Each generation gets cockier than the last. It’s normal, I guess, to think we are more savvy and better off than our parents and grandparents. But in the case of Italian Americans I have concluded that our past is hard to beat.
It’s not just about nostalgia for close families or how we were once surrounded by all things Italian. After a while, I got tired of mandatory Sunday dinners when I needed a day at the beach or a quiet rest before the weekly grind. But, I’ll admit I often miss those gatherings and those days when Italian entertainers dominated movies, radio, and television, making us all proud. There was a feeling of solidarity, vigor, and common politics among our people.
Today, there are only a few vestiges of that old vigor: the Verrazano Bridge in New York, Balbo Street and Column in Chicago, or the Columbus Monument towering over Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Those memorials didn’t happen on their own. They happened because past generations willed them into existence.
Naming the Verrazano Bridge in 1964 was accomplished by one activist – John LaCorte of Brooklyn. It was to be called The Narrows Bridge and then The John F. Kennedy Bridge. But, LaCorte utilized the research of his contemporary, Giovanni Schiavo (Four Centuries of Italian American History), to prove that an Italian explorer was first to sail into New York Harbor in 1524 – eighty-five years before Henry Hudson. Behind Schiavo and LaCorte was also a united community.
Could we do it today? New York Governor Andrew Cuomo managed to replicate the feat, as state boss, by adding his late father Mario’s name to the Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River. Be assured that Mario Cuomo did not explore the river, settle it banks, or build the bridge. But, I guess all those vowels on a bridge sign add to our greater glory.
A more difficult challenge: Could our major organizations build a Columbus monument on the scale of the one in Manhattan or the one in front of Union Station in Washington, DC? Controversy aside, there is no question they could never muster the will or the resources to produce what a generation of immigrants managed to accomplish in 1892. How little we know of, or credit, Carlo Barsotti, publisher of the newspaper il Progresso, the driving force behind the monument. His funding efforts also placed statues of Garibaldi, Verrazzano, and Giuseppe Verdi around city parks, all before the Sons of Italy and NIAF were born. But think of how the immigrant Barsotti convinced the city fathers to honor so many Italians at a time nativists considered us dregs of the earth.
Then, there is La Casa Italiana at Columbia University. That six-story $20 million palazzo, created by the Paterno Family and our community in 1927, could never be built today. Sadly, we lost control of it in 1991 when it was sold to Italy. We can’t even find an Italian American in this building, run as a fiefdom by Prof. David Freedberg and his landsmen. Today, only UNICO, an Italian American service group, has made Italian studies at universities a priority. But even the modest “chairs” they fund cannot replicate La Casa in its heyday.
Who today is a Barsotti, Paterno, LaCorte, or Schiavo? Dr. Vincent Sellaro founded the Order Sons of Italy in 1905. In 1975, entrepreneur Jeno Palucci and civil rights activist Geno Baroni joined forces to create the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF). Both these organizations fulfilled a need for their time – the former social welfare, the latter political action. Since then, neither has provided national leadership for the community or the resources to back the true activists on the front lines.
If there is one lesson I have discerned after a lifetime of Italian-watching, it is that change and progress only come to us through determined individuals, not organizations. -JLM