Over the next two Tuesdays (Feb. 17 and 24), PBS will offer some fascinating looks at Italian Americans. Especially interesting, perhaps, is the way one region -- short on wealth, on education, on trust of government -- would have a powerful impact. Here's the story I sent to papers:
By MIKE HUGHES
Over the past
century or so, the U.S. has been energized by people from one small
Or, actually, from a
fraction of that country. PBS' “The Italian Americans” says most
of the surge came from one piece of Italy.
It's “not the
experience of Milan (or) Florence,” said journalist Gay Talese.
“It's not Rome. It's Naples to Sicily, that little area ....
Americans such as me and Mario Cuomo and Joe DiMaggio and Madonna
(are) from that deep part of the South, which is quite isolated in
history and mentality from the North.”
Italy was gradually
unified in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, but some regions didn't feel it. “Southern-Italian
immigrants felt forced out,” said John Maggio, the PBS film's
producer. “They were overtaxed and they were poor. So they came to
even required them to specify if they were Northern or Southern. The
latter often found themselves with bad jobs, low pay and limited
opportunity ... plus a distrust of public processes.
“We're from the
Kingdom of Naples, which was eradicated in the 1870s,” Talese said.
It “had a history of isolation .... The country was made up of
With one spectacular
exception – New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia – Italian
Americans tended to avoid politics. Then a powerful force emerged in
the old country.
“America was in
love with (Benito) Mussolini, as this kind of antidote to Communism,”
said Maria Laurino, who wrote the show's companion book. “Then, all
of a sudden, that love affair failed.”
As Americans fought
Mussolini's Italy in World War II, an almost-teen Talese scrambled.
“Having an Italian-born father whose brothers remained in Italy
(and) were fighting against the American invasion, .... I felt very
much as if I was a fractured American,” he said.
Biases grew during
the war, said Jeff Bieber of WETA, which nurtured the show. “The
parents of Joe DiMaggio were labeled enemy aliens at the outbreak of
World War II, despite the fact that their son was an American hero
and he and his brothers enlisted in the military during World War
After the war, the
Italian image was boosted by superstars in sports (DiMaggio),
politics (Cuomo), movies (Brando-De Niro-Pacino) and music. “The
great achievement of Frank Sinatra, as an Italian American, was his
capacity to assimilate,” Talese said.
however, was the looming image of the Mafia, propelled by the
real-life testimony of Joseph Valachi in 1963 and by the “Godfather”
movie in 1972 and the “Sopranos” TV series in 1999.
Many people objected
to the tarnishing of their image. Still, Talese said, the fictional
characters were often beloved. “They are driving fine cars. They
live well, they dress well, they are not peasants. They are an
element above the beleagured working class. And that is something,
when you think of how little the Italian Americans had by way of
looking at success.”
And then, gradually,
the success and impact grew. We saw Italians on the Supreme Court
(Antonin Scalia), as speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi), as
vice-presidential candidate (Geraldine Ferraro), as several of New
York's governors and mayors. Italy – a fraction of it, mostly –
made its impact.
-- “The Italian
-- 9-11 p.m.
Tuesdays, Feb. 17 and 24, PBS (check local listings)