Tuesday, March 21, 2006
On being Italian... Well, Italian-American, at any rate.
Growing up on the mildly perturbed streets of New York, (never liked the term "mean streets") I was lucky in that I was immersed in Italian American culture from the beginning. In NYC, the influence of Italian Americans was everywhere, and for the most part, we were the majority on Staten Island.
It wasn't until I came to New Orleans though, that I ever had any appreciation for that fact. Here in the big easy, there isn't really an Italian American community per say... I mean there is to an extent, but it has been absorbed over the years into the cultural gumbo that makes up this very strange and wonderful place. What Italians I met here had no idea of the history of their ancestors, something that had been drilled into me my entire life in NY. I had gotten used to having a pizzeria on every corner, and a family's typical Monday night dinner being spaghetti and meatballs.
One thing that I also noticed was how few Italian American role models had actually made it into the national collective consciousness. Sure, We had a chief justice, but Rudi Gulliani wasn't to be a household name for years, yet. In this vacuum, who was a young Italian American to base his behavior on? Well, for my age group, you had a choice... Mobsters (like the Godfather), Jerks (like Vinnie Babarino in Welcome Back Kotter) or Dumb-ass boxers (like Rocky) Our popular actors and singers did little to make for good role models either... In interviews they tended to be either pompous jerks, or tough guys.
So, what was an Italian to do? Me, I took my cue from history, and looked up to people like DaVinci, Verrazano, and Vasco DeGama. Italians, before moving to the new world were Scientists, Explorers, and to a certain degree conquerors.
Of course, that don't mean I don't appreciate the fantasy of being a Mob boss :)