October 7, 2011

Preserving Living History: Interview with Oral Historian and Photographer, Anthony V. Riccio

(Part One)
By Olivia Kate Cerrone

Anthony V. Riccio 
History, as documented through the voices of those who have lived it, has become all too often a rare and underrepresented presence in contemporary Italian Americana. If we are to take ourselves seriously as a culture, it is imperative upon us to engage with those former generations who carried the language, folklore and heritage of Southern Italy to the United States.  Theirs is the truth that continues to shape and define us, one that must be honored, so that the understanding and representation of our people’s identity is not mangled and dictated by the likes of Jersey Shore. For over four decades, Anthony V. Riccio has committed his life to capturing the testimonials of those individuals who serve as a living embodiment of some of the first Italian American neighborhoods on the East Coast. Through a beautiful and startling array of photography and personal reflections, Riccio has produced a series of brilliant oral history collections preserving the legacy of those immigrants who originally persevered through countless economic and social hardships to thrive in the New World.  Mr. Riccio is one who remains passionately driven in what he describes as “a race against time” to document this fading generation before their experiences, largely unwritten until recent years, become irrevocably lost.  His books include Boston’s North End: Images and Recollections of an Italian-American Neighborhood, The Italian American Experience in New Haven: Images and Oral Histories, Cooking with Chef Silvio: Stories and Authentic Recipes from Campania and the forthcoming Farms, Factories and Families: Italian-American Women of Connecticut from SUNY Press. A native of New Haven’s Italian American Annex neighborhood, Riccio earned a Masters degree in Renaissance Art History from Syracuse University and spent extensive time on a university-granted “Florentine Fellowship” enriching his photography skills through a tour of Southern Italy. His work as an oral historian soon began after returning to the United States and working as Director of the North End Senior Citizen Center of Boston, a position that bonded him to the residents of that historic neighborhood. Riccio’s accomplishments as a researcher and archivist led him to a career at Yale University, where he’s served as the stacks manager of the Sterling Memorial Library for almost fifteen years.  I recently had the enormous privilege to conduct a three-part interview with Mr. Riccio, focusing on each of his community-based oral history collections. This interview speaks to the first of his published works: Boston’s North End: Images and Recollections of an Italian-American Neighborhood.

Olivia Kate Cerrone: Boston’s North End: Images and Recollections of an Italian-American Neighborhood is the first of three oral history collections, this book in particular documenting one of the most significant enclaves of Southern Italians and Sicilians on the East Coast, through engrossing photography and rich, vivid personal accounts detailing the everyday realities, joys and hardships that defined this working class neighborhood.  Prior to its publishing, you served as director of the North End Senior Citizen Center in Boston, but hail originally from New Haven, CT.  What inspired you to focus on this community in particular?  Was this project, and the subsequent others, prompted by the position you took at the Center or was it one that you wished to pursue before moving to Boston?

Anthony V. Riccio: When I returned after graduate school in Florence, Italy, I answered an advertisement in the Boston Globe that read “work in a neighborhood setting, must speak Italian.” Writing books of Italian oral history began more because of serendipity than design; I found myself in one of the last intact Italian neighborhoods where elders spoke native dialects — Sicilian, Calabrese, Neapolitan Abruzzese — and still lived in antiquated walk-up cold water flats, carrying on their old world lifestyle against the backdrop of a major American city.  Since I ran a drop-in center for the elderly, I became very close to many elders who no longer lived in the same tenement houses with sons and daughters who had  left to pursue the American Dream.  Because they told me such compelling life experiences with such eloquence, I began recording their stories and photographing them, knowing that I was in a race against time to save their legacies.  With each book project since the North End of Boston, I have always found myself working with the same fever to document stories and capture images before they disappear and are lost by the passage of time.   

Mariangela DiAntonio, a North End resident
OKC: Joe Petringa, one of the North End contributors to the book, expresses how he “was beginning to forget childhood stories because there weren’t any older people left to keep the memories alive,” at the time of his interview.  You later mention in an article published in Boston.com, how “the ‘60s and ‘70s were the last gasp of the North End families,” before the onslaught of urban development and gentrification.  With the breakdown of these ethnic enclaves and the passing of those generations who called such neighborhoods home, what is at stake here, culturally-speaking?  Why should we take oral histories seriously?  What might they provide in terms of cultural preservation?

AVR: Growing up in a traditional Italian American family, I realized that Italian American culture is not a written culture, but lives in the spoken word, in the life history stories and proverbs and allegories passed down from our elders.  In southern Italy, the ability to learn writing skills was usually reserved for the upper classes and there was no such thing as a meritocracy available for the working poor.  So our history is not written anywhere.  Joe Petringa’s story is symbolic of many Italian Americans who try to keep Italian American historical consciousness alive through the oral tradition and fear that it might be lost. There were many Joe Petringas in the North End who had a story to tell, a legacy to pass on, but there were few to listen.  Using Joe Petringa as a point of departure to peer into the third and fourth generation’s awareness of their cultural roots through the transmitting of our history through stories, our elderly storyteller voices have become feint echoes.  Italian American families seldom have three generations living together where stories are told by grandparents who keep cultural memory alive.  Once old voices are silenced, we lose our history. The loss of our cultural identity might explain why a fair amount of Italian Americans accept the Soprano and Jersey Shore characters as embodiments of Italian American culture.  What alternatives do Italian Americans have to counteract the lowest common denominator of themselves projected on the screen to remind them of the fullness and beauty of their culture?

Tom Bardetti, a North End resident
OKC: Herbert J. Gans’s famous sociological study, The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans (1962) focuses on the first-and second-generation community of Italian Americans in Boston’s West End neighborhood, which he described as undergoing “approximately the same ethnic succession pattern as the North End.”  He then goes on to state how “West Enders could be understood better by their class position than by their ethnic background.”  Do you agree with this?  Was the working class status a key feature in keeping the North End Italians close-knit as a community?  Is it possible to regenerate that sense of community in the face of acculturation and middle-class American suburbia?

AVR: Gans made a fair assessment saying that the entire West End neighborhood, which was composed of many ethnicities — Polish, Jewish, Portuguese, Italian and Irish — were united more by economic conditions being of the same class than by their different cultures and traditions. Economic conditions determined where and how you lived and what type of job you held. It trumped where you worshipped, what language you spoke and which traditions you followed.  But the North End I found in the late 1970s had been an insulated, intact, working-class Italian neighborhood since the turn of the century.  What happened in the North End happened to many Italian Americans across the country: working-class parents worked labor-intensive jobs to send their children to college to attain degrees and professional careers. Having achieved middle class status, they moved to the suburbs.  In 1981, the North End Nursing Home opened to institutionalize elderly Italian living on their own and unable to care for themselves, an that had been unthinkable in Italian families a generation before.  

J & N Market (Photos Courtesy of Anthony V. Riccio)
OKC: So many fascinating, even unsettling aspects are revealed through the memories of the North End Italians, including the depictions of the hard labor that most faced for very little money, the discrimination that working Italian American women struggled against with their earnings, and the “tribute money” that all workers from the neighborhood were expected to pay to presiding Mafiosi. But the most positive, consistent element at play in all of the stories shared was the powerful impact of community. I was particularly touched by the story of little Jimmy, a Sicilian boy who is consistently fed and practically adopted by a neighboring Abruzzese family, after his family can no longer feed he and his siblings. Here is a society before the time of effective social service programs, one that would rather turn inward. As resident Al Mostone described: “in the tenement houses… we’d have six, seven, and even twelve families living in one building.  We were practically one family. Or if you needed assistance or if we even thought you needed assistance, it was given to you—what little we could—you got it.”  What do these oral histories reveal about the importance of community among Italian Americans?  Why is community something worthy of being valued?

AVR: Italian oral histories teach us — remind us — that one of the most enduring features of Italian American culture was a genuine concern for the less fortunate, which has its roots in the small village experience of southern Italy. Most Italian Americans of the second and third generation learned those important values — empathy and compassion for the sick and elderly in the family or in the neighborhood — growing up in families where parents and grandparents set examples of goodwill for others by their actions.  In retrospect, the North End way of life — their identity as “North Enders” — and the heartfelt sharing and caring that existed between people now sound like a fairy tale.

Stay tuned for our second interview with Anthony V. Riccio, where we will be discussing The Italian American Experience in New Haven: Images and Oral Histories.

Click here to read Part Two
Click here to read Part Three

Please reach Anthony V. Riccio at http://anthonyriccio.com/

You can contact Olivia Kate Cerrone at: Olivia.Cerrone@gmail.com