To hear some tell it, Italo-Americans narrowly averted humiliation this week when organizers stopped a couple of TV actors from marching in New York’s Columbus Day parade. Letting Mayor Michael Bloomberg bring along two cast members of “The Sopranos” would supposedly have encouraged a widespread belief that people whose names end in a vowel belong to the Mob.
William Fugazy, president of the Coalition of Italo-American Associations, denounced Mr. Bloomberg’s invitation to the actors as a “disgrace. … Our parade is about heritage and pride. Certainly, the Sopranos haven’t done much for heritage and pride in our community.”
“The show stereotypes the Italo-American family in the worst way,” said Columbus Citizens Foundation President Larry Auriana. “Besides the whole crime element, it shows Italo-Americans as uneducated, low-life brutes.”
I can’t say whether these accusations are fair, since I’ve never seen the show (we don’t get it here in Italy, though once we do, you can be sure that everyone will watch); but several people whose judgment I trust tell me that “The Sopranos” is excellent in all respects, including the acting. So if the parade organizers wanted to showcase “positive role models,” they could have done worse than two accomplished Italo-American actors.
The claim that Italo-Americans suffer discrimination and low self-esteem and God knows what other ills because they are identified with organized crime is transparent nonsense. Rudolph Giuliani — after John Travolta the most famous and respected American with an Italian surname — clearly relishes the Mafia mystique. His favorite movie is The Godfather, and he’s been known to talk about making people offers they can’t refuse. He’s also a fan of “The Sopranos.”
It’s tempting to think that Italo-American whiners, like their opposite numbers in every other interest group, are simply immune to irony, but I think they know what they’re doing. They know that their constituency, by now long established in the middle class, is gradually being absorbed into generic white America. Once that happens, there won’t be much “community” for them to organize. So they keep ethnic consciousness alive any way they can, including through fear of discrimination.
If these people really wanted to help their fellow Italo-Americans, they would forget about battling unfavorable stereotypes and concentrate on debunking favorable ones. Such as the myth that all Italians are warm, ebullient, sensuous, generous, happy-go-luck folk. Believe that about the land of your forebears and naturally you’ll feel the tug of nostalgia, and start looking overseas for your cultural identity. At least as long as you don’t go there.
The surest cure for hyphenationism (the belief that a foreign last name makes you a cultural hybrid) is prolonged exposure to the source country of your putative “heritage.” In other words, send an Italo-American to Italy and in almost every case he’ll realize how American he is. The same goes for Irish-Americans, Polish-Americans and every other combo. WASPs in England are no exception.
For the cure to work, though, you can’t just go there on vacation, or even for extended stays in a second house. You have to live there and deal with the bureaucracy, the doctors, the schools, the traffic jams, and the neighbors in an ordinary apartment building far from the tourist hotels. You won’t necessarily want to go home, you might even find yourself happy, but you’ll know very well where you came from.
Of course most sane people will never do such a thing. For them, the Old Country will remain a pleasant and mostly harmless myth — that marks its believers as unmistakably American.