On Columbus Day, let's celebrate Italians' victory over stereotypes

October 09, 2006|By John T. Finn

At parades, festivals and family gatherings across the country, Columbus Day is as much a celebration of Italian-American culture as of the European discovery of the New World - a day when "everybody is Italian." Yet many people, including some Italian-Americans, may be surprised to learn that Italians and their culture were not accepted in the United States until relatively recently.

When my maternal grandparents came to the United States from Italy in the early 1920s, Italians, who were one of the largest immigrant groups, were widely considered to be among the least desirable. They were caricatured in newspapers as rubes and gangsters and were discriminated against in jobs and housing. In Philadelphia, Italian-Americans were restricted to separate sections of movie theaters; in upstate New York, they had to fight for the right to purchase groceries. And in Mississippi, Colorado and Louisiana, several were lynched.

Anti-Italian sentiments were not just confined to the lower classes, with whom Italian immigrants competed for jobs. Woodrow Wilson, then a Princeton professor and prominent intellectual, wrote that men from Southern Italy had "neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence." Many considered Italians to be of a different race; Henry Cabot Lodge warned his fellow senators that the influx of such "non-Aryans" might be detrimental to the nation's character.

I heard these stories of bigotry long ago from my grandfather, and since then in various books and documentaries. But they have taken on new significance ever since my wife and I took a course in introductory Italian at our local community college. One evening, as we were sitting in class, grappling with reflexive pronouns or something equally tedious, I was struck by the irony: a roomful of affluent, middle-age, well-educated Americans spending their free time to learn a language that my grandparents were made to feel ashamed to speak.

Only a few generations after the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, it seems that nearly anything having to do with Italy or its culture is downright fashionable - from espresso and its various nonfat, half-caf, extra-froth permutations to the music of Andrea Bocelli to Italian ceramics, jewelry and furniture.

Indeed, it seems that Italy has become almost synonymous with style and taste. Visit any upscale shopping mall, and the directory of stores reads like an Italian telephone book: Enzo Angiolini, Salvatore Ferragamo, Bruno Magli. I don't think it is a coincidence that two of the most luxurious hotels in Las Vegas are called Bellagio and the Venetian. In supermarkets, people are willing to pay a premium for any product with an Italian-looking label, be it canned tomatoes, a run-of-the-mill Chianti or "gelato" that is indistinguishable from ice cream.

It's almost as if Italians can do no wrong. Even the perception of the Mafioso stereotype, previously a major impediment to assimilation, has changed. Witness the popularity of The Sopranos and how mainstream America has come to empathize with fictional Italian-American criminals.

Shortly after my grandparents arrived in the U.S., Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924. This infamous law (which was effectively repealed in 1965) severely restricted the influx of Eastern and Southern Europeans, many of whom were Italian, in favor of "Anglo-Saxons" like the Germans and Irish, who had been similarly despised only decades before. Now they are celebrated during Oktoberfest and on St. Patrick's Day.

For Italian-Americans, Columbus Day is a reminder of the importance of recognizing and countering prejudice and stereotypes. In a country in which nearly 12 percent of the population is foreign-born, perhaps the real challenge for us all is to move beyond mere acceptance and toward appreciation - so that the maligned groups of today might be the Italians of tomorrow.

John T. Finn, a Baltimore native and Johns Hopkins University graduate, lives in McLean, Va.

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