Spaghetti Night and Other Stereotypes

“Anthony. Anthony!”

If it weren’t for the fact that I was calling from the office of my suburban New Jersey home not the front window of a North End walk  up and it was Monday morning, not Wednesday evening, this exchange could be mistaken for a 1971 television ad.

I got up from my desk and walked to the bottom of the  stairs. “Anthony! Do you hear me?”

“It’s Prince spaghetti night,” my husband calls up from  behind me. I threw him a dirty look over my shoulder.

“Anthony! Now!”

“What is it, Ma?”

“Do you have to yell?” my husband asks.

My son pokes his head over the upstairs railing. “Mom’s not  yelling. She’s just talking loudly. And Dad, we don’t eat Prince. We eat DeCecco, the good stuff.”

And there it is. I’ll admit it, I’m loud. Not the kind of  loud that cannot find its ‘inside voice’. I am very well socialized, thank you. But in my comfort zone I have a tendency to be the loudest person in the  room (especially when I’m laughing). But Italians are naturally loud, the stereotype claims. I  don’t buy it.

Our family matriarch, my grandmother, has always been soft-spoken; although, she is quite capable of making herself heard over her four surviving children, eight grandchildren and eighteen great-grandchildren when she needs to. Most of my cousins are not loud. The guys tend to have  low-pitched, resonant voices that carry, but that’s not the same thing. In  fact, of all my cousins, only one can claim to be as loud as I, even louder. So in a family that comprises several hundred people if you  include my fathers’ cousins, aunts, uncles and their children, two are loud.  That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the whole Italians are loud stereotype.

Maybe the stereotype comes from the fact that traditional Italian families (at least from earlier generations) were large. You have to be loud in order to be heard at the dinner table over a family with two parents, four or more children and a couple of grandparents. Maybe this was its origins.

Then there were the neighborhood moms. I remember in my grandparent’s neighborhood in Astoria, Queens that around four thirty in the afternoon mothers from the block would come out on the front porch and call for their children. “Johnny.” “Vinnie.” “Frannie.” It was quite musical, now that I think about it. And effective – within ten minutes I could hear the sound of slamming doors when kids rushed to wash their hands and be at the table for when their fathers got home. This always impressed me since the kids could be anywhere in between 21st Street and the river. I’ve been told that this was common practice in a variety of neighborhoods in New York and Boson. I even experienced it in the suburbs when I was a kid. Well,  not in our house because our mother relied upon a coach’s whistle she had gotten from my uncle, Weehawken’s favorite, Coach D, to gather the chicks back to the nest. So it’s not as much of an Italian thing as it was a pre-mobile phone thing. Yet I continue to hear from Italians and non-Italians alike that loud Italians are the norm.

It makes me wonder how many other stereotypes we honestly believe about ourselves?

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Italian American Arts Festival

Watchung Arts Center

Sunday, April 25, 1 p.m.

This event is the culmination of more than a year of work. I have long been aware of the lopsided and misguided representation of Italian Americans in the media: a representation that is completely opposed to the people whom I know and love. Instead of whining and complaining  I decided to so something about it. I wanted to share the stories that speak to our experience and culture the way we are, not the way we are perceived.

When I shared this vision with the board of the Watchung Arts Center they were excited to get involved as they share a commitment to arts, culture and education. I deeply appreciate their commitment to this event, reaching out to the community around them and sharing the value of the arts 

This Festival celebrates the contributions of Italians and Italian Americans to the arts, especially literature and the visual arts. The day’s events will include readings by the five finalists from the Art Center’s Contest in Italian American Short Fiction; the winner will also be announced that day and awarded a $200 prize. Award-winning Italian American fiction writer, poet and essayist, Paola Corso, will read some of her own work at the Festival. An exhibit of artwork by painter Marc D’Agusto and photographer, Alexa Cuozzo will be presented in the downstairs Studio.

Tickets are $7 and include entry to the readings and art exhibition. Hors d’oeuvres will be provided by Delicious Heights of Berkeley Heights. You may purchase tickets via using PayPal from WAC’s  Ticket Reservation page. For more information call 908-753-0190 or click here to e-mail them.

I’m looking forward to seeing you there!

Thanks to a Creativity Mentor & Tre Bella

Creativity is universal. It is the essence of who we are as human beings. Although many deny it, everyone has it. One of the people who profoundly encouraged my creativity is the amazing Lorraine Ferro. Lorraine was my voice teacher a few years back and beyond what she did for my voice she encouraged and fostered my creativity. Lorraine had a singular role in my claiming my writer’s voice. She was my one of my first creative mentors and I am so thankful for her.

Lorraine and I share our Italian American heritage through our respective arts. And one of her more recent endeavors just blows me away. Lorraine,  JoAnn Robertozzi and Rosie DeSanctis are the three voices of Trebella. Amazing songstresses who bring new life to songs that enriched our lives and helped define Italian American culture as more than either Italian or American.

Thank you Lorraine and thank you Tre Bella!

Wops and Mafia Princesses

I was eighteen years old the first time someone called me a wop.  

It was the first weekend at college and I was getting to know some of my classmates over some of the worst pizza known to man. We were talking about what we were planning for the weekend when out of the nowhere this rather upper crusty looking guy, we’ll call him Preston, asked me “You’re a wop, aren’t you?”

Up to that point I had never heard the term and asked Preston what he was talking about.

“You’re a wop. I can tell,” he replied, grabbing my school ID from my hands and holding it up for the rest of the group to see. “See I knew it!”

“Preston, what the heck is a wop?” I knew that I had been insulted but I didn’t know about what

He just smirked and tossed my ID back.

It took me three days to find someone who was willing to tell me what I had been called and even he looked ashamed when he told me. “It means without papers. It refers to Italians.”

I wasn’t naïve, I knew that there were derogatory terms that referred to Italians but I had never heard them directed at me or my family personally before. It was an eye-opener to realize that others didn’t see us as we were but who they wanted us to be. At that point in my life I was living the American dream, my father and his family came to the US from Italy in the 50s. They all worked hard, he and his siblings were able to go to college if they choose. My parents got married and worked together to raise us to get an education and be independent. Our whole family was made up of hard working, intelligent and honest people. They did their military service, paid their taxes, sent their children to school and took care of their parents – all the things that good Americans were supposed to do. We had the best of both worlds we were Americans with Leonardo, Sinatra and ravioli.

This was the first time I was ever faced with the Anti-Italianism the history books told me was long past. Ha! Like during my engagement party when my husband’s grandmother looked around my parents’ house, tapped her nose twice and winked at her son. Her opinion was obvious: Italians can’t possibly work hard for what they have. When I approached my husband about what I had just seen he turned red and told me that she was just joking. Some joke!  I have it on good authority that when she went to her grave in 2008 she was utterly convinced that I was a mafia princess and not the daughter of a CPA that I “pretend” to be.

What I find particularly interesting is how this type of stereotyping is acceptable in the mainstream. In a day and age when most people accept, at least publically, that stereotyping is wrong it remains acceptable to pigeonhole certain ethnic groups.  MTV has argued long and hard that it is merely providing entertainment that the public wants with shows like Jersey Shore (in my opinion, the public will accept whatever it’s handed, but that’s a discussion for another day).  If that is true, what does that say about our culture that in an era where an African-American can be elected to the office of president it is still acceptable to target certain ethnic groups for our entertainment?

 Many people continue to choose ignorance and there is nothing I can do about that. Their stupidity won’t change me one bit, except  to make me more determined than ever to achieve my goals. In the end, the more that I am able to accomplish, the more I prove these idiots wrong. And we Italians don’t give up easily!

Contest in Italian American Short Fiction

Open Call to Writers!

 

Contest in Italian-American Short Fiction. In conjunction with its first Italian-American Arts Festival, the Watchung Arts Center is looking for submissions of short fiction written from an Italian or Italian-American Perspective. Five finalists will be chosen to read their work at the Italian-American Arts Festival on April 25, 2010, at the WAC. The winning composition will be awarded a $200 prize.

Submissions will be accepted online only from December 14, 2009 – February 14, 2010.

  • $10 entry fee to be paid via PayPal
  • Submit a rich text format (rtf) copy of your work (500 – 5,000 words) to ItalianAmerican_Writers@yahoo.com. Only one piece per writer will be accepted. Please include your PayPal confirmation number in the Subject Line of your e-mail.

Unreal. Really.

Last spring everywhere I went I was stalked, not by a crazed fan of my minimally published fiction or an overzealous six-year-old with my hair and eyes, dirty hands outstretched demanding to be picked up, but by a single image. Five women, perfectly primped and coiffed, designer clad stereotypes of womanly perfection: The Real Housewives of New Jersey

While I’m not a fan of the ubiquitous reality television series, or television in general for that matter, I have to admit, I was intrigued. I live less than ten miles away from Franklin Lakes, the home of most of the “Real Housewives.”  In the weeks before the show’s premiere I had been informed through my high school’s alumni association that one of the cast members had gone to school with us. She was two years behind me and to this day I don’t remember her; of course that’s not saying much as I tend to forget more people with each passing year. I had even been to events at the Brownstone (it’s a pretty nice place as I recall).

So I watched.

I didn’t expect much. I figured that I would get to see some places that I knew. Pretty nuts when you consider that I could drive by any of these places any time I find myself with nothing better to do. But what I found was worse that I could have imagined: an hour-long exploration of the stereotypical New Jersey Italian American woman: self-absorbed, foul-mouthed, overly made up, cat-fighting, gossipy, over-indulgent media hounds, who seem to value neither decorum nor education.

I was shocked and a little offended.  I have lived the better part of the past twenty-six years in New Jersey. I am a first generation American-born Italian from a family full of strong and courageous woman. And I have never once encountered women like these. Not to say that they don’t exist, but I’ve certainly never met them.  And yet these are the “Real” housewives that New Jersey offers? I don’t think so.

As the show progressed I accepted that if these women were what Bravo and their viewers wanted to believe were “Real Housewives” in New Jersey than I would wholeheartedly embrace my role as The Un-real Housewife of New Jersey.

Thanks for reading and welcome to my blog on life, the Arts and being Italian American.