Sunday Sitdown: Bill Dal Cerro
Chicago Sun-Times Interview, October 12, 2014
as told to Tina Sfondeles, Staff Reporter.
A Fenton High School teacher by day
and Italian-American history and culture aficionado the rest of the time,
Dal Cerro, a Chicago native, wants the world to know there are plenty
of positive Italian role models out there.
The president of the Italic Institute of America,
which is based in New York,
has made it his mission to remind the world that Italians aren't just
gangsters who eat well.
And he's revved up to stand up for his heritage during
Italian-American Heritage Month.
I'm fourth-generation Italian.
My great-grandfather originally came from the area around Lucca
and got a job at the railroad in Chicago.
That was a big employer of Italians at the time.
The West Side at Grand and Ogden,
that was a huge Italian neighborhood.
The more modern,
the more assimilated Italians got.
The more you stay in America,
the more you lose touch
with your heritage.
I'm kind of like the opposite of that.
Like the famous phrase "What the grandparents want to forget
the grandchildren want to remember."
That seems to be the phase I'm in right now,
kind of recapturing what has been lost.
I began doing all these great interviews
with Italian teachers, labor leaders,
all these intelligent, articulate, very interesting people
and we began to kind of compare that with watching
what we watch on movie screens.
They're always negative.
Either gangsterism or buffoonery.
Why isn't Hollywood making movies about these [positive] kinds of people?
Why don't you see them on the big screen?
I want to keep the Italian tradition alive
and educate people.
There's a movie coming out in December called "Unbroken,"
about Louis Zamperini,
the World War II hero and Olympic runner.
This is going to be literally the first feature-length Hollywood movie
that has a positive stereotype of an Italian-American in 40 years,
since Al Pacino in "Serpico,"
when he played the great heroic cop from New York.
Forty years without a positive portrayal
in a mainstream movie.
We're kind of hoping this will break the drought
and change minds and attitudes.
an institutionalized stereotype.
Amadeo Giannini was the great American banker.
This is the guy who founded Bank of America.
He literally did for banking what Carnegie did for steel,
what Rockefeller did for oil,
but he's never mentioned.
Some of these little things we see as American
were started by great Italians who nobody knows about
because of the movies.
It's very powerful.
They just kind of sink into your soul,
so to speak,
and people say, "Wait a minute. He's not wearing a pinky ring."
and he doesn't talk like "How you doin?"
Giannini is a national figure.
All Italian-Americans should rally around this guy
the way ethnic groups have their heroes.
The way Polish-Americans have Casimir Pulaski
and Dr. [Martin Luther] King, Jr., for African-Americans.
This should be our hero.
We should not be promoting
Don Vito Corleone,
A lot of Italians worked in the mining district
in downstate Illinois,
huge Italian population.
You have a suburb called Highwood,
between Highland Park and Lake Bluff,
really heavy Italian suburb,
But all those people started out working for the wealthy
on the North Shore as maids, tailors, landscapers and ended up
building homes and keeping them going for generations.
Chicago's Little Italy is not as developed as, say, Boston,
which has a large Little Italy still.
San Francisco too.
Even though that's great,
they're still kind of losing the flavor, so to speak,
because a lot of the residents there have died off
or their children have gone off and moved to the suburbs.
The Italians had a bocce club in Lake View on Ashland.
It was knocked down to build condos.
I had the kids write down perceptions of Italians
and food came up a lot.
It's like saying African-Americans know how to sing and dance.
They're gifted musicians.
Italians are gifted in terms of culinary skills.
But you can go beyond that.
There have been great African-American reporters like Ida B. Wells.
There have been great Italian-American businessmen like Giannini.
We're just trying to expand the notion of what Italian-American is.