November 5, 2011

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

(Part Two)
By Olivia Kate Cerrone

Anthony V. Riccio
Oral storytelling constitutes a dynamic embodiment of social history in its most honest, perhaps even rawest form.  The act of telling and retelling serves not only to further shape what defines a people, but ensures also the passing of those experiences and traditions from one generation to the next.  In this second of a three-part interview series with oral historian and photographer, Anthony V. Riccio, we focus on one of Mr. Riccio’s most popular works to date, The Italian American Experience of New Haven.  In addition to providing a rich assortment of personal narratives and accompanying photography, The Italian American Experience of New Haven is woven together by historical passages that provide a deep social context to the multitude of hardships that Southern Italians faced in immigrating to New Haven, Connecticut, while also chronicling the growth of Italian American communities in the face of two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Spanish Flu epidemic, and the heartbreaking controversy of Sacco & Vanzetti, among the daily struggle to work and live in the New World.  Examined also is the cultural divide that occurred between first and second generation Italians, and the consequential loss of pride and heritage that now threatens Italian Americana today.  In 2009, Mr. Riccio began hosting “Immigrant Voices,” a series of radio shows on WPKN Bridgeport (89.5 FM) that interspersed the stories and interviews with Italian Americans of New Haven and Boston, with selected folk music from the regions of Calabria, Campania and Sicily.  Mr. Riccio is also the author of Boston’s North End: Images and Recollections of an Italian-American Neighborhood, 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.  He currently works at Yale University, where he’s served as the stacks manager of the Sterling Memorial Library for almost fifteen years.

Olivia Kate Cerrone: Many New Haven Italian Americans in this book remarked upon compassion as bonding the community together.  Resident, Anthony Vanacore remarked how it was “one of the traits that helped them to survive.  They took care of each other your troubles were my troubles, see?  That’s why we survived, I’m sure.”  Yet the “Little Italys” of New Haven were also divided by the specific dialects and ancestral hometowns that immigrants associated with.  During an episode of the “Immigrant Voices” show on WPKN Bridgeport, you mentioned that this aspect “kept Italians apart and prejudices alive.”  What did you mean here?  What is the Italian community like in New Haven today?

Anthony V. Riccio: New Haven, at the height of immigration, was a fascinating place with perhaps the most diverse groups of Italian immigrants living within the confines of any American city.  Just about every region and province of Italy lived there.  The North/South tension was a carryover from the failed Unification of Italy in 1860, right to the streets of New Haven; immigrants tended to settle where the same dialect was spoken, where the same help societies sprang up, where the same village traditions were still practiced. Italians built closely-knit communities much like the villages they had left behind where they helped one another.  Prejudice was carried from memories of Italy and it was reinforced whenever an immigrant spoke.  Dialects identified a person's social class not just in Italy, but in New Haven.  Northerners in New Haven hailed from Le Marche, Il Veneto and the Piedmont regions of the north, and settled in the western side of the city. However, Northerners did live in Southern neighborhoods. There's a great story of a woman (recorded in the Foglia interview of the collection) from Piedmont, who moved to a community of Southern Italians and could not understand their dialect.  One day she wanted to make soup for her husband, went downstairs to the grocery store, and tried in vain to ask the owner for celery, which was an entirely different word in his dialect.  She finally walked with him into the freezer and pointed to it.  Everyone in her building called her “La Francese,” the French woman, because they thought she was speaking French due to the strong French influence in Piedmont and her French accent when she spoke model Italian.  The North/South tension began to break down in the 1930s and 1940s, the same way tension between the Italian and Irish waned: Northern Italians married Southerners and Italians married Irish.  The interview with Ron Mortali speaks volumes about the North/South tension as he retold the story of his grandmother's horror in the late 1940s, when he announced his marriage to a Southern Italian girl.  Even though his grandmother had known his future wife for nine years, she gasped, “no! You'll mix your blood!”  By the third generation, the old hatreds were passing away with the passing of grandparents.

Mary Ginnetti
Photo courtesy of Anthony Riccio
OKC: Oral historian, Studs Terkel, whom you cited in a previous email exchange, as a major influence, if not the inspiration for your work, stated that: “you know, ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely?’ It’s the same with powerlessness.  Absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely.”  In The Italian American Experience of New Haven, you state how many Southern Italians who left for New Haven and elsewhere in America “shared the same sense of inferiority and apprehension in the new world from centuries of living under foreign oppression and grinding poverty.”  Do you believe that this psychological conditioning may be having an ongoing influence today in terms of how Italian Americans perceive themselves through the media and lack of mainstream intellectual engagement?

AVR: Most Southern Italians descended from a peasant culture thousands of years old and I believe it's still in our DNA somewhere.  There are no doubt many success stories of Italian Americans who have taken advantage of the meritocracy and have had stellar careers.  It's also very interesting to note that Italian Americans, though the largest ethnic group in America, have the lowest percentage of students attending Ivy League universities.  I have a theory that some — because of our perceived notion of inferiority — identify with the gangster and wise guy image out of our sense that they somehow even up the score — even by illegal and immoral means.  Italian Americans identifying with wise guys and accepting them as the best we can offer society, feeds into the media's constant portrayal that Italian Americans are tainted with some sort of illegal activity.  As long as  the schism in the Italian American community between acceptance and repudiation of the Italian wise guy exists, the slurs and the behind-your-back distrust and prejudice against Italian Americans will persist, especially in the workplace. When I lived in Boston and worked in the Italian section of town, called the North End, I went to a job interview in another town outside the city.  I had an interview with the board of directors and thought the interview had gone very well. As I left, the president said I would hear back from them in a few days. Two weeks passed without any word, and finally I was contacted that I had gotten the job.  Months later, I was having a conversation with one of the board members and I asked why it had taken so long for the final decision to be made about the job.  He said, “oh, you know everyone on the board liked you, but a few thought you might be in the Mafia because you worked in the North End of Boston.”

Photo courtesy of Anthony Riccio
OKC: An interesting, perhaps unknown aspect of the immigration of Italians to New Haven involves the fact that both impoverished contadini and former Southern Italian nobility were among the countless millions who left Italy in search of a better life.  New Haven resident, Ralph Marcarelli, whose members of his father’s family held distinguished military careers under the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, described how his male relations felt “compelled to find work that gentlemen could do…The poor families would do whatever had to be done…and they survived…the better families had a much more difficult time because they could not be seen doing certain things.”  Consequently, the “high culture” (literature, music, theater) enjoyed by Southern Italians of a wealthier class was potentially lost during the immigration to America.  Do you believe this?  Do you believe that contemporary Italian Americana has a responsibility to incorporate some of this lost culture into how it represents itself into mainstream society?

AVR: Italian Americans, even of the poorest class, had an appreciation of music and theater.  In the 1890s in New Haven, the San Carlino society built a cultural center with the donations of its members who were mostly Southern poor, and it offered drawing, music, and language lessons to the neighborhood.   What's fascinating was that their center boasted a five-hundred seat performance center where operas and plays were performed and profits often went to charitable causes in New Haven and in Italy.  Unfortunately, the building burned down and was never replaced.  Sylvester Poli also owned the Poli Theatre in the center of New Haven that offered the same type of entertainment; Giuseppina Pane, perhaps one of the greatest singers of her era, also sponsored plays and musical performances for Italians at the local high schools that were regularly filled to capacity on Sunday afternoons.  Italian culture was alive in New Haven and in many American cities.  With the passing of time, they have descended into cultural artifacts that should be documented and exhibited in Italian American cultural centers.
Troiano farming family at the Sunday table 
Photo courtesy of Anthony Riccio
OKC: Drawing from the “sense of inferiority” previously mentioned in our interview is the issue of a certain disconnect that formed between first and second-generation Italian Americans, one that this collection pays special mention to.  New Haven resident, Joseph Riccio described how “we were ashamed of [being] Italian…We were children of peasants; people who came from the earth…They instilled in us, ‘Vai a scuola e nun fa’o ciuccio come ama fatta nuie,’ Go to school so you won’t have to work like jackasses like we did.”  Becoming “American” doesn’t imply having contempt for your own heritage or class, but why did it seem that way for Italian Americans?  How do you feel this perceived sense of shame negatively affected second and later generations of Italian Americans?  What can be done now to counter these influences and reinforce a sense of pride in Italian Americana?

AVR: I don't think Italian immigrants of the first and second waves had contempt for their heritage because they practiced that heritage in the churches, mutual help societies and in the streets of their beloved neighborhoods.  It was in the second generation when they attended the schools and were taught not to utter a word of their native language or display anything of their culture that, sadly, made Italian Americans ashamed of their culture, and ashamed of the peasant ways of their parents and grandparents.  The influence of the American school system and the pull towards assimilation meant the loss of the language for many second-generation Italian Americans, who now regret having lost the language and culture of their grandparents.  For many of us, there is no going back, there is no way to reconnect to that culture because it no longer exists.  The culture our ancestors brought to America was a snapshot of an ancient peasant culture in the 1900s, which no longer exists in Italy either.  That's why Italian food is all the craze today because it's the closest cultural relic of what Italian Americans remember — or understand — about the culture they've lost.  The only way I can think of reinforcing a sense of pride about being an Italian American is to document as much of it for future generations before it completely disappears and is lost to the slipstream of history.   Instead of watching the Sopranos, Italian Americans should be building and supporting Italian American cultural centers in every major city, with libraries and museum exhibits and oral history films as repositories of our rich culture.   So many Italian Americans, in their hunger to reconnect to their roots, travel to “Little Italys” in Boston, New Haven and New York in search of the feeling and sensation of the old neighborhoods they grew up in, to return to the family tables they sat around where the body was nurtured with home-cooked meals and the troubled soul found consolation with heartfelt conversation.  Most of the Italian residents in those places have all passed on and restaurants, for the most part, carry the last banner of our culture.  Wouldn't it be great if after dining at the Italian restaurant in one of these “Little Italys,” we could visit an Italian American cultural center to get the real taste of our culture?


Stay tuned for our third and final interview with Anthony V. Riccio, where we will be discussing the forthcoming Farms, Factories and Families: Italian-American Women of Connecticut.

Click here to read Part One
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