The National Italian American Foundation was at New York University’s Kimmel Center., on February 10, for the preview screening of “The Italian Americans,” set to air nationally February 17 and 24 on PBS. At the event, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio gave such an amazing opening speech, discussing his experience returning back to his grandfather and grandmother’s home towns in Italy, that we felt it had to be shared with all of you.
Mayor Bill de Blasio: It is a great, great pleasure to be here for so many reasons –and I’m thrilled that so many people are here to be a part of this tonight. For me, first of all, anything that celebrates our heritage, which has given so much to us, and framed our lives here in this country –anything that focuses on that makes us feel it and think about it more – is worthy. This is a particularly powerful project, which has already –I can tell from everyone I’ve known who’s been a part of it –already touched people very deeply. And I think it’s going to strike a powerful chord and spur a great conversation. So I’m thrilled for that reason.
I’m thrilled also to be here at NYU, at my alma mater, in this beautiful new facility. When I was here, it was not a beautiful new facility –it was a grungy old facility, but we –we liked it just fine. We did well with it. And NYU, for me, was a place that really fostered a deep examination of identity, because NYU was a school then – and I think, in large part, it still is now – that was a place so many young people came to who were children of immigrants and grandchildren of immigrants, and who, for many cases, were the first going to college in their family. And it was a place where people were really exploring what their identity meant, and playing it out in terms of their journey in this country. So it’s a thrill to be at NYU.
I want to thank Stefano for the great work of Casa Italiana here. I want to thank everyone associated with this project.Jeff, thank you for the kind introduction and for all you did to make this project come to fruition. I want to thank everyone – all the networks who were involved – PBS and WNET and WETA and everyone – all those who supported this in bringing it to fruition, because it’s going to mean so much for so many people. It’s a discussion we have not had enough. It’s an exploration we haven’t done enough of. And this is going to be very, very important – and, in fact, will cause a lot of soul-searching – and good soul-searching for a lot of people. So, it’s so important –I want to thank everyone who’s been a part of it. A special thank you to my colleague of many years –over 20 years –Maria Laurino, who I knew long ago to be a great writer, but I also knew – from the first conversations that we had, I knew she was someone who was exploring the meaning of our Italian roots very, very deeply, and had really put a lot of her life into sorting out what it meant –not just for her and her family, but for all of us –and Maria, thank you for bringing that soulful search to the written page, and doing so much for this great project. Let’s give her a round of applause.
A lot of you joined us at Gracie Mansion when we celebrated Italian heritage –and I hope you will again. We are bringing a distinctly Italian flair to Gracie Mansion – let me tell you. There’s all – there’s new attributes at Gracie Mansion. There’s lots of red wine there now, except there’s –no offense to any northern Italians in the room –but we have a rule that all the wine has to come from Rome or farther south –okay, just a little –
So, and –and I had –speaking of Rome and farther south –I had a extraordinary joy this past July to go back to my grandfather’s hometown, Sant’Agata de’ Goti, which isprovincia di Benevento near Naples, and my grandmother’s hometown, Grassano, inprovincia di Matera in the region of Basilicata. And anytime you go to your forbearers’ hometowns it’s an extraordinary experience. Our family is blessed to have kept a very strong connection to the towns that our family came from, so there was a special sense of things, because we had –I had been before to both towns, and there were family members who stayed connected to the towns, and so there was something great in the continuity of it, and then, oh, by the way, I was Mayor of New York City, so they had a little bit of extra – extra celebration for that. It was pretty over the top, I must say. As you know, for all of us who share Italian heritage, there’s kind of a little bit of an operatic quality to the way we do things, so it was pretty intense, but it was a beautiful, beautiful moment.
Part of the beauty of it was to be able to see all this through the eyes of my wife, Chirlane, who, for someone who did not have the joy and privilege of being born with Italian heritage, has done a really good job of catching up –she is one of the great Italophiles you’ll ever meet –but also, of course, through the eyes of my children, Chiara and Dante. And for them, of course, from very early on in their life, they were given a strong sense of their heritage. And Chirlane was so willing and so positive about doing that –to give them names that reflected their Italian heritage. And at the same time, we taught them deeply about their African-American heritage, their Caribbean heritage, their heritage in Africa.
It was something fascinating to watch them take in all these different pieces of who they were and not find a contradiction in it. They –they were challenged, of course, like any young people trying to sort out identity. And there’s a special challenge when children are of –of different backgrounds, when they’re multiracial, and I think that comes with certain questions. But what was beautiful about watching this with our children was they –they grew in the experience. They gained depth as they learned more and more about who they were and what it meant and what the previous generations had done – and yes, the struggles, and the challenges, and the discrimination they had to overcome –and what drove them, for those who came to America by immigration; what drove them, for those who didn’t get to choose, and found themselves in America, but had to seek something within that challenge –what drove them. Our children benefited greatly.
And there are so many things I’d love to say tonight –I’ll only say a few, but I think, like so many people in this room, this chance to think about who we are is so powerful. One thing I want to say is I strongly urge all the people in this room, who I would consider among the true believers, because you care enough about your heritage and you’re thinking enough about your heritage to be here, to spread the simple notion that talking about it and thinking about it is powerful; and whenever humanly possible, for those who have the means, to go back to the hometown that your family comes from. And particularly to show members of your family who have not had that experience is an amazing thing – it’s a transcendent thing.
I first went back to my grandfather’s hometown when I was 15 years old, and I can affirm to you that my life was different from that moment on, that it – it gave me an entirely different understanding of not just who we were as a family, but who we are as Americans – all of us – because we come from somewhere, but also something life-affirming about the sweep of human history, and the permanence of family, and the fact that there’s something greater that undergirds who we are.
So, I – one thing I want to say is – please, this is a cause for me –it’s so important – if people have the opportunity to see their roots very specifically – to feel them more deeply, to demystify them, to show the next generation what it means – because we’re in an interesting point in Italian-American history, where the immigration has occurred, by and large. And now it’s up to us to take the ideas and the messages and the meaning of the culture, and maintain it, and keep it fresh, even though there’s not huge numbers of people coming in from our country of origin – to keep the meaning alive. And that’s why what you’re going to see tonight is so important, and the book is so important.
But it’s something we each have to do in our way. And again, I can see, through my own children’s experience, how much it has brought to them – and I have no doubt in my mind they will pass it on now. I have no doubt that all the things that my grandparents loved about their heritage– that they reveled in, and they passed on so generously, and with such passion, to the next generation – that it just continues and continues. And it’s continuing now very organically, because it’s deep-seated, and it’s real, and it’s meaningful.
So, one thing I want to say is how important it is to focus on that mission.