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:

November 15, 2011

Terroni e Polentoni, A Rare Opportunity

Pino Aprile
By Giovanni di Napoli

Last Thursday (Nov. 10, 2011) I attended the Terroni e Polentoni conference at St. John's University in Manhattan featuring Pino Aprile and Lorenzo Del Boca. Mr. Aprile, of course, is the celebrated author of Terroni, an impassioned look at the history of the South after Unification from a Pro-Southern perspective. A best seller in Italy (over 200,000 copies sold), Terroni was recently translated into English by Ilaria Marra Rosiglioni and published by Bordighera Press. Mr. Aprile was born in Puglia and works as a journalist.  Mr. Del Boca, also a journalist, is from Piedmont. He's a prolific writer and his latest book, Polentoni purports to show that Northerners faired no better and in some cases actually had it worse than Southerners after Unification. Sponsored by The Italian Language Inter-Cultural Alliance (ILICA) the event was billed as "A different look at Italy and its controversial process of unification 150 years later." Needless to say, I couldn't wait to hear what these esteemed authors had to say. 

I would like to point out that St. John's was extremely welcoming and a gracious host. They offered hors d'oeuvres and wine before the event. To my surprise and relief—since the conference would be bilingual—headsets (so we could listen to interpreters) were available for those of us who could not speak Italian. Professor Anthony Julian Tamburri, Dean of the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, Queens College, City University of New York, moderated the conference.

After the introductions and opening comments (each author was given about ten minutes) my excitement began to wane. Instead of allowing the authors to talk about their books the discussion kept getting sidetracked by other panelists, who, it seems, were invited to discuss the merits of the Italian language. Except perhaps as an example of Northern Italian cultural hegemony, I did not understand the relevance of the Italian language to this discussion. In light of the fact the event was also a celebration of the launching of Mr. Aprile's book in English, it made even less sense to me. To be honest, I was a little disappointed.

Lorenzo Del Boca
With all due respect to Italian, it is not our language. The people of Southern Italy spoke their own tongues before Unification. Sicilian and Neapolitan are not dialects, as they are often erroneously labeled (including at this conference). In fact, Sicilian is older than Tuscan, the language from which modern Italian originates. "Aside from the Tuscans," as Mr. Aprile points out, "at the moment of the Unification, only 200,000 people spoke what would eventually become the nation's official language out of 22 million." (Terroni, p. 110) Admittedly, at another venue I would have been interested in learning more about the Italian language, but at this event the topic seemed out of place and distracting.

On a personal note, as a Neapolitan-American who does not speak Italian or Neapolitan, I do not feel any less Neapolitan. Language is not key to my identity, and like millions of other Southern Italians in America who don't speak their ancestral tongue, it does not change our ethnicity. We did not magically turn into Englishmen because we learned to speak English, just like our "terroni" kinfolk back in Italy did not turn into Italians by learning to speak Italian.

It’s hard for me to critique Mr. Del Boca. I have not read his books and he got to say very little at the event. He does not deny that terrible things were done to the South. However, he wanted to focus on the terrible things that happened in the North.  Since he's from Piedmont, that is understandable. As far as I know, no one denies that terrible things happened in the North.  The difference is—and it's a major one—whatever damage was done to the North was rebuilt with the wealth stolen from the South. The so-called Northern "miracle" could not have been achieved without the exploitation of Southern Italy.

Mr. La Boca cited the violent suppression of the 1898 food riots in Milan, known as the Bava-Beccaris Massacre, as an example. Unlike in the South, this tragic episode was an exception, not the rule. As reprehensible as it was, the massacre does not compare to the carnage inflicted on the South—not by a long shot! Of course this doesn't mean it should not be remembered, but complaining to us about it without empathizing with our plight is more than a little discourteous.

Anthony Julian Tamburri
Which brings us to the question and answer session. One gentleman in the audience took offense to Mr. Aprile's comparison of the Risorgimento with the Holocaust. He accused Mr. Aprile of being insensitive and insulting to Jews. I found it interesting he did not get offended when Mr. Del Boca compared the victimization of Northern Italy with Southern Italy. I also think the audience member took the analogy too literally. Mr. Aprile is trying to drive home the point that Southern Italians were the victims of genocide and according to the CPPCG's definition he has a point.(1)  With tens of thousands killed (some estimates go as high as a million), millions more forced to emigrate, and our languages and culture constantly denigrated as "inferior," the claim is more than justified. 

This same gentleman, who called Aprile's book "disgusting," also didn't like the fact the author was sympathetic to the Bourbon Dynasty or referred to the Piedmontese as "foreigners" and "cretins." Like them or not, the fact remains that the Bourbons were the legitimate rulers of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. They made the Regno an independent and sovereign Kingdom again after hundreds of years of viceroyal servitude under the Spanish and Austrian Empires. The Bourbon monarchs ruled the nation for almost 130 years. They spoke Neapolitan, were fairly popular and ruled as benevolent despots. 

Mr. Aprile also correctly pointed out that Piedmont was a separate state with a different king (Vittorio Emanuele II di Savoia). They spoke a different language and had different laws. The invasion of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies by Piedmont is the very definition of foreign invasion. 

As for the "cretin" accusation, I assume the gentleman was referring to a passage about emigration: 
"...Nearly no one emigrates from the South in the years preceding the invasion (only a few thousand), while millions leave the other regions of Italy, from the Alpine Northwest to the Northeast from the Padania area (where due to malnourishment, many suffer from pellagra and cretinism) down to large areas of the Center. Only after the occupation, the plundering, and the useless resistance movement do the Southerners begin to emigrate by the millions." (Terroni, p. 109)
Saying many people suffered from pellagra and cretinism due to malnutrition is a far cry from calling people cretins, which was more than the people of the South could expect from Northern criminologist Ceasre Lombroso and his brood of charlatans, who labeled Southerners as deviant. I was amused to learn from Mr. Aprile that after his death, Lombroso's skull was analyzed and it was discovered that he had a smaller than average brain and his skull showed the same atavistic signs he used to label Southern Italians as inferior.

In summary I was pleased to have attended an event that had both Pino Aprile and Lorenzo Del Boca in attendance, but disappointed that it didn’t focus more on comparing their viewpoints. The topics of the other panelists would have been interesting to listen to at another time.  However, it is not often we get to hear a discussion about such books by the authors themselves. This was a rare opportunity and I’m grateful that I was able to see them at all. I want to thank Professor Tamburri and Bordighera Press, ILICA and St. John’s University, who gave me that opportunity.

(1) CPPCG (Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide)

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
• (a) Killing members of the group;
• (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
• (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
• (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
• (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

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

You can contact Olivia Kate Cerrone at:

November 1, 2011

AcquAria Pay Homage to the Sea at Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò

Michela Musolino
By Giovanni di Napoli 

Last Thursday (October 27, 2011), I made my way through the cold rain to see AcquAria at Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò (24 West 12th Street) in Manhattan. Unable to attend their previous performance in Queens a few days earlier and missing the Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino show at Casa Italiana on October 3rd, I certainly didn't want to miss another Southern Italian concert. There are precious few opportunities to see culturally significant shows like this and the cozy auditorium, with its fabulous acoustics was the perfect venue to enjoy such an event.

Fronting AcquAria are the sensational vocalists Michela Musolino and Vincenzo Castellana. Ms. Musolino (whom I've had the great pleasure of seeing in concert before) is blessed with a hauntingly beautiful voice, which at will can channel the volcanic power of Mount Etna and erupt into the most sublime rapture. She is also an accomplished percussionist in the rich Sicilian tradition. Mr. Castellana is an equally gifted and versatile artist who plays many instruments, including the friscalettumarranzanu and brogna, or seashell horn à la Triton. Together, they composed an impressive repertoire of music in homage to the Mediterranean.

Accompanying the duo on stage were Arturo Martinez on the guitar, Vito Galante on the double bass and Thomas Chess on the flute and mandolin. The talented ensemble spirited us away on a magical journey to the coastal recesses of beautiful Sicily, which Ms. Musolino reverently referred to as "a diamond in the sea and a gift from God."
Vincenzo Castellana
The show began with the legend of Colapisci, a wonderful song from Messina about a young Sicilian boy who loved to swim so much that he turned into a fish. Tradition has it that Sicily was in danger of sinking and the boy answered his King's call by swimming deep beneath the sea to find the cause. He discovered that three pillars supported the island and one was badly damaged. The little merman worked tirelessly to repair it, thus saving his beloved homeland. To this day, according to the legend, the selfless Colapisci diligently looks after the crumbling columns. 

From heroic altruism AcquAria turned to ill-fated love. U Pisci Spada is a romantic song about two lovesick swordfish written by the great Apulian singer-songwriter Domenico Modugno (1928-1994). Caught by fishermen and unable to escape, the female swordfish implores her lover to flee and save himself. Unwilling to live without his mate, the male swordfish ignores her plea and leaps out of the water onto the boat to die alongside his love. 

Of course, not all the songs were based on fables — many recalled the harsh realities of Sicilian history and the awesome power of Mother Nature. For instance, they did an amazing rendition of Gricalata, a modern day classic about a deadly tsunami written by Luciano Maio. The heartbreaking song brings to mind the deadly earthquake and tsunami that devastated Messina and Reggio Calabria in 1908. Based in Amsterdam, Mr. Maio's band Taberna Mylaensis (like AcquAria in the U.S.) still finds solace and inspiration from their beloved Sicily. 
(L-R) Arturo Martinez, Vito Galante and Thomas Chess 
Needless to say, tragedy is the wellspring of many songs and Sicily has had her fair share of tragedies. Bonagia is a traditional lament about loved ones snatched away by Saracen pirates. Although set in a small fishing village in the Provincia di Trapani, the threat of slavery with little or no hope for redemption was a fact of life for many centuries across all of Southern Italy. "If Mother Mary doesn't save us," the dirge chillingly ends, "then we'll fall into the hands of these stinking dogs!" 

When they weren't worrying about raiders kidnapping or murdering their men folk, wives were fearful about where their husbands were sleeping while away. Amuri, Amuri (My love, my love) is an emotionally charged chant about a jealous woman who curses her lover for having another woman make his bed. These chants were usually sung by women along the shores to help guide the fishermen back home. They also allowed women to speak their minds. The use of a large tamburo, with grains of rice in it to mimic the rhythmic sounds of the surf, was an outstanding effect that helped set the mood and transport us to the coast.

So precarious was life that a safe return with a bountiful catch was usually cause for celebration. Accordingly, the concert ended with a few uplifting and festive tarantellas celebrating life, love and, of course, the sea. Musolino and Castellana twirled in wild abandon beating their castanets and tambourines to the increasingly upbeat tempo. Stylistically different from the somber chants and lamentations, the tarantellas allowed the audience to experience the full spectrum of la musica popolare di Sicilia. 

I cannot overstate the importance of these types of venues. They are rare opportunities for us to keep in touch with our historical folkways and should be supported at all cost. When incredible artists like AcquAria perform them, it makes the experience all the more joyous and memorable.