Storia Segreta Page: Background Information and Documentation


Our Italian Identity in North America

Growing up Italian in North America must rank among the most fascinating and puzzling human experiences. Ask any Italian American to name a great name and you will most likely get Columbus, Leonardo Da Vinci, Giuseppe Verdi, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and Michelangelo. Ask any Italian American to suggest a name for a street or a park and you’ll most likely get Columbus. What do the names I mention above have in common? They are all Italian, of course, but they are not Italian American. What is it that keeps us from mentioning the names of Italian Americans? I would like to propose that Italy and Italians should be our first frame of reference when we talk about the culture of Italians in North America. So let me throw out a few more names. Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Nicola Sacco, Simon Rodia, Baldasare Forestiere, Frank Zappa, Pietro DiDonato, Sister Blandina Segale, my mother and father, your mother and father, ... but I will stop here so as not to use up all my space. In short, immigrants have contributed to American and world culture. A fact that is more-often-than-not forgotten. What the reasons might be behind this forgetting are not so much a mystery than they are a reality. It is no secret that Italians were not always welcome in America. And, even if it were true that, as one T shirt proclaims, we “found it, named it, and built it,” the reality of it is that much of the political rhetoric of this nation has at times been less than tolerant of outsiders. Italians have borne their share of these attitudes, and it is because of them that I believe that we are reluctant to recognize the value our contribution. We would rather bank on the sure-bet of a Michelangelo or a Da Vinci. We might even gamble on the controversial Columbus, even if old Chris was at work for the Spaniards who, in 1492, had had their heel already firmly planted in the back of southern Italy for about fifty years. The point that I am trying to make is that Italian Americans have a wealth and depth of culture of their own making that has hardly received a glance. We are well beyond the period of immigration that brought us all to our contemporary situation, and yet we have not come to recognize ourselves beyond the disparaging and damaging images presented of us in films, novels, comic books and cartoons. A French traveler to Naples in the 1700s is quoted as referring to that city as “paradise inhabited by devils”, a moniker that came to be applied to all of southern Italy and its inhabitants. When we consider the numbers of “devils” who emigrated from that, the saying takes on global meaning. A while ago it became clear to me how this representation had not disappeared at all, but had become hidden beneath layers of apparently innocuous cultural products. Think of Stromboli in Disney’s Pinocchio, or Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers, or the Caravaggio character in Michael Ondatjee’s novel The English Patient (now a blockbuster movie). We are angered by the explicit offense of Mafioso typecasting, but we let other, perhaps more insidious and damaging portrayals, slide right by. When I noticed that all the “Italians” in the things that my young daughter was watching and reading were much less than what I thought she should be learning about Italians, I started to write about them. The essays and talks are now collected under the title Devils in Paradise and will appear later this year through Guernica Editions. All of which bring me in a round-about way to emphasizing again the cultural heritage of Italian Americans. We have among us many many writers, artists and creative individuals that represent the best of the meeting of Italian tradition (which means all of the regional traditions and cultures) with the possibilities that a new environment could have provided. This new publication will give us the opportunity to explore many new horizons that I hope will reenforce our readers’ appreciation of the wealth of cultural enterprise and value that the Italian American community at large possesses, in its past as well as its present. In the pages of this magazine I will explore various manifestations of this culture in the hope that someday, when one of us is asked the questions with which I opened this piece, we will be able to answer a little differently, with a little more thought given to our immigrant background and a little more recognition for what the successive generations have contributed to what it means to be Italian American today. Pasquale Verdicchio

DRAWING FROM MEMORY: The Art of Italo Scanga

Italo Scanga was born in Lago, a small town in the Italian region of Calabria. From those roots Scanga developed his philosophy of the world and the slant of his art. An artist of international renown, sculptor, painter, master print-maker, photographer and glass artisan, Italo Scanga is indicative of the important infusion and results of the meeting of Italian popular culture and what we might call “high” art. Lest I lead anyone astray, I should clarify that what I have called popular art is not a lesser art by any means. My understanding of this influence, and it is clear in Scanga’s diverse expression, is that it forms a complex and vital aspect of Italian life and customs. When I first met Italo Scanga, our conversations quickly turned to his interest in the lives and ideas of philosophers like Giambattista Vico and Tommaso Campanella Both these philosophers, in their works The New Science and The City of the Sun, concern themselves with the construction of the world in which we live. Their investigations gravitate around the things of the world and their importance in influencing personal and historical memory. Giambattista Vico's New Science reflects on "poetic logic," which is to say, the creative possibilities inherent in language use. Central to Vico's philosophy is the proposal that we can only know what we have constructed, society and language being of primary concern. Vico's account of the development of language is as follows: a divine stage of mute ceremonies and rituals; a heroic stage of gestures and signs; and lastly, a human stage that marked the emergence of verbal language. In Campanella's City of the Sun, the city's seven concentric walls are used in that utopian culture's educational process. The walls are decorated with drawings, paintings, and diagrams of all the objects and circumstances of the world, including things fabricated by humankind. Children are guided along the walls so that they may learn and reconstruct the memory of their culture, and along with it construct the language of their cultural rapport. Both these philosophers approached in their work the issue of language and identity. For Italians there could not be a more important cultural marker. In the Italian relationship between the Northern and Southern regions, language has been an important element of distinction since the days of Dante, long before the Italian nation was born. Italo Scanga's origins are Southern Italian, part of a culture in continuous evolvement and adaptation. Of course, emigration looms large in the South’s adaptive capabilities. Having lost millions upon millions of its people, the South has nevertheless survived and in the process has exported its cultural influence. In this context, I would say that Scanga's work emanates that adaptability of all migrant populations, and the bent for hybridity that ensures survival and innovative creation. Italo Scanga's work then becomes representative of Vico’s notion of knowing only that which one creates. Italo Scanga's work reflects both a memory of the past, which he tries to recall and reconstruct, and a memory in progress. Lacking direct access to the past, our future depends on memory, and memory is always a constructed personal language. Fortunately, this personal language speaks of one's ties to culture, in our case Italian and American. Viewing Scanga's art is like walking along the walls of Campanella's city. As we stroll (we know how important the passeggiata is to Italians) we view and learn of the existence of a particular world, a particular vision and a particular memory that could well be incorporated into our own. After all, Scanga's objects are our objects, only the grammar of their description differs. In this artist's work, we find an invitation to share languages, to reach across that space and communicate through elements of commonality. Pasquale Verdicchio

The Photographs of Italo Scanga

Though now primarily a sculptor and painter, Italo Scanga has also left his mark in the field of photography. Of particular interest is his photographic series of his hometown of Lago. This is important to contemporary viewers for a number of reasons. First and foremost, these photographs are a document of both the life of the artist and of his place of origin. They are a door to the memory of a land and a culture, that of a small southern Italian town, relegated to the margins of official history. As such, these photographs represent, in relation to what we call Italian culture, an invisible culture that reflects a condition of displacement common to that geographical region. The photographs of Lago are indicative of a way of life that has slowly changed or disappeared, not by its own action but by the encroachment of a paradoxically distant outside world. Roland Barthes has said that a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see, but the objects it re-presents. In Scanga's Lago Series there is a doubling of invisibility that renders such a statement even stronger, since the things represented, whether they be a woman, a child, or a landscape, represent an invisible culture. The objects depicted are then merely objects of desire upon which to build a past. Such is the condition of displacement that finds a direct link to Scanga's personal history. The series includes photographs of people who have died, of women who married and emigrated to other parts of Italy or to America, of men who left the town out of economic necessity, never to return. And we have the products of their labor, artisanship mostly deemed inefficient in today's world. Italo Scanga is closely tied to the people and events in these photographs. They are the elements that cultivate his life and work. Those familiar with Italo Scanga's sculptures or paintings will no doubt find a familiar echo here. But this is a life past, a life whose fragments the artist has re-collected from a distance to achieve the wonderful mosaic of his artistic production. The very sequence of the photographs, which begins with a distant view of the town and ends with scenes from a funeral, points not to a nostalgic look back but rather to an appreciative window on a past that is important to all of us. And while this past has died, in its death it has given life to new forms and visions. Pasquale Verdicchio

The Stories We Hold

The Italian word “storia,”with its double-edged sense of history and story, captures not only history’s association with the past but also represents the process of human self-development that makes of history a process open to both the present and the future. Two recent projects take the full weight of this extended definition of history to heart in their reconsideration of events that should be of interest to both Italian Americans and a more general public. The first project is exhibition “Una Storia Segreta: When Italian Americans Were ‘Enemy Aliens’.” Prepared by the American Italian Historical Association under the editorship of Lawrence DiStasi, “Una Storia Segreta” recounts the events surrounding the internment of Italian Americans and restrictions imposed upon them during WWII. The exhibition first opened in February 1994 at the Museo Italo Americano in San Francisco. From there it traveled around the U.S. without interruption, finally reaching San Diego for a one month run at the San Diego Central Library from April 6 through May 3, 1998. Probably the most asked questions surrounding this exhibition is “What Italian American internment?” and “Why has it taken 50 years for this to surface?” Both questions lead us right back to the title “Una Storia Segreta.” Through a mixture of shame and lack of information the story lay buried in official documents and personal experience. “Una Storia Segreta” explores this silence and invites everyone of us to participate in the remembrance of and search for stories related to this event. “Una Storia Segreta” documents the panic, chaos and paranoia that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Beginning on the night of December 7, 1941, the internment of “dangerous” aliens began in earnest, along with the “re-registration of all enemy aliens and restrictions on their possessions and movements; the evacuation of thousands of aliens from “prohibited zones” on the West Coast; and the enforcement [...] of a stringent 8PM to 6AM curfew. Failure to comply with any element could, and often did, lead to arrest and detention.” (9) Approximately 600,000 Italians were branded as enemy aliens who, by January 1942, were required to register at local post offices around the country. The procedure included that they be finger-printed, photographed, and carry an “enemy alien registration card” at all times. Prior to this, a contingency plan had already been in place since 1939 and the British and French declaration of war on Germany and Italy. At that time “President Roosevelt [...] asked FBI Director Hoover to compile a list of persons to be arrested in case of national emergency. [...] The authority for these arrests came from Title 50 of the U.S. Code, based on the 1798 Alien & Sedition Acts, which gives the government power to detain aliens in times of emergency.” (13) Following Pearl Harbor, hundreds of Italians were arrested by the FBI, and by June 1942, the number of arrested reached 1,521. Not all of them served time at the camps in Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, but those who did were interned for a period of up to two years. The release of most Italian Americans came with Italy’s surrender in September 1943. While the fears that led to these actions against Italian Americans were rooted in the belief that they represented an enemy presence at home, the number of Fascist sympathizers among those interned was negligible. And, while some were not United States citizens they were nevertheless U.S. residents; they, along with many other prisoners, who were in fact American citizens, were deserving of protections and rights that were stripped from them merely as a result of their background or “the cast of their features.” The second project of historical interest, recounting an earlier incident that lingers in the historical background of Italian Americans, is the mass lynching that took place in 1891, in New Orleans. The series of events that led to this extreme act of violence against Italian Americans (not an isolated instance, by the way) is recounted in the book Vendetta, by Richard Gambino (Guernica Editions, 1998). As with “Una storia segreta,” careful investigation and research has brought to light another important “silenced” portion of “storia.” Gambino follows the variety of accounts as they appear in official records, as well as newspapers and magazines of the period, to provide a comprehensive account of this mass murder. Beginning with the murder of David Hennesy, a prominent police superintendent, and the identification of his assailants as “Dagoes,” Gambino takes us through the circuitous and tangled paths that justice sometimes takes. Based on the identification of “dagoes” the authorities in this instance rounded up 19 Italian Americans. The ensuing trial found none of them guilty, yet immediately afterward a mob stormed the jailhouse and lynched eleven of the innocent men. Gambino goes on to show that the motivations behind this eruption of violence was in fact a reaction to Italian Americans’ growing economic power. The instigators were able to base their manipulative tactics not only on the popularly held belief that equated being Italian to holding membership in the Mafia, but also the racism that goes hand in hand with such facile correspondences and became supportive of the belief that Italians were “an inferior race.” It has been said that the New Orleans lynching was instrumental in propagating a negative image of Italians in the U.S. While I do not wish to minimize the influence that such an abhorrent act might have had, we must also recognize that the negative typifications and associations applied to Italians, some of which linger to this day, are in part the result of home-grown Italian prejudices not only related to strong regional identification but also surrounding the problematic North / South relationship. There may be a lesson to be learned in the fact that, while in Italy certain negative stereotypes have been exclusively aimed at Southerners, in North America those derogatory labels have almost always been applied to Italians regardless of their Northern or Southern origins. And, as we know from the fairly recent series of sensationalist articles on the San Diego mob that appeared in the San Diego Reader, and from the widespread and continuous barrage of negative representations in film, television and advertising, things have only changes on the surface. It doesn’t take too much scratching to reach those hidden beliefs and deep-seated fears about Italians. Perhaps this example from recent history, these excerpts from Richard Nixon’s infamous tapes, are indicative of such hidden feelings: Nixon: The Italians. We mustn’t forget the Italians. Must do something for them. The, ah, we forget them. They’re not, we, ah, they’re not like us. Difference is they smell different, they look different, act different. After all, you can’t blame them. Oh no. Can’t do that. They’ve never had the things we’ve had. Ehrlichman: That’s right. Nixon: Of course, the trouble is ... the trouble is, you can’t find one that’s honest. (quoted in Vendetta) In opposition to this way of thinking, to this view of what we are, projects such as “Una Storia Segreta” and Vendetta stand in firm testimony as to the way in which History is not always representative of the people it purports to represent. It is in fact in the making of “storia,” in the self-development of a history that considers both the official and the personal, that we might find at least a hint of what we truly might be. And, it is to stories such as these that we could look for those common elements that tie us to the plight of those who might suffer similar misrepresentation. A valued sense of our own history can only be achieve by giving value to the history of others. Across this exchange we will find the means by which to expand our resourcefulness and through which to add our own stories in the writing of “la storia” so as to further break the silence and speak the secrets. Pasquale Verdicchio Notes: 1. A parallel “history” to the internment of Italian Americans is that of Italian Canadians. North of us the internment began in 1940 and for many their imprisonment at Camp Petawawa it lasted up to five years. The recent NFB film Barbed Wire and Mandolins, by Nicola Zavaglia, is an excellent document of this chapter in Italian North American history. 2. While the “Una storia segreta” exhibition catalogue credits a panel discussion at the 1993 American Italian Historical Association’s Western Regional Chapter meeting with having provided the impetus for the gathering of this information, it must be mentioned that a book on the topic did appear a few years prior to that. In 1990, Stephen Fox published an account of Italian American relocation under the title The Unknown Internment: An Oral History of Italian Americans during World War II (Boston: G.K. Hall and Co.). 3. “In 1896, three Italian Americans were lynched in Hahnville, Louisiana, three others in 1899 in Tallulah, Louisiana, and one in 1922. In addition, Italians were lynched elsewhere - in fact Italians were second only to blacks in numbers of lynch victims in the years 1870 to 1940. [...] They were lynched in such states as Colorado, Mississippi, Illinois, North Carolina, and Florida.” (from Vendetta)

Italian American Community Conference


co-sponsored by The Italian Community Center The FrameMaker Gallery

Speakers: Teresa Fiore on Baldassarre Forestiere and Simon Rodia Sal Filippone on the Mass Lynching of 1891 in New Orleans Pasquale Verdicchio on the Art of Italo Scanga

Baldassarre Forestiere, also known as mole-man, is an example of imaginative adaptability,
creativity, loneliness, and industry.  This remarkable man constructed an intricate network
of tunnels in the Fresno area.  This construction, that he undertook on his own, formed into
a self-sustaining system of rooms, gardens, and work-areas.  Slides of this fantastic construction
will be shown and accompanied with an appraisal of its cultural value and legacy.
For more info. also see Forestiere: in RETROACTIVE magazine

ITALO SCANGA: Light of Things

In occasion OF this, the first Italian American Community Conference, the FrameMaker Gallery has graciously installed an exhibition of works by Italo Scanga.

Devils in Paradise:Writings on Post-emigrant Cultures

(Guernica Editions, 1997)

by Pasquale Verdicchio

In this volume of essays, Pasquale Verdicchio approaches figures as diverse as Antonio Gramsci, Spike Lee, and the Super Mario Brothers, and subjects that range from literature to sculpture and photography. Through these the author closes in on a possible intellectual synthesis for what might be considered the most complex question of this end of century: What is the identity and place of a minority individual? For more publications by Guernica Editions GUERNICA:ITALIAN AMERICAN CULTURE


Italian Community Center: Language and Culture
Parentheses Writing Series: Chapbooks
Assoc.Italian Canadian Writers:Cultural Association
ZERO: A Journal of Writing Arts
LLIGHTZOO: Reviews of Italian and Italian American Film.