian-American families is best demonstrated by the Laurino's account of her tracing out of descendants of those members of her family who did not emigrate from their Italian towns. Sharing a perspective that is no doubt held by millions of descendants of l'avventura, Laurino forestalled her visit to Conza della Campania. She had read the numerous accounts of the poverty and backwardness of the region from which her forebears had immigrated to the United States. When she finally did visit the area, she found conditions to be quite different from which she had anticipated. Many members of her family had benefitted from the government aid that was extended to the people whose home and villages had been destroyed dring a serious earthquake that had rocked the area in 1980. She found many of her mother's cousins living in conditions that rivaled those in which modern middle-class Americans live.

Laurino's descriptions of her experiences with the descendants of her grandfather Natale's brother would match similar descriptions that other Italian-Americans have shared upon reconnecting to relatives in Italy. Those relatives clearly demonstrate that no matter how distant the separation, visiting family members are considered to be bound by blood. The tears of joy and the high emotionality that accompany the first greetings reflect the belief that the bonds of family remain strong no matter the distance by which they have been separated and no matter how diverse family members have become. Every member of the family competes to assure that the visitor will become a guest for an elaborate dinner reunion.

". . . . . I thought about the tag of 'amoral familism,' this notion that peasants act in their own narrow, selfish interests, helping only family members. The label seemed even more absurd after I visited Southern Italy; within the confines of this arduous life with few outside pleasures, family is a resource, a salvation. Extended families are also large, and to feed their many members is in itself an act of generosity. Unlike my mother and her remaining sibling, these sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews, see each other constantly. They took great delight in showing me the photo albums, fingering each page with seemingly endless fascination as they described gatherings that define their years."

Laurino's report of her direct reconnection to the family and that part of Italy from which her family in The USA had originated aptly illustrates the necessity of preparing well for such a reconnection. She shows that she needed to deal with the possibility that she would find it very difficult to make that reconnection. She also shows and that she was prepared to interpret her experiences within the context of the history of the people in the region from which her American forebears had emigrated.

What can we take away from reading these three accounts of reconnection?

Fiorito, Paolicelli, and Laurino have made exceptional contributions to the growing literature that elaborates efforts to understand the personal connections that the descendants of l'avventura have to their heritage. If one wished, he/she can dig out of each of these accounts points that might be criticized. I will indicate one point that, I believe, should be carefully considered by anyone who wishes to write about Italians and Italian-Americans. Writers who write about Italians and Italian-Americans (or any putative cultural group) must throw up a red flag each time they are tempted to use terms such as typical, or characteistic. That criticism aside, I judge that these books published by this trio of writers provide any descendant of l'avventura a first-rate opportunity to understand the basis of general and/or personal disconnection and reconnection to the heritage of their forebears.

I find it difficult to improve on Maria Laurino's summary statements regarding reconnection. Laurino's insight-laden text offers a very suitable summary of how a descendant of l'avventura might interpret his/her disconnection and/or reconnection. Elements of that summary are worth paraphrasing and quoting.

"[My grandparents] would bring the stories and traditions of [their] land, they would carry the effects of its deprivation and misery. I once refused to listen to the stories. I refused to enter the black-cloaked world of the peasants and discover my relationship to it. Now I can never fully enter or recover that world. But each time I denied its existence, embarrassed to stand out, monochrome in my needs, I lost something irreplaceable, a texture of the soul."

Laurino's frank confrontation with her embarrassment, her serious effort to reconnect, and her careful analysis of those processes fortified her awareness of the ways in which all of us attempt to develop meaningful roles - all personal roles, not just ethnic identity roles - by which we can construct our anticipatory self narratives.

"Traveling to Southern Italy, collecting impressions, touching the crude rock of my grandfather's house, letting propinquity establish connection, does not make me a Southern Italian." Those experiences, Laurino cogently declares, do allow her to base her self identity as an Italian-American of Southern Italian descent on a base of careful observations and study of life in Southern Italy. Those experiences allow her to perceive clearly the ways in which she had attempted to develop identities based on attempting to distance herself from Southern Italian culture. She could see that her efforts to model herself after the descendants of Eastern European Jews or to affirm a connection to northern Italian culture represented a misguided effort. "I could say that my family traces its roots to Dante Alighieri, a ridiculous lie." She could see that her efforts to claim that she was at home in the city of Rome was not exactly a deliberate lie, but, "a skewed interpretation of facts based on my wants at the time . . . . ."

Every descendant of l'avventura should have the opportunity to connect to his/her heritage on the base of a clear-eyed perspective such as that which Laurino, Paolicelli, and Fiorito have brought to their reconnection. Working from a solid base of understanding of the derivation and the use of the psychollages that are used by sizeable segments of descendants of l'avventura, an Italian-American will find himself/herself well-prepared to deal effectively with the potentially upsetting invalidations of the presentations he/she makes in order to establish his/her identity as he/she interacts in a multi-cultural society.


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Alba, R. D. (1990). Ethnic identity : the transformation of white America. New Haven : Yale University Press,

Banfield, E. C. (1958). The moral basis of a backward society. New York: Free Press.

Carlson, R. A. (1987). The Americanization syndrome: A quest for conformity. New York: St. Martins Press.

Fiorito, J. (1999). The closer we are to dying. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Glazer, N. & Moynihan, D. P. (1963). Beyond the melting pot. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gordon, M. M. (1964). Assimilation in American life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Laurino, M. (2000). Were you always an Italian? New York: W. W. Norton.

Mancuso, J. C. & Hunter, K. V. (1983). Anticipation, motivation, or emotion: The Fundamental Postulate after 25 years. In J. R. Adams-Webber. & J. C. Mancuso, (Eds.), Applications of personal construct theory (pp. 723-92). Toronto: Academic Press.

Mancuso, J. C. & Adams-Webber, J. R. (1982). Anticipation as a constructive process: The Fundamental Postulate. In J. C. Mancuso & J. R. Adams-Webber, J. R. (Eds), The construing person (pp. 8-32). New York: Praeger Press.

Mancuso, J. C. (1977). Current motivational models in the elaboration of personal construct theory. In A. W. Landfield (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation: Personal construct psychology (pp. 43-97). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Mancuso, J. C. & Sarbin, T. R. (1998). The narrative construction of emotional Life: Developmental aspects. In Mascolo, M. F. and Griffin, S. (Eds.), What develops in emotional development, (pp. 297-316). New York: Plenum.

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Orsi, R. A. (1985). The Madonna on of 115th Street. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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Thomas, W. I. (1971). Old world traits transplanted. Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith (First published in 1921, by Harper & Brothers, listing R. E. Park and H. A. Miller as authors.)

Torgovnick, M. De M. (1994). Crossing Ocean Parkway: Readings by an Italian American daughter. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

This essay was developed as a part of the effort of The Albany (NY) Area Lodge of The Sons of Italy to make available material that will develop an appreciation and understanding of The Italy-to-USA Avventura. The writers of this essay and other text found on this world wide web site claim sole responsibility for the content of their productions.


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. The author, Jim Mancuso died on June 10th, 2005. We maintain this site in memory of all the things that he did for us.

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