Articles by: Donna Chirico

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    Will Someone Tell Me Who I Am!


    Social media is rife these days with people taking personality quizzes.  Although as a whole the enterprise seems frivolous, the underlying tension is one of personal encounter.  Will someone tell me who I am!


    Personality tests were originally used for making predictions about behavior and quickly became diagnostic tools.  It is a short divide from trying to figure out which soldiers will greet the onslaught of bombs on the battlefield with shellshock to recognizing that one can use similar tests to more broadly evaluate an individual’s personality structure.  The quest to develop personality types and categorize people goes back to ancient times; Hippocrates and then Galen used body fluids as the source for the types.  Through the centuries the number of attempts to create a definitive personality model is prodigious.  In the 20thcentury the exigencies of war and industrialization led to a boom in personality testing.


    Few have been spared exposure to some form of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator used in all manner of employment settings to determine where best to place the right cog, yet few probably know that the test was developed to help women entering the workforce during WW II.  Drawing on existing psychological theories, Katherine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, assumed that if you could understand something about a woman’s personality you could figure out the type of work where should would feel most at ease and be efficient at the task.  Previous work experience was not the only clue.


    Organizations want you to be able to work well with co-workers and to recognize strengths versus weakness, assuming that such insights will lead to greater levels of productivity.  The implication though of tests like the Myers-Briggs is that people cannot figure this out for themselves.  


    The popularity of personality quizzes implies people cannot.  Magazines have long used these as come-ons to boost cover appeal.  Seventeen asks, “What is your Dream Job?” Good Housekeeping helps you to discover, “Which Dog is Right for You?”  And Cosmopolitan wants to know, of course, “Are You Enough of a Bad Girl?”  The number of quizzes popping up on Internet is growing. 


    It is interesting how many of these quizzes deal with Italian and Italian American themes.  How Italian are You?  Which Italian Wine are You?  What kind of Italian Food are You? This is where one also learns that being lasagna means that you are passionate, ravioli means that you are confident and antipasti suggests being open-minded


    The capo di tutto capi of quizzes is, of course, Which Godfather Character are you?

    Here one learns from postings that all results are good unless you turn out to be Freddo! 


    None of this is surprising in an age where identity is becoming increasingly difficult to forge and a family heritage of ethnic traditions is increasingly difficult to maintain.  People want to know who they are and where they belong.  Ethnicity is a powerful aspect of this self-discovery.  Third and fourth generation Italian/Americans seem to want the seemingly clear boundaries their parents and grandparents had, not recognizing that the world of their Nonnas was just as ambiguous and perhaps made even less clear because certain aspects such as the majority language and education were is short supply.  The nostalgic view is that everyone knew where they belonged and were supported by a vast, encouraging family along the way to success. 


    Today many struggle to keep the vestiges of the old-style Italian family living, trying to ensure that Sunday dinner does not die with Nonna.  A diverse social environment made larger through the global virtual community means that the choices available are increasing.  Then there is the phenomenon of mixed ethnic heritage.  It is hard enough to figure out what it means to be Italian/American, but what about Italian/Dominican/American or Italian/Cambodian/American?


    The quintessential Italian family exists, if it ever existed, only in novels and film, parents are out of the home working, schoolmates expose our children to myriad value systems all making the formation of an ethnic identity more and more challenging for young people.  It is no wonder quizzes are needed to help make the decisions. 


    For the record, I am Vito Corleone eating vegetarian lasagna and drinking Barolo.











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    Now the Cartoon Version of Italian American Identity


    It turns out that the Netflix series Lilyhammer now has its imitators.  As if one show promoting the typecasting of Italian American identity as dysfunctional mobsters and thugs was not enough.


    That plotline focuses on Frank “The Fixer” Tagliano who, after ratting out his mob pals, joins the witness protection program and heads to Norway.  Lilyhammer is rife with Italian American stereotypes (see my earlier piece), but is not even in the same league as the Hulu “original” series Fugget About It. Described as an “adult Canadian animated sitcom,” the show uses the same premise.  Jimmy Falcone kills a mob boss and to save himself, squeals to the feds about the goings on of the Gambini crime syndicate.  Falcone, now MacDougal, and his family end up in witness protection in Regina, Saskatchewan.  Snow, check. A contemptible anti-hero, check. Italian American affronts, check.


    At least in Lilyhammer, there are some genuinely funny moments, especially when the Norwegian producers make light of their cultural idiosyncrasies as seen through the American’s eyes.  Fugget About It is an just ethnic train wreck leaving much destruction of ethnic sentiment in its wake.  The fact that the show is not live action permits greater latitude to offend with its defamatory assertions.


    The Brooklyn accented Jimmy character, who is almost never without a cigar dangling from his lips, is prone to malapropisms, one of which is to constantly refer to Regina as vagina. This was not funny the first time, never mind the twentieth.  The animated caricature itself is of a fat, unshaven thug in a track suit who like Frank the Fixer turns to violence to solve life’s problems.  The bonus with the Falcones is the foul language used throughout to highlight their emotionality especially when Jimmy is arguing with his wife Cookie who happily ends these verbal brawls by throwing knives at her husband.  When seeking spiritual guidance Cookie prays to a not so typical Madonna enshrined in the bedroom that is equally vulgar. In one episode, Cookie asks her if she thinks Jimmy is having an affair, and our lady want to know if he is still porking her. 


    Even the episode titles rely on the basest semblance of humor such as “The Man with No Ass” and “The Horny Bastard.”  A recent episode titled “Effin' Neighbors, Eh?” nicely berate Italian Americans and Canadians.


    Of course all representations presented of ethnic identity are prone to compartmentalization and as I have also written elsewhere, when this turns behavior into ethnic stereotypes it is not necessarily a bad thing.  The Falcones are an archetypally close-knit Italian American family who eat pasta together, support each other, and in quirky ways, show their love for each other. Here though all of the positive traits are turned into negatives.  After mom cooks a fine spaghetti and meatball dinner, the bulimic daughter asks to be excused to throw it up.  After dad and Uncle Cheech teach the nerdy son how to box to protect him, they make him take a dive.


    The biggest flaw is that the show is not funny.  Everything has to be spelled out leaving little room for interpretation.  There is no empathy to had for Jimmy or his clan.  The cultural stereotypes Italian Americans cherish are empty of meaning and without compassion in this household. Thus there is no identifying with their Italian identity.  In this animated series, the characters are buffoons as cartoons – ugly Americans north of the border.


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    Stereotypes of Death


    People create stories about themselves out of which a personal narrative is formed.  Simultaneous to this, the ethnic communities that inform our stories are creating stories.  When repeated often enough these become ethnic stereotypes.


    In recent months, I have been thinking about the way the stories of our ethnic communities become stereotypes that we consciously or unconsciously make part of the personal narrative.  It is often through the stereotypes we have made our own that the roots of ethnic identity are revealed.  We cannot help expressing the stereotypes.  When others see the manifestations of these stereotypes in lived experience, the stereotypes become further established: consider the the drunken Irishman or the Chinese math whiz.  Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “earned reputation,” but we could easily say “earned identity” because we contribute to perpetuating the stereotypes.


    I have also been pondering the relationship between the identity we so carefully craft for the world to see versus the identity that is perceived and understood by others.  We present an intricately woven tapestry of patterns, textures and colors, yet others only see, or only choose to see, perhaps the cloth in its entirety or only the blue square or the red triangle.  It is often true too that we create different selves for different cliques.  If one is really good at this, a compartmentalization occurs and without an extraordinary circumstance, our friends and colleagues are none the wiser. 


    An extraordinary circumstance that reveals the myth making is death.  It is the clashing cymbals of who we are in the eyes of the world.   It is also a time when the cultural stereotypes we choose seep through the diverse manifestations of self.


    The primary way to gain insight into how we are seen is in the way we are remembered after death, in the eulogies rendered.  But, it is seen too in how others fall back on aspects of their ethnic stereotypes to commiserate with the bereaved.  Recently, this was highlighted by a death in the family.  The mourners came laden with gifts in what almost sounds like an ethnic joke.  First, the Jewish side of the family brought the grocery bags of bagels, cream cheese and rugelach.  Then, the WASP-y friends from Old Greenwich brought the brie, Bordeaux and French macaroons in a wicker basket festooned with a neutrally colored ribbon.  Next the Irish neighbors handed off the blended Scotch and mass card.  Finally, the Italian family sent their son with a pot of cavatelli, tray of eggplant parmesan, loaf of bread and jar of sauce all wrapped in checkered kitchen towels to keep everything warm.


    My thought was that while others bring comfort, the Italians bring dinner – how comforting.

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    I Am The Pope

    The United States is becoming less and less religious, not just in the traditional go to church every Sunday and don’t eat meat on Friday ways, but also in purging religious affiliation. The General Social Survey, funded by the National Science Foundation, monitors notable social and cultural trends and has tracked the data about religious affiliation since 1972.  Whereas then only 5% of Americans claimed to have “no religion,” today more than 20% say they have none.  Contrast this with the reaction to the new leader of Roman Catholics.  People everywhere are declaring renewed religious interest and extolling the virtues of Pope Francis.  He is humble, authentic, a man of the people and for the poor.  He likes dogs. 


    The Pope blessed journalist Alessandro Forlani’s guide dog and soon a photograph of the event circulated widely often accompanied by images of the original Francis, of Assisi, holding the paw of a wolf equating the two in character.  These images call to mind another dog lover and the photographs with his beloved shepherd Blondi.  

    This seems a callous response, or perhaps I missed something.  I could have sworn  that this insider was elected by his fellow cardinals who share a narrow-minded view of the world and of religion.   This is the same confederacy of autocratic oligarchs who have turned a blind eye to the pedophiles, opposed gay marriage and abortion rights while generally limiting the freedoms of women on a grand scale.  Then why have so many expressed their liking for this sovereign?  I attribute this instant connection to the fact that people want to identify with Jorge Mario Bergoglio.  He is a reminder that a simple person can rise to great authority. He is a reminder that I can rise to great authority.


    Given that religion is missing in our lives, missing too is the opportunity to identify with a cohort of like-minded journeyers who can offer encouragement and support.  Whereas religion provides an all-embracing system of belief linked to practice, the structures of community created to fill that void are insubstantial.  Individuals grasp at creating self-identity with choices that are becoming fewer and are often ephemeral.  Even though we denounce religious affiliation, Francis provides a double take, another chance to fill in the blanks of self.  This is the critical element.


    Identification by race used to be simple:  Black or White.  Race then became more complicated in our multiracial landscape and has been put aside for the refuge of ethnicity.  But, as ethnic identification becomes vulnerable, other ways to create that needed sense of self must be found.  Those who are now unto the 3rdand 4thgeneration of immigrants are so far removed from the primogenitor of ethnic identity that they have to search for their roots.   It is no surprise that we end up defining ourselves through media interpretations of ethnicity.  The characters who portray Italian Americans, who may or may not be Italian American, tell us how to be Italian American. 

    Enter Francis with an opportunity to identify once again according to religious affiliation and the public has seized this opportunity.  I can identify with the Pope, I am the Pope.  In the years ahead, the Church led by this Pope of the people will also have to re-create itself and decide what identity to put forward.  Let us just keep in mind that even seemingly gentle dogs will bite.

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    Proud to be White!

    "Proud to be White!" is the subject line of an email that keeps bubbling up from the cesspool of Internet disinformation.  In 2007, Michael Richards’ name was added to the email claiming the assertions are part of his defense statement at a trial resulting from racist comments made while performing at the Laugh Factory (in November 2006).  The truth is there was no such trial nor are the statements those of Richards.  The aim of the email is to legitimize the anti-Black and anti-Hispanic sentiments expressed behind closed doors by declaring, “There is nothing improper about this e-mail.”  The tirade challenges the notion of white privilege as expressed in models such as critical race theory where white supremacy is seen as ingrained in American society and used to perpetuate the second-class citizenry of minority groups such as Blacks and Latinos.  Whites are not racists they are only seen to be so when they try to salvage their entitlements without having to share them. 


    The email has been aggrandized in its latest manifestations to bring Jews and Muslims into the harangue.


    You have Martin Luther King Day.

    You have Black History Month.

    You have Cesar Chavez Day.

    You have Yom Hashoah.

    You have Ma'uled Al-Nabi.


    The convoluted logic of the email maintains that while others are free to have days that celebrate their cultural pride, if Whites tried to do this, “we” would be seen as racist. 


    I note that Columbus Day is not included. Perhaps this is why I received this email multiple times from individuals who present as Italian/American.  The latest came from one of my oldest and dearest friends, a person from the “old” neighborhood, a neighborhood of startling diversity.  The support for such outright drivel among Italian Americans is troublesome at many levels.  When did we become the White privileged?  When did we leapfrog over our fellow tenement dwellers to a position of lofty self-righteousness?  When did we lose sight of our own immigrant heritage of discrimination and exploitation?


    The email gives the sender a chance to vent about a changing America and do so as a member of the historical White power monopoly, even though there is no basis for inclusion from the perspective of the Italian American immigrant experience.  The charges in the email are a denial of a past filled with hostility towards Italian immigrants.  It is easy to understand the psychic need for the rant in a world where political and economic control is still out of reach for the working and middle class, but disheartening to hear it from folks whose parents and grandparents were the targets of the same misguided rhetoric. 


    This new American hate expressed by Italian Americans was vivid in their support of the recent failed presidential bid of Rick Santorum.  Backing a candidate whose ideology would have sent most Italian immigrants back where they came is a supreme act of self-deception.  By shifting allegiance to the Republican and Conservative parties, Italian Americans get to distance themselves from people of color.  Frank Sinatra and Ronald Reagan.  Gary Sinise and John McCain.  White by association if not by birthright.  Proud to be White and apparently not ashamed to be racist.

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    A Wise Guy in Paradise

    Without fanfare, without a premier episode and without any publicity Netflix recently launched its first “original scripted” series: Lilyhammer.  The coverage in the media has mostly been about the production of the show.  Netflix has taken a series made for Norwegian television and tailored it for online viewing where the entire series was launched simultaneously rather than being scheduled week-by-week.  The series stars Steven Van Zandt, former guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and most recently seen on American television in The Sopranos as strip club owner Silvio Dante.  Van Zandt, an Italian American from Massachusetts (born Steven Lento), is also a writer and producer of the show.
    Less has been said about the show’s story line.  The premise is that Frank “The Fixer” Tagliano becomes an informant for the FBI and in return is given a new identity as Giovanni Henriksen.  Once the gimmick establishes the raison d'être, the series follows “Johnny” as he tries to bring Las Vegas to Lillehammer.  This leads to almost every known stereotype of Italian/American culture that you can imagine.  Some are just straightforward ethnic slurs such as Johnny resorting to violence in solving his assimilation problems, to classic Godfather-esque parodies. There is a scene, for example, when an eco-philosopher who refuses to sell his farm to make way for a condominium development project finds a dead hen on his bed.  Some of the dialogue is witty, some is campy, some is predictable and all of it encapsulates the view that the Italian/American experience is the wise guy experience.  In fairness, the show also pokes fun at Norwegian societal foibles.  The television version has been a monumental hit garnering a record audience of 998,000 viewers (one fifth of Norway's population) for the first broadcast.
    It is this last point that is unsettling because it is a reminder that the view of ethnic America held is the one filtered through movies and television.  While we fail to address the deepening identity crisis in Italian/American culture and fret about the influence of shows like Jersey Shore on young people, an international stereotype has emerged and essentially gone unchallenged from the American media that will limit opportunities for a new generation of Italian Americans abroad.  This comes in addition to the increasing general dislike of Americans globally.  Therefore the lack of response to Netflix in this inaugural attempt at original programming is problematic.  With over ten million subscribers, Netflix has not bothered with advertising Lilyhammer because everyone who goes to its site will see the tag image for the show – a grimacing Johnny is his camelhair topcoat with a mock version of Skeikampen Mountain in the background.  The reach is vast and immediate.  Even if one chooses not to watch the series in its entirety, the point is made at entry in the first minutes of the show. 

    What is striking is that the lead character’s new identity is forged on the most reprehensible aspects of his original one.  The message is that we are bound by the inevitable paths forged by ethnic stereotypes.  Rather than finding new ways of being in a new societal framework, the taint of negative ethnicity is so strong that that the character instead brings the toxic waste of ethnicity to the countryside.  Once again a deleterious view of Italian Americans is promulgated with no refutation; so it is again ethnic stereotypes all in the name of fun and profit.