It Works For The Irish!
As established by Presidential Proclamation, October is National Italian- American Heritage Month, a time set aside to recognize the many achievements and contributions of Americans of Italian descent as well as of Italians in America.
I sort of straddle the line. I'm not an “Italian in America” because my ancestors left Emilia-Romagna a long time ago. And I don't have a dog in the hunt when it comes to an “Italian- American Heritage” because said Emiliani ancestors originally landed in Canada. But I'm still an “American of Italian descent,” I still have an Italian birthright, and October is a great time to celebrate it.
I think anybody can be Italian in October if they want to be. Looking at the impact Italians have had on this side of the pond, everybody should be at least a little Italian this time of year. Hey! It works for the Irish every March 17.
Undoubtedly, the Italian with the greatest impact on America was the man commonly (if incorrectly) credited with discovering America, Christopher Columbus. Although he sailed under a Spanish flag, Columbus was born in the Republic of Genoa in present-day Italy. In his native dialect his name was Christoffa Corombo. In Italian, the name translates to Christoforo Colombo, which, in turn, anglicizes to Christopher Columbus.
Of course, there's a lot of retrospective revisionist PC-ness going on these days, and in many circles Columbus has been stripped of his title and vilified as a bringer of disease, doom, and destruction. Modern scholarship tells us that the Vikings got to North America centuries before Columbus and that the Chinese, the Russians, the Arabs, and even the Polynesians deserve part of the credit for discovering America. Be that as it may, Columbus was still the guy who made the most of the whole thing. Regardless of whether or not he was the “discoverer,” he was the man in the right place at the right time with the right political connections and the right publicity machine. So he's the one who gets his own holiday in October and who has streets, cities, counties, provinces, and even a country (Colombia) named after him. Sorry, Leif Ericson.
Many Italian-Americans observe Columbus Day as a celebration of their heritage. The Italian population of New York City organized the first such celebration on October 12, 1866. A few years later, in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation recognizing the 400th anniversary of the “discovery” of America. Colorado became the first state to officially observe Columbus Day in 1905. And in 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt declared October 12 to be a federal holiday, designated as Columbus Day. (The Uniform Monday Holiday Act, signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1968, moved the date to its current second Monday in October.) The day is often designated in many communities as Italian-American Day or Italian-American Heritage Day.
Another Italian, this one from Florence, had a big impact on America: he gave America its name. Amerigo Vespucci was a navigator, a cartographer, and an explorer in his own right. He was actually well acquainted with Columbus and was familiar with his voyages of discovery. At the behest of Manuel I, King of Portugal, Vespucci traveled as an observer on several voyages to the newly “discovered” continents conducted between 1499 and 1502. As a result of the publication of his observations, the American continents were named for him by a German cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller, who first used the name “America” on the 1507 map “Universalis Cosmographia” in honor of the Florentine explorer.
The British got a toehold on the new continent thanks to the exploratory efforts of an Italian named Giovanni Caboto. Except when the Brits wrote the history books, they chose to call him “John Cabot.” Like Columbus, he was Genoese, and unlike Columbus, he actually explored the mainland of North America during his voyages in 1497 and 1498. And then there was that other Italian guy, Giovanni da Verrazzano, the first European explorer to map the Atlantic coast and to sail into New York Bay. You might be familiar with his bridge, the one that spans New York Harbor today – even though they spell it incorrectly.
The first Italian to take up permanent residence in America, thus becoming the first “Italian-American,” was a Venetian fellow named Pietro Cesare Alberti. At the age of 27, Pietro decided to leave failing fortunes in Venice behind and to seek a new life in the New World. Sailing aboard the Dutch ship De Coninck David (King David), he arrived in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam on June 2, 1635. Taking up initial residence in a house on Broad Street and later farming a hundred acres in Brooklyn, Pietro and his wife Judith were killed in an Indian raid in 1655. If you wander through New York City's Battery Park and find the bronze statue of Giovanni da Verrazzano there, look around for a small stone that commemorates Pietro Alberti's arrival and declares June 2 to be "Alberti Day".
So while Columbus and Vespucci, Caboto , Verrazzano, and Alberti may have been the first Italians in the neighborhood, they were far from the last. A few immigrants trickled in, mainly from the northern regions, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Then the floodgates opened and nearly 4 million Italians, mostly from the poverty-stricken southern regions of Sicily, Calabria, Campania, and Abruzzo, entered the United States between 1899 and 1924. A million more came after the close of World War II in 1945. As a result, “Little Italys” sprang up in cities all over the country. In New York City, “Little Italys” were located along Arthur Avenue in the Bronx as well as in lower Manhattan and on Manhattan's Upper East Side, known as “Italian Harlem. “Little Italys” can be found on Boston's North End and Chicago's Taylor Street on the Near West Side. The Hill section of St. Louis is one of the most popular “Little Italy” neighborhoods in the country. And it was at Il Giardino d'Italia, or “The Garden of Italy,” located at the corner of East 9th Street and Woodland Avenue in Cleveland's “Little Italy,” that an Italian immigrant named Ettore Boiardi – known as “Chef Boyardee” – introduced America to his brand of Italian food.
Today, more than 15.7 million people in the United States identify themselves as Italian-Americans. They make up nearly six percent of the U.S. population and represent the country's fourth largest European ethnic group.
Much is heard these days about the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Often forgotten in modern times, however, is the plight of Italian-Americans during the war years when nearly 600,000 Italian-American citizens were branded as “enemy aliens.” They were required to register with authorities and carry cards identifying them as such. They were prohibited from traveling more than five miles from their homes without permission. They were not permitted to own firearms, radios, cameras, or even flashlights – considered to be “signaling devices.” And on the West Coast, they were subjected to an 8 PM to 6 AM curfew. The FBI arrested around 1,500 Italian-Americans between December 1941 and June 1942. Most were quickly released, but about 250 spent up to two years in internment camps.
In odd contrast, an estimated 1.2 million Italian-Americans served in the U.S. military during WWII. The only enlisted Marine in U.S. history to win the nation's two highest military honors -- the Navy Cross and the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor – was Italian-American John Basilone, a U.S. Marine sergeant, who died at the Battle of Iwo Jima.
These wartime conditions left indelible marks in the Italian-American community. Signs and flyers were posted directing “enemy aliens” to “Speak American.” As a result, many Italian-Americans stopped speaking their mother language. Others Americanized their names or otherwise attempted to distance themselves from their heritage. Only recently have some of these antiquated cultural prejudices begun to fade, allowing people of Italian descent to take pride in their ancestry.
Overcoming generations of hardship and cultural prejudice, Italian-Americans have made substantial contributions to all aspects of American life, including food, entertainment, popular culture, law, politics, education, science, and sports. The following is a brief and by no means comprehensive list of Italians and Italian-Americans who have made significant contributions to American society:
In the world of finance, Amadeo Pietro Giannini founded the Bank of Italy in San Francisco in 1904. Giannini is credited with instituting the practice of branch banking in the United States. His Bank of Italy ultimately transformed into today's Bank of America, which he chaired until his retirement in 1945.
Although not an Italian-American immigrant, few can dispute the impact Guglielmo Marconi, “the Father of Radio,” had on America and on the world.
Italian-born scientist Enrico Fermi discovered radioactive elements that led to the nuclear age.
Italian-American inventors made many contributions to ordinary life. Did you have a “Radio Flyer” wagon when you were a kid? Antonio Pasin, son of a Venetian cabinetmaker, made it possible. Alessandro Dandini invented the three-way lightbulb. Bernard Cousino was the inventor of the eight-track tape player and of the automobile tape deck. Think of the Jacuzzi family, developers of the jet water pump, as you soak in your hot tub. Thank Vince Marotta for your morning coffee. He invented “Mr. Coffee.” And when overnight guests arrive, be grateful to Bernard Castro for inventing the sofa bed.
When it comes to social work, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, spent her life in Italy and later in America working to build schools, orphanages, and hospitals. As the first American citizen to be canonized as a saint (Saint Francesa Saveria Cabrini), she is the patroness of immigrants.
Lido “Lee” Iacocca looms large as an American business icon. Another guy who did well in business was Anthony Rossi, founder of Tropicana and pioneer in the pasteurization of orange juice.
In politics, Fiorella H. La Guardia and Rudolph W. Giuliani stand out as Mayors of New York City, while Mario Cuomo served as Governor of New York. Alfred E. “Al” Smith also served four terms as New York's governor and was defeated by Herbert Hoover in the 1928 Presidential election. Smith might have been New York City born and raised, but he was still the first Italian-American Presidential candidate. His father, Alfred Emanuele Ferraro, changed the family name to “Smith,” the English equivalent to “ferraro” or “blacksmith”. Sons of Sicilian and Italian immigrants, respectively, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito were both appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Where would we be without Italian food and wine? Besides the aforementioned “Chef Boyardee,” Mario Batali, Michael Chiarello, Rachael Ray, Giada De Laurentiis, Lidia Bastianich, Guy Fieri, Tom Colicchio, and Rocco DiSpirito are just a few of the celebrity chefs who enrich our lives and our tables. And we can thank Ernest and Julio Gallo and Robert Mondavi for many of the wines that accompany our meals. And let's not forget Domenico Ghirardelli and his fine chocolates for dessert.
Still in a food mode, Jim Delligatti was the franchise operator responsible for the creation of McDonald's “Big Mac.” Amedeo Obici and Mario Peruzzi founded the “Planters Peanut” company. Vincent R. Ciccone started out as a janitor for the “Charms Candy Company", but he retired as President and CEO after patenting the “Blow Pop.” And it was Italo Marcioni who patented the ice cream cone.
Italians have been foremost in the arts since the Renaissance. In America, Constantino Brumidi has been called “The Michelangelo of the U.S. Capitol.”
The world of opera was graced by tenors Enrico Caruso and Alfred Arnold Cocozza, better known as Mario Lanza. Combining opera and food, we have coloratura soprano Luisa Tetrazzini – also the namesake of “Turkey Tetrazzini”.
Award-winning composer Henry Mancini and world renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini dominated their fields.
In popular American music we find: James Francis (Jimmy) Durante, Francis Albert (Frank) Sinatra, Dino Paul Crocetti (Dean Martin), Vito Rocco Farinola (Vic Damone), Anthony Dominick Benedetto (Tony Bennett), Gennaro Luigi Vitaliano (Jerry Vale), Alfred Cini (Al Martino), Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero (Connie Francis), Walden Robert Cassotto (Bobby Darin), Francis Thomas Avallone (Frankie Avalon), James William Ercolani (James Darren), Francis Stephen Castelluccio (Frankie Valli), Salvatore Phillip (Sonny) Bono, Dion Francis DiMucci (Dion), Fabiano Anthony Forte (Fabian), Madonna Louise Ciccone (Madonna), and Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (Lady Gaga).
On the big and small screens: Rodolfo Guglielmi (Rudolph Valentino), Dominic Felix Amici (Don Ameche), Louis Francis (Lou) Costello, Ermes Effron Borgnino (Ernest Borgnine), Alfonso Roberto D'Abruzzo (Robert Alda, also father of Alan Alda), Armand Joseph Catalano (Guy Williams), Harry Guardino, Vincenzo Scognamiglio (Vincent Gardenia), Anthony George Papaleo (Anthony/Tony Franciosa), Vincent Edward Zoino III (Vince Edwards), Joseph Campanella, Catherine Gloria Balotta (Kaye Ballard), Paul Sorvino (also father of Mira Sorvino), Salvatore Mineo, Jr. (Sal Mineo), Dominick (Dom) DeLuise, Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone, Joe Pesci, Alfredo (Al) Pacino, Susan Lucci, Danny DeVito, John Travolta, Ray Romano, Tony Danza, Stanley Tucci, Marisa Tomei, James Gandolfini, Nicolas Kim Coppola (Nicholas Cage), Scott Baio, and Alyssa Milano, just to name a few.
Italians are big on family, perhaps explaining these artistic duos: Robert De Niro – the father – has paintings on display in the Metropolitan Museum, while Robert De Niro – the son – displays a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Carmine Coppola was a renowned flautist and composer. His son, Francis Ford Coppola, gained fame as an award-winning film director.
Vincent Minnelli was a well-known film director. Daughter Liza Minnelli may be even better known as a singer/actress/entertainer.
Garry and Penny Marshall were brother and sister actors and directors. The family name “Masciarelli” was Americanized before they were born.
Elsewhere in “showbiz,” Frank Capra was an Academy Award-winning director. Animator/cartoonist Joseph Barbera formed half of the team of Hanna-Barbera and gave us “Yogi Bear” and so many other beloved characters.
Speaking of cartoons, Walter Lanza (Walter Lantz) was the creator of “Woody Woodpecker,” and Adriana Caselotti provided the voice of Disney's original “Snow White.”
Speaking of Disney, Annette Funicello and Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli were original Mickey Mouse “Mouseketeers.” Both went on to film careers, she as an actress and he as producer of the “James Bond” series. (And, yes, his ancestors developed the vegetable that bears their name.)
The world of sports would be a very different place without these baseball legends: Joseph Paul “Joe” DiMaggio, Ernie Lombardi, Tommy Lasorda, Lorenzo Pietro “Yogi” Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Roy Campanella, Joe Garagiola, Tony LaRussa, and Joe Torre. Mention, too, of A. Bartlett Giamatti, the youngest President of Yale University and later Commissioner of Baseball.
On the gridiron: Vince Lombardi and Joe Paterno called the plays, while Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and Brian Piccolo executed them.
In the squared circle, Rocky Marciano, Rocky Graziano, and Jake LaMotta were all boxing champions. And while wrestler and TV personality Hulk Hogan was tops in his profession, his mama called him Terry Gene Bollea.
Finally, if you were ever a 98-pound weakling always getting sand kicked in your face by bullies at the beach, you probably dreamed of being just like body builder Angelo Siciliano. Except you called him “Charles Atlas.”
It's October, so be Italian – even if you aren't – and take pride in the effect Italian-Americans have had on American culture. From their arrival as poor immigrants, often feared, derided and relegated to urban ghettos to their rise to the pinnacle of food, entertainment, law, politics, education, science, and sports, Italians haven’t just contributed to that culture, they have in many ways defined it.