Imagine Italian Americans creating the first and grandest Italian cultural center in the United States and then being shoved out by the Italian government. That’s what happened at Columbia University in 1991.
This story speaks volumes about the attitude and the goals of our cousins across the sea. The Italic Institute has spent eight years attempting to convince Italian diplomats that what they did hurt them and us. But, to date, compassion is a one-way street between Italy and her American progeny.
First, a little background.
In 1927, the Italian Club at Columbia University in New York City persuaded the Paterno Family to build and donate the first Italian cultural center in the nation. That 6-story building – La Casa Italiana – was donated to the university specifically for “the diffusion of Italian culture in this country.” Inventor Guglielmo Marconi at its dedication on Columbus Day proclaimed another goal: “to uplift the spirit of Italian Americans,” who had endured years of hatred, lynchings, and the state murder of Sacco and Vanzetti that very year. For sixty-three years La Casa fulfilled those goals. It was the epicenter of Italian culture on campus: home of the Italian Language Dept., headquarters of the Italian (high school) Teachers Association, and offered students a daily study and leisure center. La Casa produced the greatest number of Italian language teachers in the country in its heyday.
Today, the building houses the Italian Academy, operated as a closed research center by Director David Freedberg. No students are allowed into the building except for special events, the Italian Language Dept. was summarily evicted in 1991. However, if you want experts in German or Jewish studies, there are plenty now on the governing board, but there are no Italian Americans on it, or on the staff, or receiving fellowships. Although operated by the university, the building is owned by the Italian Republic, which sees its mission as more European than Italian. (And, by the way, there is no longer an Italian Club at Columbia. Italian American students no longer associate the Italian Academy with their heritage.)
As I stated, we have spent eight years appealing to Columbia and to the Italian government to restore at least part of the original mission of La Casa. In 2012, we lost a suit in the New York Supreme Court for lack of standing – our co-plaintiff, the current Paterno Family, was apparently two generations too late. In light of this we have condensed our demands down to one: appoint a qualified Italian American to the 12-person Board of Guarantors. We even submitted the name of Dr. Richard Gambino, a recognized scholar. Alas, the Italian government refuses to even acknowledge the suggestion.
Perhaps we need to review our relations with our Motherland.
Italian American relations with Italy have been one-sided since we arrived here. Billions of our dollars have crossed the Atlantic through family remittances, tourism, earthquake relief, and the purchase of Italian products. Italians can thank us for bringing Italian cuisine to these shores and converting generations of Americans into Italy’s best customers.
When a cash-strapped Italian government asked us to match a $1.5 million grant to restore the Italian Language Advanced Placement Test in 2012 our community didn’t hesitate.
When the media predicted Italy’s economic demise these past years, who took them to task with facts and figures in the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times, and the like? The Italic Institute’s Professor Rosario Iaconis, that’s who. And Professor Iaconis continues to defend the Magic Boot from naysayers, without a word of thanks from our cousins.
What have the Italians given back beside invitations to wine & cheese events or Cavaliere awards? In the matter of La Casa Italiana, their Director Freedberg refused a request by an Italian journalist for a book presentation on the Paterno legacy – the folks who built the place! In another case, they lost Giuseppe Garibaldi’s 1850 U.S. passport which had been archived at La Casa for 63 years. Worse, they do not question David Freedberg or Columbia about the absence of Italian Americans among the twenty fellowships handed out annually. In fact, it is easier to win a fellowship for research on Islam, Judaism, or any other subject than on Italian American topics.
So, perhaps the Italian government owes us a crumb from the table that Italian American sweat and treasure built. All we ask is a place on its diverse Board which now includes a professor of German, a German American art dealer (who was fined for tax evasion in 2003), an attorney, a law professor, a sociologist, and a history professor from England (an expert on Hitler!). Of the Italian board members only two are qualified in Italian studies, two are into Jewish studies, another is an engineer, and the last is the Italian Ambassador.
See any injustice here? -JLM