Jesus famously said “By their fruits shall ye know them,” as a guide to judging the good from the bad.
Many years ago, a teacher impressed upon me that a nation can be judged by the stories it tells its children. As Americans we are still told that hard work – exemplified by 19th Century author Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches books – and honesty, the myth of George Washington and the Cherry Tree, will always be rewarded. These, and many more, are inculcated in us from childhood as a way to define our culture and set a standard for civic responsibility.
Israelis, and Jews around the world, share a mythology that inspires them to be “the light unto nations” and to “repair the world (tikkun olam).” While noble in concept, the Jews haven’t had much success in even “repairing” the Middle East, let alone the world. Yet, they pass this mythology on to their children for their betterment.
When I studied Latin in junior high school I learned of another Horatio – the Roman soldier who died defending a bridge. And, there was Mucius Saevola (SKY-woola), a captured patriot, who stuck his hand in a fire rather than reveal Roman plans. In another, Marcus Atilius Regulus was a general captured by the enemy and sent back to Italy to tell the Roman Senate to end the war. He not only told the Senate to continue the war but kept his word and returned to captivity and execution. These stories all had the same theme: duty, honor, country – the true hallmark of the ancient Roman/Italic people.
So, what are the myths Italian Americans are passing on to their children? Certainly not the ancient ones above – for Hollywood has made our classical heritage the font of all evil; and studying Latin is not a required part of our heritage. The glory of the Renaissance comes to our children mainly through the media, highlighting the genius of DaVinci or Michelangelo with no particular civic message. Likewise, Italy’s miraculous reunification and the heroic exploits of Garibaldi never found a place in Italian American folklore.
Italian author Italo Calvino collected and published Italian Folktales in 1956, but these tales were more wisdom than heroics. While northern Italians had secular city-states to spur genius, southern Italians had a rigid Church, foreign occupation, and only saints for role-models. In short, a heroic folktale vacuum existed in our community which was easily filled by author Mario Puzo.
Italian American filmmakers have been filling this void for decades – to the point where our true heroes like Christopher Columbus and our countless giants who built and sacrificed for America have become footnotes to our culture.
Each year brings an anniversary of some Mafia movie to remind Americans of our seedy characters and street smarts. This year’s celebration includes the 45th anniversary of The Godfather II, and the 20th of The Sopranos. Meanwhile, half our community would rather do without Columbus Day than miss a good Mafia movie.
One such devotee is Angela Rocco De Carlo who managed to get the Wall Street Journal to publish her op-ed paean to The Godfather as a Christmas message, last month. Seems her family tradition wouldn’t be complete without the Corleones. Shame on her and the WSJ!
Hollywood continues to pour money into Mafia movies. Gotti, the gangster’s family-approved biopic, was a flop but good enough to be stocked in DVD at my local library. Netflix is stuck for some $175 million to complete the new Scorsese epic The Irishman, about the Jimmy Hoffa disappearance. Neither Hoffa nor his purported abductor was Italian but Scorsese is making sure the audience gets its Mafia minstrel show, including Joe Pesci fresh out of retirement.
The Sopranos creator David Chase (aka De Cesare) is plugging away at The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel to his old HBO series. This film will immortalize Italian/Black hatred during the race riot of 1967. Folklore casts Italians only second to the KKK in racism.
Are these myths to be our final legacy? -JLM