John M. Viola
Keynote Speech at the Conference of Italians Down Under
September 5, 2014
Good afternoon, Buona Sera, what an incredible pleasure it is to be here today with such illustrious participants. I’m quite flustered and overwhelmed and very much honored to be asked to participate in something like this. I owe a great debt of thanks to Ambassador Pier Francesco Zazo for even thinking of NIAF and myself, and reaching out to me. I hope I can contribute enough to the days happenings to live up to this privilege. This is my first time in Australia and amongst the Italo-Australian community and I certainly hope that even as an outsider I can contribute some credible and useful thoughts based on the similarities I find between our two communities. I can tell you with great confidence, that I will certainly be taking lessons from your community home with me.
It’s one thing, I suppose, to explore the world, but it’s a whole other thing to do it in the context of our Italianità. I find that that is a big part of what people look to NIAF for, a sense of recognizing that no matter how far removed we are from Italy, we still see the world through some innate Italian-ness. I’ve traveled to all parts of the world to meet other Italian communities and there is always a sense of being home or familiar and that really speaks incredible volumes about who we are as a people, so many years removed from our motherland and our immigrant experience yet we can still relate to one another, across the divides of time and geography and circumstance.
It reminds me of a neighborhood episode which I often recall that was very important to me. For context, I grew up, the early part of my life, in the same neighborhood, as a matter of fact, in the same house that my father grew up in and my grandmother grew up in and was born in right after her family came from Italy. Ours remained a very Italian neighborhood, and still relatively strong today. When I would go back as a young adult with my brothers, we would always sort of nostalgize or ponder the whys of the neighborhood. Why was the collective sense of community so strong? Why was our Italian American identity real in our lives, despite the natural course of change and evolution and of course assimilation?
One day, we were sitting on the stoop (that’s the front steps in Brooklynese by the way) at my grandmother’s house and a neighborhood character named Michele, who everybody called Miggy, came walking by. Miggy was a familiar character, something every Italian neighborhood has in abundance, I’m sure. He was something of a wandering Wiseman. And Miggy saw my brothers and me chatting and couldn’t help but eavesdrop (or in his words “overhear”), and like any good Italian, he decided to posit his sociological opinion on why our culture was so strong. And Miggy said it very eloquently and very simply. He said he was born in Italy and moved to our neighborhood in Brooklyn at the age of 13, enlisted in the U.S. Army, loved the United States and served the country in Vietnam. But, in all of his life, wherever he met other Italian Americans, whether they be new immigrants or those that came from families with generations established in the United States, they all somehow expressed the same feeling that he encapsulated in this metaphor.
For all of us, our home country, whether it is the United States, or Australia, or any of the other myriad of distant places our families have spread to, that land is like a father. It provides security, opportunity and direction; it gives us the food that we eat, the job that we toil at. But Italy, whether you’ve been there every summer, back to the paese, or only through the images of your imagination… Italy is our mother. It nourishes us, even in the womb. It’s that cultural fingerprint that we can’t explain and can’t shake. It’s the part of us that is umbilical and it gives us our sense of self and our sense of soul.
What Miggy said, far better than what I could have, is really what brings me here today and what brings all of us here today; that sense of how do we institutionalize that maternal sense of who we are in a world where identity is every day more defined on an individual basis? And, in particular, for our communities in a world where our story takes us further and further and further from its beginnings and from that mother, l’Italia. And, of course, from preservation and maintenance, how do we then use this strength of community to better the lives and opportunities of all parties.
But I am, of course, always encouraged (you have to be in order to be in my position, I think) by what I find when I go out into the world and meet other Italians. I use the word “Italians” very broadly; I think of anyone in our diaspora, all 200 plus millions of us all around the world in every corner and nook and cranny, hidden under layers of foreign culture, but there we are, Italians nonetheless. For me to come here to Australia, literally across the world from my home in New York, and to meet people like yourselves, and interact immediately on such an interpersonal and familial basis, speaks to that sense, that filial sense, we are all fratelli d’Italia in the most pure way. So, if nothing else, the point of my being here today is to speak about different versions of that same story, perhaps something like a cousin or a half-brother, as our community is a little older than the Australian community here and we’ve gone through very similar sociocultural experiences. And I hope, as I will share with you today, that the National Italian American Foundation has been the most important player, arbiter, and protector for our community in that evolution.
Any institution like the National Italian American Foundation or any gathering like ours today, in some small sense, is born out of a feeling of accepted outsidership, some sense of being a participant observer in many ways, not necessarily one with the majority culture. What I mean by that, I’ll give you a perfect example. When my family left our little neighborhood, our culturally homogeneous safe haven where everybody sounded like us and everybody ate like us and everybody sang our songs, we moved to a very small neighborhood in the interior of New Jersey about an hour away from Brooklyn. It was inhabited almost completely by Irish Americans. So you could imagine our arrival in the early 1980’s, a pioneering Italian American family, to these people our arrival was something like an alien spacecraft landing.
And one of the more glaring examples of this that has always stuck with me was, you know, my mother made friends and they all appreciated that we were somewhat different but they could get used to our eccentricities, until one day my mother got a phone call from a nurse friend she had made that said to her, “You know, Teresa, I have a concern for you and your family,” (keep in mind all of us moved en masse; my cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents, second cousins and the rest… we moved like one big herd). She said, “During my morning walk, when I noticed your father-in-law” (and my grandfather, so you can picture, was a very Italian looking fellow; sweater everyday no matter whether it was 150 degrees, coppolina hat almost always on his white-haired head). She said, “I noticed your father-in-law was carrying a plastic trash bag and collecting the weeds off of everyone’s yard. I’m not a doctor, I’m a nurse, but I think he might be starting to show his age.” Of course my mother, as all of you who grew up in Italian homes might deduce, laughed and said, “No, he’s picking salad for the end of our dinner”!
The reason I tell that very TRUE story is to illustrate how even after multiple generations of assimilations, we still have those little cultural bellwethers that make us different and make us identifiable to both ourselves and others, pick us out amongst a crowd in the mainstream. There is something definitional about that, and there is something beautiful about that and I think, and perhaps I am biased, in particular in our community there is a certain pride in that.
I spent yesterday afternoon walking around Leichhardt in Sydney, I decided to explore Little Italy, and spent the afternoon really just ambling through the local businesses and restaurants and institutions and talking to people, and of course, I got the incredible sense that I was in a very close approximation of my own neighborhood and immediately my jokes and my humor were received by the people there because essentially we were cousins, cut from the same cloth and experience, separated certainly by half of the planet and completely different lives but tied somewhere in who we were.
And that shared otherness is essential to a sense of ethnic identity and when that otherness is passed down over generations, particularly even someone in my case, I’m second generation Italian American in the United States but I still feel defined by my Italian-ness. And that is passed on through efforts both conscious and subconscious. Without the immigrant experience I think it says a great deal about how valued the culture is within the community. We’ve seen the importance of our cultural attributes and our communal behaviors and we’ve decided almost subconsciously to make sure they are passed down into the outward consciousness of the younger generations.
That is what we do institutionally at the National Italian American Foundation. To give you some contextual history of our Foundation, we were created in 1975 during a very unique point in the Italian American sociological experience. Essentially, our community sprang into being as a result of the wars of Italian unification. Most of the immigration prior to the 1870s was northern Italian, came in drips and drabs, and you see some very interesting history of Italian explorers, Italian military, Italian philosophers and political thinkers… Filippo Mazzei comes to mind.
These are really a trickle of an immigration or at least mercantile immigrations but it’s after the Risorgimento that the Italian community really starts to come in great quantities to the United States and, of course, it’s relatively well known within our community (but I think quietly overlooked in the rest of the world) that we were met with considerable opposition on our arrival. This was not the welcome mat that is portrayed in popular culture; it’s not the Statue of Liberty calling for the tired and the poor. As a matter of fact, the largest mass lynching in the history of the United States was of Sicilian Americans in New Orleans in 1891. So gruesome and unjust, as a matter of fact, that the Kingdom of Italy recalled its Ambassador from the United States, really an international incident.
But what I’m getting to is the fact that our community came as completely unwanted outsiders; Catholic, ethnic, dark, foreign in our language and habits. You have these really tragic stories of authorities in New York City forcing their way into Italian tenements to throw open the windows for ventilation. And anyone raised with an Italian nonna knows the breeze will in fact kill you, so you can imagine with someone tearing open your windows and barking at you in a language you’ve yet to learn, this is not a pleasant immigration story.
But of course this was immigration which is driven by simple economics and not convenience, and the numbers really surge into the millions and by the 1920s the U.S. government decides to put a quota system in a cap on Southern Europeans, and obviously Italians make up the majority of that immigration. So what used to be migratory workers back and forth to Italy with no real plan to settle in the United States almost overnight becomes a permanent community by default.
We have in our Headquarters some fascinating letters that had to be written to the Counsel Generals of the United States in Italy asking permission to bring families over. Families were separated by this abrupt change in the law to the point that they didn’t know if they would see one another again. That leads to an establishment of a very urbanized community, under-educated, of course, and then the traditional American immigration story beings. Laborers saving for a home, the whole family living in one building, serving in the Armed Forces. We, Italian Americans, represent the largest single ethnic group to fight for the American military in the Second World War, many of whom came back to Italy to fight against their cousins. My grandfather was one of them. He was drafted into the army after arriving into the United States and ended up fighting through his hometown to the point where he actually ran off with some of the Allied military rations to feed his uncles and cousins.
And it’s really during the war that you see a shift in our community. Before the war we also had the interesting dynamic of the Italian government spending considerable amount of money on the community abroad, so you have a lot of institutional lire at the time, going into creating a sense of Italianism in the United States. Before then, you had communities separated street by street by street. I had great-grandparents that arrived in the early ‘20s that used to tell me by street in Manhattan where each community lived; the Barese on Elizabeth or the Sicilians on Mott, and the Calabrese here. I mean, it was really very much the campanilismo of the Italian mindset. But in the ‘20s and ‘30s, you have an investment by the Italian government and this sense of nationalism. What you don’t have is the sort of difficulty in dealing with that history after the war so our community in some sense gets an unfettered dose of nationalism and none of the shame that comes with the war’s end.
So it’s very fascinating to see the sense of Italian pride that springs up in the ‘50s and ‘60s. What you also get during the war is a loss of the language. These people who were in their own eyes incredibly civic-minded Americans, wake up one day to find their motherland at war with the United States and signs plastered in their little enclave neighborhoods saying, “Don’t Speak the Enemy Language.” There develops a great shame in the Italian language, which has been a massive detriment to our community’s development and perpetuation because we don’t have the language anymore, we are not attached to our motherland linguistically and that’s a big problem.
But what I’m getting to is the sense that by the early ’70s you are seeing a community that has sort of plateaued. They’re staying in their neighborhoods, the rates of education and college dropouts are the worst of most ethnic groups. There’s a very interesting article from 1971 that I reference quite a bit that talks about how the Italian American community in New York, of which my family was a part, were the last white ethnic group, as they say in the United States, to progress. So we had the highest high school dropout rate, the highest drug usages, the least movement from urban to suburban; we had the least participation in the faculty of the universities in the city.
My alma mater, Fordham University, the Jesuit school in New York City, was 60% Italian American students at that point, but only nine members of the faculty were Italian American, so the discrepancy in actual access to leadership was visible. This was also true in the halls of government. We tended to be a “put your head down” and progress privately people. So, in 1975, some of the activist leaders in the community formed the National Italian American Foundation, created to be very different from the fraternal organizations like the Sons of Italy, or some of the Mutuo Soccorso groups that had previously proliferated around the country.
NIAF was created the be an access point, to be an advocate for the Italian American community, to really move within the halls of government, to advocate for appointments, positions of power, positions in the different secretariats of the United States, positions within the White House and the administrations. And, frankly, NIAF succeeded rather quickly because the model was for those that had some access to these things to sort of lead from the front. In the intermediate years, we’ve seen two Italian Americans Supreme Court Justices, an Italian American Speaker of the House of Representatives; we’ve seen an incredible progress politically, diplomatically; and we like to think of our Foundation as a real touchstone for the progress our community made in a significant way. Also, in terms of academia, in terms of going out and advocating for programs to be created. I mean, there was no such thing as Italian American studies in 1971, but the
Foundation and groups like it created these initiatives and there are real faculties now and these are real subjects that people pay attention to, that have significant budgets at the university level, that do real work, and to this day we partner with those groups.
So the National Italian American Foundation is born out of a sense of post-assimilation work, a sense of needing to be something different from our experience. It was not enough for us to be social. We needed to be driven by the search for progress, by the search for access. And, so, our Foundation continues with that mission even today.
What we’ve evolved into now, as a post-assimilation ethnic group, has become almost the most sensitive moment in our story because we’ve lost not only our language as I stated earlier, but also our homogeneous neighborhoods. In many cases, as I heard tell in Leichhardt yesterday, we just suburbanize, we move out into the suburbs and we change our style of living. It doesn’t mean that we are living any less Italian, it means that we are living less communally, and that is a natural progression in modern society, I’m afraid. It happens to every group, but it takes away the ability to find an organic source of identity and that organic source of identity needs to be, somehow, replaced.
We say at the Foundation that we want to serve as the neighborhood. If you come to one of our events, if you participate in one of our projects or programs, you should be in that place of safety and that really speaks back to my point of otherness and foreign-ness, even in a country you were born in and in many cases your parents and grandparents were born in. That otherness of identity comes with a sense of safety and when you lose your neighborhood, you lose that. We try to be that for people.
I personally found the National Italian American Foundation in a very roundabout way. I was a 15-year-old young man, my family had moved to the Irish suburbs that I mentioned before, and I was desperately looking for an institutional path to re-engage my Italian-ness because it was not there in an organic sense anymore. And, so, I found the National Italian American Foundation and I had multiple conversations about this impressive group in Washington that I wanted to participate in and in one of those conversations with an employee of my family, I found out that she was a member.
She was an older woman, going down alone to the National Italian American Foundation Gala Weekend in Washington. So, at 15-years-old, I rented a tuxedo and served as her date and went down to Washington, D.C., and was just floored by this collection of really famous names—DeNiro and Benigni, Pavarotti, and all of these iconic figures—here they were in Washington, D.C. celebrating their Italian-ness together, and I was just completely floored. I mean, I got to meet Sofia Loren. They could have buried me there.
But it wasn’t really love at first sight until the Gala ended because the Gala, like any event in black tie for a 15-year-old, is boring and long and very removed, very impersonal. But, afterwards, I followed the crowd from the ballroom up into the lobby of the hotel and I heard the sound of piano being played and it was the songs that my grandfather used to sing with us; O’Sole Mio and Torna Surriento. You can fill out the songbook, I’m sure all of us know them well, those classic Southern Italian songs that every family has inherited like heirlooms. And, as the piano is playing, I noticed young people my age coming out and starting to sing, and then there are celebrities, famous singers like Jerry Vale, a very famous Italian American singer, and here he is singing with people my age, and it’s like I’m back at my grandparents’ house in the yard and everyone is singing under the grapevine and everyone is safe and familiar because the sights and the sounds and the smells and the cadences are ours and mine.
And I fell in love with the National Italian American Foundation that day and I became a member. I got more involved, my family got more involved, eventually my family joined. So I was completely active in a very real way throughout my university years, and it was after working for some time for the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn that I found out the Foundation was looking for a new Executive Director. I made it a point to fight as hard as I could for the job, as it was not an easy fight; many people didn’t see fit to entrust a 28-year-old to lead the largest and most important group for Italian Americans in the United States, but I must have done a good job of convincing them and find myself here today representing this organization I care so deeply about.
What I’ve tried to do in my role as custodian of this entity, in evolving this Foundation for the future is to create some sense of source, a sense of primary relation to our members and supporters… the Foundation as source for of our culture in the future. These young people know less and less of the experiences I had, like Sunday’s at my grandmother’s and of dialects being spoken with all of my great aunts and uncle and smells and sounds and what-not. If we grow them and create access to them for young people, we certainly have the opportunity to preserve our culture in perpetuity because it becomes a natural part of their lives to participate with us and with others who seek us out. We’ve evolved our programing significantly over the past three years, and I think in later sessions I’ll be able to speak more to what we are doing.
We also follow the logic that in our new programming. Frankly, we have to create a sense of return on investment for the donor and for the young participant. We look at every penny that comes into our Foundation as an investment by the Italian American community in the preservation and passing on of our culture to our young people. That means our programs must not only be designed to benefit the recipient and the society as a whole but also to maintain awareness and value around our Italian-ness. In some sense nowadays, when young people can identify with thousands of different forms of self, we need to create programs that make identification with the Italian American community VALUABLE across multiple levels. For a young person who participates in our heritage travel program, or some of our mentorship and scholarship offerings, there is not only the benefit of being engaged in their time and identity but also very frankly the real career and life benefits of sharing what our community has achieved already.
We have also moved our grant program to be more focused and more specific, with larger grants to other Italian American groups. One of the things we’ve done very, very well is begun the process of reaching out to smaller, longer established local social groups, or new groups that are sprouting up. We have this amazing statistic in the United States that even after all this time on our last census, 18 million people took the time and made the decision to write Italian or Italian American on the line marked ‘Other’ under ethnicity. And 18 million people is a huge number to self-identify as aware of their Italian-ness, enough to be definitional. And that gives me great hope, because if 18 million people are out there feeling Italian American, demographically speaking, we know that statistics say there are about 25 million of us, well, that means that they are nurturing some relation to this identity or they are at least open to some relation to this identity and we can give them that.
So, we’ve partnered with smaller groups to make them associate members of our Foundation, to receive the same membership benefits. And this change is because our membership is not about fundraising; it’s about getting out our message and getting out a sense of community; our magazine, our literature. This is what membership means in the new National Italian American Foundation. We’ve also changed our scholarship scheme considerably. We’ve been moving our scholarships towards larger gifts that can be more impactful in the life of the student. We’ve also seen cases where we may not have reserved monies to actually put towards scholarships but in the United States, $2,500 does not go as far as it used to go in terms of impactful scholarships.
In many cases that doesn’t even pay for a student’s books now-a-days. So, what we’ve done is create opportunities for our leadership, for our Board of Directors, and our members network, maybe not to donate money for scholarships, but to donate opportunities for internships or mentorships or first jobs, really creating an institutionalized sense, that “Hey, it’s okay for us to help our own people, it’s okay for us to put community first.” Other groups do that; this is our responsibility and if the self-identification is there for 18 million people, many of whom in our country are successful and well assimilated, well you can imagine that they are well aware of helping one another. That is something that we try to exploit and expand in our efforts.
The Foundation obviously does all of this work domestically, but then there is also the international aspect of what we do. We manage the National Italian American Congressional Delegation, which is a bi-partisan group of members of both houses. We coordinate much of their programing and it also gives us the opportunity to really understand where our community is on political issues, which a recent study that we commissioned last year shows that we are more of a unified group than we’ve realized in the past, but that’s for another conference.
But one of the focuses that we’ve initiated that I think speaks to why I’m here today is our work on the concept of Italian diaspora. And one thing I found very interesting yesterday was that in conversations with the Italo-Australian community leaders I met, we shared a sense that that in many ways we have more in common and please, to our Italian friends here, take this the right way, we have more in common than Italian Americans do to modern Italians.
I think that in many cases one of the biggest weaknesses that we encounter is that Italians today think of Italian Americans as some provincial character you see on television, either frozen back in time in the immigrant ways, and in many ways we are more traditional because our traditions are frozen from when they were brought to the United States, or this gangster character that you see on popular television shows and I think that unfortunately members of our community, if they’re not fortunate to go back to Italy on a frequent basis or if they’re just simply too far removed genealogically, they see Italy as the place that their parents, and grandparents, and great-grandparents left, so they expect to arrive in some land of Dolce Far Niente and this sun-kissed place of historical peasantry… and Italy, of course, is a modern, trillion-dollar economy, which derives much of its business from the technology sector and the sciences. I mean, this is a forward thinking place and it has evolved incredibly since many of our ancestors left.
There is just this giant gap and even though I find that many people in the Italo-Australian community obviously are of a later immigration, your immigration really took off when ours had ended, the relationship is closer to Italy generationally but it’s very similar to ours in that you have to ride both horses, and you are Australian as much as you are Italian in many ways. And we feel American as much as Italian in many ways, so the relationship is there, it’s like half siblings, to stay with the reference from earlier, they sort of understand one another different from the parent. Mother Italy may not understand us and we may not understand her as well as we can understand one another. Of course, we also shared the imprint of an Anglo-cultural majority as well.
And I think that is a big focus for us internationally; the idea that there are communities of diaspora around the world, and in a shrinking globalized world, there is no greater advantage to a community than this sense of diaspora, of oneness with a global citizenry and we have that, we have that sitting there waiting to be exploited. And Italy should be exploiting that concept, quite frankly, and I say this in all of my interactions in Italy and with the Italian media and with the Italian government, the idea that Italy is no longer a peninsula of 55 million people with a shrinking birth rate and a traditional sense of an ethnic state…an ethnic nationhood. Rather, Italy is a global nation of 200 million self-aware and self-identifying Italians of different types, in Australia and the United States and Canada and South Africa and
Brazil and Argentina and Venezuela. I mean, I have family who I know in Italy, in the United States, in Venezuela, in Argentina, and in Mexico. We are global!
And with what is a very unique system of citizenship and dual citizenship AND democratic participation available to our communities abroad, we are a perfect example of a global diaspora. If there is enough identity and real similarity left, one can only imagine what happens when we begin to understand the scope of that number and to exploit it economically because that is the real key to future success and building this larger global community. The idea that multiple Italian companies have been sold to overseas interests, in part because they have not been able to capitalize proven products, proven industry leaders through the economic downturn is a tragedy because there is money in communities like ours that could very well be invested in Italy, it’s just creating the conversation around the sense of self-identification and I really believe that from the bottom of my heart.
Obviously, there are barriers to entry in any case of direct foreign investment, but I think using this sense of diaspora will be a great leg up in breaking down those barriers faster than they otherwise might break down. I can’t speak with any authority on your community here. I have found it to be very warm and welcoming and very reassuring that the culture survives, like it does in the United States, in a real and significant way. But what I do see statistically is that the Italo-Australian community seems to find itself somewhere where we were in the late ’70s, in building those institutional mechanisms, and, like we see ourselves now and even did then, doing it in the context of post-assimilation while other ethnic groups are now ascendant.
So, true to our Italian-ness and true to our sort of ability to just get things done with our heads down and not necessarily seek recognition or aid, we almost missed the boat when it comes to not only recognition but really institutional advantages. I mean, in my country in particular, the concessions made to new immigrant groups today as part of their experience couldn’t have been dreamed of by the Italian community and probably wouldn’t even have been desired because it would’ve been seen as an invasion of the state and that psychology goes back to our earliest roots, but I sort of sense that here, that the Italian Australian community has fully integrated almost without truly experiencing the process.
So I hope our model lends some sense of a potential roadmap, lends some example to certain programmatic decisions that can be made, and obviously I wanted to be brief and I’ve already wasted enough of everyone’s time so I’ll simply say the further details of how and why we do what we do will always be available to any of you and my contact information is on our website and I do hope that we engage in a longer future dialogue because in my eyes our future is together!
In a world where identity is flexible and unique to each individual, we have the opportunity to be both citizens of Australia or Argentina or the United States and ethnically Italian at the same time and I believe there is great hope for our countries and our community around the world in the future, and I look forward to participating in it and I look forward to having any excuse to return to this wonderful country of yours many, many times in over.
So from the bottom of my heart thank you very much for your invitation today…
Viva l’Italia, and God Bless America… AND Australia!!!