This is an essay about cultural identity and pride, but also about intolerance and worse. It was inspired by two seemingly unrelated events: the approach of Columbus Day on Monday and the recent death of teen idol Bobby Rydell.
Rydell was a favorite of mine as a kid growing up outside of New York City, a handsome crooner who offered fun hits such as “Wild One,” and who would appear on “American Bandstand.” His name became iconic when the kids from the musical “Grease” were said to attend Rydell High.
When I read his obituary, I was struck that his given name was Italian: Robert Louis Ridarelli. It turns out that he was among countless Italian American singers who were advised that they would be more popular if they changed their last names. I began to gather examples:
Frankie Avalon was Francis Avallone.
Fabian was Fabiano Forte.
Frankie Valli (a mildly Italian name) was Francesco Castelluccio.
Dion was Dion DiMucci.
Bobby Darin was Walden Robert Cassotto.
Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon, who sang “Tallahassee Lassie,” was Frederick Anthony Picariello.
My friend Joey Dee was Joseph DiNicola.
And it was not just the men who changed their names. The great Connie Francis (who recorded an album of Italian songs) was born Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero.
Of course, these singers had role models of an earlier generation. An Italian named Dino Paul Crocetti became Dean Martin. And, maybe my favorite singer, Anthony Dominick Benedetto, rose to fame as Tony Bennett.
I get it. Lots of celebrities have stage names. It was probably a good idea for Marion Morrison to change his name to John Wayne before climbing on his horse. But he did not change his name to soften his ethnicity.
America is named after an Italian
My grandfather was born in 1897 outside of Naples, Italy. The youngest of six children, he was given the most beautiful name: Pelegrino Marino. If you translate that name into English, it can mean Pilgrim Mariner. What better name for a 4-year-old who gets on a ship bound for Ellis Island and the United States of America. But as these immigrants settled on the Lower East Side of NYC, in an effort to assimilate, their names began to change.
Pelegrino became Peter. Cesare became Jerry. Vincenzo became Jimmy. And my mom, Speranza, became Shirley.
By the time my grandfather set eyes on the Statue of Liberty for the first time in 1901, hundreds of thousands of Italian immigrants had made their way to America. They wanted jobs. America needed cheap labor, the fuel of industry.
Like the Irish, the Italians were reviled by white Protestant Americans because they were Catholic. The paranoid conspiracies included the idea that their primary loyalty was to the Pope, whose plan was to infiltrate the American way of life.
“No Irish Need Apply” was one sign of intolerance. But at least the Irish, for the most part, had light skin. The Italians since the time of the Civil War became associated by whites, especially in the South, with Black Americans. Vile stereotypes and names were directed to both groups. In places like Louisiana, Italians lived close to Black communities and served everyone in their stores. This led to attacks by the Ku Klux Klan.
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This led to one of the most notorious crimes in American history, the torture and lynching of 11 innocent Italian men for the alleged assassination of the chief of police of New Orleans.
The making of Columbus Day
Those lynchings occurred in 1891. After national and global outrage at the crime, President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed that a Columbus Day celebration would occur the next year, 1892, the fourth centennial of the so-called “Discovery of America.” (Never mind Native Americans or Leif Erikson.)
What was to be a one-time event turned into an annual celebration, and, under FDR, a federal holiday. A century later, it has become perhaps the most contested American holiday of all time, an insult to Indigenous people, a dismissal of the genocide of Spanish conquistadors and a generator of a founding mythology which, if we were to be honest, had almost nothing to do with Italians.
When former President Donald Trump called Mexican immigrants degenerate rapists and murderers, he was following an old script, whether he knew it or not. Italians were said to be ignorant, filthy, disease-ridden, useless except for the most menial forms of labor. No wonder Italians and other immigrant groups settled into their own communities, helped form labor unions and, on the dark side, found power in organized crime families.
As more and more Italians and others emigrated to America, politicians stoked the flames of xenophobia. In 1921, new immigration laws began to slam the doors. Fearing deportation, my grandfather became a naturalized citizen. I have his naturalization papers. Next to the word Complexion, a clerk wrote “Dark.”
Things changed for the better slowly into the 1930s and ‘40s. Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra emerged as important examples of Italian American culture.
Then came World War II. In Italy, fascism grew in strength under Mussolini. With Hitler’s Germany, Italy became our enemy, part of the Axis Powers, which placed Italian Americans under additional pressure. Like many Japanese Americans, Italians were under constant suspicion, with hundreds placed in internment camps. DiMaggio’s father saw his fishing boat in San Francisco confiscated.
I could make a case that it was never a celebration of Columbus that would bring status to Italian Americans. It was pizza. An ancient food staple, American soldiers stationed in Italy during WWII helped popularize it on the home front. I was born in 1948 and never knew a world without pizza and TV, a combination I enjoy with passion to this day.
I am no anthropologist, so I can be excused for this grandiose thesis: If an immigrant people improve the cuisine of a culture, and the music, and the dramatic arts, and national sports, they are climbing toward the top of social influence. All that remains is political power, the kind that inspired my grandfather to activism in the Republican Party under the leadership of the “Little Flower,” Fiorello LaGuardia. One of my prized possessions is a campaign poster of Peter Marino running — unsuccessfully — for the New York State Assembly.
This is not meant to lionize all Italian Americans. Countless mafia books and movies have stereotyped Italians and helped glamorize criminal elements. If you look at that great boot of Italy on a map, you should know that status can be defined by whether you live north or south of Rome. The darker-skinned Italians of the south could be looked down upon by their own countryman. Even my beloved grandfather spoke for many Neapolitans when he told me that the Sicilians were not really Italians.
Historian Gary Mormino reminded me of an episode of “The Sopranos” when a character, who was from Naples, declared he had no affection for Columbus. The explorer, he said, was from Genoa in the north, where people look down on people from the south.
I once made a list of my favorite Italians. (Columbus was not on it!) But how about Dante, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Aquinas, Galileo — oh, and Sophia Loren. She was born on Sept. 20, 1934.
Here is my immodest proposal: Let’s declare that date — or pick another one — as our day of Italian pride. Let the vestige of Columbus Day revert to Indigenous people. Christopher Columbus went to Spain to get a gig, and brought nothing remotely Italian to the effort of getting to China. Marco Polo got there going in the opposite direction and, according to my theory, brought back spaghetti and pizza.