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Book Review: Were You Always Italian?

John De Matteo Reviews Maria Laurino's "Were You Always an Italian"

In “Were you Always Italian, ”Maria Laurino describes her upbringing when, with the ‘encouragement‘ of her parents, she hides her ethnicity. As an adult she tries to unearth her Italian heritage and astutely asks, “Can one really escape their ethnicity?” and “How do you recapture the past when your knowledge is limited and has been molded by others?”

Ms. Laurino’s realizes one cannot escape their ethnicity. On the other hand Ms.Laurino demonstrates that one cannot recapture their past when their ‘knowledge is limited and has been molded by others,’ Her efforts to undo these limitations constitute a ‘too little - too late.’

Ms. Laurino’s limitations are apparent by her choice of subjects she presents: Clothes, Words, Rome, but most of all Bensonhurst. She never examines Italian her American heritage in a larger context, e.g., she focuses on 65,000 Italian Americans in Bensonhurst. Are they typical of the other 16 million Italian Americans?

To her credit she wonders if the press media may have molded these Italian Americans. This focus on Bensonhurst might be of value is she were to go beyond the stereotypic picture of this community. As in most stereotypic portrayals there is an element of ‘truth’ but she fails to put this ‘truth’ into context. What percentage of this community fits this stereotypic mold? Why does this behavior exist? How does this community compare with other ‘working-class’ communities? These questions are left unanswered.

An examination of Ms. Laurino’s background explains how her ‘knowledge has been limited and molded by others.’ During her formidable years, Ms. Laurino and her parents make every effort to disassociate themselves from their Italian roots. Her parents moved into a suburban neighborhood, and in the process intentionally closed the door to their heritage. Most Italian Americans who migrated to this country understood that, if their children were to be ‘successful,’ some of the ‘old ways’ had to be put aside. For Ms. Laurino’s parents all of the ‘old ways’ were to be discarded. Ms.Laurino states, “When I was a child, we tried to mask our susceptibility to shame by keeping our ethnic detail under lock and key.” Those are troublesome words. We see the consequences in the author’s writings.

As an adult, Ms. Laurino becomes a writer for the New York Times and a speechwriter for Mayor Dinkins – her political leanings are obvious. She feels a compassion for Afro-Americans – an admirable quality, however, one is left to wonder, ‘how about other minority groups?’ She travels to Italy and makes it a point to limit her travels to Rome and north thereof. She makes no effort to visit the small southern Italian villages of her grandparents until her more recent trips. Is this change an indication that Ms.Laurino is starting to appreciate the people of L’Aventura? After reading “Were you Always Italian,” I would say, ‘too little - too late.’

Maria praises Mario Cuomo but finds it necessary to dismiss other Italian American politicians such as LaGuardia and Marcantonio. As an Italian American from New York City during the era of these gentlemen, aware of their accomplishment and personally assisted by Marcantonio, I would suggest Ms. Laurino do her ‘homework.’ These were great Italian Americans! Come to think of it, I cannot find any Italian American in this book other than Cuomo that Ms. Laurino applauds.

Laurino’s first encounter with the Bensonhurst working class was during the racial conflict in 1989. Her next two visits to Bensonhurst were seven years apart. What precipitated Ms. Laurino’s initial visit was her role as a reporter covering the murder a black youth, Yusuf Hawkins, by white ethnics mostly Italian.

White on black murder or black on white is nothing new to New York City, however, this time what ensued was a media event that seemed to place the blame for racial conflicts in this country at the feet of this Italian American community. AlSharpton, chose the occasion of this incident, to lead a march of blacks into Bensonhurst. . The media’s storyline was that it was unsafe for blacks to go to Bensonhurst because these Italian Americans were bigots and murders. I am sorry to say that Ms.Laurino’s study does little to undo this perception. Let me compare the media’s and Ms. Laurino's positions with that taken from another book on the same subject.

Color of his Skin - The Murder of Yusuf Hawkins and TheTrial of Bensonhurst was written by John De Santis. The book’s cover has an endorsement by Spike Lee and its Introduction is by Alan Dershowitz. The title of the book, and the contributions by these gentlemen, should make it clear that this book is not a whitewash of the perpetrators of this crime or of the Bensonhurst community.

Excerpts from Dershowitz follow. “ The question of whether the murder of the quiet black teenager was ‘racially motivated’ crime oversimplifies a complex contemporary issue. (My underlining.) At one level, of course, the crime was racially motivated; ….At another level, Hawkins was killed because he was seen as dangerous and unwanted outsider. There can be little doubt that those who organized the bat-wielding crowd that eventually cornered Hawkins and his friend were laying for drug-dealing blacks and Hispanics who were believed to be coming to Bensonhurst to ‘kick some white ass.’ Hawkins and his friends were in the wrong place – and the wrong race- at the wrong time. Hawkins was the victim of mistaken identity, but the reason for the mistake was the color of his skin.”

The mass media took the position that this crime was simply a white on black murder in Bensonhurst. Likewise, Ms. Laurino says nothing of the ‘complex contemporary issue’. She does state that the community suggested that it was a case of mistaken identity, “…and by time Modello recognized their mistake, it was too late.” As a matter of court record, as DeSantis makes clear, this murder was a case of mistaken identity. (Note DeSantis does not question whether this murder had racial overtones – neither do I, but it was a case of mistaken identity.) Ms. Laurino goes on to describe Hawkins murderer as a ‘mentally slow young man named Joey Fama.’ The fact is that Fama was more than mentally slow, he had suffered two brain-damaging accidents.

The mass media painted a picture of a white lynch mob whose agenda it was to keep blacks out of Bensonhurst. Ms. Laurino does nothing to dispel this picture. De Santis points out that this ‘lynch mob’ had a black member, Russell Gibbons, who was not at the scene of the murder simply because he remained behind to take care of his boom radio. DeSantis points out that one of Modello parents was Jewish. these facts were ignored the media AND Ms. Laurino.

Dershowitz continues. “ The Hawkins tragedy involved only a small number of residents of each community who reflect the extremes of ethnocentricity. Kids who would gather with bats and guns to keep – even black drug dealers who were ‘dating’ one of ‘their’ women – out of their neighborhood are not typical of Bensonhurst. Nor is Al Sharpton – who preaches a gospel of black superiority and white exclusion –typical of Bedford-Stuyvesant.”

What does Ms. Laurino have to say? Except for a few isolated statements Ms. Laurino paints a picture of Bensonhurst that is right out of the print media and Hollywood. Here are few examples of her media broadbrush. “As I witnessed generations of entrenched Italian American hatred: old women shook their heads and muttered in disgust as marchers passed by, young men tried to hurl their bodies pass the restraints, the veins on their foreheads bulging like earthworms after a rain.” She continues,. “As ItalianAmerican, I was conflicted, unable to articulate my deep embarrassment. … The brutal honesty of Bensonhurst’s public rage kept me spell bound. … All this ‘confirms that Bensonhurst was a cauldron of racial hatred…… they refused to accept blame for their entrenched bigotry.” And it goes on and on. It was like reading the newspaper and or going to the movies. We Italian Americans were more fairly treated by Dershowitz and DeSantis.

It seems to me a fair-minded reporter would ask why this particular murder was made into a media event? If an Italian American man had been murdered in Harlem would the media, much less city officials, have condoned a march into Harlem? A scrupulous reporter would put Bensonhurst racial hatred in context with other working class white neighborhoods. Or is hatred against Blacks a case of there was Columbus and then there was Bensonhurst?

Ms. Laurino reports Bensonhurst whites see jobs disappearing, schools less safe, neighborhoods less safe. Their easy answer is it is the Blacks,Hispanics. Admittedly the wrong answer. But what differentiates these Italian Americans from other groups throughout the history of this country who decried the newest immigrants?

Ms. Laurino goes on to paint a picture of Bensomhurst straight out of Saturday Night Live. I do not deny these youths exist but what happen to the children of my Bensonhurst cousins. We have a lawyer, dentist, engineer, etc. All of my cousins children are either college graduates or slated for college.

Ms. Laurino finds it “out of kilter with textbook theories of assimilation, that one hundred years later, a group of Italian Americans (City University teachers) in the premier urban melting pot, many with doctoral degrees, went to court to document their struggle to integrate into American society, asking to be included in the category of Americans considered ‘nonwhite.’” She goes to point that Italian Americans will denounce affirmative action but these instructors had no problem accepting affirmative action.

As someone with two degrees from the City University I think Ms. Laurino has failed again to research the situation beyond the media broadbrush. City University has a history of discrimination against Italian American faulty and students. Queens College, part of City University, has been charged for decades with discrimination against the Catholic faculty. Attempts to achieve equality were met with stonewalling tactics. There was no other option other than to seek legal recourse. Later court hearings found the charges of discrimination to be a fact. Chancellor Kibbee said, “We are concerned here with the City’s largest minority and one which, like other minorities, has over time suffered the degrading effects of bigotry, misunderstanding and neglect.” Ms. Laurino chooses to ridicule CUNY Italian American professors who had no other choice but to resort to affirmative action but ignores the history of discrimination at this school.

I will not bore you with the hypocrisy I encountered at CUNY- except one experience is so recent. A few months back I attended my graduation class’ fiftieth anniversary. Much of the keynote speaker’s speech had to with the battle against anti-Semitism and the Civil Rights movement at the school. He said noted of the discrimination of Italian Americans at the school, instead there was the usual gratuitous inaccurate Mafia remark.

If one is to examine one’s roots, the first and foremost requirement is to gather scholarly background information. Ms. Laurino may have made a sincere to discover her Italian roots but she did so without the proper background necessary to do the job. She remains a New York times reporter and a Dinkins speechwriter.

Thanks for sending this important and insightful review...

As you know I read the book also, and in my view [which became clear after the first chapter] is that Ms. Laurino has a serious problem, and that problem lies not with us IAs, but within herself. In her writing I read under the surface of the text years of feelings of inferiority, media imposed self-hate of being IA, a crying desire to erase herself from being IA. Did she not write this book with the knowledge that IA would see this for what it is? Or is she so mentally away from being IA that never crossed her mind of concern?

My question is what was the purpose of this? To fuel the media blitz of defamation?

If so? I view this as working both ways. I view her as a sad victim of all she perceives as the negative aspects of IA. There is not one part of IA she compliments in that book, any compliment is negated [negation is always the sad way out to say nothing.] All I read over and over was IA mockery, IA guilt, IA hate. The only thing she did compliment in the book [at the expensive hinted mockery of her own mother and her feelings] was her Jewish husband [how utterly ironic.] I would like to know who proposed the writing and publication of this book which as a piece of IA mockery is a testimony to what the media has done to some IA's feels of self-worth. But that said what they didn't realize is how clearly it exposes what that media has done to this IA woman.

It is no wonder that Chase thinks she is wonderful because he is in the same boat [many groups have ripped that apart so we don't have to get into that here] yet I think it valid and important that these damaged views come out to all IA [and non-IA] because they hold the potential to exploit the nightmare the media has created for IA, in essence this stuff backs us up on the damage that media has imposed on the IA psyche.

John, this one line is a profound statement of her state of mind, it amplifies the state of mind of the other IAs who hate themselves out there as well "Ms. Laurino paints a picture of Bensonhurst that is right out of the print media and Hollywood. " I'll go a step farther and say she paints a picture of IA that is right out of the print media and Hollywood...need anyone say more than that!


John De Matteo Reviews Maria Laurino's "Were You Always an Italian"?
Though I have bought her book, I have not read it.  After glimpsing the first few pages of it I knew it would not even come close in examining any issues  that relate to me or my experiences in New York.  I am currently a CUNY student in Manhattan for a year now entering my final year at present. 

I have encountered numerous defamatory experiences from faculty involving statements made about Italian-Americans or Italians and am continually  observing them as the trade-off for bolstering the African-American community.  I cannot wait to finish this course of study and leave New York  City, and especially CUNY with all its overt race consciousness and its attempt to reconcile the city's racial problems with diverting the blame to the Italian community. 

It is no wonder that HBO/Sopranos and so much negative media come out of New York since it's the main bastion of media and publishing for the country.  Freedom of speech or press, yes but the total lack of proper academics afforded this city is damaging to Italian-Americans both within it and especially from elsewhere.

I-As are conformed to be associated with New York Italian characteristics that don't apply there much less elsewhere.

This focus on the "quick buck" is very damaging to the nation, and always at someone else's expense, namely the innocent.


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