Conference Puts Blogger in Seventh Heaven
From May 8 to May 10 I was in Seventh Heaven. My dream of bringing together all the writers who have focused their work on Italians in Chicago came true.
For three glorious days, Casa Italia was filled with informed discussion of Chicago’s Italian American history, literature, and culture. It was an intellectual summit meeting of the best and brightest thinkers and writers about Chicago’s Italian American heritage.
Our Keynote Speaker was
The Conference was dedicated to Professor Rudolph Vecoli, the longtime director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. Vecoli pioneering 1962 Dissertation "Chicago Italians Prior to World War I" is basic to any study of the topic. In the mid 1960s Vecoli joined the faculty at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign where he hired me as a research assistant, setting in motion my career in Italian American studies.
Vecoli was to have spoken at the conference, but health problems prevented him from attending. As an alternative, I called on Gia Amella, the producer of “And They Came To Chicago” who provided a videotape of the full interview that Vecoli did for the show last year. Vecoli. Conference attendees were intrigued to hear Vecoli describe his study of Chicago Italians who didn’t “melt” as fast or go through as much “brutal uprooting” as previous historians had maintained. This view of ethnic retention eventually spurred the acceptance and encouragement of ethnic diversity that has become commonplace since the 1960s.
I am really excited about the work of several of the “newcomers” on the program. Peggy Glowacki (UIC) taught us about the efforts of the Progressives and the social workers to “reform” Italian diet, to get them to eat more meat and potatoes and fewer fruits and vegetables. Robert Lombardo (Loyola) presented the story of the White Hand Society that emerged in the early 1900s to combat both the reality of black mail crime and the negative image it created of Italians. A teacher, novelist and actor, Billy Lombardo (no relation) held listeners spellbound as he read from his “The Magic of the Rose,” set in the
Gary Mormino, (U of South
Some other highlights of the conference: Rose Ann Rabiola Miele remembering Egidio Clemente, the socialist editor of “La Parola del Popolo,” WBBM-TV’s Vince Gerasole screening a series of video profiles of Chicago Italians, Don Fiore regaling the audience with the exploits of Italo Balbo, Michael Serritella giving us the “inside dope” on the arranged marriages of the pioneering Italians, Mike Bacarella telling the tale of the New York Italian soldiers in the Garibaldi Guard who ended up settling in Chicago, Fr. Gino Dalpiaz giving a first hand account of demolition of the Near West Side to make room for UIC, Peter Pero previewing his new book on Chicago Italians at work, Chickie Farella in a gripping performance piece, Pam DeFiglio on Tina De Rosa, Kathy Catrambone and Vince Romano on Taylor Street, Annette Dixon on Italian American women, Tony Ardizzone addressing the conference via video, the irrepressible genealogist Dan Niemiec, Gloria Nardini on Bella Figura, Michael Polelle (Marshall Law School) replaying the “Sopranos” law suit, Bill Dal Cerro on image and mass media, and Richard Della Croce, OSIA Illinois President on anti-defamation, Jo Ann Serpico enumerating the energetic activities of the JCCIA, and the personal reminiscences of musician Paul Ciminello.
The richness of the presentations exceeded my expectations. And if you are kicking yourself because you were unable to attend, take heart. I am editing the proceedings into a book---an anthology of contributions by each of the presenters. I aim to make the book version of “Reconstructing Italians in
My dream came true, but it took a little help from my friends, to whom I’ll forever be grateful: Casa Italia, the National Italian American Foundation, the Illinois Humanities Council, Leonard Amari, the Romano Group/Morgan Stanley, Queens College CUNY, Sicilian American Cultural Association, the Italian American Executives of Transportation, Freddy's Pizza, Societa`Maria Santissima Lauretana, OSIA-Grand Lodge of Illinois, Triton College, the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, Loyola University Department of Criminal Justice, Vic Lezza Spumoni and Desserts, Tony’s Finer Foods, and Amaseno Lodge #3.