Day 24 of 31 Days of Italians – Tony Bennett

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Resiliency best describes legendary jazz singer Tony Bennett. His musical career has spanned well over half a century, having created his own singing style that integrates jazz with voice imitation of instrumental solos.

Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto , in 1926, in Astoria, N.Y., Bennett’s father was a grocer who had emigrated from Italy’s Calabria region. His mother was  a seamstress whose parents also came to the United States from Calabria.

At age 10, Bennett performed at the opening of the Triborough Bridge and a few years later was singing in restaurants. After dropping out of New York’s School of Industrial Art at the age of 16, he set his sights on a professional singing career, performing at amateur nights and nightclubs.

Bennett’s vision for musical stardom was put on hold temporarily after he was drafted into the U.S. Army in November 1944, during World War II. Stationed at the front line, he faced bitter cold conditions, narrowly escaping death many times. Bennett has said that the entire experience made him the pacifist that he is today.

After the war, Bennett studied at the American Theater Wing and in the evenings went back to singing as a waiter in New York restaurants. Bob Hope invited Bennett to come on tour in 1949, and was the first to suggest that he use the name Tony Bennett. Columbia Records signed Bennett in 1950. The following year, his first big hit, “Because of You,” sold over a million copies and hit number one on the pop charts.

Other popular songs soon followed, including “Blue Velvet,” “Stranger in Paradise” and “Rags to Riches,” with Bennett performing an intense five-to-seven show a day pace in New York, attracting throngs of screaming teenage fans.

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Bennett’s 1953 hit “Rags to Riches” was the first song of his to feature an up-tempo big band sound and was the start of Bennett tilting his musical style towards jazz.  Later, in 1962, Bennett’s song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” would become one of his signature tracks.

The late ’60s to late ’70s proved a difficult time for Bennett’s career and personal life. The British Invasion came and with it audiences focused on rock rather than jazz and pop music. Under his own label, Bennett attempted different approaches to his music to attract audiences back, even incorporating some rock material. But the audience did not respond and soon Bennett found himself without a contract or a manager.

At the end of the ’70s, Bennett was in a dark place. A near-fatal cocaine overdose and fear that audiences no longer wanted to hear his music had him calling his sons seeking help. Danny Bennett signed on as his father’s manager, moving his father away from the “Vegas” style shows he had been doing.

Danny wanted to get his father in front of a younger audience, feeling that this group would love Bennett’s music. For his part, Bennett changed nothing of his style or manner, maintaining his formal dress appearance and not attempting to wander into musical styles that made him uncomfortable. It was jazz and the audience loved it.

Soon, Bennett was booking gigs on every television late show, even taking his singing to MTV audiences in an Unplugged concert. The audiences loved him and the older generations were coming back to him. Countless artist collaborations would follow,  but all along Bennett always stayed true to what he loved—jazz.

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Day 10 of 31 Days of Italians – Frank Sinatra

Photo Source: Nekropole.info

Photo Source: Nekropole.info

By John M. Viola, NIAF president and chief operating officer

To many of us Frank Sinatra will always be remembered as the “Chairman of the Board”, but did you know the sobriquet is more than just a creative nickname?

Not only was Mr. Sinatra Chairman of Reprise Records, a company he started after leaving his famous Capitol Records contract, but he was also Chairman of the American-Italian Anti-Defamation League, an organization created in 1967 to fight discrimination of Americans of Italian descent.

And their efforts got off to a good start when they persuaded executives at the ABC television network to stop using Italian-sounding names for thugs on their highly rated show The Untouchables. Producers Americanized the names of several “gangster” characters, and the American-Italian Anti-Defamation League moved on to its next effort, a star-studded fundraiser at Madison Square Garden.

On October 19, 1967, with Sinatra serving as Chairman, a standing-room crowd of over 20,000 Italian Americans packed the arena to see Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Jerry Vale, Connie Francis, and many others who had come out to raise money for the new organization.

Sinatra Poster

The League quickly signed up tens of thousands of members across America, but perhaps their success came too quickly!

Sinatra and other leaders were sued by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.  The suit was based on the idea that the Italian Americans had appropriated the Anti-Defamation League’s name in a way which would likely cause confusion between the two groups by members of the general public.

The Italian group at first tried to operate under a new name, but eventually dissolved to settle the pending lawsuit.  Sinatra continued to support Italian American causes, and when NIAF was founded in 1975, Ole Blue Eyes became a great supporter, even accepting the NIAF Humanitarian award at the 1985 Anniversary Gala.

Don’t miss out on NIAF’s 39th Anniversary Gala Weekend Oct. 24-26, 2014, at the Washington Hilton. Get your tickets now here.

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Save Columbus Day!

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Statue of Christopher Columbus in San Francisco

By John. M Viola

As many of you are already aware, Tuesday marked a disappointing day for the Italian American community around the nation and most specifically in Seattle, Wash., because the City Council of Seattle voted unanimously to declare the second Monday in October as “Indigenous People’s Day,” replacing the traditional celebration of Columbus Day. The resolution even included a provision directing the Seattle public schools to celebrate Indigenous People in their curriculums. The resolution sponsor, Councilman Bruce Harrell, said, “The measure is not about ranking oppression, but about celebrating the contributions of Seattle’s first inhabitants.”

It’s that last quote that really got this Italian American’s blood boiling. First of all, our holiday has been under attack for many years and it’s about time that we here at NIAF and around the community say, “Basta!”

Columbus Day is not just a celebration of our incredible accomplishments as a community, but even before we were here in great numbers (the holiday was first celebrated in 1792), it started out as a celebration of all that exists, all the best about the American spirit, all that comes from this nation’s birth as object of adventure, risk and exploration.

We are a people of risk takers. Almost every one of us traces our descent to those people brave enough to put stock in themselves and what they could do. With belief in their abilities and their work ethic, they risked the great journey across the sea or across the border to this nation of ours in order to succeed on their own abilities. And, more so than even our Italian American community’s amazing accomplishments, this is what Columbus Day truly represents.

Ellis Island

Ellis Island

Obviously you’re talking about a controversial historical figure, but I would be hard pressed to find any historical figure of great accomplishment that comes without some controversy. History always comes with subjectivity and discussion, and memorialization is important no matter what. The history of Native Americans, the people indigenous to this continent, is also incredibly important and should be celebrated as well, but it does not have to come at the expense of the Italian American community and the Italian American holiday.

Why is it that we are consistently the group that allows ourselves to be trodden on? Why do we keep our heads down, and forget the size of our community, its influence, and its incredible accomplishments, both in the past and today, accomplishments that rank us amongst the most successful and influential people in the nation. I think it is simple and it speaks to a lack of real unity and awareness, and sense of urgency in the Italian American psychology.

It brings us back to Seattle and the insult that comes with replacing a day to celebrate our community with a day to celebrate any other community. Why does someone have to lose in order for someone else to gain? No other group would accept this, but we do.

The question becomes, what do we at the National Italian American Foundation do, and more broadly and more importantly, what do we as a community do? Today, we will launch www.savecolumbusday.com which we are using as a rallying point as we actively pursue a coalition of Italian American groups to finally put a foot down, say BASTA, and fight for our holiday.

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We see the webpage and the initiative to save Columbus Day doing a few different things. First of all, supporting an objective examination of the man, the history, and the holiday. Secondly, walking our community members, all 25 million strong, through how they can advocate for change and respect and appreciation of both our history and our holiday, how they can advocate to have the holiday restored in the places that have abandoned its celebration, and how they can engage and celebrate it in great places around the country that still respect and honor our traditions and accomplishments.

We are also asking people to direct themselves and all the Italian Americans they interact with to our petition campaign at WeThePeople.com which is an official vehicle for petition and recognition at the White House level. Our petition asks the White House to host an official docket of events on or around Columbus Day to show that the President and the Administration appreciate, endorse and support the day, the Italian American community, and the contribution of immigrants to the American spirit. We think it is the least that can be done.

The battle is uphill and the opposition is strong and deeply rooted, and many in our own Italian American family find themselves in disagreement or conflict. But, I am convinced that the most difficult struggle will be to convince ourselves not only to take action but that we are worthy of action. We at the National Italian American Foundation commit ourselves to this cause and assure you that all of us and our ancestors, from Columbus on, are worthy of this action.

John M. Viola is the NIAF president and chief operating officer.

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Ciao Melbourne

NIAF President and COO John M. Viola concludes his Australia adventure with a few days in Melbourne. The second-largest city in Australia, Melbourne is located in the state of Victoria, home to the largest concentration of Italian Australians on the continent.

Image-15Ciao friends!

I left the conference in Canberra with a sense of excitement for the future working relationship between our Italian American community in the states and the Italian Australian community here. Our two groups share many similarities, but we can also learn a lot from each other in various ways.

Canberra is a small and focus-driven place, so naturally my flight back to Melbourne was shared with innumerable Italian Australians whom I had just met over two days at the conference. In conversation at the boarding gate, I got around to speaking to Professor Ferdinando Colarossi, a manager of the Co. As. It. Italian Language, Culture and Heritage Department in Melbourne’s Little Italy of Lygon Street.

italian cultural centerCo. As. It. is the comitato assistenza italiani, created in 1967 to support teachers and students of the Italian language and Italian language speakers throughout Australia in need of supplementary services. The group organizes classes for Italian language beginners, offers films and cultural series, elderly care, and a resource center for teachers of Italian. It also created the Museo Italiano of Melbourne.

I started my final day in Australia by walking down Lygon Street to the area of Carlton for a morning meeting with Professor and Mrs. Colarossi. We took a small tour in the Language Resource Center of Co. As. It., a room that anyone with an interest in the Italian language would find overwhelmingly joyous. Co. As. It. gathers as many teaching resources as they can and makes them available, in person or on the internet, six days a week, to anyone teaching the Italian language in the state of Victoria.

museo ItalianoFrom what Professor Colarossi shared with me, the resource center is continually full and offers teachers a chance to expand on their lesson plans, interact with one another, and speak to professionals with decades of experience. The facility also houses multiple classrooms, teaches its own Italian classes, and has a children’s section in the library, which offers language and culture classes to the young people of the community to make sure that they, too, end up speaking Italian.

Downstairs from the facility was Melbourne’s unique Italian Australian museum. Though the facility was small, it was incredibly well-built with gallery space that often hosts exhibits from Italian Australians or visiting Italian artists and a permanent museum space dedicated to telling stories of Melbourne’s Italian community. What the team here has done, with a small and carefully thought out space, is nothing short of incredible. The museum is engaging and dynamic with multiple mediums to tell the story of their community in an entertaining and accessible way.

museo italianoFrom collections of letters written by the first arrivals to their families in Italy, to the prize possessions brought with them in their immigrant journey, to some of the more disturbing pieces of stereotyping material that the community met in its earliest days, the museum tells a story of all aspects of Italian life in Melbourne.

There are wonderful interactive exhibits where people can listen to individual stories and record some of their own. Overall, the museum serves as an incredible resource for hundreds of school groups and private visitors over the course of every year.

coffeeFrom the museum, the Colarossis shared some of their personal favorite places throughout Little Italy of Melbourne with me. After a cappuccino at Brunetti that Mrs. Colarossi guaranteed me was the best outside of Italy, we stopped by the University Café, one of Melbourne’s oldest Italian Australian’s establishments.

The owner, Gian Carlo, shared with us some of the stories about the earliest settlers in this community when he arrived in the 1950s. He also introduced me to a couple celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary who he said were amongst the first wave of immigrants to arrive from Italy in Australia.

group hotoOverall, my time in Melbourne’s Little Italy was spent focusing on issues of the Italian language and education, but I could see from my brief interactions around the town itself that the area remains a vibrant and well-loved center for the largest Italian Australia community in Victoria.

After a brief break to rest my feet, I was back on Lygon Street that evening to meet with Vince Morfuni and a large contingent of gentlemen calling themselves the National Italian Australia Foundation. They told me that they had met representatives from NIAF over a decade ago, in both the United States and Australia, and admire what our foundation has done for the past 40 years to create a national consciousness and voice for our community here in the United States.

Image-12They were looking to build closer ties to our NIAF and expand on some of our programs and practices in order to bring the same sets of services to Australia. I found it very fascinating that they had met the expressed meeting with some resistance to our model and that they found their community to be perhaps ill prepared for an organization like our own.

Needless to say, the dinner was fascinating and filled with high hopes for the betterment of not only Italians in Australia, but around the world. It was an encouraging way to cap my eight days Down Under and to know that the work we do here at NIAF, day in and day out, could serve as a model for communities in other places.

Image-14For those of you who have ever heard me speak or read my writing, you are well aware that I think our future is one that will be in a closer engagement with Italians all over the world. And to have had the opportunity to spend this much time amongst another community so like our own only strengthened my belief that we really do make up one chunk of a large, global Italian family.

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NIAF Gala Q&A with Louis Prima Jr.

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Louis Prima Jr.

Louis Prima Jr. and The Witnesses will bring their high-energy, big band sound to NIAF’s “The Wildest Comes to Washington” Casino Night, during the Gala weekend, performing songs from their latest album “Blow,” and getting the crowd on its feet!

Ahead of the big weekend, Prima Jr., son of legendary trumpeter and jazz-band leader Louis Prima, took time to chat with Pensieri Italo-Americani about growing up in an Italian American household, his band’s unique sound, and what Gala attendees can expect from their Casino Night performance on Friday, Oct. 25.

Pensieri Italo-Americani: How would you describe your band’s musical sound?

Louis Prima Jr.: I’ve called it a couple different things. I’ll call it rock ‘n’ roll with horns, I’ll call it Prima music, or I’ll call it a good time. It’s music that makes you smile and makes you want to get up and dance and makes you want to tap your foot. We are a little bit loud and boisterous. But it’s not just about the sound; it’s about the show as well. It’s good time music; it’s what my father would be doing if he was alive today.

What role did your father, Louis Prima Sr., and your mother, Gia Maione Prima, play in your life and music?

Louis Prima Jr.: My mother put drumsticks in my hand when I was 5 years old and kind of got me playing the drums. It’s odd, growing up with them as parents, because didn’t see it as a musical family. It was a normal childhood, normal Italian upbringing, so to speak. I don’t think I appreciated them as musicians until I got well into high school.

Both of them exuded life and happiness in things, so I think the kind way and the humble way that they both approached people they came across is what influenced me more than music, is the way you treat people along the way.

Louisa Prima Jr and THe Witnesses

Louisa Prima Jr. and The Witnesses

Your band’s new album “Blow” came out this summer. Tell us a bit about the tracks and what you were looking to get out there with this album?

Louis Prima Jr.: It is mostly original material with a couple little surprises on there. It’s important to me when I started doing this never to be a tribute band. The idea was to play music that I loved, that I think the world loved and needs, and move it forward into the future. And that’s kind of the attitude of this entire band, everybody wants to create something that people will enjoy and listen to.

So this album was very important to us…the diverse musical tastes, the eclectic mix that is this band, came together to create music that I honestly am very proud of and enjoy listening to myself. And, as an entire unit, it’s something we are very proud of, and we hope everyone will give this album a chance and give us a listen and become a fan.

What can attendees at this year’s NIAF Anniversary Gala expect from a performance by Louis Prima Jr. and The Witnesses?

Louis Prima Jr.: I think we take people a little by surprise. I call it a three-song shock factor. I don’t know where the misconception is or what they think they will get, but we hit the stage like a rock concert. We are a lot of fun; I think we have more fun sometimes even than the crowd, though I don’t know if this is possible. We sometimes forget there is a crowd out there because we are enjoying ourselves so much on stage. There are 10 people up there that love entertaining as much as making music. We don’t work with set lists, you don’t know what we are going to do or say on stage. We hope people will come out and dance and have fun with us. Music is for making you forget the world exists.

Growing up, was Italian American culture a big part of your household? How so?

Louis Prima Jr.: Absolutely. My father, if you didn’t like him for anything else, is the guy that put Italian lyrics on American record labels. He was brought before Congress because during the war they tried to stop him from speaking and singing in Italian. He was very proud of his heritage and his family, and you know I think it’s what kept him and probably me as well from being a typical Hollywood brat. People always ask what your father was like. He was very humble, quiet and soft spoken and kind to people as he went through life, and I think it comes from your upbringing.

And as I travel around and spend time with other Italian families, it’s a common bond; we all have the upbringing and respect for human life and things like that. So the big Italian dinners were a thing. Sunday is the big dinner day. My father is the one that woke us up early, made us go to church and sit down to dinner at 5 p.m.

—Alexandra Benedetto

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Ciao Canberra

Greetings from the pleasant city of Canberra, Australia’s purpose-built and modernist capital. After spending yesterday exploring Sydney’s Leichhardt neighborhood, I hopped a late train last night to make it here for this year’s Conference of Italians Down Under. I was asked to be a keynote speaker in order to share representations of Italian Americans and NIAF with the Italo-Australian community as they seek to create national institutions like our own.

Going into something like this, it’s difficult to imagine what one might share with an audience in an all-new country. I was slightly anxious that my remarks might not be relevant to people who have not shared the Italian American experience. Needless to say, I did not know what to expect as I walked into the residence of the Italian Ambassador, The Honorable Pier Francesco Zazo, on Friday afternoon for the opening of the conference.

NIAF President and CEO John M. Viola  and Ambassador Pier Francesco Zazo

NIAF President and COO John M. Viola and Ambassador Pier Francesco Zazo

Ambassador Zazo welcomed all of us to his home and outlined the weekend structure. Friday would include three keynotes, each speaker addressing one of the main topics for the weekend. Saturday would be a chance for small group breakout sessions to try and create some real solutions to what the Italo-Australian community has designated as their most impending challenges.

After official welcomes from the Australian government and the dignitaries present, I was invited to address the crowd with the first keynote. If you are interested, you can see transcription of my commentary here. Mostly, I spoke about our community and NIAF’s place within our story, and the overlaps that I thought might exist between us and the Italo-Australian community.

Audience for John

After I finished, the Ambassador invited Professor Angela Scarino, Associate Professor of the School of Communication, International Studies and Languages at the University of South Australia, to talk about teaching of the Italian language in Australia. It was fascinating for me, having sat since my first days at NIAF on the Osservatorio della lingua italiana at the Italian Embassy in D.C., and been involved in our community’s attempt to preserve our Italian Language AP Exam.

It was really incredible to encounter an Italian emigrant population in which our language is still spoken by the majority! Professor Scarino and many in attendance were addressing problems of keeping numbers up, but not keeping the language relevant. As a matter of fact, Italian was, until the last census, the second-most-spoken language in Australia and was only passed in 2011 by Mandarin! Studies show that the language is still primarily spoken by first-, second- and third-generation Italo-Australians, but also by other members of the Australian community at large as the preferred European language.

Speech 2 Canberra

Following Professor Scarino’s enlightening discussion was Dr. Henry Ergas, Professor of Infrastructure Economics at the University of Wollongong, to speak about Italy-Australia trade relations and the potential for improved investments between the two economies. Dr. Ergas is perhaps Australia’s most renowned economist. His simple and concise explanation, not just about Italy and Australia’s trade but also their individual economies was, for me, someone with less than a polished handle on economics, very enlightening.

He made the clear point that Italy and Australia have what he calls “overlapping economies” and that the potential for extended trade is great. It brought me back to the point of the discrepancies in Italy and the United States direct investment relationship. Italy is lower on the list of U.S. direct foreign investments than little Liechtenstein—clearly not where a trillion-dollar economy and long term strategic partner should be.

Italian Embassy in Canberra, Australia

Italian Embassy in Canberra, Australia

After these speeches, we enjoyed refreshments, further conversations and an open forum for questions and answers with each of us. I found the participants really wanted to know what NIAF was doing to address the problems they felt our two communities shared: reaching out to the young, preserving the culture, and finding best practices to provide as much as we can for our communities in these difficult economic times.

On the second day, as we broke off into small working groups, I was assigned to participate in the group dedicated to strategies to strengthen representation of the Italian-Australian community and enhance its participation in Australian Society. What became glaringly obvious to me was that while there are some differences in our communities, there are also many important similarities.

Ambassador 1

While the Italo-Australian community only formed in substantial numbers after major Italian immigration to the United States was drawing to a close, the thing that kept repeating in my mind was that we find ourselves, along with our cousins in Canada, as three branches from a very similar tree. We’re all very proud and protective of our Italian culture, and we are all maintaining this culture in countries that are predominantly Anglophone and draw their major cultural traditions from their British histories.

While it is often hard for modern Italians to relate to our community because of the 100-plus-year gap between our version of Italianità and that of modern Italy, it was somewhat easier to relate to this community where they have experienced the similar fingerprints of Anglo-cultural influence as we have.

Canberra conference men

 

I found it fascinating to hear over and over again that the Italo-Australians saw the major difference between themselves and us as the fact that we, in the earliest versions of our immigrant story, came to America seeking assimilation. They are in Australian seeking integration. They are maintaining the language far better than we did (I often found myself wondering how much stronger our community could be if we all spoke the same second language) and they are well aware that theirs is a community that makes up part of a patchwork and not a melting pot.

I do hope each of you takes the opportunity to dig a bit further into what our cousins Down Under are doing. While I was asked to participate in order to give some models of success that we’ve seen in our community, I found that it was equally fulfilling for me to learn some models of success that have worked in the Italo-Australian community in areas in which we too need leadership and vision. If we have given anything to them in our models of NIAF, I hope to take some back in their models of preserving the Italian language and preserving a sense of understanding and of independent participation in both cultures.

My next stop will be Melbourne and its Lygon Street neighborhood before I finally come back to the United States and begin prepping for our Annual Gala. So, thanks for reading, thanks for supporting NIAF, and stay tuned…mates!

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John M. Viola – Keynote Speech at the Conference of Italians Down Under, September 5, 2014

John M. Viola

Keynote Speech at the Conference of Italians Down Under

Canberra, Australia

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!!!

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Exploring Sydney

NIAF President and COO John M. Viola shares his current travels around Australia, continuing his exploration of Sydney’s Italian American community, in the second of a five-part series on Pensieri Italo-Americani.

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As I continued my walk, despite the high recommendations I had received from many locals, I had to put my head down and walk past Mezzapicca Cakes, a Sicilian bakery founded in 1952 and seen as the entry point for Italian baked goods into Sydney.

My next stop was the much talked about “Italian Forum,” a 1990s urban renewal project designed to emulate an Italian piazza, with its central fountain and statue of Dante ringed by high-end shops and restaurants, all unfolding under the red-ochre clock face that reminds one of the Madre Patria.

But, unlike how the online write-ups and guidebooks described it, the piazza I found wasn’t a buzzing hive of Italian activity, but rather a place seemingly abandoned. What was once an Italian Cultural Center and 350-seat theater is now an acting school (I was told by the shocked, young hipster girl, when I interrupted her class) . The apartments and businesses ringing the public space were empty or shuttered.

Statue of Donte

Statue of Dante

The business owners that I could find told me of a place suffering not from a lack of interest or Italian-ness, but a case of severe mismanagement by ownership. Many told me that less than 10 years ago the center was booming, a magnet to Italo-Australians from all over Sydney and a real engine for the preservation and evolution of our culture here in Australia.

It reminds one that while sophisticated urban planning does sometimes reinvigorate our old neighborhoods (San Diego’s booming Little Italy comes to mind as a success story), those efforts need to be managed as much for cultural success as for economic success.

On my way out of the Italian Forum, I stumbled into The Merchant of Venice, a beautiful gift shop owned by Maria Saraceno and specializing in murano glass, hand-made masks, and other treasures imported directly from Venice. Maria and one of her customers chatted with me for quite some time about the current state of the neighborhood and the Forum. Maria recommended I finish my trip at a local landmark—the Bar Sport.

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Masks at the Merchant of Venice

A short walk away, Bar Sport has a special place in the heart of the Italian community here in Sydney. It was the first establishment in the city to import a real coffee machine from Italy, singlehandedly introducing caffè italiano and its many fine derivatives to this part of Australia!

What I found inside was a familiar scene to many of us: Calcio on the TV and tables full of Italian men sitting and chatting away over arancini  and focaccia; foam stained espresso cups, emptied in one confident gulp, laying almost in piles on every table; and a confident barista manning a new machine and overseeing the ocean of calm socializing.

Famished from the days walk and too comfortable in familiar surroundings to fight the urge to keep to my new healthy diet (I have to get in my tuxedo for the Gala after all), I decided to treat myself to sweet caffè and a focaccia (or pizza bianca) sandwich.

Delicious

Delicious

The bread was a near perfect emulation of the Roman specialty, light and chewy and good to the teeth. Inside were two thin layers of real Italian mortadella and fresh ricotta cheese, a few pieces of sun-dried tomato, and vinegar artichokes, which made for the perfect lunch as I finally sat down to read my copy of the day’s La Fiamma, a gift from Dona earlier in the morning.

When I got up and asked the woman behind the bar if she minded my taking a few pictures, she pointed to a bloke (I’m picking it up) in a New York Yankees cap and suggested I ask him. I introduced myself and handed over my card, and even pulled my own well-worn Yankees cap out of my bag as a sign of my good will and good credentials. He introduced himself to me simply as Joe. “Giuseppe,” he told me right away, “but Joe to everyone here.”

I still don’t know if Joe owns Bar Sport or is simply a community icon in his own right, but after discovering that both of our families came from the Cilento–Vallo di Diano area of Italy, Joe invited me to sit at his table with him and his four friends to discuss what I was doing in Australia and the state of the Italo-Australian community.

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The Italian Forum

Joe was fascinated by the programs we run at NIAF and gave me some insight into what he saw as an important time for his own community. As he saw it, Australians are a later migration than our Italian American community, so many are more closely related to their family and life back in Italy, though these connections are also being challenged by time and assimilation.

Joe mentioned that he was active in trying to create new ways for young Italian Australians to relate to their culture and their community. A fan of Juventus (I had to forgive him), Joe and his friends created the club at the bar so that young people could find some access to our culture by watching Italian Lega A Calcio (soccer). He said that the 2006 World Cup victory (much like many of us experienced in our communities in the United States) was a bellwether moment for the Italian community and Sydney.

Joe and friends at Bar Sport

Joe and friends at Bar Sport

All eyes were on Norton Street and everyone wanted to access the exciting World Cup final through Italian eyes. He lauded the fact that the game can bring young Italians an entry point into their culture, and we exchanged many concepts around bringing young people closer to our history and who we are. After nearly an hour of reminiscing and sharing the similarities of our upbringing all of these thousands of miles apart, I had to say my ciaos and head to my train to Canberra.

I was not surprised by what I found during my brief time on Norton Street. On the contrary, it is a community in many ways like our own. They are people who recognize how special our culture and our immigrant experiences are, and who do all they can to make sure that it’s lived in a real and vibrant way and passed on with respect to the younger generations now growing up in different neighborhoods and social conditions.

Although I am greatly looking forward to participating in a conference of academic and social gravity, there’s really nothing quite like wasting a day safely nestled amongst the familiar sounds, smells and sights of a Little Italy. For me, I think happiness is a piping hot espresso and a good Italian newspaper on a crisp day in a neighborhood where you know the people truly LOVE being Italian.​

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Italians Down Under

NIAF President and COO John M. Viola shares his current travels around Australia, in the first of a five-part series on Pensieri Italo-Americani.

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John making a friend?

Greetings from Down Under! I have been invited by the Ambassador of Italy to Australia, the Honorable Pier Francesco Zazo, to participate in the inaugural “Conference on Italians Down Under” here in Canberra, Australia.

As part of my trip, I have decided to spend some time getting to know the Italo-Australian communities in Sydney and Melbourne as well. The NIAF Team and I thought these travels might interest some of you, so I am going to be “live-blogging” in real-time (or as close to real-time as one can get with a 14 hour difference) my experiences searching out the Italianità in these three Australian cities!

Australian capital

Australian capital

I’m a pretty avid traveler, and it might come as little surprise considering my line of work that anytime I can I like to find my foothold in a new place by finding the Italian community there. From Eritrea to Argentina, Belgium to Brazil, I have always found that finding our people in a foreign land makes me feel a little bit more at home. On this, my first trip to Australia, I have to say I have found a wonderfully familiar feeling in the first Little Italy I discovered.

This morning I set out on a two-hour stroll from my hotel on the Sydney waterfront to the neighborhood of Leichhardt (pronounced Lie-cot) on the city’s outskirts. While its name comes from an Austrian explorer, Leichhardt became Sydney’s most bustling Little Italy in the post-war boom of Italian migration to Australia in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Norton Street, its major thoroughfare and my destination this morning, serves as the main artery for the fairly large and, in my brief experience, rather proud Italo-Australian spread throughout the neighboring suburbs.

Outside of Bar Italia

Outside of Bar Italia

I found Norton Street at Pioneers Memorial Park, which seemed like the northern border of the Italian neighborhood. Once I turned down Norton Street, I was met with the pleasant sight of Italian surnames gracing a majority of the local businesses. Travel agencies specializing in travel to Italy (a much bigger trip for this slice of the Italian diaspora than we in the states have to contend with), wedding shops selling bomboniere, and, of course, a plethora of restaurants advertising Italian cuisine.

For me, the first stop was to be the iconic Bar Italia, established in 1957. Its vibrant, colorful tricolore awning is like a beacon to the Italian soul from the end of Norton Street, and I am like a moth to a tricolored flame. On this day, as I assume on most, the café was inhabited by a clearly local clientele. Famous for its authentic homemade gelato, the staff of Italians was eager to share some samples with me. If you make it to Sydney, this is a must stop.

Yum, gelato!

Yum, gelato!

After the strong coffee to sure up my legs after my two-hour hike, I found myself ready to continue down Norton Street. Across the street from Bar Italia is the headquarters of both Sydney’s Italian radio station Rete Italia and Sydney’s Italian language newspaper La Fiamma.

The newspaper is the partner of Melbourne’s il Globo and has been serving the Italo-Australians of Sydney for 67 years. Inside the offices is a bookstore and gift shop selling Italian language books, toys and games for young Italo-Australians, and all of the CDs, movies and magazines direct from Italy that an Italophile or homesick Italian could want.

Dona, a Sicilian immigrant who ran the bookshop, gave me a sense that the Sydney community is very much like our own—dealing with a shrinking neighborhood and the arrival of new immigrant groups, such as Thais and Chinese, into their close-knit community.

After stocking up on some books and DVDs about the Italo-Australians, I went to meet Gina Papa, a longtime community leader and the owner of La Gardenia, a children’s-wear shop specializing in Christening and Communion dresses—a familiar community staple in Little Italys all over the USA.

Gina Papa

La Gardenia owner Gina Papa

Gina shared some photos with me and even some books about the National Italian-Australian Women’s Association (NIAWA), a group she helped found 30 years ago. She even shared a picture of NIAWA’s leadership with Dr. Aileen Sirey, a former NIAF Board member and the founder of our National Organization of Italian American Women (NOIAW).

What fascinated me about Gina, and many of the people I met in Leichhardt, was their bilingualism. Often in our communities, I find that if someone greets you in conversational Italian, it’s probably because that is their preferred (or perhaps only) language.

But here, it was nearly 15 minutes before Gina asked if I spoke English, and when I told her it was the far stronger of my languages, she switched right into perfect English, which she told me she preferred. The whole time she had been speaking to me in Italian to make me feel comfortable!

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The Last Goodbye

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By John. M Viola

As the dog days of summer ascend upon Washington, D.C., and our eyes turn towards the impending fall, it is the time of year around the NIAF Headquarters that we begin to call “Gala Season”—those three months leading up to the signature event of our Foundation and, we hope, the Italian American community at large.

I’ve wanted to take the opportunity to put this message out to you, our members and supporters, to provide a little bit of context around the history of our Gala Weekend and the new direction that our team and leadership have been evolving it towards.

For those of you who have participated once or twice, or those of you that make it an annual pilgrimage, you have surely seen a drastic evolution in our annual event over the past 39 years.  This year marks the final occasion in which our Gala Weekend will be hosted at the Washington Hilton, the same place where we had our first gala 39 years ago.  It’s with some reservations, but mostly excitement, that we move our gala for the 40th Anniversary in 2015.

What started as a bi-annual dinner for a young Italian American foundation 39 years ago has evolved into an annual gathering of thousands from Italy and the United States and a weekend long schedule of celebrations and community business.  What was once only a dinner has grown into a weekend of conferences, movie screenings, meetings, parties and general merriment. But at the heart of it all, the mission remains the same.

First and foremost, it is to raise important support for a foundation that continues to be committed to doing all that it can for the betterment of every member of the Italian American community and for the preservation of our culture and heritage for future generations. And secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the Gala Weekend serves as an opportunity for all of us to get together once a year.

No matter where time and circumstances have taken us, whether we live in neighborhoods that our families first settled 100 years ago or far off in reaches of this great country, our Gala Weekend is an opportunity for us to be together in the comfort and celebration of our shared heritage and culture.

I invite you to look carefully at the weekend we have planned and think about being a part of what we do here in Washington at the end of every October.

For those who have participated in the past, it is the great chance to relive the memories in a familiar setting and create new ones with your NIAF family.  For those who have not been here, it is a chance to come and see what we are all about and get an understanding of just how much work the National Italian American Foundation does year after year to be your voice in Washington and an institution for all Italian Americans.

John M. Viola is the NIAF president and chief operating officer.

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