The Sopranos have made being Italian-American seem cool again, but maybe it's time to say arrivederci to all that.

Published August 24, 2000 7:10AM (EDT)

Every time the agency sends a new home-care worker to my grandmother's, we all cross our fingers and hope this one isn't black. In New York, most of the women now making a living caring for old people are Caribbean immigrants. But my 92-year-old grandmother, herself the daughter of an immigrant barber from Palermo, Sicily, doesn't like most black people, least of all in her home.

The sociological explanations for her racism are obvious by now -- when my grandmother was growing up in the Bronx, southern Italians occupied the lowest rung on the ladder of whiteness; their racism was a way to feel superior to someone in a life full of slights and closed doors -- but they don't really help the situation. I'm mostly just embarrassed by my grandmother's behavior, and tired of it. When her caretaker rubs her the wrong way, she'll run down the hallway of her apartment building screaming, banging on doors, calling for the police. She suffers from dementia, but I can't help seeing the particular form it's taking as another negative legacy of her Italian-American heritage: The conviction that public displays of rage are OK, that every twinge of anger and frustration must be expressed, loudly and in the most dramatic possible terms.

It seems like a good time to be Italian-American. "The Sopranos" has managed to make baked ziti and big hair seem cool, and among the paesani spirits are high. Just recently 28,000 people lined up outside a New Jersey gymnasium for a chance to be cast in the show. Seemingly out of nowhere, "The Sopranos" has added a level of complexity and emotional depth to the mob-story genre, and I admit that each time I see the show's sophisticated little gem of an introduction, with its long scroll of mostly Italian-American names, I feel something happy surge through me. (And what a shame, I think on each viewing, that the grandparents of David Chase, the show's creator, changed the family name from DiCesare! And why couldn't they have found some Italians to play the Soprano kids?)

But it's precisely because it's so easy these days to slide into a warm bath of ethnic pride that I'm grateful for a book like Maria Laurino's "Were You Always an Italian?" This memoir, organized as a collection of essays on aspects of Italian-American life, is a searching, honest reminder that Italian-American culture is a mixed bag, full of goodies but also full of some truly rotten stuff.

By that I don't mean organized crime, which is bad but which represents a minuscule fraction of Italian-Americans (as everyone says they know, but few people actually seem to have registered, judging from the number of Mafia comments I get about my Italian name). Appropriately, Laurino's book pays little attention to the Mafia. Instead, alongside a proud picture of Italian-Americans' family devotion, work ethic, resourcefulness and achievements against the odds, she documents another reality many would rather not acknowledge -- problems like my grandmother's racism and stubborn histrionics -- that have festered for generations. Behind many ordinary Italian-Americans' flashy, tough-talking, exuberant exteriors, Laurino sees an ethnic subculture hobbled by its own xenophobia, low educational expectations and an emotional immaturity masquerading as "passion."

Reading Laurino's smart, subtle book, I was confirmed in something I've long sensed: For the second and third generation and beyond, being Italian-American is a deceptively difficult legacy. Beyond the outer layer of ethnic pride in things like good food and the accomplishments of people like Joe DiMaggio or Mario Cuomo (who is, by the way, the source of Laurino's awkward title, which is the only ungraceful thing about the book -- on their first meeting, he asked her that question), the picture is not so rosy. Being Italian-American is a social and economic dead end for some, while for those with a firmer foothold in the middle class it's a psychological trap, a vague longing for connection to an immigrant culture that no longer exists and a motherland that has moved on.

To my mind, the most important chapter in the book is on Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, which is ground zero for what remains of Italian-American culture. It's a working-class neighborhood that despite recent inroads by Russians and Asians is still over 65 percent Italian-American, and it's the place where, in 1989, a young black man named Yusuf Hawkins, in the neighborhood to look at a used car for sale, was set upon by an angry mob of Italian-Americans and shot to death. This ugly event was followed by marches and rallies into the neighborhood by blacks, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton; Italian-Americans lined the streets looking ominous, yelling racial slurs, hoisting watermelons in the air. Laurino, a third-generation Italian-American raised in the New Jersey suburbs, tried to report the story for the Village Voice but found herself paralyzed, ashamed, unable to "draw a cohesive portrait" of the roiling mass of ignorant rage parading in front of the nation under the banner of Italian America.

Years later she returned to the enclave and was filled with sympathy for the residents of Bensonhurst, many of whom live in a stagnant, limited world that's surprising to see on the white side of the color line. The problem is not so much poverty -- or at least, it's not a material poverty but one harder to pinpoint and even harder to change: an intellectual, cultural and emotional poverty.

Italian-Americans have the third lowest rate of higher education in the United States, behind blacks and Latinos. They call themselves "Italian" but can't speak Italian. Fearful parents, still as mistrustful of schools as were many of their peasant grandparents, express hostility to their kids' high school teachers, then keep their college-age children close to home, allowing them to apply only to "mediocre local colleges," forbidding them from participating in rites of passage like spring-break trips to Florida. The kids take on tough personas -- the Guido, the Bimbette -- as a defense against a mainstream American culture that, they're certain, would never accept them anyway. They ape Hollywood-created mobster mannerisms and attitudes. "The culture is a milange of fact and fiction," she concludes. Bensonhurst residents "are forced to cling to a distant culture they will never fully know."

Picture Christopher from "The Sopranos" -- not Michael Imperioli, the accomplished and well-paid actor who plays the role, but the character himself. Think about his personality traits: hot-tempered, quick to take affront. Not what his teachers would call bright, but possessed of a fierce survival instinct. He's hostile toward authority, but has a savvy ability to align himself with the most powerful people around him. He's got a taste for cocaine. A taste for tarted-up, tough-talking chicks. A hidden core of sensitivity, emotional accessibility and vulnerability, which might have made him a fine actor. A furious mistrust of anyone who witnesses this emotional side, which makes his forays into acting end badly.

Now picture this Christopher living an Italian-American life without any connection to mobsters (except in his not-so-secret fantasies). He's angry a lot of the time -- he feels people are always disrespecting him -- but he never gets to shoot anyone. When he and his friends walk into a restaurant, there is no instant hush, no necks craning. His drug binges clean out his bank account; maybe he goes through a really bad period and ends up in rehab. He finished a couple of years at the community college, but it didn't give him much of an idea of what to do with himself. He's worked hard in his life -- on construction jobs, or on the back of a garbage truck, or in a deli his friend owns -- but when he gets sick of all that he may fall for a dumb scheme that promises guys like him easy riches: selling fake stocks over the phone, maybe. He may end up in trouble for this too. Oh, and that high-heeled, hair-sprayed chick he ended up with bitches day and night, always trying to boss him around. You can hear their fighting through the walls of their house. Not counting the occasional Saturday-night foray into a Manhattan club, he's been out of New Jersey exactly twice in his life.

Part of how "The Sopranos" works -- how the mob genre has come to be the most vital expression of Italian-American culture -- is that it takes this kind of harsh, prosaic, limited third-generation immigrant life, takes these inarticulate, yearning palookas, and adds a veneer of glamour and excitement to their struggles. In a way, the very success of the Mafia-movie genre has caused Italian-Americans to strike a secret, perhaps unconscious bargain: The movies deliver a version of their ordinary life -- the pasta, the Sinatra, the ever-present relatives -- but with the thrill of always-impending violence and piles of money.

The trade-off is that these works depict Italian-Americans as mobsters, not the upstanding citizens most are. But if Tony Soprano really were in the garbage business, after all, we would never watch a show about him. The great Italian-American popular artists have struck this bargain even more directly: From Sinatra to Scorsese and Coppola, they owe a certain portion of their own glamour, and in the case of the directors, the grandeur of their subject matter, to the mob. In mob movies, the stakes in Italian-American life seem really high; Someone could get offed at any moment, and wads of hundred-dollar bills are always appearing out of nowhere. Whereas in the reality of Italian-American life, the big family feud ends up with the usual round of shouting and insults, maybe some door-slamming, someone storming out of the house. When things get really bad, Uncle Al ends up not talking to Aunt Linda for years.

Part of what has circumscribed Italian-American life to the point that mob movies are, arguably, the pinnacle of our cultural achievement is that most Italian-Americans today have no real connection to Italy -- to what ties us together in the first place. Italy, especially southern Italy, where most Italian-Americans trace their roots, is itself now almost completely transformed from the destitute, backward place it was when my great-grandparents left Palermo in 1900, and still was when my paternal grandparents arrived in America from the Molise region in the 1930s. (We're told that their mountain town, full of starving shepherds living in hovels when they left, is now a ski resort.) Italy is now an affluent, well-dressed, European nation with the lowest birth rate in the world. The dialect my grandparents spoke would be barely comprehensible there today; once television arrived, Italy quickly adopted a standard tongue with only broad regional variations. And, as Laurino points out, thanks to Gianni Versace even southern Italians (looked down on by northerners as dirty, garish hicks) have lately gotten an injection of chic.

Like me, Laurino brooded over the question of what Italy meant to her as an Italian-American. She too traveled to Italy looking for a way to feel like a part of this place where everyone looked like her, where her name was utterly average. But for Laurino, and for me, trying to blend into Rome or Florence didn't ultimately satisfy the longing to feel Italianness as a connection to something whole and real, some essential part of who we are. It wasn't until later, when Laurino visited for the first time the crumbling village of her grandparents, that she came to an understanding of what her ethnicity means to her:

Each of us constructs an identity, cuts and tailors it to suit our needs. Travelling to southern Italy, collecting impressions, touching the crude rock of my grandfather's house, letting propinquity establish connection, does not make me a southern Italian. But my identity as an American of southern Italian descent can now be based on actual heritage.

Unlike her earlier attempts to feel Italian by forging friendships with Italians, this trip to her grandparents' town, meeting second cousins and actually touching a house where an ancestor lived, solidified her sense of belonging. What's refreshing about this passage, and about the book as a whole, is Laurino's awareness that, unlike, say, being Jewish, being Italian-American offers very little direction about how to live. In my experience, Italian-Americans' family traditions are surprisingly disparate. In the end, Laurino knows, each person makes up for herself what it means to be Italian-American.

But I don't buy Laurino's argument that her "identity as an American of southern Italian descent" is based on "actual heritage" now that she's been to the motherland and touched that house. Being Italian-American is still, in the end, a story she tells herself. What's more, it's a story that's not about America at all. In order to craft an Italian-American identity that she can feel comfortable with, she has to skip over the "American" part altogether.

What will happen three and four generations from now, when Americans with Italian ancestors make that pilgrimage and there's no one left living to verify their family stories? Most likely, having Italian-American great-great-great-grandparents will become just another genealogical curio to collect, for those so inclined. I think that's not such a bad thing, when I look at the suffering and anxieties, the wasted talent, of my grandparents' generation, even my parents' generation, the obvious and subtle ways their lives were compromised by prejudice against their Italian names and olive skin, and often by their own undereducated, overprotective families -- when I look at the ways many Italian-Americans still seem stuck, outside of the mainstream but without a vital world of their own to compensate.

At this point in history, a revitalization is not likely, with very little feeding this particular ethnicity machine and no incentive for Italian-Americans to marry each other and produce kids who will consider being Italian-American a major part of who they are. In all the jubilation about the success of "The Sopranos," it can't be lost on people that the show is recording the last days of the mob as we know it. It's also, therefore, a long, slow elegy for an Italian-American sense of identity that's bound to fade away as well. As I finished Laurino's book I realized -- sadly, but also with something like relief -- that the ultimate success of Italian-American culture will be its disappearance.

By Maria Russo

Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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