A Lookback to the Original NYT Cover Story from May of 1983
My Maternal and Paternal Grandparents were the epitome of the hard-working, blue-collar immigrants that personified the hopes and dreams of the early 20th Century Italian-American diaspora. Frank and Mary Esposito, my mother’s parents, became the quintessential success story through natural talent, shrewd investment and boundless moxie. They started with absolutely nothing but determination, and through years of hard work and subsequent re-investment into their businesses, they retired as successful & wealthy restaurateurs.
Conversely, my Father’s parents, Fortunato & Theresa Lanni, met with extreme hardship. Theresa died very young, leaving Fortunato alone to raise their eight children on a railroad switchman’s salary. He labored through World War 1, the Great Depression and World War 2, the latter in which all four of his young sons and two nephews served overseas to defeat the Axis war machine. The hard work and financial effects of the great depression would have a profound impact on Fortunato. He owned his modest multifamily row house in Jersey City, New Jersey, in which he raised his children. He also had tenants, and refused to evict them during the depression when they couldn’t pay their rent. His selflessness negated any wealth building he hoped to create via the American dream of home-ownership. He died in 1954 with very little to his name.
My Grandparents’ stories echo those of countless Italian immigrants, and those stories are highlighted to a certain degree within the expose written by the New York Times and published on May 14, 1983. It served as the cover story that week, and was titled “Italian-Americans: Coming into Their Own”. (New York Times Magazine, May 14, 1983). Our copy of this issue remained in my parent’s house for 27 years. After both of my parents had passed, and we sold their home, the copy went into the Italian-Americans.com archive.
I believe it made enough of an impression on my Father that he saved his original copy for posterity. It may have reinforced for him that his pursuit of a college degree after World War 2 through the GI Bill, and his subsequent successful career as an electrical engineer, meant that he too had come into his own.
A View of Modern America by a 2nd Generation Italian-American
The New York Times piece was published when I was a 17 year old high school senior, living in a nice suburban town. It had a much more subtle initial impact on me. I had no perspective whatsoever of the economic struggles of my immediate ancestry. I also had no inkling of how that rough beginning shaped my father and then thrust him into the world’s largest conflict – a world war where so many Italians in America were under a heavy shroud of suspicion. That experience belonged only to those who lived it, and I had zero frame of reference.
I noticed only small cultural differences up until this point. Sunday dinner was the big one. Dinner began at 1:00 pm and lasted until at least 8 pm, which is when the 15 to 25 family members filed out the front door after 30 minutes of goodbye hugs and plates of leftovers being passed around. Being the only Italian-American in my neighborhood, none of the other kids understood this weekly ritual. The importance was lost on them, and I didn’t understand why they didn’t have the same kind of Sunday. I had no idea why so many families were not structured like my own.
After I graduated high school, I attended one semester of college and then left home to serve in the United States Air Force. This is where my world expanded. I met men and women from all walks of American life, and many from other nations. It was a startling new picture, and one I thoroughly enjoyed. I did feel like odd-man out at times, but I think everyone in a unique society like the military might feel that way at times. The mission is universal, but it is made up of a pluralistic demographic. I found this to be an exciting experience.
An Eye-Opening Encounter
After earning my honorable discharge, I moved back to the New York City area, and resumed civilian life. Nothing of my Italian-American upbringing seemed at odds with American society, until a startling event that occurred in my later twenties. It was an isolated event, but eye-opening. I was invited by a dear friend of mine to be her date to a wedding. At this time, she was an executive at a large firm, and one of her employees invited her to her wedding, plus one. She asked me to be the plus one, which I was more than happy to be.
The wedding was held at a posh country club in Bergen County New Jersey, and the bride’s parents were members of the club. In the receiving line, I introduced myself to the bride’s parents, and congratulated them on their happy occasion. The mother of the bride seemed very gracious. The father of the bride repeated my last name out loud a few times. It was the suddenly alarmed look on the Bride’s Mothers face that told me she saw trouble coming. The next moments went like this:
Bride’s Father: “…Lanni … Lanni … hmmm, is that Eye-talian”?
Me: “Yes, Lanni is an Italian name – my family is from Italy.”
Bride’s Father: “Well, then you’re obviously not a member here, are you”?
Trouble had arrived. I suddenly saw how some people viewed others first hand, and I had 2 seconds to decide on how to respond. I took the high road.
Me: “No, I’m not a member – I would not join a club like this”.
And I turned and walked away. I had a lot more to say, but tact and grace convinced me that if I simply walked away now, nothing would create hard feelings between my date and her employee, the bride.
I actually felt shaken, but came back on keel quickly when I shook off the encounter at the bar. On the top shelf there was a display with a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue Label. It was sealed, and obviously not on the wedding menu. I got the attention of the bartender and then pointed out the bride’s Father. “See that guy? He said to go ahead an open the Blue Label. I’ll take a double with one cube, please”.
Of course, the Bride’s Father offered no such thing, and I enjoyed an expensive glass of Scotch at his expense. I also made sure to advise other guests that the bottle was available courtesy of “that gentleman over there”, and many rushed off to take advantage of the newly opened premium bottle. On the ride home from the wedding, I told my friend what happened. She was shocked at the snub, but laughed hysterically at the Scotch part.
Bias Can Leave a Lasting Impression
It left a lasting impression on me. I had received a brief but overt taste of thinly-veiled hostility to being of Italian ancestry. It was troubling. It was after this that I paid a lot more attention to societal relationships. This brief moment gave me a glimpse into how alien my parents and grandparents must have felt, and how rough it still is for other races and cultures.
This is where I began to spend more time researching the hidden history of Italians in America, as well as my family’s own experiences in America. As I did, the civil rights work of generations of Italian-Americans came into sharp focus, as did the overlooked stories of our people. That hidden history is what sparked the creation of this website.
The 1983 New York Times article, “Italian-Americans – Coming Into Their Own” is available in the NYT Online archives. This is how the successes of our people were perceived by mainstream media in the 1980s. The fact that an article like this was written only 37 years ago indicates how the top-levels of success for Italian Americans is actually a more recent post-war phenomenon.
If you are a young Italian-American today, learn as much as possible about your Italian ancestry. Seek the wisdom and first-hand stories from the older Italians. Read the huge volume of personal memoirs and articles about their lives. Take up the mantle of continued civil rights work and have our story told. In doing so, it also helps other cultures tell their stories too. Do not waste this opportunity, and do not allow yourself to lose steam, creativity or courage. This is your chance to continue the long climb of your immediate ancestors.
You are standing on the shoulders of giants, so make it count. Work hard to erase the constant stereotyping of Italians in America today – especially in the 24-hour news media, Hollywood, and reality shows. By doing so you are also committing yourself to helping others fight the good fight. This can go a long way to address long-standing injustices and help heal our society. Become something that makes the world a better place.
Please read the article. We’d love to hear your thoughts afterward.