The Replacement Game

Italian Americans can be replaced.

Our replacements arrive on a daily basis. I used to think that intermarriage was our ultimate swan song.  But it is apparent that things are happening a lot sooner than expected.

In an effort to give historical women more recognition, New York City’s First Lady Chirlane McCray (DeBlasio) spearheaded a drive to erect statues of seven outstanding figures. As nominations poured in, Mother Francesca Cabrini – America’s first saint who founded some 67 hospitals, schools, and orphanages across the nation – took an easy first place.  Unfortunately, Lady Chirlane and her selection committee considered the Italian American nun unworthy of the final cut.  The seven chosen were Black or Hispanic (including a drag queen) with one White lighthouse keeper credited with saving fifty lives.

Mother Cabrini may not be an inspiration to minorities but her work lives on. Like Christopher Columbus and John Cabot, the achievements of Italic people are little appreciated as our replacements conjure up a new version of reality.

We cannot be faulted for thinking that our existence as a keystone of Western culture has been trivialized and distorted. As our treatment by Columbia University and the Italian government has revealed, our services are no longer required even at the Italian House (la Casa Italiana) we created on campus.  We have been replaced by other ethnics.

It may be cynical, but I believe the Italian government no longer sees us as fellow ethnics but merely customers. Unlike other countries of the Italian diaspora – Canada, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay – we are too assimilated to maintain the old ties like language and trans-Atlantic contacts.  Not many of us hold dual citizenship with representation in the Italian parliament.  Customers can be replaced.  Anyone can buy a Maserati or Grana Padano.  Anyone can visit the Colosseum.

A recent announcement from the Calandra Institute at the City University of New York heralded Edward Jackson, an Italian language teacher. Jackson is African American and can put any one of us to shame with his language skills and knowledge of Italy.  When I met him a number of years ago he refused to speak English, driving me to distraction with my limited skill.  I daresay that minority students find our rich culture more attractive than do Italian American boys and girls.

I don’t know these things as facts, just anecdotes. Which brings me to an important observation I learned from Michael Giammarella, our Brooklyn associate who taught at CUNY.  We do not have data or statistics on the status of our community.  We don’t know the extent of intermarriage, of assimilation, of interest in the Italian heritage.  We have no idea what our children, adolescents, and adults know about Italy or about Italian American history.  We don’t even know how many Italian American students there are at Columbia or if they know anything about La Casa Italiana, or why there is no longer an Italian club there.  I can list a thousand questions I’d be interested in asking.  This should be the job of our various university centers.  Instead of “Guido” studies and seminars in “Italian anti-Semitism,” we need to figure out where the hell we are today.

To be an Italian American these days is tantamount to identity politics. NY Mayor Bill Wilhelm (aka de Blasio) is the poster boy of the hollow Italian American.  It was he who formally questioned the existence of a “Columbus” Circle in the face of Indigenous noises.  That whole episode consumed our community for months until the state landmarked the place.  If Wilhelm/de Blasio is one of our replacements, watch out!

Filmmakers Coppola and Scorsese have spent decades preparing our replacements by creating distorted visual histories for the masses. These replacements can quote movie scripts and conjure up images that overwhelm our real history.

In Italy, there is a last ditch fight to stop the flow of replacements coming from the Middle East and Africa. The Italy of our grandparents cannot maintain its population or the vitality of bygone days. You would think that the political powers there would reach out to their progeny in America instead of treating us like an ATM for earthquake relief.

Does anyone care about the future? Are we just satisfied with welcoming replacements? -JLM

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