By Joe Cannavo
Since 1492, when Christopher Columbus became the first Italian to land on American soil, some 5½ million more of our Italian ancestors have followed this famous Genoese navigator across the Atlantic; most as we know in the very late 19th century and throughout most of the 20th. Our ancestors who came here were adventurers, missionaries, artisans, laborers, and peasants of both sexes who settled throughout the United States, a very large majority here in the Delaware Valley.
The story of every Italian American begins in the Old Country, where desperate poverty, especially in the south, forced entire families to uproot themselves. Upon arrival after a difficult and often perilous voyage, our immigrant ancestors faced many challenges and difficulties, most notably the fierce bigotry that unjustly branded them as a criminal race and which continues to exist in many cases to the present day.
Much of the stereotyping that exists today is the organized crime image which is sadly not only perpetuated by racists, but also by Italian-American businesses with stereotypical names, Hollywood producers and actors, and even Italian-American authors who write books with titles like “A Goomba’s Guide to Life.” Despite whatever efforts have been put forth to change all this, I firmly believe this stereotype slurring will always prevail among diehard bigots and where big money is concerned. I believe it is incumbent on the Italian-American community and business to come together and fight fire with fire.
Mainstream America needs to see the other side of Italians and Italian Americans, and the our rich heritage language that via Latin has given English 60 percent of its vocabulary, our rich culture that has given the world the greatest operas and most beautiful classic tunes like “O Sole Mio” that even inspired Elvis Pressley, the most famous and most beautiful works of art, great literary works dating back to ancient Rome through the renaissance and into the present day, and the list goes on and on.
Rest assured that it won’t be the American mainstream media that will expose the real Italian and our Italian heritage and culture to the public, not when “The Jersey Shore” or “The Sopranos” is bumping up the ratings. Don’t expect SiriusXM to provide a signal dedicated to Italian music, or local periodicals to “blow our horn.” In fact, Sicilians have a saying, “Se non m’avantu eu, cu e` ca’ mi hava vantari,” figuratively meaning “If I don’t blow my own horn, who’s going to blow it for me?” It’s a good lesson for all Italian Americans who want to preserve our heritage and culture for our future generations and to share them with our non-Italian neighbors.
We need a strong national media capable of “fighting fire with fire” that will put out to a mass audience real Italian-style entertainment, programs, articles, and other reading material capable of attracting Italians, Italian Americans and a growing majority of non-Italians who are what we in the local Italian-American media refer to as “lovers of everything Italian” and thus overwhelm the negative image that is so prevalent in this country. However, I will be the first to admit that this will never happen.
Fortunately, in the Delaware Valley we have a successful mass media, albeit small, consisting of a newspaper and radio programs. Of course, by now many know that I am referring to the Italian-American Herald and the Sunday morning radio programs on WILM, WTEL, and WWDB which have proven to have had a tremendous impact on keeping our heritage language, culture, and music alive and vibrant at least locally, and have brought the true Italian culture to many non-Italians in the region.
I can only imagine the powers that be making this small success story a model for a nationwide Italian-American mass media to present to all Americans a true picture of Italians, but in the Delaware Valley it is not imaginary, it is real. In 2017 make it a point to become a loyal reader of the Herald and listener to the radio programs. In fact, by doing this you will keep up with the Italian events around the region and can plan ahead to attend an Italian movie screening in Wilmington, one of many Italian festivals around the region, and learn about the many Italian-American social organizations that you can consider joining — all good things that will show everyone that we are not all criminals, hustlers, organ grinders or illiterates.