Confessions of an Italophile
I am proud to say without reservation that I am in love. I love my wife and two daughters and am completely smitten by my granddaughters. Beyond the love for my family, I love America, my Catholic faith, my home, and my friends. In that mix of people, places, and things also resides a deep—sometimes-intoxicating—love of heritage. In my case, I am without a doubt a hopeless Italophile. Think about this seriously: Who could argue against a people and culture that have spawned so many heroically gifted figures through three millennia? Even in my earliest recollections, I can honestly say there was never a time I was not proud of my Italian ancestry.
Many would say that my love and passion for Italian culture came from years of Italian family influences. I only wish that were so. At an early age, my parents decided to leave Philadelphia for a new life in San Francisco. From the age of nine, the only spoken Italian I heard was when my parents entertained Italian guests in our home. There were no grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, or any extended family members to draw from. Even my name did not sound very Italian when pronounced in an Anglicized form. And yet from my early days, I always knew who I was and felt confident in that knowledge. I was always proud of my first-generation Italian heritage.
That pride did not come from anything I did but simply from my innate feelings of being Italian. As a high school or college student, I would often randomly choose a volume of an encyclopedia and read about Italian historical figures or events. I can only describe this urge as a hunger that seemed to be satisfied only with things Italian. Through the years, I collected bits of Italian cultural information as some people collect coins or stamps. Some would say that I was a trivia buff, a label I found repugnant when used in conjunction with Italy. How could this word be used in the same sentence when talking about what Italy has given to the world in so many diverse categories, from art and music to science and literature? No, there was nothing trivial about the essence of Italian genius.
I have always felt offended by those who dismissed or trivialized Italian culture. Such ignorance was beyond my comprehension. In 1985 I finally realized why, in spite of all the upstanding Italian descendants in this country, Italians and Italian Americans were commonly portrayed in less than flattering terms. The answer lay at the feet of the media, from advertising to movies to television and even cartoons. Author Mario Puzzo even perverted the revered term "godfather," which he used to describe Italian criminal lords. Years later he would admit that it was something he simply made up.
Living on the West Coast has many advantages, but we do suffer from one major shortcoming brilliantly illustrated in our ethnic blandness. Perhaps if I had grown up on the East Coast, the realization of Italian cultural bashing would have revealed itself much sooner. But when dim-witted radio or television commercials and programming began to fill the airwaves during the '70s and '80s, I finally began to wake up and smell the espresso. When I objected to such idiocy, I was accused of being too thin-skinned, or lacking in a sense of humor. I am neither thin-skinned nor humorless. But enough was enough, or as my godfather would have said, Basta!
One day in 1985, I made a conscious decision to do something about this cultural bashing of Italiana other than just talking about it. I would try to do something positive to reverse the continual trivialization of Italian culture, something manifested through an educational approach. I had observed how far the African-American and Jewish communities had come in educating American society. Just look at the shelves in bookstores and libraries as proof. Jewish and African-American titles abound; Italian-related titles, on the other hand, seem to be relegated to the wine and cookbook sections. In order to gain attention to my cause, I needed to do something that would be entertaining as well as informative.
My course of action was set when I came upon an idea for a game. I proceeded to develop a board game I called The Italian Heritage Game based on the popular model of Trivial Pursuit. Though I sold almost 10,000 board games throughout the country to enthusiastic purchasers, I felt betrayed by a lack of overall support from the very people I was trying to help. In 1990, having exhausted my own funds and monies invested from local Italian-American supporters, I closed the game company I had started to promote and sell the board game. Someplace in my heart, though, I kept alive the hope that someday this game would be resurrected.
Almost ten years passed until I came up with the idea to turn the old board game into book form. Dear God, I thought, if only I had thought of the more practical book format back in the 1980s.
In the summer of 1999, from June 1st to August 30th, I was a person possessed. I was determined to rewrite the entire board game material into book form, adding new and updated material. The result was 228 pages containing 1492 facts in an entertaining question and answer format. The material covered five major categories: Food, Music, Entertainment, Art, Science, Literature, History, Geography, Business, Sports and Romans.
With this challenge met, two new challenges confronted me—that of publishing and marketing my new book. Four months later, in December 1999, the book, entitled Heritage Italian-American Style, was advertised in Italian-American magazines and newspapers across the country. It took me 18 months of "spare time" promotion, but I managed to sell 5,000 copies. One of the most rewarding aspects of this project was the people who telephoned and wrote to express their pleasure with my book. Recognition and acceptance is the afterglow that almost compares to the birth of a child. Just to hear from all these warmhearted readers made the late nights and pre-dawn work worthwhile. Equally satisfying was the realization that the book was being enjoyed by a wide cross section of people from all educational, income, and age brackets.
When the first edition sold out, an inevitable dilemma arose: Now what do I do? Should I reprint the existing book for a second run, or should I try to improve it? The answer was easy. I decided to improve it. Through eighteen months of marketing the first edition, I had continued to collect engrossing and engaging information about rich and seemingly endless contributions of the Italian culture.
I expanded the book from its original 1492 facts to 1776 and decided that the final question, number 1776, should be devoted to the Italian American signer of the Declaration of Independence, William Paca. I liked the idea but still felt that there was an important ingredient missing: the Italian language. Maybe, I thought, I should publish the revised and expanded book in bilingual format. After all, Italian—perhaps the most beautiful language ever uttered on our little planet—is an extremely important segment of Italian culture. Indeed, the foundation of any culture can be found in its language. Indeed, the foundation of any culture can be found in its language.
Once the idea fastened itself in my mind, I knew I could not be satisfied until this daunting task was complete, and completed perfectly. If the book had any chance at all to enter the hallowed halls of education, its translation would have to be first-rate.
Lady Luck decided to cast a smile my way when I was introduced to Cataldo Leone, an Italian author/journalist who lived in New York and had been managing editor of Italia magazine. Besides being an expert in the language, this native Italian from Puglia turned out to be a terrific individual. We discussed the project and he consented to undertake the 90,000-word translation. Signor Leone, as his last name suggests, tore into the project, as if he were also its author, and completed the entire text by late March of 2002. By May 3rd, I had 5,444 copies of my new bilingual Heritage Italian-American Style sitting on six wooden pallets in my garage. I had given birth for the second time. Mamma mia!
I began my second crusade to publicize and sell the book across the country, hoping to enlist others who would benefit from the bilingual format. I have always felt that the book can become an important asset for Italian language programs and for Italian-American organizations to use as a fundraiser.
The promotion of the Italian language in the United States should become a priority for all of us who honor and love our culture and heritage. If we expect our culture to continue to grow and flourish in America, we must continue to encourage its presence in our universities and high schools.
Heritage Italian-American Style contains six major Internet address directories featuring information on everything Italian from genealogy to travel, organizations to magazines and newspapers. This section is a wonderful information resource for the Italian-American community across the United States and Canada.