An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of Americaby George De Stefano
"Invites Italian-Americans of all backgrounds to the family table to discuss how mob-related movies and television shows have affected the very notion of what their heritage still means in the 21st century." Allen Barra, The New York Sun
"A detailed, textured meditation. Whether De Stefano is summarizing causes of 19th-century/i>/i>/i>
"Invites Italian-Americans of all backgrounds to the family table to discuss how mob-related movies and television shows have affected the very notion of what their heritage still means in the 21st century." Allen Barra, The New York Sun
"A detailed, textured meditation. Whether De Stefano is summarizing causes of 19th-century Italian immigration, sketching the Mafia's origin in Sicily, or dissecting the appeal of Hollywood mobster characters, he catches links to evolving capitalism, discomfort with modern society, psychological urges for strong father figures, and other complex topics not usually addressed by opponents of Mafia pop culture. [De Stefano] provokes hard thought about why the Mafia, to the exclusion of almost every other dimension of Italian American life, stays lodged in ‘the Mind of America.'" Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer
"Fascinating." James F. Sweeney, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
"Not a history of organized crime but a study of how we think about organized crime, more precisely about Italians and crime. . . Valuable and interesting." Elliott J. Gorn, Chicago Tribune
"A thoughtful, thorough analysis." Renee Graham, The Boston Globe
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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- First Edition
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An Offer We Can't Refuse
Italians to Italian Americans: Escaping the "Southern Problem"
O Mafiosi, Bad uncles of the barren Cliffs of Sicilywas it only you That they transported in barrels Like pure olive oil Across the Atlantic?
Sandra Mortola Gilbert1
From the late nineteenth century to the mid-1920s, southern peninsular Italy and Sicily lost so many of its sons and daughters to emigration that their departure has been likened to a hemorrhage. Among the millions of impoverished, landless, often illiterate emigrants were my grandparents, the De Stefanos from Avellino, near Naples, and the Di Pietros from eastern Sicily. They leftno, escaped a world where they had been politically disenfranchised, oppressed by the latifondisti (big landowners), the central government in faraway Rome, and the Church, whose priests counseled humble acceptance of their plight, in the hopes of better times in paradiso. The lot of my forebears and of so many other Italian Americans was unemployment, famine, disease, and natural disasters like the earthquakes that could devastate entire towns of the Mezzogiorno, as the regions south of Rome are collectively called.
This mass migration was unparalleled in European history, and to this day no other nation, barring outright religious persecution or ethnicpogroms, has lost so many of its inhabitants to emigration as Italy.2
Mario Puzo, whose Godfather is perhaps the best-known fictional account of the southern Italian immigration experience, observed, "The main reason for this enormous flood of human beings from a country often called the cradle of Western civilization was a ruling class that for centuries had abused and exploited its southern citizens in the most incredible fashion. And so they fled from sunny Italy, these peasants, as children in fairy tales flee into the dark forest from cruel stepparents."3
The exodus of southern Italians began barely twenty years after the unification of Italy in 1861. Before the Risorgimento, Italy had been a patchwork of states ruled by the Vatican and by foreign powers. Southerners were hopeful at first that the new Italian state would end the political tyranny and economic exploitation that had been their lot for centuries. But it quickly became apparent that the new central government, dominated by men from the northern region of Piemonte (Piedmont), would be no more benevolent toward the impoverished peasants, artisans, and urban working poor of the southern regions than had been their foreign rulers.
The newborn Italian state, in fact, turned out to be even tougher on the southern poor than the Spanish and French Bourbons and the other foreigners who had ruled the Mezzogiorno. Giuseppe Garibaldi, who led the insurrection against the Bourbons, won the trust and support of southern Italians eager to throw off Bourbon rule. But Garibaldi was a military figure; he was not adept in either politics or constitutional law. Sicilian landowners pressured him to abandon the promises of land reform that had secured the support of southerners for his revolt. And once the Bourbon army was no longer a threat, Garibaldi's troops fired on peasant rebels, thereby sending the landowning class the clear message that his forces "were defenders of order, not of social revolution."4
Before the Risorgimento, southern Italy had low taxes, negligible debt, and inexpensive food. When the South lost its autonomy after 1861, taxes rose steeply. The new national government not only imposed a heavy tax burden on the South but also conscripted its sons into the Italian army. Landowners controlled local elections, since peasants were not allowed to vote. Even the appropriation of the Church's vast land holdings and its wealth by the government worsenedthe situation of the southern poor, as the new tenancy terms were more onerous and it became increasingly difficult to obtain credit. In the 1880s, when the government imposed new tariffs on imported goods, Italy's trading partners retaliated. The loss of export markets hit the Mezzogiorno particularly hard, as capital was diverted from southern agriculture and invested in northern industry.5
Southern Italians quickly discovered the falseness of the Risorgimento's promises of liberal democracy and respect for the human rights of the citizens of the entire Italian nation. The new government's attentions were focused on the interests of the North at the expense of the southern regions. (For example, the Italian government concentrated nearly all of its water control and irrigation projects in the North, even though such assistance was desperately needed in the South.)6 And in the South, social relations remained oppressive, with landowners exerting near-total power over the landless, in what can only be likened to a master-slave relationship.
The callous injustice of the new order was compounded by the central government's practice of attributing the ills of the Mezzogiorno to a "southern problem." The Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, a Sardinian, described the Italian stereotypes of the North versus the South:
... the South is the ball and chain that prevents a more rapid progress in the civil development of Italy; Southerners are biologically inferior beings, either semi-barbarians or out and out barbarians by natural destiny; if the South is underdeveloped it is not the fault of the capitalist system, or any other historical cause, but of the nature that has made Southerners lazy, incapable, criminal and barbaric.7
The antipathy between northern and southern Italy had deep historical roots. The North
was proud of the glorious culture it had produced during the Renaissance. It had entered the industrial age and was dreaming the nineteenth century's dreams of Progress. The South had remained unchanged and clung to its family system and its medievalcodes of Byzantines, Normans, and Arabs. These were the cultures that had influenced the Mezzogiorno ... and not the French and German cultures that had influenced the North.8
Social scientists elaborated the doctrine of innate southern Italian inferiority in tracts such as Alfredo Niceforo's Contemporary Barbarian Italy (1898), which portrayed the peoples of Sardinia, Sicily, and the southern mainland as primitive, much less evolved than the peoples of central and northern Italy. Niceforo and other "sociologists of positivism," as Gramsci called them,9 reduced southerners to "alleged facts of positivist sociology (rates of crime, education, birth rate, mortality, suicide rate, and economy)," and grounded their putative scholarship in racist biologyciting, for example, the allegedly different cranial sizes of northerners and southerners.10
Given the failures of the new Italian constitutionalism to guarantee the rights of southerners, and the northern racism toward the people of the Mezzogiorno, it is hardly surprising that the main effect of the Risorgimento on the South was to "mangle the life of the people of Southern Italy, who at the time of national unification constituted at least two-fifths of the population of Italy."11
There was armed resistance by southerners to the oppressive new order. These rebellions were put down, often with horrific violence, and their adherents invariably were described in the Italian press as bandits and brigands. But, as legal historian David A. J. Richards observes, under the newly created national government,
one aspect of the promises of Italian liberal nationalism was met, the extension to the people of the South of a right they had not enjoyed under previous governments, namely, the basic right of movement (including the right to emigrate). Respect for at least that basic human right enabled the people of the South reasonably to address and make a choice (namely, of political allegiance) that they had not previously been able to make.12
That choice was to leave an inhospitable homeland, where they had been abused and denigrated, and told it was their innate inferiority thatcaused their suffering. Towns and villages were depopulated, as southern Italians fled the grinding poverty, hunger, and political oppression they called la miseria, to seek pane e lavorobread and workin Lamerica. Throughout southern Italy, "Wherever people were leaving for America, there was the cacophony of families separating, crying, entreating, promising, and the din of children shouting and laughing, too young to comprehend the poignancy of the farewells."13 The emigrants left in overcrowded ships where conditions were hardly fit for cattle, much less humans. Most could only afford to travel in steerage, the section of the ship far below decks and near the rudder. Passengers were packed into compartments holding at least three hundred people. "Women traveled without husbands, men traveled alone, and families were installed in small cubicles, each passenger allotted a berth that served both as bed and storage place."14 There was only saltwater for washing, and the smell of human waste often permeated the area.
After having endured the hardships of their voyage across the Atlantic, the emigrants found themselves in New York, where they faced an uncertain reception. Being largely unskilled and of rural origin, they were poorly equipped to succeed in the industrializing American economy. Nearly half of those who arrived between 1900 and 1914 were illiterate, the highest rate of the eleven largest ethnic groups arriving at Ellis Island.15 In addition, many suffered from contagious diseases, such as cholera and tuberculosis; these unfortunates were sent back to Europe. The southern Italian immigrant, then, had only one advantage upon arrival in the strano paese (strange land) of America: a fierce determination to work hard for his family.
Unscrupulous Italians who had already established themselves in America took advantage of the new arrivals' eagerness for work. Waiting on the docks for the emigrants to disembark, these newly minted americani recruited their paesani into packaged labor gangs, a form of contract labor known as the padrone or boss system. "The padrone then sold the gang as a labor package to an American business firm, collecting from both ends [from the workers and employers] for signing away the sweat of his countryman's brow below the market price."16
Late in the nineteenth century, the United States enacted legislation meant to eradicate the evils of the padrone system by forbiddingthe importation of foreign workers under any type of contract. But the law's complexity, and its failure to define what constituted a contract, made enforcement extremely difficult. A padrone could easily circumvent the law by substituting oral agreements for written ones. The padrone system lasted through the peak years of Italian immigration, waning only when the numbers of Italian immigrants in the United States were so high that any newcomer could find assistance in obtaining work, and a place to live, without having to rely on a padrone.17
The padrone system wasn't the only instance of Italian American prominenti acting against the interests of the impoverished newcomers. "Italian-language newspapers opposed the formation of labor unions and attacked social reforms that would have aided their less fortunate countrymen," observed Mario Puzo.18 Puzo overlooks, however, the actual labor organizing and political radicalism of many southern Italian immigrants. The martyred anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti and the labor activist Carlo Trescaassassinated in 1944 by a mafiosoare some of the most famous of immigrant radicals. But thousands of men and women from the Mezzogiorno established a diverse, vibrant, and militant left-wing movement, comprising the full spectrum of radical ideologies, from anarchism and syndicalism to democratic socialism to communism. In virtually every substantial Italian immigrant community, leftists established Italian-language newspapers with names such as Il Proletario and La Voce del Popolo.
My grandfather, Giuseppe (Joe) Di Pietro, from Ragusa, Sicily, was part of this radical immigrant world. My first exposure to left-wing ideas, in fact, came in conversations we had in the mid-1960s about the Vietnam War and the exploitation of working people under capitalism. Three decades later, when I brought a friend from Sicily to dinner at my parents' home, my mother waxed nostalgic about her father. And the first thing she mentioned to our Sicilian guest was, "Well, Salvo, you know my father was a communist ..."
Fear of foreign-born radicals fueled virulent anti-immigrant sentiment in the years immediately following World War I. Nativists, united under the slogan "America for Americans," demanded new laws to protect thenation from southern and eastern European immigrants, who purportedly would infect America with their dangerous radical ideas and engage in violent subversion. Immigrants were blamed for the labor unrest occurring in industrial America, even though native-born Americans dominated the ranks of labor militants.19 In 1919 the Department of Justice arrested and deported hundreds of leftists, most of them eastern European Jews and southern Italians. The mass arrestsknown as the Palmer raids because they were enacted through the office of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmerheightened the conviction that America was under attack by dangerous foreign radicals, and that more restrictive immigration policies were the answer to the threat.20
But for southern Italians, the main obstacle to their acceptance by native-born Americans was the association of people from the Mezzogiorno with organized crime. Americans had read newspaper accounts of brigandage in the South, as well as stories about the sanguinary doings of Neapolitan camorre, the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta, and the Sicilian mafie. Racist stereotypes of southern Italians as having a peculiar, possibly inborn tendency toward criminality followed the immigrants to the Americas, where such images were reinforced in both the popular press and in elite opinion journals. The headline of a New York Times editorial from 1876, "A Natural Inclination Toward Criminality," says it all. There was no question mark in the headline, nor did the editorial entertain any doubt regarding the veracity of this claim. The Times authoritatively informed its readers that the "natural inclination" stemmed from the fact that "the Italian is lazier, more gossiping, and fitter for intrigue than the American."21
But to the Times editorialists, "the Italian" did not represent all Italians. The previous year, when some of the first Neapolitan and Sicilian immigrants had begun to arrive in New York, the Times, in an editorial titled "Our Italians," regretted that these southerners were adding their numbers to those of the northern Italians already living in New York, who were "industrious and honest people from Genoa and the towns of the Ligurian coast, with a few emigrants from Piedmont and an occasional Livornese." The new arrivals, however, were "extremely ignorant, and have been reared in the belief that brigandage is a manly occupation, and that assassination is the natural sequence of the most trivialquarrel. They are miserably poor, and it is not strange that they resort to theft and robbery. It is, perhaps, hopeless to think of civilizing them, or of keeping them in order, except by the arm of the law."22
In a 1904 essay called "The Immigration Problem," one Robert De C. Ward made a racist distinction between two kinds of immigrants:
A few years ago practically all of our immigrants were from northern and western Europe, that is, they were more or less closely allied to us racially, historically, industrially and politically. They were largely the same elements which had recently made up the English race ... Now, however, the majority of the newcomers are from southern and eastern Europe, and they are coming in rapidly increasing numbers from Asia. These people are alien to us, in race ... in language, in social, political, and industrial ideas and inheritances.23
Newspapers, magazines, and opinion journals routinely described southern Italian immigrants as lacking any ethical or moral sense, unassimilable, ineducable, irreducibly foreign. "That the Mediterranean peoples are morally below the races of Northern Europe is as certain as any social fact," declared the sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross. In the racist discourse of the times, the fair coloring of Anglo-Saxons and Nordics was a visible marker of their ethical superiority to the southern Italians. "Even when they were dirty, ferocious barbarians, these blonds were truth-tellers," claimed Alsworth Ross. "Be it pride or awkwardness or lack of imagination or fair-play sense, something has held them back from the nimble lying of the Southern races.
"The Northerners seem to surpass the southern Europeans in innate ethical endowment," the sociologist concluded.24
Italian immigrants in the 1880s were even accused of a conspiracy to inundate the United States with Italian fleas. Respectable publications gave credence to this ludicrous slander promoted by anti-Italian nativists. In an editorial of November 8, 1883, The New York Times announced that "the Italian flea has reached this country in company with other Italian immigrants, and is now present in great force in a small Pennsylvania town where Italian laborers are employed. Unlessthe importation of this infamous insect is checked the whole country will swarm with Italian fleas. Our own native flea will disappear before its formidable competitor."25 The "Italian flea" served as a metaphor for the southern Italians themselves, and the supposed threat they posed to native-born Americans. Decades before Nazi propaganda dehumanized Jews by associating them with disease-spreading rodents, the mainstream American press propagated images of Italians as carriers of a foreign pestilence that, if unchecked, would run rampant throughout the nation.
These flea-carrying, uncivilized, and threatening Mediterraneans demonstrated their foreignness and inferiority the moment they arrived in America. Edward Alsworth Ross again:
Before the boards of inquiry at Ellis Island their emotional instability stands out in the sharpest contrast to the self-control of the Hebrew and the stolidity of the Slav. They gesticulate much, and usually tears stand in their eyes. When two witnesses are being examined, both talk at once, and their hands will be moving all the time. Their glances flit quickly from one questioner to another, and their eyes are the restless, uncomprehending eyes of the desert Bedouin between walls. Yet for all this eager attention, they are slow to catch the meaning of a simple question, and often it must be repeated.26
The frankly racist nature of so much that was said about southern Italian immigrants seems startling today. After all, aren't Italians Caucasians? They are designated as such, by the U.S. Census and in general usage. But to the xenophobic nativists of early-twentieth-century America, the new arrivals from southern Italy hardly qualified as white folks. The arrival of Italians in large numbers coincided with the rise in popularity of Social Darwinism, which applied evolutionary doctrine beyond the realm of biology and into analyses of human behavior. The Social Darwinist outlook sanctioned racism, with its exponents teaching that the "Teutonic" and "Nordic" races were superior to all others. These purportedly superior races brought their institutions from Great Britain and Germany to the English colonies and to North America.Social Darwinists, fearful of racial degeneration, regarded the newcomers of the post-Civil War years as weaker, more dangerous, less civilized, and, as noted earlier, inherently criminal.
"From this perspective," observes historian Salvatore J. La Gumina, "Italians, along with other representatives of new immigration, Jews, Poles, Greeks, etc., clearly remained undesirable. As the largest group of these newcomers, Italians seemed least likely to satisfy the requirements of assimilation."27
In parts of the American South, where slavery was still a fresh memory and descendants of slaves, "free" blacks, were subjected to the official racism of de jure segregation and Jim Crow laws, southern Italians occupied "a racial middle ground within the otherwise unforgiving binary caste system of white-over-black," according to the scholar Matthew Frye Jacobson.28 To Southern racists, many of the Italian immigrants, with their dark hair and eyes and olive skin, did not look white. Moreover, they did not "act white." In New Orleans, for example, "Italian immigrants were stigmatized in the postCivil War period because they accepted economic niches (farm labor and small tenancy, for instance) marked as 'black' by local custom, and because they lived and worked comfortably among blacks."29
The 1922 trial in Alabama of a black man accused of miscegenation provides a vivid example of the racial in-betweenness of southern Italian immigrants in the eyes of white America. Jim Rollins, the black man in question, had been convicted of the crime of miscegenation, but his conviction was overturned by an appeals court on the grounds that the prosecution could not conclusively prove that Edith LaBue, the woman in question, was indeed white. LaBue was a Sicilian immigrant, and her ethnicity, the court held, meant that she might be "a Negro or a descendant of a Negro." Although the court did not definitively state that Sicilians were nonwhite, the ruling "also made clear that she [LaBue] was not the sort of white woman whose purity was to be 'protected' by that bulwark of white supremacism, the miscegenation statute."30
By the early 1920s, there were already nearly four million Italians in the country, to the displeasure of many native-born Americans. "In opinion polls reflecting native-born Americans' preferences in new neighbors, Italians ranked near the bottom. They were seen as clannish,uncouth, instinctively criminal."31 The Volstead Act, better known as Prohibition, was imposed on America in 1920 primarily by WASP "zealots of sobriety," and "lent credibility to the image of typically winedrinking Italians, who were by nature lawless; and the American press, by making antiheroes of such bootlegging gangsters as Alphonse ('Scarface') Capone, heightened the notoriety attached to many people with Italian names."32
Nearly one-quarter of all Italians in the United States lived in New York City, but they did not constitute a significant voting bloc, either because they were not registered to vote, or, as noncitizens, were not eligible. In the early 1920s, there were no Republican or Democratic district leaders of Italian origin. Public high schools banned the teaching of the Italian language; the public school system offered no courses in Italian history or culture. Leonard Covello, an Italian-born educator and author, observed that for the children of immigrants, assimilation began with "learning to be ashamed of our parents."33 Anti-Italian prejudice was so common that the Italian government sometimes protested it, as well as America's imposition, in 1924, of limits to immigration from southern Europe.
Faced with the intense hostility of nativist Americans, denigrated as racially inferior, dangerously radical, and prone to violent criminality, the southern Italian immigrants clung to the cultural construct and social institution that had sustained them in the harsh world they had left behind. "The only system to which the contadino [peasant] paid attention was l'ordine della famiglia; the unwritten but all-demanding and complex system of rules governing one's relations within, and responsibilities to, his own family, and his posture toward those outside the family. All other social institutions were seen within a spectrum of attitudes ranging from indifference to scorn and contempt."34
The concept of family embraced by southern Italians is expansive, including mothers, fathers, and siblings, but also aunts, uncles, cousins, and comari and compari. Every Italian family has comari and compari ; often referred to as godmothers and godfathers, they are intimate but nonblood members of the extended family.35 (Fans of The Sopranos are familiar with comari, pronounced "gumads," as the mistresses of the show's married mafiosi.)
"Sociability in Italy was family-based," as historian Robert A. Orsi observes in The Madonna of 115th Street, his study of the Italian American community of East Harlem, New York. And in America, the immigrants replicated, to the best of their ability in a strange land, the family system they had known. At the center of this system is the "domus," a concept referring both to the family itself and to the actual physical home. For southern Italians, the domus is "the foundation of their understanding of the good and the basis of their moral judgment."36
The domus, and its preservation in the New World, was the most important thing to the southern Italians. They didn't identify with Italy as a nation, but with their particular paesi and the domus-centered lives they had known in those towns and villages of the Mezzogiorno. "These people could not understand the proud italianità of Italian Harlem's middle-class immigrant professionals, who had managed to find some identification with the Italian nation ... So their memories and images of Italy were memories of strict family order and discipline, of family loyalty and mutual support," says Orsi.
First- and second-generation Italian Americans "felt that their love and respect for the domus marked them out as a distinct and different people in American culture, and they frequently compared Italian and American valuesto the great detriment of the latter. When the immigrants wanted to criticize their children's new ideas about themselves and the ways they wanted to organize their lives, they accused them of being American.37
"Individuals were warned that to violate the blood bonding of the domus meant disaster," Orsi observes. "There were a number of levels to this blood unity. It referred, first of all, to the blood-bond existing between mother and child, the essential blood tie; it also meant the special bonds that exist among siblings: the brother-sister relationship or the brother-brother relationship was thought to be closer than the father-son or father-daughter relationship because brothers and sisters were of the same blood, had suckled their mother's blood."
In the domus-centered worldview, a blood relationship existed among southern Italians from different regions, despite whatever antagonisms might have existed in the old country. Neapolitans might disdain Sicilians as superstitious peasants, and Sicilians might look down on Neapolitans as thieves and cutthroats, but better that their sons anddaughters should marry each other than a non-Italian. If one married a non-Italian, one "might not be able to incorporate his or her children into the domus ..."38
The domus mitigated the social isolation and feelings of alienation that the immigrants and their children might experience in a foreign environment, a new world. The individual human being "located in the world by blood ties was not, and could not be, an isolated self: the self in Italian Harlem was a self-in-connection." Individual ambition and needs for personal satisfaction were to be submerged in all-consuming loyalty to the domus. Children were the responsibility of all the members of the domus, not just the parents, because the successful education of the young into the domus-centered culture was "far too important a cultural task to be left to two people who might or might not be able to handle it."39
Orsi notes that the community could be quite cruel to those who by circumstances or choice lived outside the domus. Two groups came in for particular scorn, unmarried women and priests. Disdain for the clergy may surprise those used to seeing Italians as intensely devout Catholics loyal to their Church. But although they were passionately devoted to their faith, manifested in community rituals such as religious feste, in which they honored particular saints, they were far less wedded to the institutional Church than were Irish Catholics. Many Italians, in fact, were strongly anticlerical. My grandfather, not long before his death, warned my mother that if she had a church funeral service for him, he would come back to haunt her.
First-generation Italian Americans remembered the Church as an ally of the hated ruling classes in the old country. But their antagonism toward clerics also stemmed from the fact that they chose to live outside a domus. "Southern Italians were not always pleased when their sons decided to become priests; the church in this way became too intimate a rival to the domus."
In the domus, its members revealed the selves that had been formed and nurtured in the family crucible. The domus was "a theater of self-revelation: on this stage, a person showed the world his or her worth and integrity, responsibility, and devotion, the respect they gave and the respect they were due."40
Those Italian Americans who lived the domus-centered life describedby Orsi often recall it with nostalgic fondness. Katherine Narducci, an actress known to Sopranos fans as Charmaine Bucco, the mobster-hating wife and business partner of restaurateur Artie Bucco, grew up in East Harlem during the 1960s and '70s, by which time Italian Harlem had shrunk to a few blocks. But her recollections demonstrate that the culture Orsi portrays still existed for the remaining descendants of the immigrants.
I lived on First Avenue and I would say there were probably about seven apartment buildings on one streetfrom 114th to 115th Street, let's say. Everybody was so close; it felt like it was a huge one-family house. Because we were over the roofs and in and out of each other's houses. And the freedomyou felt so safe. It wasn't like today. We were allowed to wander off and my mother didn't think twice about it, letting me go out from morning to night. The neighborhood, we would have feasts [religious feste] every year. All of the owners of the rides would let the poor kids of the neighborhood on the rides free. It was just very exciting. It was religious. We went to church, we had great morals. It was a fantastic way of life ... I loved it.
We would have barbecues right in the middle of the street. Everybody would cook together, eat together. They would open up a big table on Sunday and everybody would eat at the table. The jukebox would be in the street ... and the music ... It was so romantic. When you're young, I think a lot of times you don't realize the area you're growing up in, how great it is. I remember I used to say, "God, I love this neighborhood. I never want to go anywhere else!" It was just terrific. I lived on the second floorand my bedroom was right in front on First Avenueand I would hear all the Italian ladies talking and all the guys talking in the street. And the sound would put me to sleep 'cause I felt so safe.41
Narducci's golden memories notwithstanding, life in the domus-centered community had its downside. Economic success was esteemed only if it helped to maintain and support the domus. It was expected that individuals would refuse promotions at work if movingup threatened the stability of the domus. If an upwardly mobile Italian-merican decided to move out of the community, "the decision to do so could cause real pain in the domus."42
The family culture that Narducci remembers so fondly could also be oppressive to women, who were expected to be the protectors of the domus, willing to sacrifice and suffer on behalf of their families, and to submit to male authority. Like the revered figure of the Madonna, the Italian wife and mother wielded power, but it was circumscribed and defined by men, and limited to the realm of the family.
The priority on protecting the domus also could lead Italian American communities to indulge, even excuse, the gangsters in their midst, as long as they were seen as guardians of this realm. "For many Italians who grew up in East Harlem, gangsters are romantic figures, characters like those in southern Italian legends and folktales," notes Robert Orsi. "They are said to have kept the community safe, looked after poor people, and watched over the women of the community. They made sure that people coming home from work late at night were safe in the streets, according to the legend."43
Katherine Narducci's memories of the mob's presence in East Harlem bear out Orsi's observations. Charmaine Bucco may despise gangsters, but the actress who plays the honest and put-upon working woman recalls them as a positive force in the community.
I didn't really ... at that time realize that they were mob guys ... but I knew it was a strong group of men who took care of the neighborhood and they had a lot to do with the safety of the neighborhood. I didn't realize "mob." In my older years, my teen years, I started to realize ...
My truth and my perception was that they were the best guys ever. They did everything for the kids in the neighborhood. Every single holiday, we were taken care of. If you didn't have a Halloween costume because you were too poor, they'd buy you one. So, they were just terrific. They were Santa Claus on Christmas ... You know it's like what they say about John Gotti. The people in the neighborhood didn't know the details of what went on. They just knew that this guy took care of the neighborhood. He had parties on the Fourth of July, he helped so manypeople in the neighborhood. I know one story: this homeless woman went to his house. He set her up in an apartment, bought her furniture. And he barely knew her. This is what the people know, that's how they know himthe smiles, the generous guy, the glamorous guy, the good-looking guy. How could you not like this guy? 44
Narducci's familiarity with gangsters was, in fact, familial; her father, Nicky Narducci, was a local mob figure who was "whacked"shot to death in front of the Upper East Side bar he ownedwhen she was ten years old. On the Pad, a 1973 book about a rogue New York City cop who testified before the Knapp Commission, which was investigating police corruption, describes Nicky Narducci as "a flip, tough hood ... Narducci had a lot of arrests in his record, more than twenty, but had served fewer than three years in prison." Narducci "had to have had a hook, influence, that extended into the office of New York District Attorney Frank S. Hogan ... How else explain ... the felony charges reduced to misdemeanors, the acquiescence of the DA's office to Narducci 'walking away' from arrests ...? " According to the book, Narducci "hobnobbed ... with top Mob figures."45 But at thirty years old, he ended up dead, a photo of his corpse appearing on page 5 of the New York Daily News.
"My father died at an early age," continues Katherine Narducci, "and I had, like, twenty other fathers. I just felt very safe. These guys treated me like a daughter. Not knowing who they were or what they did, I just knew they kept everything safe. They were very giving."
Narducci as a child might not have understood how gangsters made their money. (And she surely cannot be taken seriously when she says that John Gotti's neighbors were unaware of his criminal exploits.) But according to Robert Orsi, "Everyone in the community knew that local mobsters spent most of their time in Italian Harlem extorting Italian merchants and running numbers games that took money away from the community." But community members were able to reconcile this knowledge with the apparently incompatible perception of gangsters as men who defended the domus. "Why," Orsi asks, "did the community make heroes out of these mobsters, if only in the tales they told, when they knew full well the reality of their crimes?"46
The gangsters, he believes, served the symbolic function of representing both "the violence that individuals knew they had to do to their own aspirations and plans in deference to the domus, and the violent fantasies they sometimes entertained against the domus itself." In the stories Italian East Harlemites told about the gangsters in their midst,
The guns of these cruel men are aimed against violators of the domus: in this way, the mafiosi also articulate the rage that people inevitably turned inward in their struggles against the demands of the domus and the guilt they suffered for struggling. In the tales, the domus is always successfully defended: these myths allowed the people to express their rage against it while both assuring them that the domus was safe against that rage and reminding them of what was necessary for their submission ... Symbols of aggression and repression, the mythical mafiosi embodied the complexity of feeling and anxiety which the people of Italian Harlem bore toward the domus.47
Dedication to the values of the domus, when narrowly conceived, could also foster an us-against-the-world mentality that could be used to legitimate hostility toward other ethnic groups, for instance, the intense rivalry and occasionally violent clashes between Italians and blacks and Puerto Ricans in East Harlem during the 1950s and '60s. Fierce loyalty to the domus, in fact, has been partly responsible for more recent racial attacks by young Italian American malessome of them aspiring mafiosi or errand boys for gangstersagainst black males who venture onto Italian turf. "Protecting the neighborhood" is a familiar rationale offered by these misguided youths and the adults who condone their behavior, because blacks and other nonwhite strangers who venture into Italian areas must be up to no good.
But it would be a mistake to say that the values of the domus-centered community necessarily foster tribalism. Mutual support and concern, especially during crises, shared sacrifice and the sense of communal responsibility for children and the needy, loyalty, and the primacy of face-to-face relationships over the pursuit of material wealthall these are qualities that can inform progressive politics as well as ethnocentrism. As Robert Orsi observes, the world of the domusproduced the gangster Frank Costello, but it also produced such champions of reform as Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.48 Vito Marcantonio, the East Harlem-born radical who represented his community in the U.S. Congress for two decades, was also formed by the values of the domus.
If the experience of the first generation of Italian Americans, and to a lesser degree of the second generation, was prejudice and discrimination, by the time World War II broke out, "a climate of acceptance of Italians had developed in America."49 Italian Americans by then had achieved some political power; Fiorello La Guardia and Angelo Rossi were the nationally prominent mayors of New York City and San Francisco. Hundreds of thousands of Italian Americans were members of the U.S. armed forces, and those Italian Americans not in uniform responded loyally and enthusiastically to the war effort. Many Italian Americans had admired Italy's fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, believing that he had gained international respect for Italy. But when the United States entered the war, Italian Americans had no hesitation in choosing sides: their new country got their loyalty, despite whatever attachments they may have had to the old country.
Popular culture reflected the changed perception of Italians. In the films of the 1930s, Italians generally were depicted as Prohibition-era mobsters, usually portrayed by non-Italian actors such as Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar) and Paul Muni (Scarface). World War II brought a respite from the gangster image, as Italian American boyswho usually hailed from Brooklynproved themselves loyal and heroic fighters.50 The Italian American soldier usually was part of an ethnically representative (of white ethnics, that is) platoona Goldberg, an O'Hara, a Smith, and a Martino. From Here to Eternity, a World War II film made a few years after the war's end, featured a character who was to become the best-known Italian American movie GI, Angelo Maggio, a tragic figure hounded and eventually killed by a sadistic, Italian-hating sergeant played by Ernest Borgnine (né Borgnino).
But a decade later, even a sympathetic character like Maggio came to be linked to the mafia in the popular consciousness. Mario Puzo'sThe Godfather, with its thinly veiled Sinatra character, the singer-actor Johnny Fontane, made millions of readers (and later, moviegoers) believe that Sinatra had won the role of Maggio because of a horse's head in a producer's bed.51
During the postwar years, Italians came to be accepted as Americans, as they achieved greatness in sports, politics, and the arts and sciences. But in one respect they remained haunted by the immigrant past and its tribulations. The passage of two or three generations since the era of mass migration from Italy had not swept away the association of southern Italians with organized crime. The widespread notoriety attached to organized crime in the 1950s and 1960s, with highly publicized Congressional investigations and public hearings, further entrenched this connection in the popular imagination.
To put it another way [wrote Salvatore La Gumina in the early 1970s], a "mystique" has evolved around the "Mafia" and "Cosa Nostra" theme with influence on both popular and official notions of the validity of criminal phenomena. The public has been so saturated with the Mafia theme that, in effect, a conditioning process has taken place around the term. The mental picture of the Mafia in the public mind, made up as it is of myth and fact, has tended to blur our vision of the real world. The Italian term "mafia" has come to be synonymous with organized crime.52
Italian Americans who enter politics often find themselves the object of "insinuations or brazen lies about Mafia connections" that can derail or hinder their aspirations.53 Rumors of wiseguy skeletons rattling in family closets plagued the vice presidential campaign of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Mario Cuomo's gubernatorial reelection bid in 1986. Such leading newspapers as The Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Post, and The Wall Street Journal insinuated that Ferraro and her family were "connected," but no evidence was ever brought forth to support the accusations.54
Mario Cuomo found vindication when Nicholas Pileggi, a well-known journalist whose book Wiseguy is a milestone in mob-lit, reportedthat the rumors had been "passed around by cops, media people and others in a kind of shadow network of gossip and loose talk." Pileggi found that most of the rumors had been spread by two people, a Long Island public relations man who worked for the Right to Life candidate in the 1986 gubernatorial campaign, and a conservative aide in the state legislature.55
Gay Talese maintains that although Cuomo ultimately was vindicated, the rumor-mongering was effective; it "basically kept him from challenging Bill Clinton for the Presidential nomination.
"Clinton, a cracker from Hope, Arkansas, and Cuomo both came from poor circumstances, both were provincials, but Clinton was more likely to be accepted nationally as an American," Talese says. "Cuomo looked like someone who could be a character in The Godfather,"56 which was what Clinton said about him. Americans like Italians as gangsters, but don't want one as president.
"Look at the anchormen for the three major networksBrokaw, Rather, and Jennings. All are white, non-ethnic men who look like they could be occupants of the White House, or are potential matinee idols. You wouldn't see someone dark, like Pacino. You could not have an Italian, or a Jew, as a network anchorman. It's all about appearances and Cuomo didn't have it, nor does anyone of Italian origin." (Talese was right about the network TV news anchors, but there is now far more diversity among the ranks of cable news anchors and reporters.)57
And the ethnic profiling of Italian elected officials continues. The Order of the Sons of Italy in America (OSIA), the oldest Italian American watchdog group, found examples of the stereotyping of Italian American politicians in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Newsweek. Two victims of media hits were New York gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, whose withdrawals from their respective races in 2002 were chalked up to their being made "offers they couldn't refuse."
In October 2002, Newsweek presented a two-page spread, "Tony and 'The Torch,'" by Jonathan Alter, that, the OSIA observed, "reads more like a Sopranos script than a news article thanks to its liberal use of mob-speak: Torricelli 'seemed likely to get whacked in November ... because when you "at out" New Jersey, the voters treat you like BigPussy' [a Sopranos character murdered for having become a government informant"]. The article drew other analogies between Torricelli's dire political situation and the characters and storylines of The, Sopranos.
"The line between fiction and fact has become dangerously blurred to the detriment of Italian Americans in public life," the OSIA noted in a press release. Referring to a general tendency by media pundits to belittle Italian American complaints about stereotyping, the release concluded, "Instead of telling Italian Americans to 'lighten up,' the press's reporting should clean up."58
In Maine, 2002 Green Party gubernatorial candidate Jonathan Carter ran a TV advertisement opposing legalized gambling that linked his opponent, former state legislator John Baldacci, a Democrat, to the mafia. "Casino gambling in Maine? You got a problem with that?" an unseen announcer says in a stereotypically mafioso accent. The gangster-announcer notes that although Baldacci says he's opposed to casinos, he voted in favor of them when he was in the Maine legislature. "If he can flip, he can flop, bada bing, bada boom, know what I mean?" Declaring that Carter is unalterably opposed to legalized gambling, the announcer insists, "we ain't gonna be Vegas or New Jersey [Tony Soprano's home state], not now, not ever, never. In other words, fuhgedaboudit."
"Bada boom, bada bing" is a phrase that has become a cliche of movies and TV shows about the mafia, and the Bada Bing is the name of the strip club on The Sopranos where Tony and his crew have their headquarters. "Fuhgedaboudit" is also a staple of mob lore. In the 1997 film Donnie Brasco, the title character, an undercover FBI agent investigating organized crime, delivers an amusing soliloquy on the various meanings of the expression.
But Jonathan Carter and his campaign denied that the commercial was in any way defamatory. Advocacy groups, and not all of them Italian-American, disagreed, as did some in the Maine media who deplored the ad as ethnic stereotyping that had no place in a political campaign. Baldacci, an astute campaigner, garnered sympathy from those offended by the Carter commercial. And he won the election, with Carter coming in a distant third.
Copyright © 2006 by George De Stefano
Meet the Author
George De Stefano is a journalist and critic who has written extensively on culture for numerous publications, including The Nation, Film Comment, and Newsday.
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Finally a book that comprehensively deals with the Italian American experience and the myths that have been generated about them. The book operates on both an intellectual and pop culture level and is immensly readable- either from front to back or by chapter. You may never see such pop culture icons as 'The Sopranos' and 'The Godfather' the same again!