Italian American stereotypes, from the mafia to “The Real Housewives of New Jersey”, were debunked at the Library of Congress Oct. 30 by co-authors of an exquisite new book, “Explorers Emigrants Citizens: A Visual History of the Italian American Experience from the Collections of the Library of Congress”.
In a way, two Al (Alfredo) Pacino roles symbolize a dual image of Italian Americans: Michael Corleone in “The Godfather” films and the real-life good cop “Serpico”, produced in 1973, the year between the first and second “Godfather”.
The book, with a foreword by Oscar®-winning director Martin Scorsese (“Goodfellas”, “Mean Streets”), moves far beyond the stereotypes, the infamous, and the famous, while illuminating the good, the bad, and the ugly.
“We must speak about what’s bad, the criminal aspects like the Mafia — we must not hide it,” co-author and publisher Paolo Battaglia told the audience at the Library of Congress, which published “Explorers Emigrants Citizens” in association with Anniversary Books.
Co-author Linda Barrett Osborne, a fourth-generation Italian American, told the crowd, “We cover crime elements — which we think are exaggerated — and also law enforcement.”
New York City Police lieutenant Joe Petrosino, the first Italian American police officer to be killed while fighting organized crime, is one such law enforcement hero. Petrosino was murdered in Palermo, Sicily in 1909 after the “New York Post” leaked his secret mission against the Black Hand (mafia), Battaglia noted.
“For every Al Capone, there are many Joe Petrosinos,” Battaglia added.
More than 120 Italian American police officers and fire fighters died trying to rescue people in the 9/11 terrorist attack, including Peter J. Ganci, head of the New York City Fire Department, who stayed with his men in the second Twin Tower.
Another stereotype is the organ grinder and monkey. One brilliant poster hawks “Signorita Galetti and her Troupe of the World’s Greatest Performing Monkeys”. Some of the simians are swathed in, or waving, the American flag.
An 1891 illustration in “Judge” Magazine shows an “Italian brigand” with a monkey on his shoulder, and a leaflet headlined “Mafia” at Uncle Sam’s feet.
And what’s the current image of Italian Americans?
“It’s a real mixture, from ‘The Real Housewives of New Jersey’ and ‘The Sopranos’ … to two U.S. Supreme Court Justices (Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito) — forget politics,” Osborne said, sparking appreciative laughter in the audience. The Library of Congress, like all the Federal government, was shut down for 16 days in October due to Congressional gridlock over Obamacare, the debt ceiling…
Forget politics? Osborne quickly mentioned former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and also forecast that an Italian American candidate would win the New York City mayoral race.
(New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia is just one of numerous excellent politicians in the book. La Guardia, who reformed and revitalized the city during the Depression and World War Two. In 1950, three Italian Americans vied for the position; Vincent Impellitteri won.)
Battaglia said, “In Italy, there are more stereotypes of Italian Americans than in America — where their image is of good food, wine, and design.”
For a video of the gorgeous book, with some 500 images including photographs, maps, posters, and letters covering 500 years of Italian American history, click here.