Sunday, October 31, 2010

Another Sopranosim

Although not a fan of the show, A&E has the current rights to it and the syndicated broadcasts are shown every morning at 6 AM. Occasionally I have it on as I get up. This morning I couldn't help but notice a scene which, without going into much background, portrayed a rape incident. The victim's ex-husband entered the hospital room to see her.

This character, who I believe was supposed to be of Calabrian ancestry, was a somewhat tall gentlemanly man in his fifties. Well spoken and educated, he took great offense at the portrayal of Italian-Americans in the mainstream media, even going so far as to say that it was a roadblock to an "Italian president."

As he entered the hospital room, he tried to keep his composure as health care staff and law enforcement officials conducted their work. After a few moments, a police detective stated that the perpetrator had been arrested. The individual's last name was "Rossi." Suddenly, this man became noticeably uncomfortable. Showing more emotion than he had when he first saw his ex-wife, he blurted out something like "That's an Italian name!? I thought that witnesses described him as a Puerto Rican??"

The basic gist of it was that he has such a chip on his shoulder, that he took it almost personally that the perpetrator of this particular type of hideous crime had the name "Rossi." Of course, all this was fictional, but I couldn't help but think of what this man might think of many everyday face-to-face meetings with people?

To digress, the criminal in this fictional account was, according to the story, Puerto Rican. Some Puerto Ricans have surnames of Irish, Corsican, and Sardinian origin. This due to immigrants to the island, perhaps a century or more ago, and who melded with the local population; hence the name "Rossi." Then it occurred to me, this individual placed a lot of importance on even the intrinsic concept of "an Italian name." I just wanted to pull this issue away from this portrayal of a crime; one that, if genuinely proven, probably should be rewarded with the death penalty.... into just everyday life. Everyday interactions.

I can't help but think of what this man, and there are probably many like him, would think of maybe someone like me? To digress for just a moment, he, being from New York City, would have had almost no contact with anyone whose ancestry was is what we like to call "the northern nations," unless he traveled to "Italy." This is not good or bad in of itself, but just a fact. When studying the villages of eastern Lombardy, where my ancestors came from, it's clear that very few of them had village names (of their original dialect; used prior to 1860) that he would recognize as "Italian-sounding" The local Lombard dialects wouldn't even be recognized as "Italian" either (the Tuscan language was implemented as the official "Italian language") . However, the surnames would be recognizable to him as "Italian."

Some of those surnames would sound different than what he might be used to. Some of them being of Gallic origin. A few names from long gone eras may appear, like "Mitterpergher" in Lombardy, and many surnames in the tri-Veneto region have no vowel ending, but are very native. However, some surnames in say Sicily reflect long past eras as well; like "Martines" or "Mondinier." More often than not, a name like "Cuomo" would sound foreign in non-cosmopolitan areas in the north. I wonder what Mario Cuomo, himself very similar to the character we are looking at here, would assess that fact? In short, there's an honest aspect to this, and a dishonest one.

Maria Laurino took the challenging step of trying to sift through this issue in her 2001 book 'Were You Always an Italian?: Ancestors and Other Icons of Italian America'. It took courage to take on this issue. Without going into all of the data, I will merely quote the famous anthropologist Carlton Coon:

"No country in Europe in which one language and one cultural tradition prevail shows a greater diversity of race between its southern and its northern extremities than does Italy. The binding element which is common to all sections is the Alpine, which has reƫmerged from obscure beginnings through a superstructure composed of Dinaric, Nordic, and various kinds of Mediterranean accretions. Italy stands on the fence between the Alpine and Mediterranean worlds."

As we have gone over time and time again, even that "common language" is absolute pure fiction; no disrespect on the Tuscan dialect intended. Also, Catholicism is a very culturally ambiguous concept. Many people of entirely different cultures are "Catholic."

I recall some years ago, some high ranking political figure in Greece, I don't recall offhand his name or position, stated that "Italians" have spread the mafia all around the world. On one level, he was correct that there is no "Greek mafia." There is a present black market anywhere in the world, but nothing comparable to the mafia of Sicily, Calabria, or Campania, in, for example, Greece, Spain, or Germany. On the other hand, it was a moronic statement in that there are about five million people of "Italian" ancestry in the Brazilian province of Sao Paulo, and no mafia; many millions more in Argentina, with no mafia. Part of this is that most of those people are of "northern nations" descent.

Getting back to our Sopranos character. IF he was of Calabrian descent, and IF he took such matters so personally, then he might well have an achy heart today. The Calabrian 'Ndrangheta is possibly the world's most powerful organized crime group. They make literally billions per year in drug profits. Their GNP is higher than that of small countries like Estonia. In reality, he shouldn't take that personally; although it is quite a curiosity subject! Why Calabria? There are many areas in Europe which are historically poorer and have been subjected to much greater oppression than Calabria or Sicily. On the other hand, I don't think that I have ever heard of a "bad Italian neighborhood" (in a Southern Italian/American sense).

Lets cut to the chase. As a people, US northerners, the Gallo-Tuscan types, have taken it worse than the traditional Italian-Americans. WE are not responsible for any of the negative stereotypes, real or imagined. The image of "Italians" around the world contains some of the lowest stereotypes, with sarcasm sprinkled on top for good measure ('Analize This'); along with the highest forms of culture and ingenuity. Whether anyone likes it or not, the term "Italian" many times arouses negativity or emotion from non-Italians; just subtle enough to make someone NOT want to touch the subject, yet annoying enough to cause despair, especially if one is Gallo-Tuscan in ethnic origin.

Whether it be a quote like from the Greek politician, Camorra wars in Naples, or Robert DeNiro movies, this shouldn't have anything to do with us anyway! I had written about his subject on a few occasions, and minced my words a little. I probably injected a few awkward sentences when I backtracked a little bit to soften it up. This, again, is due to the subtle nature of the subject. One stereotype that I get a lot is "the Italian workplace bully." Okay, we can go into the "good and bad in every group" thing. From the description and names, it seemed pretty clear to me that the bullies of these stories were Southern Italian. Ironically, I can only think of one place that I ever worked where there were some vicious bullies. A lot of ex-cons and social undesirables who made life miserable, who were of various backgrounds. Everything BUT Italian. In fact, the few Italians (almost all Southern Italian) were probably the nicest guys there. I guess it's like an "opposite character" of a national and/or ethnic group. For example, many or most Germans are gregarious, back-slapping, drinking beer on Octoberfest, etc., then the opposite negative stereotype of cool, calculating, and emotionless. Well, maybe it's the same thing here. A warm, gregarious people, and the opposite character: temper, bully, bad attitude, etc.

We should coin a term to describe all the times that someone rags on "Italians" and we have to decide on whether to go along with it, laugh, try to say that we're not really the same type of Italian, or take offense as though we were all one big Italian family that should stick up for one-another no matter what. One thing is for sure, it's not "self-loathing" in the Mario Cuomo/"Were you always an Italian" idea of the term. I guess it's all relative. I guess someone could say that as a white person, I should feel guilty for slavery in America. As a human being, maybe someone could say that I should feel bad for how we pollute the environment.

I remember one time working for a company, it was graveyard shift, and the large heavy man who was the operations manager got angry with one of the other managers. The other man was "demographically Russian," even though his ethnic heritage was from one of those "stan" countries near Afghanistan. The OPS manager called him by an ethnic slur with "Russian" attached to the end of it. Then they went at it. My point is that, beyond this interaction between these two, the one individual was actually not even an ethnic Russian at all. There are many examples of this, which I won't go into, but one would hope that someone, if they had to make this type of remark... would AT LEAST GET THE STEREOTYPE CORRECT!!! Russians, in RUSSIA PROPER, visually are beautiful people, largely ancestors of Vikings! And here, some big slob can defame their name, and the person isn't even really Russian anyway. It's sort've like insulting a person, and then tacking on this added THING that I can't even coin a term for.


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