November 18, 2011

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

(Part Three)
By Olivia Kate Cerrone

Anthony V. Riccio
The social impact that Southern Italian American women have had in their communities is one that has largely gone unexamined and unrepresented until recently.  Such voices are often lost or dismissed in the presence of the negative stereotypes of Italian American women that plague mainstream American media. The experiences and significance of generations of women who have challenged and redefined both the domestic and labor arenas of contemporary life must not be diminished by an unfortunate association with Snooki of the Jersey Shore circus.  There is a richer, more complicated legacy that must be honored if we are to take ourselves seriously as a culture.  In this last interview with Anthony V. Riccio, we focus our conversation on his newest oral history collection, Farms, Factories and Families: Italian-American Women of Connecticut, forthcoming from SUNY Press. This book is unique in its sole concentration on Italian American women, creating a rich series of narratives that reveal the realities of immigrant life and the progression of industry and neighborhoods throughout Connecticut.  The lives of these women offer a rare and precious look into the past, creating through their voices, a tremendous artifact of historical preservation. Anthony V. Riccio should be deeply commended for the work he has done for the Italian American community, and I am personally honored to have had the privilege to discuss these major works with him during this three-part interview series. Mr. Riccio’s previous books include Boston’s North End: Images and Recollections of an Italian-American Neighborhood, The Italian American Experience in New Haven and Cooking with Chef Silvio: Stories and Authentic Recipes from Campania.  He currently works at Yale University, where he’s served as the stacks manager of the Sterling Memorial Library for almost fifteen years.
Perrotti's Farm
Olivia Kate Cerrone: Your new oral history collection, Farms, Factories and Families: Italian-American Women of Connecticut, forthcoming from SUNY Press, weaves together the rich, complicated social history of Southern Italian women from village life in regions like Calabria, Puglia, and Sicily, to lives redefined as immigrants throughout Connecticut.  What inspired you to focus on a book devoted entirely to documenting the experience of Southern Italian American women?  How did you choose specific interviewees?

Anthony V. Riccio: The idea for writing a women’s history occurred to me during researching, writing and recording life stories for The Italian American Experience in New Haven. While conducting interviews, I heard many heroic stories from women, though they had no idea how heroic they were and the significance their lives had on women’s history. Once freed from shackles of the social caste system of Southern Italy that kept them down and limited their outlook and ability to express themselves, they absolutely flourished in America’s freedoms.  And they did it in a fascinating way with their own psychology: they let the men think they were in charge when in fact they were the glue, the backbone that held everything together. Italian American women lived by a strict code of honor; they were loyal to their families, their communities and their jobs. One story in this new book speaks volumes of how women were the behind-the-scenes money managers of the family economy, often making wise investments in real estate, lending money, and becoming entrepreneurs in all sorts of businesses as their husbands stood on the sidelines.  One particular story stands out.  A woman went for a walk after Sunday Mass with her husband and children.  As usual, the family passed by a stately Victorian house in the neighborhood she had always loved and secretly wished to buy.  She stopped in front of this house and said to husband with some conviction that she wanted to buy it.  He responded, “Ehhh! That’s a lotta money!”  She said nothing, and when they returned home, she pulled a stash of money from her bra, showed it to her astounded husband who had no idea she had carefully saved so much cash and said to him, “Now, here, let’s buy that house!”  And they did.  Italian American women played such important roles.  During the Depression, for example, they joined the production lines in factories and weathered the terrible sweatshops while many husbands were out of work; some daughters earned more than fathers working in the same factory.  During WWII they provided the workforce to supply our country with enough war armaments to help defeat enemies on two different continents.  They worked long tortuous hours on farms equaling the labor of any man.  While holding full time jobs, they found time to mend and wash their children’s clothes, keep their homes spotlessly clean, cook meals for large families every day, and made sure to nurture, protect and teach their children right from wrong according to the southern Italian code of family honor. 

As far as the selection process since 2006 when I started the book project, it has been sheer luck to have caught up to so many women before they passed away.  During my speaking engagements on the New Haven book around the state, I mentioned that I had started a new book and many people came to me afterward, saying, “Oh, you have to interview my 95 year old aunt –she’d love to tell you her story. 

I guess word spread throughout the Italian American grapevine and I found myself interviewing women in every corner of the state and in every major city.  I was fortunate to have caught up to many women in their mid to late 90’s, and even one who was 103, and another 102 who told me great stories about growing up in Italy in the late teens and early 1920’s. The first chapter of the book is compelling because of the stories of daily life in small villages in Sicily, Le Puglie, Campania, Calabria and Basilicata as seen through the eyes of women.  After this opening chapter, the fascinating arc of the women’s experience – told in their own voices -- is better appreciated when they reach America and start new lives. 

Jill Iannone
OKC: In an article with Labor History News, you shared that among other significant, but little-known historical events chronicled in this collection is the Amalgamated in New Haven union movement, which has "its origins as a woman’s movement whose outspoken leaders – Jennie Aiello, Jill Iannone, Carol Paolillo and others profiled in the book – broke the traditional role of the subservient Southern Italian woman and stood up to male factory owners and the barbaric sweatshop conditions they imposed to form their own union."  Such stories depict some of the many serious contributions that Southern Italian American women have made to society, which have often gone dismissed or entirely ignored in the mainstream American consciousness.  Why do you think this has largely been the case for Southern Italian American women? 

AVR: The heroism of Italian American women – as in other ethnicities whose women stood up, organized and overcame – is overlooked because the movement has been whitewashed by the broad brush of history; women’s history, at least from the 1920s and 1930s, has always been viewed as part of a subaltern culture by historians, and sadly, much of it already has passed into the slipstream of history because it has not been written down.  Few academics, then or now, take on large-scale projects to document the history of people like Italian Americans whose culture is based in oral history.  Academia is mostly interested in top down studies, not the opposite.  Historians and graduate students are focused more on trying to prove specific theories for their dissertations and books; they use oral history to back up theories, and oral histories usually end up in the background when they really should be front and center.

There are many Jennie Aiello’s, Jill Iannone’s, and Carol Paolillo’s all over the country whose struggles and sacrifices in the name of women’s equality and worker equality are fading from history.  We often forget that in many cases union movements all around the country were powered by courageous women who risked their lives – and lost them –for the betterment of all.  Italian American societies – not all, but many – seem to focus less on documenting their own history and more on the next gala event while aging parents and grandparents – our living history – sit home alone, or worse, in a nursing home.  I can’t tell you how many times Italian Americans tell me the same thing after one of my presentations, “Oh, if I had just asked my mother that question before she died,” or “Now that they are gone, I’ll never know.” 

It’s the more enlightened Italian Americans like Luisa Del Giudice in California who set the right examples: she started her own archives in California as a repository of our culture.  Dominic Candeloro is Chicago is doing the same thing there.  There are Italian American centers in New York and San Francisco who are trying to keep the flame alive.  There should be an Italian American cultural center in every major city in our country, funded by Italian Americans as a place where scholars and people searching for their roots can come and conduct research.  In my own experience while interviewing people in their homes, I’ve seen so many cultural artifacts, enough for fascinating cultural exhibits.  But no one is going to do any of this important documentary work unless we do it ourselves.

I.L.G.W.U. Local 151 Officers and Arrangements Committee, State Armory, New Haven, Conn.
OKC: The image of Southern Italian American women portrayed through literature and media is one often limited in range--the oversexed or promiscuous young woman or the nurturing, even eccentric but well-meaning nonna are typical stereotypes.  What can stories like those contained in Farms, Factories and Families: Italian-American Women of Connecticut do in providing richer, more complex expressions of the Southern Italian American female identity?  Why might this be important in breaking down stereotypes?

AVR: Farms, Factories and Families: Italian-American Women of Connecticut will break many stereotypes of Italian American women.  It represents the antithesis of everything we’ve been fed by the media and it will challenge the made-for-television images of Italian Americans projected by the movie industry.  Reading their life stories in this new book and the way they expressed themselves with such unrehearsed dignity and unassuming eloquence will change perceptions for anyone with sensitivity to the human condition. This is not a novel based on women’s history, something once removed from the actual experience, but a women’s history told by women, maybe the first of its kind where women have fully expressed themselves in their own words.

In the final chapter, “Women Find Their Voices: Italian American Autobiographies,” Italian American women find more of their own liberation writing their autobiographies, which will shatter more myths about the lives of women and their ability to write.

One woman who I recently interviewed when she was one hundred and three wrote a poem when she was ninety-four, called, “Le Mie Mani” (My Hands) where she looks down at her hands and has a conversation not only with them, but with the reader.  She recalls the days (“giorni proddotivi e verdi,” or green and productive days) when her hands worked to create (she was an expert dressmaker in Sicily and later in Middletown Connecticut) fine dresses, wedding gowns and men’s suits, which were works of superior craftsmanship and of such high quality that everyone wanted them.  Now in her old age, her hands do not function as they once did.  In this new book, stories and writings will show an entirely new dimension of Italian American women.  

Cesarina Riccio
OKC: Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us your experiences throughout this series of interviews. Any last thoughts?

AVR: As a footnote to this new book, I also interviewed some Italian American men who told stories of mothers, grandmothers and sisters.  In every case they were in awe of the power and strength of the women and the strong roles they played in their families when they were growing up. And, also included in the book are women from northern regions.  One storyteller, an Italian Jew, recounted the harrowing story of her family escaping the Holocaust in Northern Italy.

Photos courtesy of Anthony V. Riccio

Please reach Anthony V. Riccio at

You can contact Olivia Kate Cerrone at:

Click here to read Part One
Click here to read Part Two

Please visit the Bellarmine Art Museum at the University of Fairfield in Connecticut for a special exhibition of Anthony V. Riccio's photography from February 1st to March 30th, 2012.  This event is free and open to the public.  For more information please visit: