By John M. Viola
It’s safe to say that in a job like mine, you need to be passionate about your Italian American heritage. One of the extensions of that passion, for me, is the urge to collect the objects and antiques that were part of the Italian American experience.
I recently stumbled upon a large assortment of Italian American novelty buttons from the 1920s through the 1980s. The messages on the buttons certainly gave a sense of where our community was in those eras. In the ’20s, the theme was mutual aid societies and religious festivals. In the ’40s, the messages were about Italian Americans being proud of their American-ness. Into the ’70s, buttons called for unity, pride and an interesting concept called “Italian Power.”
As I started to dig into the concept, I realized our community’s shared recollections of the 1970s tend to gloss over how far from assimilation we Italian Americans were in those days. We often look back at our ascendency as Americans as a simple path from immigration and poverty to the middle class and beyond, accomplished through hard work, dedication and family values. But it was not that simple.
Even as late as the 1970s, the Italian American community was grossly underrepresented in Washington, in academia, and in the halls of power throughout the country. In June 1971, a New York Magazine article, “Risorgimento: The Red, White and Greening of New York,” addressed the struggles of our community towards assimilation. Not only were we not assimilating, we were being left behind by other ethnic groups that had come to America the same time as our families. The article points out that in 1971, “while almost one-quarter of the freshman class at City University [was] Italian … only 14 out of 165 of the university deans, and less than six percent of the city’s college level teachers, [were] Italian.” Of the 90 high school principals employed in New York City at the time, one was Italian, and less than 10 percent of the city’s 60,000 school teachers were of Italian ancestry.
Statistics like those led to the founding of our National Italian American Foundation. NIAF was created to fight for positions, influence and power here in the nation’s capital on behalf of all Italian Americans. So it brings me back to the idea that Italian Power, even as recently as 40 years ago, was something of a pipe dream.
Since then, we really have seen ourselves arrive as a functioning and important group of 25 million in this great country of ours. I’d like to think, in retrospect, that organizations like NIAF were integral in that jump to empowerment. Forcing our people to understand that while divided we were a community of struggling families, united we were a major force in the American social fabric.
So what comes next? If we were to design the Italian American button of today, sometimes I think it would say, “We’re here and we’ve forgotten who we are.”
I look into the future of our community and realize that in a world where information and identity move so quickly, our culture and our Italian American identity can’t be maintained in the institutions our community now has. Just like the old mutual aid societies of the ’20s and ’30s didn’t suffice in the era of Italian Power in the ’70s, groups like ours need to evolve.
I see this evolution as a coming together of the different parts of our community. There are groups that have existed for decades and, like the Order of Sons of Italy, even for a century, with proud histories, excellent traditions, vigorous membership and service. There’s UNICO and its service throughout the nation and, of course, NIAF and the works we have been doing for nearly 40 years.
But, in many ways, these groups represent the Italian tendency to fracture and to recreate one another’s efforts. I challenge our community to look into the future and see our major Italian organizations merged together as one, working towards the shared goals and missions, and representing a community more unified than it has ever been.
In October, during our annual Gala weekend, I laid out that challenge at the “State of NIAF” conference. It was met with great enthusiasm, saying it was exactly what we needed to preserve our culture and identity in the next generations. It was also met with great reservation, expressing that the merging these groups would be dead on arrival.
All I know is this: while my grandparents were considered a “mixed marriage” because my grandfather is Sicilian and my grandmother is Barese, my parents simply thought of themselves as Italians. At 30 years old, I don’t care about what group, society or faction we belong to within our community, and neither do my friends. We care about being Italian first, and fighting to make sure that our people remain a community and future generations have every opportunity to receive this gift of identity and culture that previous generations have fought so hard to pass onto us.
For the first time in our century-and-a-half history, we need to achieve real unification. And if Italian American unity can be achieved, perhaps we can finally get to that concept of “Italian American Power.”
John M. Viola is the NIAF president and chief operating officer.