Articles by: George De stefano

  • Life & People

    The Right To Be Italian

    Fred Kuwornu is an Italian filmmaker whose work examines the complexities of racial, ethnic, and national identity. His first film, “Inside Buffalo” (2010) was a documentary about the 92nd Infantry Division, known as the “Buffalo Soldiers,” an all-black combat unit that fought in Italy during World War II. Kuwornu made the film after working with Spike Lee on “Miracle at St. Anna,” Lee’s 2008 feature film about the 92nd division.

    Two years later, Kuwornu provoked controversy in Italy, and some much-needed public 
    discussion, with “18 Ius Soli: The Right to be Italian,” a critique of Italian citizenship law based on Ius Sanguinis.

    Under the Italian law, Italy-born children of immigrants do not automatically qualify for citizenship. They must instead request it when they reach 18 years of age, and no later than their nineteenth birthday.

    That leaves them in a legal limbo, and they often experience unequal treatment despite their Italian birth and residency. “18 Ius Soli: The Right to Be Italian” won the Best Documentary award at the Black Berlin International Cinema Festival, and Kuwornu has screened it at the Pentagon, the Library of Congress, and at film festivals. Born in Bologna to an Italian Jewish mother and a Ghanaian father, Fred Kuwornu last year moved from Italy to Brooklyn, which he calls “the beating heart of artistic and creative New York.”

    He is doing post- production work on “Blaxploitalian,” a film about black actors in Italian cinema, while also developing a new documentary about the Neapolitan musician James Senese, whose father was a black American soldier stationed in Naples during World War II. i-Italy recently spoke with Kuwornu about his experiences as a biracial Italian and the challenges of being an ethnic/racial minority in today’s Italy.

    ‘Afroitaliani’ and ‘Afroitalici’
    “In my documentaries and when I speak at conferences, I talk a lot about being African and Italian,” he says. “It is a hybrid identity that I’m trying to understand more and more as Fred Kuwornu and therefore as an individual who is Afro-Italian.” The director says he wants to explore not only the “Afroitaliano” identity of Italian- born people of African descent, but also what he calls “Afro-Italico,” an appellation for someone of mixed Italian and black backgrounds, whether the “Italian” side is from Italy, the US, or Canada, and the “African” side from the US, the Caribbean, or Brazil.

    “There are many more ‘Afroitalici’ in the world than ‘Afroitaliani,’” he says. “18 Ius Soli” has stimulated discussion about citizenship for the Italian-born children of immigrants. But Kuwornu says, “The only thing that has changed, one might say, is that perhaps the children of immigrants are now much better informed than before about this problem.” He says that the citizenship law is “absurd” because Italy has always been a multiethnic country, going back to the Roman Empire.

    “Italy’s a great country,” he says. “But sometimes it forgets that its great cultural, artistic, and scientific wealth really is due to the mix of genes – biological and cultural – that has passed through our land in two thousand years. Perhaps our mistake has been to not historicize this and teach it, starting with elementary school.”

    The challenge of diversity
    Kuwornu says that in today’s Italy, racial and ethnic prejudice is worse than when he was growing up. “It’s very challenging to be a member of an ethnic minority in Italy today,” he adds. “Perhaps the only thing more difficult is being a Muslim.”

    “I grew up in the late ‘70s, when there were few Afro-Italians in Italy. In Bologna then, there were maybe five or six mixed-race kids – I don’t think there were any who were fully black. I never had any problems with racism in school because the teacher would have punished any misbehavior. I don’t want to suggest that there wasn’t any racism, but in that period from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, any instances of bullying, racism, or bad behavior were punished.”

    He does suspect, however, that his non- Italian surname may have cost him jobs; after he earned his degree in political science, he applied for positions but never received a response. “Perhaps my foreign last name on my resume created some problems,” he remarks.

    As a visitor to the US, and now as a New York resident, Kuwornu has spoken to Italian Americans at such organizations as the Calandra Institute and Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò in New York, and on college campuses. Some, he says, have reacted negatively because they cannot conceive of Italians as anything but white. Some seemed shocked that someone who looks like him speaks and gestures as an Italian. “Perhaps there’s some envy there because so many Italian Americans don’t speak our language any more,” he says.

    But some do understand that “Italy has become a multiethnic society.” The African Americans who have seen his films have reacted very positively, he says. They too are surprised that “in Italy today there is a black community that is beginning to produce a culture and history that may affect the field of black studies.”

    About music and identity
    Kuwornu is now seeking funding for his forthcoming documentary about James Senese, an Afro-Italian saxophonist and bandleader who has been a prominent figure on Naples’ music scene since the ‘70s. “The film will be about music and identity: what it meant to be African- Italian in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s,” he says.

    Besides Senese, Kuwornu has interviewed actor-director John Turturro for the film; Turturro’s documentary, “Passione,” about Neapolitan music, featured Senese. Kuwornu also plans to interview New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is of Campanian descent, and de Blasio’s son, Dante, whose mother is African American.

    Dante de Blasio, he says, “could be a New York version of James Senese.” Kuwornu sees identity not as a fixed destination but as a process, and a journey. “Our identities need not always come from our roots,” he observes. “Even more so, they should be connected to where we are and where we want to go. Identity shouldn’t imprison but instead should be a foundation, so that people can be free to dream what they want to become.”

  • Art & Culture

    Exploring The Kraken

    The Kraken
    Written, directed, and performed by Lemosche
    Live music by Marco Cappelli
    The Stone, New York City
    September 11, 2015

    What was under the sheet covering what appeared to be a body lying on a gurney?

    And who was that strange masked creature exploring the body with scalpel, hacksaw, and power drill?

    If "The Kraken" didn't provide definitive answers to those questions, the multi-media piece presented at the East Village venue The Stone delivered an intriguingly strange experience, with a fittingly atmospheric soundtrack performed live.

    "The Kraken" is the brainchild of a two-year-old Palermo-based arts association called Lemosche (The Flies). Gaetano Costa, one of the group's founders, wrote and directed it; other company members designed the set and the video projections while John Turturro provided recorded narration. The music was by guitarist and composer Marco Cappelli, who collaborated with Lemosche as part of his weeklong residency at the Stone in celebration of his fiftieth birthday.

    Cappelli, a venturesome and versatile musician born in Naples, has been involved with a wide range of projects since coming to New York City in the '90s. He plays classical and contemporary music, improvises and works with written scores, leads his own groups and collaborates with a diverse group of composers and musicians. He currently leads three bands, the Marco Cappelli Acoustic Trio, Italian Surf Academy and IDR–Italian DOC Remix. As a side musician, he plays with fellow guitarist Marc Ribot's band Caged Funk and composer Adam Rudolph’s Go: Organic Orchestra.  Besides all that, he teaches at Columbia University and at the Conservatorio Vincenzo Bellini in Palermo.

    It was at the Palermo conservatory that Cappelli met the members of Lemosche.
    "Gaetano Costa is an amazing painter and also a sculptor," Cappelli says.  Lemosche "are related to the world of performance, a mix of art and theatre, with music." The company, founded in 2013, "put together a series of very interesting artistic events, including organizing concerts in people's homes.  They shine as a pearl in the cultural atmosphere in Palermo, which is pretty depressed right now."

    "I'm very interested in multidisciplinary art, and in collaboration," Cappelli says. "Working together with theater people, artists, musicians, I'm very attracted to that. I have a great appreciation of their work as artists."

    Cappelli says that the performance of "The Kraken" at the Stone, its first anywhere, was actually an excerpt from a longer piece that still is in development.

    The strange masked figure performs an autopsy on a body whose peculiar, parasite-ridden viscera bewilders him. The "doctor" (played by Lemosche member Philippe Berson) slices open the corpse, which the audience never sees, while a video showing abandoned city buildings plays, Turturro narrates, and Cappelli, on a guitar adapted to produce percussive sound effects, accompanies the movements of the doctor.

    The work, Cappelli explains, is an allegory about Palermo and the Mafia.

    "Gaetano Costa put together this theater piece with idea of talking about a corrupted town," says Cappelli. The town is Palermo – the video comprises scenes shot in the Sicilian capital – and the parasites that perplex the doctor are the Mafia. "The doctor who does the autopsy doesn't really get what's going on, he's confused, he's not clear how this body could work, and how did it get corrupted? Was it predisposed to be attacked by parasites or have parasites attacked a perfectly functioning body – this is a mystery," Cappelli says. "It's a very ambitious project; I fell in love with this idea."

    But he acknowledges that the piece's ideas aren't always clear. For one thing, the city in question never is identified as Palermo.

    "We had a lot of discussions," Cappelli says. "I recommended that it be more clear, to give a few signs that can really make sense of the point of all this." Costa, he says, wanted the audience to read "The Kraken" at different levels – but mainly aesthetic – to focus on images and movement more than on meaning. Costa didn't want the piece to be "too literal or obvious," but Cappelli felt "there was too much ambiguity to communicate the core of the thing."

    This audience member agrees with Cappelli. And the ambiguity wasn't solely textual. The doctor's mask, for example, resembled images of the title character, a mythological, squid-like Scandinavian sea monster. My companion and I both wondered whether the doctor was supposed to be the Kraken, performing an autopsy on itself. Cappelli says, however, that a stock character of commedia dell'arte, "Il Dottore," inspired the mask. But in commedia, Il Dottore's mask doesn't cover his entire face, as it did in "The Kraken."  

    Although the piece's meaning was somewhat obscure – perhaps that will change since it is a work in progress – Cappelli's music created a disturbing and compelling mood.  "The music had to be kind of dark and heavy, like everything is happening in a cave, and creating a level of anxiety," he says. Cappelli played an electric guitar designed by Mark Stewart of the avant-garde ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars. The guitar has a pickup to amplify its six strings; attached to it was a device made of metal and strings with a contact microphone that amplified the sounds Cappelli made by striking it. He also made use of a few pedals that allowed him to record and repeat sounds as he played.

    "I had this vision the thing should be mysterious, with a feeling of danger, fear and anguish and anxiety," he says. "This instrument was perfect for creating that kind of atmosphere." Cappelli's score also included bits of melodies from classical pieces by the 19th century Spanish composer and guitarist Francisco Tárrega.  "I followed the movements of the performer Philippe [Berson] and tried to create a sonic environment for him to perform in, but he also suggests to me with his movements where to go. There is interaction between the two of us."

    Cappelli says he and Lemosche will perform "Kraken" in Palermo in late October; they hope also to present it in other Italian cities during the 2016-2017 theater season.  

    "We will probably do it in Naples," he says. "And maybe Calabria, or Catania – other places that would be appropriate given the theme."

  • Op-Eds

    Meeting a Beat in Paris

  • Op-Eds

    Broken Windows, Broken Lives

    Robert Gangi minces no words when it comes to how the New York Police Department treats non-white and low-income New Yorkers.

    "By any measure the NYPD engages on a daily basis in aggressive, blatantly racially discriminatory practices," says the veteran advocate and organizer.

    For nearly 35 years Gangi, 70, has fought for police and criminal justice reform, first as the executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, which he headed for 29 years, and, since 2011, as the head of the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), which he founded at the Urban Justice Center. His former organization focuses on statewide criminal justice issues, including reform of New York State prisons. PROP, according to its mission statement, works to expose "discriminatory and abusive practices of the NYPD, that routinely and disproportionately affect our city's low-income communities and people of color."

    Foremost among those practices is the NYPD's "Broken Windows" policy. The theory behind Broken Windows is that having police officers make arrests for minor violations such as vandalism, subway fare evading, and public drinking helps prevent more serious crime. Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police commissioner William Bratton insist that the policy, which Bratton first implemented in 1993 under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is effective. Bob Gangi and many other critics, however, insist that it victimizes low-income people of color and is counterproductive because it engenders mistrust and even loathing towards cops and the criminal justice system.

    One of the most controversial aspects of the policy has been "stop and frisk," the practice of police stopping and interrogating individuals on the suspicion they might be involved in criminal activity. Stop and frisk proved to be both racially discriminatory – the vast majority of New Yorkers affected were African American and Latino – and ineffective at controlling crime, since nearly 90 percent of those stopped and frisked were innocent. In 2013, a federal judge ruled that stop and frisk violated the constitutional rights of African Americans and Latinos. The Bloomberg administration, which staunchly backed the policy, appealed the judge's ruling, but the de Blasio administration dropped the city's appeal and agreed to implement the remedies the court ordered.

    Gangi, though welcoming the ruling, says it has done little to halt the NYPD's abusive practices.

    "Stop and frisk always was a symptom of Broken Windows," he says. "The NYPD could amend the use of stop and frisk but not change the basic approach to law enforcement. And that's what happened. The department has significantly scaled back the use of stop and frisk but continues to pursue very aggressively quota-driven, Broken Windows policing."

    Gangi insists on the term "quota-driven" because he says it is fundamental to the type of policing he criticizes.

    "Broken Windows targets low-income people of color who are engaging in innocuous infractions. Sometimes under the pressure of the quota, cops misrepresent the facts. They hand out bogus tickets, they make false arrests, or they ticket people who are riding their bike on the sidewalk, putting their feet up on the subway at 2:30 in the morning, walking between subway cars, begging. A fair number of people get arrested for unlawful solicitations, which means you ask someone to swipe you in the subway as they're getting off. Even if the person is willing to do so, you've committed a violation for which the police can and do arrest. Everyone we've seen arrested for this is a black or Latino person."

    Gangi recalls a conversation he had last year with a young, Latino police officer shortly after a cop in Staten Island killed Eric Garner, a black man, by putting him in a chokehold, resulting in his asphyxiation. The Latino cop said the police had handled the case badly, noting that Garner hadn't been doing anything dangerous, just selling loose cigarettes. He told Gangi that an unwritten but strictly enforced quota system pressures cops to make arrests for minor offenses like Garner's.

    "He said that the quotas are higher for certain communities than for others," Gangi says. "The west side of Manhattan would have low numbers, uptown and Harlem would have higher numbers. This officer used to work in Brooklyn; he said he would never arrest an Orthodox Jewish person there because they would make your life miserable. So much influence, so many connections. It was much easier to arrest black or brown kids."

    Gangi says that PROP's Court Monitoring Project, which observes proceedings in City courts, "enables us to state with complete confidence that these practices are marked by stark racial bias. Most of the charges are for innocuous infractions; rarely if ever do we see someone who's being brought through the misdemeanor arraignment court who could be called predatory or dangerous."

    He says that those arrested under the Broken Windows regime "fall into two categories: more or less regular working folks going through the ordinary business of their lives who are arrested for being in the park after dark,  or walking between subway cars or driving without a license. The others whom we often see are significantly troubled or in trouble, homeless people, people with debilitating mental health issues, drug addicts, alcoholics. Policing in New York is not only blatantly discriminatory; it is counterproductive. It stokes the mistrust and antagonism people of color already feel toward the cops and the criminal justice system."

    Politics and Policy

    Gangi sharply criticizes Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Bratton for intransigently defending Broken Windows, despite de Blasio having run for office as an opponent of stop and frisk who would reform police practices. This month, the mayor agreed to a City Council proposal to hire nearly 1,300 additional police, after he – and Bratton – initially said they weren't necessary.  

    Why the turnaround?

    "My best guess," Gangi says, "is that it was almost entirely a political decision, not one based on policy."

    "De Blasio had held the line on this since last year when [City Council Speaker] Melissa Mark Viverito brought it up," he notes. "It was a surprise when the new budget included hiring the 1,297 new cops."

    Gangi notes that the mayor "was taking a beating" in the media earlier this year "because there was a relatively modest uptick in shootings and murders as compared to last year. If the rate of shootings and murders continued at the same pace, they still would have come in at a much lower number and rate than most previous years. The Daily News and the New York Post were just pounding the issue. I think de Blasio got nervous and made a calculation that if he adds this many police officers, and Bratton is still highly revered by media, he can immunize himself from being attacked on the Right – 'look, I gave Bratton even more cops than he asked for.'"

    He doesn't buy the argument that hiring the additional cops will "enable them to redraw and reorient the department and create a new paradigm. It's just public relations because for all intents and purposes, they're not going to move away from broken windows policing."

    Gangi says that many New Yorkers believe Broken Windows works because of an "urban myth" that during the '90s, the policy broke the back of crime in the city. "There's no proof of that," Gangi says. "There's never been any academic study that proves that Broken Windows is effective in curtailing crime."

    He points to the three-week work slowdown in late December 2014 and January of this year by police officers as "the emperor's new clothes" moment for Broken Windows. During the slowdown, "arrests declined by extraordinary numbers, 66%, summonses by 90%, and overall crime declined according to the NYPD itself."

    "For three weeks, the NYPD effectively abandoned quotas and Broken Windows policing. They unwittingly showed us that we can have a safe city without these harsh, aggressive tactics."
    Organizing Everybody

    Gangi believes that although litigation can produce good results, it is no substitute for a militant mass movement. When asked whom PROP proposes to organize, he replied, "Everybody!"  That includes "the most affected communities and also communities who for the most part are not affected on a day to day basis by these practices. But everybody in the city is affected because of the way they tear at the social fabric and because we're all responsible for the police department our tax money pays for. I think there's a potential for it, because the people of color for the first time feel hope that this issue can be challenged and they can win significant victories. I think there's also a growing awareness on the part of good white people of New York City that the NYPD is unaccountable and engages in discriminatory practices."

    He also says such a movement should focus not on "cosmetic" issues like body cameras for police, better training, or hiring more officers of color, which he says makes little or no difference. "If you want to have better relations with communities of color, you do two things: you stop the kind of policing you’ve been practicing, and you don't expect cops to be social workers. If you want more social workers, hire them. So our opposition, for want of a better term, is militant."

    Gangi, a Brooklyn native, says that his experiences growing up in the borough, among both liberal Jews and Italian Americans, influenced his political development and life's work. (Although he and his family lived in Flatbush, he spent much of his youth with his relatives in Bensonhurst.) His "solidly working class" and politically liberal Sicilian-American parents were "enormously goodhearted, warmhearted people."

    "They would welcome everybody who came to the house, there was just no question about that. Black people, Jewish people, everybody. I felt I picked up on that, the sense of valuing other people. I think the Catholic upbringing, too; you have to look out for your brothers and sisters. The Christ figure was someone who was generous to the downtrodden. And the '60s certainly was part of it; I became politicized then. I experienced what many young Americans experienced – shock at learning about the terrible practices of our government, both imperialistic international policies certainly dramatized by the war in Vietnam but also the racist policies that not only were concentrated in the South but were supported around the country, over the course of our history."

    He adds that his upbringing and ethnic culture also instilled in him a loathing of bullies. Broken Windows policing is, he argues, "a form of institutional bullying because virtually all the people brought into the courts have no political power and many are just vulnerable people, barely able if at all to lead anything approaching a stable life. These practices inflict more trauma and make their lives that much more difficult, while doing little or nothing to contribute to public safety."

  • Life & People

    Raising Poetry's Profile

    The borough of Queens has a new, official bard. 

    Maria Lisella, born in South Jamaica and an Astoria resident for 40 years, has been selected as Queens' new poet laureate, the sixth since the position was established 20 years ago. She is also the first Italian American selected for the honor. At a June 9 ceremony, Queens Borough president Melinda Katz said, "Lisella is an amazing writer who is capable of synthesizing the borough's many cultures and languages into incredible poetry."

    Lisella's works to date include the collection, "Thieves in the Family" (NYQ Books, 2014) and two chapbooks, "Two Naked Feet" and "Amore on Hope Street" (both 2009). Her writing also appears in the collections "Avanti Popolo: Italian-American Writers Sail Beyond Columbus" and "Sweet Lemons 2."  She has twice been nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Poetry Prize.

    Lisella was recognized for her work not only as a poet but also for her accomplishments as a journalist and for her vision of the poet laureate's role. (The position, which is unpaid, lasts for three years.) She was one of five finalists whom a panel of judges picked from among dozens of applicants.

    Her connections to the Queens literary scene and to the poet laureate program are close and longstanding. At Queens College, Lisella studied under Stephen Stepanchev, a Serbian-born writer who was the borough's first poet laureate, and she and the second laureate, Hal Sirowitz, both are active in Brevitas, an online poetry circle. Six years ago, she was a finalist for the poet laureate spot.

    Last week, Lisella, whom I have known for more than 20 years, and I met an Astoria café, where over coffee and pastry we talked about her new role.

    She said that the application form asked poets to explain why they wanted the job. "I wanted to say, 'for a little glory, since no one ever notices poets.' Instead, I wrote that I wanted to be the first Italian American poet laureate. There are a lot of us in Queens, so why not?"

    "They clearly wanted someone who could organize events and work with people," she added.

    The position requires her to conceive and organize three events. Her ideas included a book mart at the World's Fair Unisphere at Flushing Park; publishers and editors would attend, and there would be a tent to host readings. She also wants to create a website to host the work of Queens writers, in multiple languages. She suggested incorporating literary events into the annual Queens Day activities in September, and collaborating with borough libraries. "This year, all 65 public libraries in Queens have agreed to provide space for events. So we're going to see what we can do, how we can plug into something they already have, already existing programs that we can connect with, whether it's seniors writing about their lives or kids learning about poetry."

    Lisella said that the Italian American Writers Association (IAWA), an organization that she has been involved with from its beginnings, "provided a model for me of what can be done." For nearly twenty-five years, IAWA has presented readings in New York City, originally at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village and, more recently, also at Sidewalk Café in the East Village.  IAWA, she noted, was founded as a writing and reading community for Italian American writers at different stages, from beginning poets and prose writers to those who have extensive publishing credits. Newcomers are welcomed and encouraged in an environment where they can learn from the more experienced.

    Lisella started writing poetry when she was in her teens. "Everybody writes poetry as a teenager," she laughed. "Because you think you’re the most sensitive, the most depressed, and then suddenly someone reads a poem to you and you get it, and you think, OK, good, I'll write some of that."

    She also was attracted to journalism. "I liked not being in middle of a story, instead being a spectator," she said. While writing poetry, she worked as a travel writer for various magazines, visiting 60 countries in 30 years. That experience, she noted, was an advantage when she applied to be Queens poet laureate.

    "I think the judges liked that I had a journalism background, and that I had an idea how to get something published, how to talk to an editor, that I know what the publishing channels are."

    While working as a travel writer, she found that there sometimes were aspects of stories she reported that lent themselves to poetry, or, as she called them "outtakes – stuff you couldn't fit into a B2B [business to business] type of article." In the '90s, when Lisella was researching an article on the Croatian city of Dubrovnik, a woman showed her a fortress where she and her family hid while Yugoslav forces besieged the city during Croatia's independence war.  "She described what it was like to spend a night in this fortress while bombs were going off," Lisella recalled. "At night, they would tie each other's wrists together so they wouldn't get separated. She said, 'we were so crazy with fear that we laughed, we would just begin laughing, for no reason. And we slept a lot.' That became a poem."

    But despite having traveled to Italy many times, for business and to visit her relatives in Calabria, Lisella has written little about Italy. "I think I've always seen that as my private experience," she said.

    "I have written about relationships among Italian family members," she added. "When I was in Italy one time, a woman asked if I was sorry that my grandparents left Italy, because, as she said, 'you're always here.' But as much as I love visiting Italy, I have many choices in America I never would have had in Reggio Calabria. I've written about that. I've also written about being poor in Italy, which my relatives were years ago."

    "In my application for Queens poet laureate, I wrote a lot about my italianità; I'm focused on it, I grew up in a house where my grandparents spoke Calabrese – they didn't speak Italian. I think because I can focus on that specificity, it gives me a greater understanding of other cultures. I can totally understand why people hang on to their languages. It's important to hang on to who you are while you are adapting to a new place and circumstances."

    Lisella is married to Gil Fagiani, also a poet; together, they curate the IAWA monthly readings. Fagiani's past projects have included Ethnic Encounters, a series of literary readings that alternated between the Cornelia Street Café and an Astoria bookstore. The series featured bilingual poets who read their work in English and in their native languages. Lisella said she realized the importance of retaining one's original language when she heard a Neapolitan poet read at an Ethnic Encounters event. "When he read his poetry in English, it was fine," she said. "But when he read it in napoletano, his whole body language changed, it was like a transformation."

    Lisella obviously is a passionate advocate of poetry, regardless of ethnicity or language, and she is committed to promoting it.  

    "People don't realize how much they rely on poetry," Lisella said. "They rely on it for funerals, weddings, births, that's when they call it up. But they can have the comfort of poetry other times, too. You never hear someone say, 'I was just reading this book of poetry.' So it'd be nice if as poet laureate I could raise poetry's profile a little more, and make people less afraid of reading it."

  • Facts & Stories

    Tales of Two Cities

     Naples, in the famous words of the late singer-songwriter Pino Daniele, is "una carta sporca" – a dirty piece of discarded paper. But that was only one of the images Daniele used to describe his native city in his 1977 song, "Napule è" (Naples Is).

    Daniele also likened Naples to a dream shared by people around the world, who, however, donot know the "whole truth" about the great, troubled, and paradoxical metropolis.

    Naples' current mayor, Luigi de Magistris, visited New York last week to promote his city as a tourist destination and culture capital, while stressing historic and contemporary ties between the two port cities, both of which have been shaped and reshaped by immigration.

    De Magistris was the main attraction at a June 4 symposium at the Calandra Italian American Institute in Manhattan. He spoke to an overflow crowd comprising mainly Italian Americans and Italian immigrants, many of them Neapolitan. After his brief remarks, the attentive and enthusiastic audience heard from Gennaro Matino, a Neapolitan author and Catholic priest, and from several Italian American scholars who have written about Naples and, as one said, "its place in the imagination of Italian Americans."

    The mayor, speaking in Italian with Calandra dean Anthony Tamburri interpreting, cited the similarities between Naples and New York, noting that both are cosmopolitan cities open to the sea that have been enriched by immigration. He remarked that on the first day of his visit (his first to New York), seeing "all kinds of people mixing together reminded me of Naples."

    De Magistris observed that Naples, founded by ancient Greeks, "has been invaded by everybody" – Arabs, Spaniards, the French, and Americans.

    "Because Naples is a city of many different peoples and because it is a synthesis of all these peoples it cannot be an intolerant, racist city and it will never be a racist city," he said.

    But, he observed, "Italy is significantly behind [the US] in its reception of immigrants." Under Italian law, children born in Italy to immigrant parents are not automatically citizens, as in the United States. They must first apply for residency when they reach 18 years of age, and then apply for citizenship. Moreover, there are many undocumented immigrants in Italy who, as de Magistris noted, "are doing jobs Italians don't want to do" but because they entered the country without work permits, they therefore are considered criminals.

    In 2013, De Magistris' administration gave honorary citizenship to immigrants and their children, issuing a Charter of Rights than enabled them to access all public services in Naples.

    This wasn't the first time de Magistris, a former anti-organized crime prosecutor elected mayor in 2011, challenged Italian law and public policy. Last year, he announced that Naples would record in its civil register same-sex marriages performed abroad. (Marriage equality has not come to Italy, unlike most other western European nations.) De Magistris made his announcement after a court ruled that Grosseto, a Tuscan city, must register the marriage of an Italian same-sex couple who had gotten married in New York.

    (Naples' Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe predictably criticized de Magistris, saying the mayor should focus on more important priorities, as if a mayor and his administration couldn't do more than one thing at a time.)

    At Calandra, de Magistris deplored the fact that in today's globalized world, "Money and merchandise can easily travel from one place to another, crossing borders, but people cannot." He noted that until a few years ago, Italian fisherman who rescued migrants from sinking boats and saved their lives actually were indicted for promoting illegal immigration.

    "But," he said, "ethics and good conscience" have since prevailed over misguided law.

    He added, however, that there are many in Italy who, because they regard immigration as "a problem of public order," favor destroying vessels before they embark for Italy. They see, he noted, an ongoing emergency, but they are unwilling to address the causes. Thousands of desperate migrants are coming into Italy because they are fleeing hunger and war. The mayor, however, did not mention that many immigrants are fleeing wars caused or exacerbated by US and Western European intervention, as with Libya.

    De Magistris remarked that historical memory can be useful in challenging xenophobia and racism. He said he had recently seen a US government document from 1928 that likened Neapolitans to "Negroes." When Italians today use the term "negri" as a pejorative, de Magistris said he likes to "remind them of how the Neapolitans were categorized a century ago."

    Gennaro Matino, speaking after de Magistris, echoed a number of the mayor's comments. Matino, an author and Catholic priest who teaches at l’Università degli Studi Suor Orsola Benincasa in Naples, observed that capital and commerce have become globalized, but not rights or justice. He compared past waves of emigration from Naples to today's immigration to Italy. Despite the beauty of Naples' natural and built environments, despite its rich, sedimented culture, its arts, its intellectual and philosophical achievements, millions of Neapolitans have departed for other lands.

    "Why did Neapolitans have to leave all this beauty and greatness to go elsewhere to find their fortune and destiny, and work? Why was it not enough to keep people?" he asked.

    The lack of a just economic and political order drove them to emigrate, he said. Beauty and art mean little when there is widespread poverty and political repression and disenfranchisement. Today's migrations, Matino said, similarly "are born not out of desire to move but the need to."

    After Matino, it was the Italian Americans' turn. Fred Gardaphé, Distinguished Professor of Italian American Studies, Queens College, spoke about images of Naples in Italian American literature and art, and "the role of Naples in the imagination of Italian Americans." He discussed Joseph and Bill Papaleo, respectively an author and a visual artist, whose works offer contrasting perspectives on Naples. Papaleo padre wrote about Neapolitan immigrants struggling to assimilate to American society and culture; figlio Bill, who moved from America to a town outside Naples, is a self-described immigrant whose art often depicts present-day – and nonwhite – immigrants in Italy.

    Stanislao Pugliese, Professor of History and Distinguished Professor of Italian and Italian American Studies at Hofstra University, spoke about his forthcoming book,  "Dancing on a Volcano in Naples: Scenes from the Siren City." Pugliese, who is of Neapolitan heritage, recalled that as a child he fell asleep to the sounds of his father and his family speaking the Neapolitan language – "language, not dialect."

    He called Naples a "death-haunted city with a very particular relationship to death, a cult of the dead, and the souls, the anime in purgatorio."

    Pugliese said that the famous saying that Goethe quoted in his "Letters from Italy" – "See Naples and die"– generally is thought to mean, "When you've seen this city, that's it, you've seen all of life and now you're ready to die." "But others, including its own inhabitants, argue that the correct interpretation of the imperative is that Naples is a city that seems sometimes intent on killing you."

    "To me, Naples is a city that forces you to reflect on it, and to reflect on yourself," Pugliese said.

    The city is marked by contradictions, as "embodied by the figure of Pulcinella." "Everything and its opposite are true in Naples," he said. "It is a city of infuriating polarity, affliction and luxury, despair and hope, fate and self-creation. Surely no other city in western Europe can compare to it in its diversity." He added that neither Paris nor Venice can "compare to the sheer theatricality found on the streets of Naples."

    The evening at Calandra concluded with Robert Viscusi, Professor of English at Brooklyn College and director of its Wolfe Institute for the Humanities. Viscusi read from "Ellis Island," his epic poem about Italian immigration. "Somewhere in the specific archaeology of this ambitious poem is Neapolitan macchietta, a comic monologue," he remarked.

    But before he read, Viscusi addressed Luigi de Magistris. "I have been to Italy a million times," he noted, "and I've walked everywhere, looking for a single, small monument to the millions of Italians who left."

    In a hushed voice, and with obvious emotion, he said, "To hear this conversation, with actual living Italians, about migration and the necessity to accept 'the other' is something I never would imagine would happen."

  • Acting Ethnic

    Anthony DeVito has appeared in TV commercials for Dunkin' Donuts, American Express, Caesar's Atlantic City, and other brands. But the Brooklyn-based actor and sometime standup comedian recently passed on an audition for another commercial, and he's glad he did.

    As DeVito informed his Facebook followers, the ad agency was looking for someone to play "a mob guy" in a spot for a brand of sausages. "The casting specs went on and on about how it was going to be smart comedy, not over the top, etc. Because there's a lot of room for subtlety in a 30-second commercial for sausages that hinges on the guy being a gangster."

    When De Vito saw the commercial, he was appalled – but he also felt vindicated. The actor who got the part "was in full Goomba regalia: shirt open, 'guinea tee' showing, two heavy gold chains, slicked back hair. The very essence of sophisticated humour. (Note British spelling.) And what made it even more clever was the double meaning of the word Family. Like, grill sausages for your family, which is also what they call the Mafia!"

    "Bravo to everyone who worked on this project," DeVito sardonically concluded. "Be proud of yourselves."

    DeVito says he has often encountered similar situations, in which casting directors seek actors of his ethnicity and blue-collar origins for stereotypical, even caricatured parts. His policy, he says, is "to just say I'm unavailable." He has gone on auditions for what he calls "mobster #2 parts, the guy dressed in black standing around in the background looking mean." He played a small role as one of Al Capone's bodyguards in an episode of the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire." Those experiences, he says, "led me to say to myself that this particular avenue wasn't for me."

    "When you're an actor, they tell you you're not allowed to say no, if it's work you have to do it," he says. DeVito's agent told him that refusing gangster roles would hurt his career. It is advice he rejects. "You have to let go of that worry that if you say no you'll never work again," he says. "If you do a couple of those parts, then that's all you're seen for and seen as. I left a job in advertising that I hated, and I didn't want to create a new career that I also hated."

    DeVito says that he has gone on auditions where Italian American actors "are performing their ethnicity for each other, using the most obvious signifiers of what an Italian American is like. It's all broad strokes and primary colors."

    "I'm not judging anybody," he says of such colleagues, before adding, "Well, I kind of am. If that's what people want to do, that's fine. Everybody has to make their own decisions. I came to acting from a different point in my life. I’d already had decades of experience in the advertising industry. If I had started acting when I was 18, and that's all I did, and had no other way to make a living, then I might feel more compelled to take anything that came to me."

    "I've read articles where Italian American actors take great offense that people are offended by mob roles. Well, you don't get to have it both ways. You're allowed to do whatever you want, and people are allowed to have a problem with it."

    In DeVito's experience, ethnicity and class usually are intertwined, at least in the minds of casting directors.

    "It can be a rude awakening to see how you are seen," he remarks. He says he has been called almost exclusively for blue-collar parts – "construction worker, plumber, but not lawyer, doctor, senator."

    "It's been hard to get used to the fact that the way I look told people I didn't go to college," he says.

    "I did play a doctor once, in an Italian movie." ("Natale a New York," 2006). "I gave a Heimlich to Christian De Sica. It was the only time I got paid to wear a suit and tie."

    DeVito, 49, is a big guy, six-foot-three and burly of frame, and he is a recognizably Italian American "type," with a broad face, close-cropped salt and pepper hair, and dark eyes framed by thick brows. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he currently lives in Bay Ridge, a neighborhood with a sizeable Italian American population. After working in advertising, he became a standup comedian, sometimes performing in shows with other Italian American comics. But he didn't like "going out on the road, which is the only way to make money as a standup comedian." About 10 years ago, he began auditioning for acting roles, first in commercials, then in TV series and films.

    He says there are a "unique set of challenges for the 'white ethnic' actor," or rather, the "off-white" actor, as he describes himself. In the minds of casting directors, this means, "you're white, but not quite white enough for our purpose at the moment."

    "When you're in the bucket of 'white' but the type you are isn't the traditional white with a capital 'W'  – from Northern Europe or the British Isles – I think it limits the type of stuff you are considered for. I'm an actor and I audition for a lot of things, and like all actors I don't get most of them. I am always curious to see who got the parts, but more in terms of what they look like than anything else. I have yet to see a commercial that I didn't get where the actor looked like my physical type."

    "If you're not really the 'white guy' it's kind of a limbo you're in," he says. "I've spoken to other Italian American actors who feel the same way, who have been doing this longer than me. It's just the way it is. It's frustrating, but from an actor's point of view, I'd rather know I didn't get the part because I looked wrong than because I wasn't a good enough actor."

    Lately, though, DeVito's offers have improved. In May, he made his network TV debut in the Debra Messing NBC series, "The Mysteries of Laura," playing a janitor. "My mother said she thought I should've had more lines," he laughs. "And I agree." He described the role as one "that helped move the story along, but it had a little personality, too." He will soon shoot a new Web series, "Labeled," playing the arrogant and obnoxious CEO of a Milanese fashion company. His character speaks English but refuses to because he despises Americans, so DeVito will speak only Italian in the series.

    He also landed a role in "Future 38," an independent feature directed by New York filmmaker Jamie Greenberg. The film is a time-travel comedy about a man who must save the world by traveling from 1938 to 2015. "I'm playing Bitter Herb," DeVito says. "He's a tough guy who works for his nogoodnik boss, Matzoh."   

    DeVito also has shot a pilot for a TV version of the popular storytelling podcast, "RISK!"

    Besides acting, DeVito is the communications director for The Art of Brooklyn, an arts and culture nonprofit he co-founded. The company produces the annual Art of Brooklyn Film Festival, the only independent festival focused entirely on Brooklyn-centric films and filmmakers. This year's edition, held in May, was its fifth and most successful, having screened 53 films – narrative features, documentaries, shorts, and animation. "It's grown every year," DeVito proudly remarks. Art of Brooklyn also produces Brooklyn on Demand, a streaming video on demand hub devoted to Brooklyn-centric indie films.

    DeVito notes that an actor's life is "feast or famine, with long dry periods of nothing going. Then you will suddenly get a flurry of auditions." He says he is working on building relationships with casting directors – it's crucial that they "know you're reliable and not insane."

    "It takes a while to build those kinds of relationships with people who know you're good and who will keep calling you in, and hopefully you'll get the parts."

    "In the past couple of years," he adds, "I've also made it a point to be much more on top of promoting myself in social media so people will know I'm working. When people know you're working, they'll work with you."

  • Library: Articles & Reviews

    Making the City Home

    Joseph Sciorra, a folklorist and the director for academic and cultural programs at the Calandra Italian American Institute, remarked that he has presented his research in academic settings, church basements, and social clubs.

    "This is the first time I've presented in a bar," he said, as he took his place behind the counter at the Owl's Head, a wine bar in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

    Sciorra came to the Owl's Head on May 20 to talk about his new book, "Built with Faith: Italian American Imagination and Catholic Material Culture in New York City" (University of Tennessee Press). The book is the culmination of thirty-five years of studying the devotional art and architecture that Italian American Catholics have created in New York City. Sciorra focuses on examples of "vernacular expressive culture" – yard shrines, domestic and public altars, presepi (Nativity scenes), religious processions, and Christmas house displays – to explain how Italian Americans "transform their homes, their front yards, their streets, their neighborhoods, and make this crazy transnational city into a place that's home."

    You might think that a wine bar would be an unlikely place for an academic to present his research. This writer did. Before arriving, I wondered whether an after-work drinking crowd would pay quiet attention to Sciorra's talk. But sipping their beverages and nibbling the bar's light fare, they listened closely as Sciorra spoke and projected images from his book on a wall.

    If the choice of venue seemed unusual, the Bay Ridge location was fitting. Although it is often believed that Italian migration to the United States ended in the 1920s, a new wave began after quotas on Southern European immigration were lifted in 1964. Bay Ridge, Sciorra said, is "a major neighborhood in southern Brooklyn that was transformed by the new influx of immigrants." John Avelluto, the young, lushly bearded owner of the Owl's Head, is a son of southern Italian immigrants who settled in south Brooklyn.

    Sciorra's ethnographic research, which he conducted in people's homes, and at religious and other community events, is the heart of his book. To interpret his findings, he draws on a wide range of literature, from anthropology, social history, gender theory and cultural studies, and Italian/Italian American studies. Sciorra deftly orchestrates his original research and his other sources to produce an account that not only challenges common conceptions of phenomena like yard shrines ("Mary on the half-shell") and Nativity scenes as kitschy or spiritually vapid. His book, by explaining what the examples of "vernacular expressive culture" mean to the people who create them, offers a new way of seeing them.

    Sciorra said that his aim was to show "the vibrant and varied ways contemporary Italian Americans have used and continue to use material culture, architecture, ritual behavior, and public ceremonial display to shape New York City's religious and cultural landscapes."

    He stressed that Italian American devotional art and architecture do not represent "a mindless carryover from the old world that people continue to perpetuate because they don't know what they're doing." They understand the art forms they work with and their historical roots, and the art's relationship to place, to making the city a home.

    Sciorra rejects such dichotomies as "folk" or "popular" religion versus "official" religion. These categories, he argued, "demean what people do."  "I am more interested in looking at it as lived religion, how people practice their religion, how they think about religion."

    "People were constantly interpreting Catholicism as I was talking to them," he said. "They don't leave it to their clergy to explain everything to them." One Brooklyn man, who has built an altar in his living room, considers himself a traditional Catholic. "He goes out of his way to attend a Latin mass," said Sciorra. "But he diverges from Vatican on homosexuality, marriage, and divorce. He doesn't see those as contradictions for him. It is part of how he understands, interprets, and lives his religion."

    He described the various forms of creative expression he discusses in the book as "sacramentals – those objects or behaviors that help to make the divine present in the everyday." The shrine and altar builders and presepio makers "manifest religious belief through material culture – the visual arts, sculpture, architecture."

    Sciorra said that Italian Americans in New York City have created a unique style comprising "a profound respect for craft and skills executed well, a love of cement and stonework, a delight with the principles of accretion and the interplay of seeming contrasts." (The ruling aesthetic is definitely not minimalism.) "In presepi, in home altars, people put things together that seem to make no sense but when you talk to them, when you understand what's going on, there's a real interrelationship. They have interrelated meanings, whether there's a figure of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel next to photographs of children and grandchildren."

    In the elaborate, often over-the-top Christmas home decorations that have made the Brooklyn neighborhood of Dyker Heights world-famous, Sciorra sees "an appreciation for festivalized intensification and exuberance." With the Christmas displays – the only practice Sciorra discusses that did not originate in Italy – "private property becomes public spectacle."

    "The thing about folklore, anthropology, and ethnography," he said, "is that you talk to people and you listen. People are incredibly articulate and thoughtful about their lives, belief systems and about the art they create." It is easy to dismiss the Christmas decorations as "kitschy, nouveau riche, ostentatious display" but "there's a whole lot more going on," Sciorra said. He sees a connection between the extravagantly decked-out homes and the presepi, and to "the festive light displays that used to happen in religious processions."

    After his talk, a woman asked Sciorra whether the vernacular culture he has documented might die out, as individuals age and Italian American communities change.

    "When I first started this study in '80s I was asked the same thing," Sciorra replied.

    He began his research in the '80s; by the next decade, there were 1,880,000 Italians in New York City. By 2001, that figure had declined to 590,000. "That's a significant decrease," he acknowledged, "but it's still a lot of people." Media accounts typically present stories of decline – "the last [Italian] butcher is leaving the neighborhood" – but Sciorra noted, "Italians still exist here and still continue to contribute in significant ways."   

  • Life & People

    Family Secrets

    "All families have secrets," Penny Arcade remarked. "And my family has a lot of secrets."
    Arcade – born Susana Carmen Ventura in 1950, in New Britain, Connecticut – is a writer and performer who has told stories about her working-class Italian family in plays and one-woman shows like "La Miseria" and "Bad Reputation." The former portrayed her contentious clan as riddled with fears, insecurities, and prejudices, among them a brutally dismissive sexism. When her character as a young girl says she wants to be an actress, her relatives call her "puttana" (whore). Later, when "Penny" is a young woman living in New York and trying to establish herself as an artist, her brother tells her, "Art is for rich people. And you're not one of them…Nobody wants to hear from you or anything you have to say!"
    But Penny Arcade, ever since she arrived in New York as a teenager, has never allowed anyone to silence her or keep her from telling her stories. The "Queen of Performance Art," as she has been called, is an innovative and challenging artist whose work, according to the author Sarah Schulman, "enable(s) truth-telling about the individual in a social context of American naturalism without the phony kitchen sink pretense of recreating reality."
    Arcade started out as a member of the avant-garde Playhouse of the Ridiculous founded by John Vaccaro, which led to Andy Warhol giving her a featured role in his film "Women in Revolt." In the '80s, she began to create her own improvisational performance art. Her cutting-edge plays and performance pieces like "Based on A True Story," "Invitation to the Beginning of the End of the World,""La Miseria,""Bad Reputation" and her most famous show, "Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!" – have made her an icon of the New York theatrical underground. Since the early '90s, her work also has been produced abroad, in Canada, Mexico, and Europe. When she and I met earlier this month at the Lower East Side apartment where she has lived for 30-odd years, she had recently returned from a European tour that took her to London, Paris, Berlin, and Zagreb.
    In "La Miseria", when Penny informs her immigrant mother that she wants to "tell the story of you and Daddy," Penny's Mom objects, "I don't wanna hear it!" Penny insists, saying that her mother's story is hers, too. But Arcade could relate only fragments of her family history in that play, and in "Bad Reputation": there was too much she didn't know. About nine years ago, that all changed. 
    "When I was 56, I stumbled on all these incredible secrets about my grandmother," she says. Her mother's family, whose last name is Parisi, immigrated from Picerno, a mountain village in the southern Basilicata region. In 2006, Penny and her then-husband were visiting the village and she tracked down a number of her maternal relatives. (Years earlier, when Penny told her mother she wanted to visit Picerno, her mother tried to discourage her, saying, "everyone there is dead.") When she inquired about her grandmother, who had raised her in New Britain while her mother worked in a factory, older relatives told her only that "'your grandmother was a very good person, she was a weaver, she could earn money like a man.' I said yeah, I know that. But my grandfather left Picerno in 1922 and my grandmother didn't come to America until 1949, the year before I was born. And my grandfather didn't bring her – my father brought his mother in law."
    So what happened in those years between her grandfather leaving Italy and her grandmother's arrival in America? In conversations with her relatives, she found out something shocking: a chef in a nobleman's home had seduced and impregnated her grandmother, and after she gave birth to the child, she killed it and hid the body in an armoire. She was subsequently arrested and imprisoned.
    Arcade heard these secrets from two women, second cousins who are schoolteachers in Picerno. As she peppered her cousins with questions, she noticed their discomfort. Finally, one remarked, "Didn't her grandmother have a child out of wedlock?"The other cousin affirmed that fact, adding that Arcade's grandmother had been seduced by the nobleman's chef.
    "I'm totally in shock, I can't even believe this," Arcade recalled. Then one cousin added, "And didn't she kill the baby?" "And I'm like, she what?" One of the cousins told Arcade that her grandfather's sister turned her grandmother in to the carabinieri, who found the baby's corpse in the armoire. According to the cousins, the carabinieri made Arcade's seducer "carry his dead son through the streets of the village just as you would on a procession day, if you can imagine, through the entire village."
    "My grandmother in prison? This is impossible!" Arcade continued. "And it had even more of an intense impact on me because I got put away in reform school when I was 14, mainly for running away from home and being gone for six weeks. And this was such a huge vergogna (shame) for my family that it was only until I was in my fifties that I finally was able to get any distance on this with my mother."

    "This Italian Condition"

    "Sedotta e abbandonata (seduced and abandoned), that was the story of my grandmother. So now, I'm totally in shock. I thought I was the first one who had ever done anything so terrible as to be put away. But the truth is that my mother didn’t know any of this stuff about my grandmother. It had been kept from her. I had been going to Picerno since 1984 and no one ever told me this story. From 1984 to 2006, no one even hinted at this story." One cousin told Arcade "it had been in the newspapers, it was such a scandalous story, and the newspaper named my grandmother's seducer."
    "I started to go crazy trying to investigate this story," she said. "My cousins in Picerno hate the story. It makes them uncomfortable that I pursue investigating it."
    Arcade's investigations also unearthed a relative she had never met: her grandfather's brother, known as Mingo. She learned that Mingo "was a self-educated man, a great man in this region, an astrologer, a musician, a meteorologist who had a weather station. He had started a school in the countryside, teaching children who otherwise never would be taught to read. He also was known for divination, as a psychic. I was fascinated, because I've always been very psychic, and so was my mother, but I never had any idea where it came from. And it's more than being psychic – we're empaths. I don't get the lottery numbers, but I know a lot about people when I'm near them!"
    Her research in Italy also led to surprising discoveries about her father, his family, and her parents' marriage. Her father Vittorio Ventura was born in Savona, in the northern Liguria region. She recently learned from her paternal cousins that he was "a very charismatic figure" who spoke multiple languages, had been a partisan during World War II, and a merchant marine. He came to America after jumping ship in Panama and taking another ship to Florida, where he swam to shore. He vowed that if he survived, he would get married in Italy, in Pompei. But Vittorio was arrested and sent to Ellis Island as an "enemy alien." There, Arcade says, "guards beat him within an inch of his life." When he recovered, he was deported to Italy.
    In an amazing coincidence, Arcade's mother Antoinette returned to Italy in 1947 for the first time since she immigrated in 1934; on the same boat was Penny's deported father-to-be, Vittorio. "I have all the photographs of their courtship on this boat," Arcade said. Her father went to Savona, her mother to Picerno. "They wrote to each other, and in August 1947, they were married in Pompei, as my father had sworn he would do." Her father returned to America, but when Penny was three years old, her mother committed him to a state mental hospital – he suffered from mental problems caused by the Ellis Island beating – where he died 12 years later. His daughter never got to know him.
    Arcade said she is creating a new show – "a really big piece about this Italian condition" – based on her family research and informed by "epigenetics, the idea that you genetically carry forward not only physical traits like eye color and height, but that in the DNA there are changes that take place based on experiences. Not only traumatic or bad experiences but also euphoric experiences."She sees her psychic abilities, her "Southern Italian peasant irony," her love of ecstatic dance like the pizzica and of storytelling as traits "carried on generation by generation." 
    The new show, which she hopes to present in 2016, is (currently) titled "A Whore Like the Rest."
    Early in her career, Penny Arcade learned from and worked with such figures as Warhol, Living Theater founder Judith Malina, theatrical pioneers John Vaccaro and Charles Ludlam, underground filmmaker Jack Smith, and many others. But the world of those Arcade calls "eclectic, highly self-individuated artists" is disappearing. Her 2002 show, "New York Values," identified the culprits – "gentrification and hyper-gentrification, of the city but also of ideas."Her latest show, "Longing Lasts Longer," which Arcade has been performing at Joe's Pub in Manhattan, is "about colonization, about what happens when gentrification is three-quarters done as it is here in New York. It's not a continuation of 'New York Values,' but all my work resonates with what came before it."
    Though she has lived and worked in New York for nearly five decades, Arcade obviously feels closely connected to Italy. She says she visits almost every year, staying for months at a time. But one thing particularly rankles her about Italians: the attitudes of many towards immigrants, current and past.
    "I'll be at dinners with 30 people and they'll be ranting about immigrants," she said. "I'll say to them, you spent 20 years in Sweden, you spent 20 years in Germany, come on! But they don't see it that way."
    The ignorance of, and lack of interest in, the experiences of Italian immigrant families such as hers also disturbs her. "Their lives were very painful. I tell people, my family did not come here for a better life or for jobs. They came here for food. These people were starving. And I have had to say this to my cousins in Italy, because one of the things I find really shocking is the complete lack of interest native Italians have for the Italians of the diaspora. They have no interest, no concept, and I find it shocking."


  • Library: Articles & Reviews

    Politics and Poetry

    Politics and poetry were on the bill at the Italian American Writers Association (IAWA) May 9 reading at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village. The evening's featured writers, Gil Fagiani and Stephen Siciliano, read work that paid homage to the radical legislator Vito Marcantonio, who for 14 years represented East Harlem in the US House of Representatives. Fagiani read poems from his collection, "A Blanquito in El Barrio" while Siciliano performed, to piano accompaniment, sections from "The Goodfather," his novel-in-progress about Marcantonio's life and times.

    Fagiani's poems mostly were about the Puerto Rican community of East Harlem, drawn from his experiences living and working there in the 1960s, by which time formerly Italian Harlem had become, with successive waves of migration from Puerto Rico beginning after World War I, El Barrio, or Spanish Harlem. Siciliano offered several imagined vignettes about Marcantonio's life, from the viewpoint of a fictional Italian family living in Marcantonio's neighborhood.

    Arriving in East Harlem in 1966 at age 21 as a Cornell University student, Fagiani worked for three months at a neighborhood anti-poverty agency. "I always think of that experience as my road to Damascus because it totally transformed my life in terms of my cultural tastes, my politics, my friends," he said. "I ended up marrying somebody from the neighborhood."

    "East Harlem," he noted, "is a fascinating community with a long tradition of political militancy going back to the early twentieth century." That history includes Italian anarchists, Jewish socialists, Marcantonio's multiethnic urban coalitions of the '30s and '40s, and the revolutionary Puerto Rican nationalism of the Young Lords Party in the late 1960s.  

    Fagiani said that when he had been in East Harlem only a few days, he witnessed a protest led by a seventy-three-year-old Puerto Rican woman who was an organizer at the anti-poverty agency. In a poem inspired by the protest, the woman, "La Capitana," leads her "troops" of young East Harlemites to the executive offices of the City agency that had cut off funds for the agency's youth program. There, La Capitana banged on the executive's desks "like she's playing the bongos" as "white, suited men pull on their ties."

    "It was one of the most brilliant, tactical and creative confrontations I have ever participated in," Fagiani fondly recalled.

    Another poem vividly recollected a date with an East Harlem woman who had a lusty appetite for cocina criolla. The poem makes earthy music from the names of her favorite dishes – cuchifritos, morsillas, alcapurrias, pastelitos, rellenas de papa – and "blood sausages thick and black as a policeman's club."

    Fagiani read two poems inspired by Vito Marcantonio, both likening him to a saint. Fagiani wrote the first in the voice of a middle-aged Puerto Rican woman who confides that she lit a candle not for Saint Lazarus but for "my congressman Vito Marcantonio, my santito." The poem incorporates an anecdote Fagiani said a Puerto Rican woman had told him: Vito Marcantonio "saved" her son Carlito from neighborhood Italians who had threatened to kill him for supposedly raping the sister of one of them; in reality, the sister had pursued Carlito. The Congressman "smuggled" Carlito on a plane to Puerto Rico, where he hid while Marcantonio "straightened things out in New York."

    "Litany of San Vito," Fagiani said, was born from his disgust over the fact that when Vito Marcantonio died (in 1954), New York's right-wing Cardinal Spellman denied him a burial in a Catholic cemetery, stating that the leftist legislator wasn't a Catholic in good standing with the Church. (Spellman, however, didn't object to mobsters being buried in Catholic cemeteries.) "So, in revenge, I wrote this poem," Fagiani said. The poem adopts the form and style of a Catholic Mass card, with lines that cast Marcantonio as a secular saint, a saint of the Left: "San Vito crucified by Wall Street/pray for us/San Vito martyr of McCarthyism/pray for us." The "litany" implores San Vito to protect his devotees from the quotidian East Harlem crises of "immigration raids" and "the landlord's greed"; "the loan shark's vig" and "the social worker's visit."

    The secular-minded and non-religious might feel some discomfort at having a hero of the Left – who was not a churchgoer – beatified, even if only in a poem. But, if one thinks of saints as exemplary individuals who exercise power benevolently, and who intercede on behalf of others, then the analogy isn't so unlikely.

    Stephen Siciliano called Marcantonio "a once-powerful and influential man who was a victim of McCarthyism." He noted that today "the vast majority of people in New York City and beyond don't know about him."

    Siciliano said that in writing "The Goodfather," his task was "to recuperate, revive or recall life in Italian and Puerto Rican East Harlem in the 1920s through the 1950s." In the novel, Siciliano explores "the impact Vito Marcantonio had on regular people" through the experiences of the fictional Fortunato family, working class Italians who are ardent Marcantonio supporters.

    As pianist Peter Dizozza played Louis Armstrong's composition "Muggles," Siciliano read "The Sweater," a section of the novel that takes place at a 1920s house party in Harlem. Siciliano noted that Marcantonio "way ahead of his time" regarding the civil rights of African Americans: "He was a fast-talking guy in a fedora who drove the southerners who ran the House of Representatives in those days crazy with his anti-lynching, anti-discrimination proposals, which he promoted with his singular mastery of parliamentary procedure."

    In another "Goodfather" section, titled "Tina Modotti," Siciliano imagines an encounter at a 1924 party in Harlem between a young Vito Marcantonio and the title character, an Italian-born photographer who was a Marxist revolutionary and militant antifascist. The party, sponsored by the NAACP, actually occurred; among the guests were the African American leaders W.E.B. DuBois and A. Philip Randolph. "We have no proof these two [Marcantonio and Modotti] ever met," Siciliano said. "It's not unlikely or impossible they might have, given the construction of the international Left in those days." In "The Goodfather," Siciliano uses her "as literary device, as the international siren of revolution."

    Siciliano began work on "The Goodfather" seven years ago. While researching the book, he met with historian Gerald Meyer, whose "Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1954" remains the definitive biography. Over a lunch, Meyer "told me a lot of important things in a very short time." Although "The Goodfather" is a work in progress, the excerpts that Siciliano read at the Cornelia Street Cafe established that he has found an original and poetic way to tell those important things, to a contemporary audience that needs to hear them.  

    Gil Fagiani and Gerald Meyer are co-founders of the Vito Marcantonio Forum, an organization dedicated to educating about Marcantonio and to preserving the history of East Harlem political radicalism. Visit the Forum's website to find out about future events and activities.