Current images of Italianness for Italian-Americans are often slanderous, and sadly, we often believe them. We ignore the truth of our families and lives and instead fall for the guido and guidette images sold to us — of violent thugs, gum-snapping bimbos, and inarticulate palookas. In many cases, our grandparents and great-grandparents carefully protected their children from their Italianness, both in their eagerness to assimilate and in order to protect their families from anti-Italian discrimination — a powerful force in a country that would vote to drastically restrict immigration from southern Italy after 1924 out of fear of what the tidal wave of dark, religiously distinct incomers might mean to the then predominantly Anglo-Saxon American identity, and that would go on to wage war against Italy during World War II. While the mistreatment of Italian nationals and Italian-Americans during that period does not come near to that suffered by Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, their mistreatment at the hands of a government anxious to avoid enemy activity within its borders is well-documented as “una storia segreta” — a secret history that saw many of our family members registered, curfewed, and on the West Coast, forced to move out of their houses and even interned.
What that experience and the more common slander and suspicion directed toward Italian-Americans for the 20th century means when added to our ancestors’ fears of standing out in a new land, is that many Italian-Americans have lost a healthy sense of self-identity. The only options available to us are the Thugs and Bimbos, which rush in to fill the void. I urge you to find an old photograph of your proud and beautiful grandparents or great-grandparents, who stared down a frightening a schism in the middle of their lives to give their posterity a fair chance at a better life in a land that was alien to them. You will not see dim-witted thugs and bimbos in those photographs but hard-working, honest people who worked hard to care for their families and yet still found time to add beauty to their lives through music and other creative pastimes.
Whatever your own opinion on the matter, it is plain that the history of Italianness in America has in many cases been lost or terribly distorted. Among the greatest losses has been our musical history and heritage. It is my hope that this blog might someday help repair just a tiny bit of this damage and encourage Italian-Americans to reclaim a positive, welcoming identity that highlights our heritage of artistic achievement and memorializes our families, many of whom were musicians, with dignity.