Articles by: Laura e. Ruberto

  • Life & People

    Italian Farming in the Central Valley

    The connection between Italian immigrant farming and the development of some of California's most important agricultural areas is one of many under-studied sites.


    The Western Regional Chapter of the American Italian Historical Association and Las Positas College in Livermore held the first of a series of programs on Italians’ relationship to the land and farming here in the Golden State. The one-day conference, held on April 19, focused on the Central Valley areas of Modesto, Madera, Stockton, and Fresno. It presented an opportunity to gather (listen and video record) first-person testimonial accounts of Italian American families’ histories.

    The details of the stories are far too vast to begin to document here (some of the information may some day become part of the CIAP, the California Italian American Project). It was a validating experience for those who were given an opportunity to share their families’ stories of emigration from Italy and settlement in California.

    At the same time, if woven together, the stories presented create a narrative history that is much broader and revealing than any one isolated account. A proper collection of these oral stories would reveal not only a specific history of Italian Americans in California, but also the history of

            -  the farming industry itself, its development in relation to mechanization and the effect that had on labor practices and community development. The role of the American Farmland Trust in relation to urban encroachment and the incorporation of eco-friendly farming techniques are some related issues.

            -  ancillary industries (especially those that particularly involved women) that developed because of farming. These include industrial canning and drying, but also more informal yard drying processes (that likewise translated in increased socio-economic mobility for families).

            -  the changing roles for Italian American men and women, in relation to their position in their families, their communities, and their jobs.

            -  immigration patterns. A mapping of the trans- and intra- national immigration histories of Italian farmers in California would demonstrate movement back and forth across the Atlantic, movement within the U.S., as well as to/from South America, including from spots that are less-talked about, like Cuba.

            -  how Italian Americans interacted with (in relation both to work and “private lives”) other immigrant groups. Quite rapidly, in most cases, Italian immigrants moved from sharecropping and day labor jobs, to being the bosses, and hiring other farm workers. It was rare that other Italians (beyond family) worked as farm hands. Migration from the American Southwest is important to consider here, as well as the Bracero Program.


             - Italian American assimilation and social mobility: the role farming and rural culture play in greater issues of race and class (very much tied to other issues, like who Italians hired).
    There were so many perspectives it’s hard for me not to try and paraphrase a few here:

     *  Dan Bava described how for ten years his family drove two buses from Modesto  to Oakland (about 2 hours away) to gather African American workers outside of bars and drive them back to Modesto to pick peaches: “It’s not a good story, but we had to survive.” I appreciated this frank honesty.

                * Ninette Bavaro-Latronica compared her farming father’s relationship with the land to an  
               artist’s with a canvas—detailing the pruning, the care taken in planting, etc.—she described
               his work as “performing art on land”. What would it be like  to theorize the land through the
               lens of vernacular theories of art and culture?

                * Denis Prosperi, a fourth generation farmer, reminded us that farming is a job, and indeed,
               today, a business. There was something refreshing in this perspective.  Farming is not
               merely a way of life, it is not some particularly romantic or nostalgic emotional tie Italians
               have to the land and hard work, it is a business.

    Daniel Cornford in his introduction to Working People of California (a fabulous book even with little evidence of Italian Americans’ involvement in the state’s development), reminds us of some of the trends of California social historians, who are “wary of the celebrationist and consensual framework of their predecessors,” and instead emphasize creating a social history by “unravel[ing] and explor[ing] the experience of California working people . . . [by] examin[ing] the lives of these people from a much more micorcosmic perspective” (10).

  • Life & People

    A Californian Goes East

     Last month I visited New York City and environs. I returned to California the day the New York Times ran a piece describing the similarity between parts of San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley and Brooklyn.


    Indeed, just a week earlier, as I was enjoying a beautiful day in Red Hook, Dumbo, and Fort Greene, carting my children from one public park to the next, I casually commented to my Brooklyn friends how I was pretty confident that if everyone around us had been gathered up in a tornado that day and dropped in Oakland, we would have all, sooner or later, ended up at Oakland’s Frog Park or the Temescal Farmer’s Market. Such were the similarities among us.
    Although the NYT’s piece oddly conflated neighborhoods in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley, I do see a striking Brooklyn-Bay Area overlap in North Oakland’s Temescal District, which just happens to be the old Italian American neighborhood. In fact, that neighborhood’s trendy Sunday morning Farmers Market (what you New Yorkers call “green markets,” I believe), is housed in the parking lot of the local Department of Motor Vehicles, right across the street from one of only a few remaining Bay Area Italian American social clubs that actually has its own building, the Colombo Club.
    Colombo Club
    The Colombo Club has something like 1000 members and a waiting list to join (a Brooklyn-transplant Italian American friend waited five years to get the call). That said, the club, for me, has a complicated relationship to Italian American identity, culture, and history.
    The club—with its focus on monthly birthday dinners and large banquets—has on occasion financially or otherwise supported the study and dissemination of Italian American culture and history. At the same time they refused (along with the other main East Bay Italian American social club with a building, the Fratellanza Club) to rent out some of their space to a fledgling Italian children’s language program—co-founded by the above-mentioned Brooklyn transplant and yours truly—some four years ago. So instead, the classes, with mainly third- and fourth-generation Italian American kids enrolled, operate out of the Finnish Brotherhood Hall in downtown Berkeley. This scenario surprises few in the know about Italian American social clubs.
    The Temescal neighborhood, in real estate speak, is now considered “transitional” (i.e., the kind of place where California State Senator Don Perata can be carjacked half a block from an upscale Alice Waters-inspired restaurant housed in a former hardware store that serves preciously presented small plates of broccoli rabe).
    Only one Italian American business remains (a popular deli) in what used to be a thriving Italian business district. The Temescal’s Italian past is otherwise rather hidden: the backyard of many houses are full of fruit trees, and if you come across one of the rare California bungalows with a basement you might be so lucky to find the remains of what was once a second kitchen. Both sure signs of the Italian families who once lived there.
    More recently the neighborhood has become the heart of Oakland’s East African population, with residents hailing mainly from Ethiopia and Eritrea. This has created another interesting Italian presence to the neighborhood, albeit one infused with Italy’s colonial past.
    But let’s get back to Brooklyn, or more to the point, New Jersey, being that my trip to Brooklyn was sandwiched between visits to Long Island and New Jersey. Which brings me to Soprano Country—Bloomfield, Clifton, and North Caldwell. I saw it all. But what really stuck with me is how ubiquitous Italian American life is in the area (not just New Jersey or Long Island, mind you; I took a jaunt down Brooklyn’s Court Street and Avenue U, too, and saw plenty of pasticcerie and salumerie, not to mention other subtle, or not so subtle, signs of Italian American existence).
    What struck me is the way a small town, like, say, Nutley, New Jersey, seems to have become (or always was?) a kind of Little Italy all its own. That when Italian Americans did their part in the great white flight to the suburbs in the decades following the Second World War, those in the New York area appeared to have taken a good part of the commerce and culture of their urban neighborhoods with them. (I realize I’m making some broad generalizations here.)
    This phenomenon did not happen in California, even though the state had a number of Italian American urban neighborhoods that disappeared or drastically changed when Italian Americans moved out of the cities. Why does Italian American identity remain intact more recognizably in Eastern suburbs?
    There are two straightforward answers: demographics and geography. California’s 1.5 million Italian Americans just don’t compare to the nearly 4.5 million in New York and New Jersey. Plus, New York’s relative nearness to Italy arguably allows for commerce and culture to move back and forth more easily.
    However, there’s a more interesting possibility, one that requires much more careful study than is called for in a simple blog post: that is, the role of the (often-overlooked) second major wave of Italian immigration to the U.S. after the Second World War. Sure, California received its share of post-WW II immigrants (and they’re still coming today—Silicon Valley is full of Italians with H1-B visas), but not to the same degree as on the East Coast. Further—and yes, I’m being a little coy here—but I’ll take a wild guess that the influx of new immigrants in the post-war decades reinvigorated Italian American communities in greater New York in multiple ways: from customs around food, to the use of Italian and dialects, to all sorts of vernacular displays of culture.
    Let’s get specific, or maybe I’m just turning to the mundane. For example, I was surprised at how much Neapolitan I heard walking around Nutley and at the ways the local Nutley supermarket, a Shop-Rite, caters to an Italian American clientele.
    The store finds it necessary to describe canned tomato products in so many different ways (I won’t even get into the fact that in California “gravy” is something one puts on turkey).
    I couldn’t resist snapping these photos. I was shocked to see so much locally-made mozzarella as well as Italian pastries (who knows if they were any good, but items such as these in the Bay Area are only to be found in upscale grocers and specialty food stores).
    Moments after I took these pictures I was stopped by a plainclothes guard wondering what I was up to. When I explained my interest and academic background, the sfogliatelle came out of the case for me.


  • Art & Culture

    A Gramscian Podcast on Women Workers and Migration

    Last month I presented my book, Gramsci, Migration, and the Representation of Women’s Work in Italy and the U.S. (Lexington Books, 2007), at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, Queens College, CUNY. You can listen to a podcast of my talk here (or see link below).

    The book looks at the work of Italian cultural theorist Antonio Gramsci, revisited through a feminist perspective, and offers insights into the relationship between the history of Italian emigration and contemporary immigration to Italy, particularly in relation to the representation of women’s work. I study a variety of cultural representations (novels, films, testimonials, photographs, etc.) of immigrant women workers, focusing on rice work and paid domestic labor in Italy, and cannery labor and unwaged housework in the U.S.  I’m interested in how migrant women workers take part in the development of what Gramsci calls national popular culture, even as they are excluded from dominant cultural narratives.
    In this podcast I offer some general impressions as to what I find so thrilling about Gramsci’s work and then I move on to talk a bit about the history of Italian Americans in San Diego.  I approach the subject with a story involving an old photograph of Italian, Mexican, Portuguese, and Japanese immigrant women cannery workers, an 82 year old Mexican American man, and the city’s annual Columbus Day Festival.
    It’s a story that reminds me of the possibility of cultural recuperation of immigrant women worker’s experiences through unconventional sources, like photographs.  At the same time, the story highlights the complex relationship Italian Americans have to assimilation and their position as white Americans. Finally, it demonstrates some of the ways women’s unrecognized kinds of practices and work experiences can point toward a new kind of national popular culture based on women’s lives. 

  • Life & People

    Italian Americana, California Style


    It’s that time in the semester where I take my aesthetic theory class on a photographic tour of, among other spots, three California Italian American vernacular sites: Simon Rodia’s Watt’s Towers in Los Angeles, Baldassare Forestiere’s Underground Gardens in Fresno, and Litto Damonte’s Hubcap Ranch in Pope Valley.
    My current interest lies chiefly with the last, since the Watts Towers and the Underground Gardens are the better known of the three. In addition to miscellaneous scholarly articles, academic presentations, dissertation chapters, and coffee table books, the Watts Towers has been the focus of a few documentaries (including the 2006, I Build the Tower) and will even be the subject of a conference in 2009 in Genoa. While not quite as hot as Rodia’s work, Forestiere’s Garden has likewise garnered academic and journalistic attention; moreover, the “mole man” is the protagonist of a T. Coraghessan Boyle short story, and no doubt his gardens will be mentioned in the upcoming one-day conference “Italian Farming in the Central Valley,” which will include a panel on the Italians of Fresno.
    I share here what some of my students had to say today about these two spots.
    On the Watts Towers                 Watts Towers
                “What fascinates me is how he/his tower eventually created a bond with the community even though he was not socially all that present in the community,  that the art piece (a pure expression of Rodia, the person) connects him to a greater community.”
                “Out of all we studied this feels the most like art to me, the kind of thing where I could walk through with my head tilted up and holding my breath.”
    On the Underground Gardens         Underground Gardens
                “The strength of his vision is obvious not to mention his will power and physical body strength.”
                “Hands down the most impressive….he took in all measures of nature and adapted them to his lifestyle.”
                “It shows that with some determination we can change the way we are supposedly      destined to live.”
                “Tunneling as a replacement for social interaction.”
    In comparison to the Watts Towers or the Underground Gardens, the Hubcap Ranch in Pope Valley is much more modest, simple even. And yet it merits our attention just the same.
    The town of Pope Valley sits off the Silverado Trail, between Napa and Calistoga. To get there one has to drive through “wine country”—a term that over the last thirty years has come to mean upscale restaurants, boutique wineries, and exclusive art galleries, many of which have a heavy Italian flavor. Pope Valley remains, for now at least, outside of this California foodie cultural scene.
    The Watts Towers sit in a residential neighborhood, among California mid-century bungalows; the Underground Gardens are right off a freeway, and the last time I was there a Harley Davidson dealer was across the street. But across the street from the Hubcap Ranch is nothing, just an empty field.
    Emmanuele “ Litto” Damonte was born in 1892, emigrated from Italy (Arenzano, province of Genoa) as a young man, and quickly ended up in California. He bought land in Pope Valley while he worked in masonry in South San Francisco and would bring his family up to the Valley for the summers, eventually re-locating there permanently. Word is that starting about 1932, he began tacking up the hubcaps lost when people drove the curved, unpaved road up from his house. Folks rarely ever came by to look for them; instead, others started leaving hubcaps. Pretty soon, Damonte was artistically arranging his hubcaps all over his land: along the fence that lines the driveway, on the trees outside of his house, along the outdoor, roofed patio, on the walls of the house, barn, and sheds along his property.

    But in the spirit of other outsider/self-taught/folk/vernacular artists (I’ll leave the academic debate about what’s the best term for some other time), Damonte began incorporating found everyday objects into his creation as well. Today his grandson Mike lives on the property with his family—they have continued to add to the hubcap-aspect of the site, but less so to the rest of the creation.
       toilet shrine
    tractor in cement
    The photos above and below, all snapped last summer, show some of the details that have remained since Damonte died in 1985. Notice the remains of shrines, some more obviously religious in nature than others. The garden tools woven into the fence. The tractor cemented in place. Notice also what he did with the bottom of soda/beer cans, cutting them to create a repeated, floral design and using the old pull-tabs both to create garland and decorative balls.
    pull tabs
     Garden tools   can bottoms
    Like other vernacular artists, Damonte was an eco-artist before it was hip, applying his artisanal skills in construction and masonry to (re) use found everyday objects and religious icons to create art of his daily space. The space he built, like that of Rodia's and Forestiere's, has a particular Italian (male) immigrant feel to it precisely because of the way material culture comes to define his labor.
    Idiosyncratic. Driven. Sacred. Creative. Inspired.


  • Op-Eds

    Hillary Clinton, the Italian Stallion

    First Hillary Clinton plays at being a mobster with her Tony Soprano advertising spoof and now she’s appropriated another Italian American icon, Rocky Balboa. The AP Wire just announced Clinton’s latest attempt to stay afloat in the primaries—she’s adopting the Rocky anthem as her theme song!

    I appreciate her gender-bending approach and her use of American popular culture. It’s an historic moment, no matter what your political opinion is of either candidate. I’ve seen other comparisons made from U.S. history, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton vs. Frederick Douglass, as ways to contextualize the relevance of having these two candidates in 2008.
    But for Clinton to create a pop culture duel between an Italian American, Rocky Balboa, and an African American, Apollo Creed, is for one, just plain interesting. Even more, her appropriation seems to trivialize the iconic underdog/working class Italian American image of (at least the first) Rocky.
    And don’t forget, Rocky puts up a valiant struggle, but in the end, he loses.

  • Op-Eds

    What Do Pizza, Mario Merola, and the Camorra Have to Do with Ikea?


    I first spotted the children’s animated film Totò Sapore e la Magica Storia della Pizza (2003, directed by Maurizio Forestieri) a few years ago when it was playing in the Afragola Ikea, just outside of Naples. I’d planted my generally TV-deprived preschool-aged son with a slice of pizza in front of the maxi-schermo, but stopped in my tracks when I heard an on-screen character yell “o’ scugnizzo” (a term I’d come to associate with my own son since living in Campania, and surely not something I was expecting from any U.S.-imported kid’s film).
    Afragola is a curious example of Neapolitan-style sprawl: big box businesses line up along the A16, built in great part, according to Roberto Saviano, because of “Camorra infiltration” of “the municipal government of Afragola”. In fact, Afragola gets pretty heavy coverage in his bestselling Gomorrah, where he notes that Ikea sits on “land controlled” by the Moccia clan, itself noted for its powerful women.
    I finally sat down to watch the feature-length Italian cartoon last week back here in California. (Given that there’s pretty much no chance it would be screened at my local Ikea, I had to hunt down my own copy on the ’net.) The film tells the story of Totò, an eighteenth century cantastorie who staves off the hunger of Neapolitans by singing songs about food:
                Pomodoro, mozzarella, pastasciutta e maccheroni
                melenzane, peperoni, il mio show comincia qua.

                Involtini, cotolette, costolette di maiale

                i crostini di caviale solo a chi li chiederà,

                e se siete un pò depressi e se vi sentite soli

                la mia zuppa di fagioli tutti allegri vi farà,

                e sarete più felici se di me voi vi fidate

                come faccio io le alici mai nessuno le farà.
                Sono io Totò Sapore vendo cibo virtuale,

                ma chi sa se può bastare per sfamare la città.
    Totò dances around the city with Pulcinella at his side, evoking not only the comedic style of that other Neapolitan Totò but also of another cinematic do-gooder Totò—from Vittorio De Sica’s magical (neo)realist film Miracolo a Milano (click on most of the pics here to find videolinks).
    Totò                                          Totò flying on a broomstick from "Miracolo a Milano"
    Life would continue much the same for the Neapolitan peasants in the movie, except for two problems: the French are about to invade and there’s an evil witch, Vesuvia, who is particularly annoyed at how happy all the folk in the city remain despite their dire poverty. So she cooks up a complicated scheme to break everyone’s spirits, especially Totò’s. Her ruse involves a long-lost immigrant relative, magical pots and pans, and a smart, young love interest, Confiance, to distract our otherwise level-headed protagonist.
    Confiance and Totò
    There’s a definite Naples-heavy slant to the cast and crew—a whole slew of big names were involved in its production. By far, my favorite is the voice of Vesuvia’s servo, Vincenzone, played by Mario Merola. The popularity of the Neapolitan singer and actor, who died in December 2006, arguably sprang largely from Italian immigrant fans throughout the Americas, where he was known as “il re della sceneggiata.”

    Mario Merola


    Merola’s Vincenzone is a jolly fellow whose big dream is to be an actor, but who’s stuck working for the volcanic strega. At one point, he pretends to be the lawyer of a distant relative of Totò who has come to Naples all the way from Brooklyn. Here lo zio dall’America returns bearing gifts that deceive and mock Totò, a curious twist to the returning immigrant theme.
    The film concludes, more or less, with Totò, Confiance, Pulcinella, and Vicenzone (appropriately now a friend of il popolo), saving Naples from French invasion by feeding them pizza, cooked to perfection within the belly of Mount Vesuvius. Historical inaccuracies aside, it’s fun to see a piece of Italian (region-specific) popular culture, especially one geared to children. It’s refreshing to see how the film counters imports from Pixar, recalling Naples’ history, cuisine, relationship to the working poor and transnational migration. All that at your local Swedish-Camorra outpost!


  • Op-Eds

    Bread and Roses or “Mimose”?


    Today is March 8, International Women’s Day. In much of the world, today is a day to celebrate and honor women workers, women’s struggles, and women’s lives. It is a day generally used to renew global calls to action for a variety of political struggles. The holiday is all but forgotten in the U.S., where it is traditionally symbolized by “bread and roses”; in Italy, where women are given mimose (acacia flowers), the day has become rather commercialized.
    What’s unfortunate is that women continue to be second-class citizens under the law, in the U.S. and abroad. I’m thinking about very concrete realities, such as the U.S.’s woefully inadequate family leave act and Italy’s retrograde fertility laws. In the U.S., for instance, we lack appropriate parental leave and childcare options for families—insufficiencies that affect the working class, especially women of color, most of all. Even in the privileged space of academia, women continue to be secondary to their male counterparts at all levels—a point that’s particularly disturbing considering how much current academic discourse focuses on differentiations in power and identity.
    The history of International Women’s Day is a beautiful narrative—evoking immigrant women workers’ strikes and labor actions —and one which should not be forgotten. The day was celebrated as early as 1895, but it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that it came to be consistently celebrated on March 8, commemorating a number of events, including the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, where over 140 women lost their lives, including many Italian immigrants.
    While I’m all for getting flowers today, I’d rather see men and women working together in practical, concrete ways to support and implement changes that demonstrate a real commitment to equality and access.  

  • Op-Eds

    Love Costs: Filipinos in Italy and the Movie, "Milan"


    Recently, for reasons that will remain mysterious, I found myself in front of a computer screen typing the word “Italy” into the Netflix search bar. After wading through over 300 film descriptions—including dozens of tourist and cooking DVDs, scores of classic and contemporary Italian films, and more flicks about Italian Americans than you might expect—I stumbled across a 2004 film called Milan, with the following description:
    Loving husband Lino (Piolo Pascual) is on a mission: His wife, who works as a domestic in Milan, is missing and he’s determined to find her. To do so, he enters Italy illegally and takes cover as one of the hundreds of Filipino migrant workers who make their way to Europe. But when he finds himself falling for the beautiful and opportunistic (Claudine Barretto), a maid who’s agreed to help him in his quest, Lino’s search hits a snag.
    Here I am, a scholar who has concerned herself for years with the topic of contemporary immigration to Italy, in particular domestic workers, and I’d never seen this film before—or, for that matter, heard of it. I didn’t even read another word: I boosted it to the top of my queue and stuffed Roma citta libera back in its red-and-white envelope.
    Once I started watching it, I realized why I’d never heard of Milan. Contrary to my expectations (in my excitement I hadn’t bothered to read up on the credit details) the film wasn’t an Italian production with an Italian director, but a Filipino film, mainly in Tagalog, with a Filipino director and Filipino stars. (The video I posted here is of the film’s unfortunate English-language theme song; a great part of these shots are not in the film but it gives you a sense of the film’s style.)
    A few Google searches later (rather complicated ones, I might add, given the frequency of the phrase Milan and my inability to read Tagalog), I found a few references that suggest the film’s limited U.S. release mainly in conjunction with Asian American film festivals at the Universities of Washington and Illinois.  (Later, Dr. Francisco B. Benitez of the University of Washington, who I’ve been communicating with about the film, led me to the production company’s site—it states the film had simultaneous international premiere screenings in Italy, the U.S., and the U.A.E.)
    The film is in many ways a typical romance, shot mostly on location in Italy, with soft-focus images of the young (Filipino) lovers on a gondola in Venice, feeding the pigeons in Piazza San Marco, etc. And yet it has much “more depth,” as director Olivia Lamasan says in the accompanying “making of” documentary (mainly in Tagalog, I’m sad to report, without subtitles.)
    shot from "Milan" (link to video clip)However, spread through all the passion and sentimentality set under the backdrop of a picture-postcard Italy are stories of contemporary Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) living and working in Italy. Real stories of real people: men, women, and children crossing illegally into Italy, trying to find work and homes, accepting menial jobs that Italians—themselves in recent history desperate for such work—shun. These stories are told not only through the protagonists’ experiences, but also with an inventive series of documentary-like montages where apparently real OFWs are interviewed.
    What’s more, the film attempts to illuminate the emotional trauma of migration, documenting the general feeling of loneliness and the need to create networks of migrants not only for physical aid but for emotional support as well. The results of these emotional needs are, the film suggests, often less than ideal.
    Sex plays a big role in this loneliness issue. And non-Filipino men play a somewhat significant, or at least interesting, role in the film’s representation of sexuality. An Algerian man who we never see, himself an immigrant, becomes the perpetrator of rape. Italian men, likewise barely visible on screen, are present in their sexual relationships with immigrant women. In one case an Italian man acts as a savior to the victim of the aforementioned rape, and in another case, an Italian man is used for sex (i.e., when Jenny, the female protagonist, desires affection, she turns to an Italian man to give her a “private lesson” in Italian). Sex and romantic relationships play out differently when Italians are not directly part of the mix. For example, married Filipino couples, separated from their spouses and children due to migration, find love and much-needed sustenance in the arms of other OFWs (at times even leading to the creation of unconventional family structures).
    "Roman Holiday" Summertime
    At the same time, the film offers images familiar from countless tourist-romance films. This was the Philippines-based ABS-CBN’s first European-made film, and I couldn’t help but compare the film to the post-World War II “Hollywood on the Tiber” (HOT) films. Films like Summertime or Roman Holiday all created an image of Italy as a magical place where fantasies come true and romance brings new meaning to a woman’s life. Indeed, HOT films offered a rhetorical, or rather, a visual image we might almost call nostalgia, of an Italy that has never existed, masking or ignoring issues of poverty and emigration. In the case of HOT films, love didn’t cost those women a thing. In Milan, love comes at the cost of grueling hours of humiliating labor, blatant racism, discriminatory visa laws, a total lack of private space, and a mess of real-world factors troubling today’s immigrants to Italy.
    While a number of Italian-produced films take on the theme of contemporary immigration to Italy, it’s refreshing to see the subject approached from the side of the immigrant in a very real, albeit sugarcoated, way. There is no doubt that I’ll have more to say about this film in the not-so-distant future.

  • Art & Culture

    Cinema Piemonte on the Streets of San Francisco

    In a few weeks the Associazione Piemontesi nel Mondo of Northern California will be screening (gratis!) a series of films set in the Piedmont region of Italy. They’re showing Cabiria,whose crane shots, marvelous in any era, are downright astonishing for 1914; I Compagni (The Organizer), with Marcello Mastorianni in a somewhat unusual role for an actor who is better known as a Latin lover; Dopo Mezzanotte (After Midnight), a recent film that harkens back to earlier moments in film history; and, my favorite, Riso amaro (Bitter Rice), directed by Giuseppe De Santis in 1949.

    Riso amaro shows the forty days of the rice-weeding season in the postwar era. Its narrative borrows elements from neorealism, the documentary, melodrama, and gangster genres. It combines the use of nonprofessional actors, mainly in the role of mondine, with a cast of four stars, including Silvana Mangano as Silvana Melega, a rice worker who gets caught up in the glamour of a crime, betrays her female companions (including a certain Francesca, played by the American actress Doris Dowling), and eventually commits suicide in an effort to atone for her transgression.
    The film is actually a good deal more interesting than my plot summary suggests. It shifts back and forth between staid realism and sexy flashiness, all the while telling a story about women’s passions, everyday lives, and work. Further, it offers a tiny glimpse into some of the impetus for Italian postwar emigration.
    Movie Poster "Riso amaro"
    There’s plenty to say about this film, but let’s begin with a short, blog-friendly list:
                » The film’s release caused quite a stir. For leftists, such as Guido Aristarco, the film was 
                 pandering: “i lavoratori non possono essere educati dalle gambe nude di  Silvana” (“the 
                 workers cannot be educated with the bare legs of Silvana”).  Meanwhile, the Vatican
                 attempted to blacklist it because of what were considered pornographic shots of the
                 women’s legs and breasts.  (See, for instance, Giuseppe De Santis by Antonio Vitti.)
                » De Santis and other partners in the film’s production won an Oscar nomination  for best
                 original story, but the director was not allowed to enter the United States  because of his
                 ties to the Italian Communist Party.
                 » Various feminist approaches to the film recognize how Silvana is depicted as an            
                  Americanized bombshell, who due to her love of a glitzy life, practically self-destructs. In
                  particular, such arguments go, we can see the seriousness of her demise in relation to
                  the life of the more level-headed Francesca, who changes her criminal ways and comes to
                  stand, along with Marco, for a new, socialist-inclined Italy. (See below for more on
                  Francesca and Marco.) (See, for instance, Millicent Marcus's "Miss Mondina, Miss Sirena,
                  Miss Farina," RLA, 1992 or Anna Maria Torriglia's Broken Time, Fragmented Space.)
    My own take on the film is that it manages to underscore women’s position in society and privileges their perspective, their voices, and their bodies’ potential. It does so because of competing perspectives within the film and because De Santis revamps the Italian cinema convention that left women as less-than-significant agents on screen (the true protagonists of the film are frankly the mondine themselves).
    Take a look for yourself: though here I’ve posted only a clip, (re)watch the whole film. Without a doubt, the film eroticizes the mondine’s labor through pans of voluptuous women in tight shorts and low-cut blouses, toiling in the marshes, relaxing in the dormitory, and bathing in the stream. But at the same time, we also come to see certain realities of their lives (e.g., the problem of working without a contract, of becoming ill from bad food rations, the frequency of miscarriages) and the potential of alliances among women with different needs and desires.
    Doris Dowling, Vittorio Gassmann, Silvana Mangano, and Raf Vallone
    Carlo Lizzani, a collaborator on the film, in 1978 wrote:
                La grande zuffa nel fango della risaia propone una gestualità, una coralità di voci  e una
                violenza di comportamento che nel cinema (e non solo italiano) erano presentate come
                tipiche di collettivi maschili (carceri, caserme, penitenziari, piazze, miniere, piantagioni).
               Scene di questo tipo, per il costume dell’epoca erano la provocazione. Un reagente contro
               l’immagine della donna “angelo del focolare” passata pari pari dall’iconografia fascista a
               quella dell’Italia del 18 Aprile.
                the big brawl in the mud of the rice paddy produces a gesture, a concert of voices and a
                violent behavior that in cinema (not only Italian cinema) had been presented as typical of
                male groups (prisons, barracks, penitentiaries, piazzas, mines, plantations). Scenes like
                this one, within the tradition of the era were provocative. A reaction against the image of
                woman as “angel of the home,” an image that had passed intact from a fascist iconography
                to that for the Italy of April 18th.
    Lizzani brings up postwar Italy….and I promised more on Francesca and Marco. Marco is a recently-discharged soldier with communist-style rhetoric and aspirations for migrating to Argentina. It’s in South America, “paese vergine,” as he calls it, where he feels he can earn an honest living.
    It is by no means random that De Santis alludes to migration. Postwar emigration is key to understanding much of what happened in Italy (and indeed beyond) in the second half of the twentieth century; this film, however subtly, recognizes that importance. Francesca and Marco’s romance, it’s assumed, will not flourish on Italy’s soil, but rather, the possibility of a new Italy marked by their relationship will take root within the communities and cultures of Italy’s many diasporas.

  • Art & Culture

    Luciano Chessa’s Musical Inventions

    Luciano Chessa, a contemporary composer, pianist, and musicologist, has an offbeat approach to his compositions and performances, mixing the traditional and the avant-garde. Born in Sardinia, Chessa studied music in Bologna and later received a Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis. He now teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. 

    I’ve heard Chessa play in various public venues, but no doubt the most memorable performance for me took place a few years back at a dinner party in front of about seven people, including a couple of kids, at the house of a mutual friend. It was the first time I heard him play, and I recall being struck by his jazzy take on the staid Western European classics.
    Later I came to understand how he often takes a playful attitude, not just toward the music itself, but toward the instruments—especially, it seems, the piano. Take his Variazioni su un oggetto di scena (a clip from “part two” of this piece accompanies my post). Here he places stuffed animals before the piano’s keys having them perform, as Jonathan Wilkes explains, “folk melodies at the keyboard, guided by human hands firmly gripping their little furry limbs.” Wilkes goes on, explaining how “[e]ach movement [has] its own animal, and each animal its own mitt size and, consequently, key cluster size.”
    My curiosity is stirred merely by the description (in calendar listing below) of his Recitativo, aria e coro della Vergine, part of his Urlo impietrato. I haven’t heard the piece, but it promises to be a mix of influences—from African American to Sardinian, Baroque to avant-garde, all inspired by a fifteenth-century sculpture ("Lamentation over the Dead Christ").
    "Lamentation over the Dead Christ" Niccolò dell’Arca’s (1463)
    Lucky for me, Chessa has a series of performances upcoming in the Bay Area (abbreviated descriptions below).
    February 11; 8:00 PM
    Berkeley Art Festival
    2213 Shattuck Avenue
    Performances will include a set of Chessa’s own compositions for piano and electrified Vietnamese dan bau, as well as the American premiere of Francesco Cangiullo's Piedigrotta, a Futurist epic sound poem from 1916 about the explosive Neapolitan yearly street festival of the same name.
    February 22; 8:00 PM
    Maybeck Studio
    Including performances of Chessa’s Quadri da una città fantasma, the Variazioni su un oggetto di scena, and Louganis
    March 7, 3:00 P.M.
    San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Recital Hall.
    Luciano Chessa and Alden Jenks discuss their composition process as well as present some of their works.
    March 8 at 8:00 pm
    Luciano Chessa: Recitativo, aria e coro della Vergine
    San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Concert Hall
     The BluePrint Series (Nicole Paiement, artistic director), in collaboration with the UC Davis Gospel Choir (Calvin Lymos, artistic director) present Recitativo, aria e coro della Vergine by Luciano Chessa. Recitativo, aria e coro della Vergine (2002) is the pivotal scene of Luciano Chessa’s Urlo impietrato, an in progress-oratorio based on one of Italy’s best kept secrets, Niccolò dell’Arca’s 1463 set of life-size terracotta sculptures known as Lamentation over the Dead Christ. A dialogue between such distant cultures as the Sardinian and the African American, and between Baroque opera and post-WW II Italian avant-garde, this scene harmonizes together, literally as well as allegorically, performers trained in up to five different vocal/instrumental styles, and clearly shows an author more interested in the epistemology—than he is in the science—of composing.