The following is the conclusion of the keynote address given by Boston-based Italian journalist Stefano Salimbeni at the Italian Cultural Foundation of Rhode Island’s annual dinner, on April 28, 2012. To read the entire speech, click here.
Italians and Americans of Italian heritage changed this country and we keep changing it — mostly — for the better.
However, the past and the present for us do not always mix.Young and old Italians in America should communicate and feel on the same page. Much more than they actually do. After all, they all came here to make their dreams come true.
There is a huge gap between the generation who came here after World War II and the ones who came in the last few decades. The former escaped a country in post-war shambles, often recalled here by relatives, and therefore fit more or less into the groove traced by their predecessors. The new ones don’t.
I believe everybody is partly responsible for this gap, and everyone should take steps to bridge it. However, in my opinion, it should be up to the younger ones to take the bigger steps.
To begin with, young Italians should stop snubbing the old ones. Looking at them and at their activities — no matter how colorful, flamboyant and rooted in a time long gone — as if they had three heads. They should understand that processions, religious feasts, tarantella shows, dinner-dances and what not, have kept their Italian predecessors alive, as far as identity is concerned. For many years it was a way to hold on as a community against all the forces that compelled them to fully integrate in American society by giving up what defined them.
They kept doing it in the face of prejudice and discrimination and ultimately succeeded in showing the country that: “No! We were not all Mafia members, or dirty, lazy, garlic eaters!”
Today it might be a popular thing to do, but in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s it took guts to scream “Viva La Madonna” with a big statue of the Virgin Mary on your shoulder in the streets of Boston’s North End.
What these people did is prepare the field for the new ones, convince the country of the goodness and value of Italians, making America fall in love with them in the end. Then came the young professionals and scientists who now find a country where the sentence “I come from Italy” usually comes with a response: “Cool!”
Well, it wasn’t always like that. The new “highly educated” immigrants should take that into consideration… and once in a while enjoy a meatball sub with their older fellow countrymen! If for nothing else, at least for the taste of it.On the other side of this “canyon,” the old-timers should stop looking down upon the new ones and let go of their own stereotypes about what’s Italian and what’s not. Maybe even try to learn the language or at least learn what today’s Italy is really about.
Also, they should try to get rid of the internal bickering over petty details of power struggles. Wherever I have been Italians do not seem able to work as a team. They fuss and fight about everything. We know we are good—and that’s good thing—but then everyone of us thinks he is better than everybody else around him — and that’s TOO MUCH of a good thing.
On a national level this is — in my opinion — one of the reasons why publicly stereotyping every other ethinicty or minority gets you on a podium apologizing to the whole world, while calling us “Mafiosi,” on the other hand, makes everybody laugh. You know, after a while it’s not that funny anymore!
Oldtimers should instead focus on providing the newcomers with an updated calendar of events that can attract and interest everybody. So that their children and the new Italian-Americans don’t end up in completely separated places in society.
What I really mean is that we have a great, still largely untapped, potential. Let us not waste it.
Some places and institutions are trying with a decent amount of success to bridge this gap which seems to get wider as time goes by.
In the Silicon Valley area an association called SVIEC (Silicon Valley Italian Executive Council) has a remarkable program that reunites Italians, old and now, around the subject of high-tech industry and financing thereof.
On a more general level the Italian Consulate in Boston has been trying for the past few years—under Liborio Stellino, first, and Giuseppe Pastorelli, now, to do the same.
We wave the same ‘tricolore’ flag, we share the same DNA, and sometimes (like myself) we feel more Italian when we are here than when we are over there. Let’s take advantage of this. Let us all push together in the same direction instead of wasting time and energy to lash unproductively against each other!
If there is one thing I learned from all my years of reporting for RAI International is this: If we can work together — I mean REALLY work together — we Italians are unbeatable!