by Laura E. Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra, University of Illinois Press, 2017
Review by Brian Fanelli
At times, it may feel like our immigration system is broken and our political process is so dysfunctional that we may never see comprehensive and fair immigration reform. In New Italian Migrations to the United States, editors Laura E. Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra enlisted top-notch Italian American studies scholars whose essays are a reminder that some of the hot-button issues surrounding immigration aren’t new. Yet, the essays, which address everything from the politics of the McCarren-Walter Act and its effects on women to ethnic identity in a Queens community and Boston’s North End, also show how change, as it pertains to American history, comes from mobilization and the democratic process. The six essays contained in this book are deft in their analysis and incredibly relevant in the context of today’s political climate.
The first two essays deal with the McCarren-Walter Act, which was enacted in 1952 and governs immigration and citizenship in the United States. The act was debated during the Cold War, amid fears that Communism would spread. President Truman initially vetoed the bill because of national origin quotas that discriminated against political allies, but Congress overrode the veto. Stefano Luconi’s essay “Italy, Italian Americans, and the Politics of the McCarran-Walter Act” is a fascinating look at Cold War politics and alliances that drove much of the debate. In making an argument for less restrictive immigration policies, the Italian government joined with Italian American leaders to ramp up pressure on Washington. Italy enlisted the help of larger organizations such as The Order Sons of Italy in America (OSIA), which Luconi states was the “largest and most influential Italian American ethnic association” at the time. Additionally, the Catholic Church also became involved. These organizations and Italian American newspapers urged their followers to lobby their representatives for change. Furthermore, Luconi notes that Italy framed the immigration debate through a Cold War lens, arguing that the country’s high unemployment post-WWII made it ripe for Communist propaganda and civil unrest, thus urging U.S. lawmakers to ease the quota system. Luconi’s essay is a well-documented analysis of the immigration politics of the mid-20th Century and the power of organizing in trying to create change. Maddalena Marinari’s essay “’In the name of God…and in the interest of our country’ The Cold War, Foreign Policy, and Italian Americans’ Mobilization against Immigration Restriction” is an equally well-researched and comprehensive look at the same time period. It is a solid companion to Luconi’s work, as both pieces focus on the mobilization and lobbying efforts that occurred.
Elizabeth Zanoni’s essay “’A Wife in Waiting’: Women and the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act in Il Progresso Italo-Americano Advice Columns” is a fascinating look at the gender implications of the mid-20th Century immigration debates and quota system. As Zanoni writes, “Changes in immigration policy granted women legal rights to unify on U.S. soil with loved ones still in Italy but in ways that intensified gendered links between women, family, and immigration legislation.” She adds, “During the 1950s, legal changes turned Il Progresso advice columns about the 1952 Act into platforms for both exalting and policing women’s roles in initiating postwar migrations, marriages, and families.” What’s especially interesting about Zanoni’s chapter is how it explores not only the law’s impact on families and gender norms, but how it also gives voice to those affected by the law through the advice columns that Zanoni researched and analyzed, thus making a complex issue more human. In a letter from 1958, the writer “Domenica” expressed the difficulty of feeling torn between her desire to stay in the U.S. and her yearning to be with her husband and children in Italy. In 1952, “I Problemi della Vita” published a letter by “Sorrowful,” who had left her husband and infant behind in Italy, because, having been born in Argentina, she qualified to come to the U.S. outside the quota for Italy. The letter states that she struggled to provide for her husband, child, and sick mother as she waited for the 1952 law to go into effect and she could start the process of bringing them over. These letters give real human accounts of the immigration story and the hardships women faced, hoping their families would soon be able to come to the U.S. These first-hand accounts are striking and make real this particular historical moment.
Some of the book’s final chapters address how immigration can shape and change a neighborhood. In particular, James S. Pasto explores Boston’s North End from 1945-2016, including clashes that pre-WWII Italian immigrants had with post-WWII Italian immigrants and various other minority groups and how the neighborhood ultimately changed over time. Pasto’s chapter is a stellar analysis of immigration, class, and sociology. Furthermore, his essay is also a reminder how gentrification can radically alter a neighborhood. He writes, “The gentrification of the North End, the shrinking of even suburban ethnic Italian communities, and the new waves’ own residential dispersal means there are no large concentrations of Italian immigrants to foster interwave contacts.”
In the introduction, the editors state that they want to challenge the “conventional Italian immigration narrative through a reevaluation of the political, social, and cultural significance of Italian emigration to the United States in the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century.” In the six chapters they’ve selected, they’ve managed to do that. However, though the book focuses on Italian American identity, it has a broader appeal for anyone interested in U.S. history, specifically immigration studies. Though the chapters focus on Italian ethnicity, many issues addressed are incredibly relevant amid today’s heated immigration rhetoric.
By Catherine Gigante Brown, Volossal Publishing, 2019
Review by Stephanie Longo
We all have that one friend– that person who knows our innermost secrets, who quite possibly knows us better than we know ourselves.
Such is the case with Cici and Desi. Cici, an Italian-American, and Desi, a Puerto Rican-American, come of age during 1970s Brooklyn. They become friends shortly after Desi loses her father, her hero. Both girls discover who they are through the lens of the other. They experience their first crushes and kisses together, as well as their first forays into the world of makeup and their own harrowing experience with the neighborhood pervert.
The beauty of “Better than Sisters” is that it can appeal to anyone, regardless of time or place. Readers can find themselves in both Desi and Cici at any given time. This book is geared toward young adults as well as women, thanks to a very careful plot twist that you do not see coming.
As a graduate (survivor?) of Catholic schools, I most appreciated the true-to-life way in which Ms. Gigante Brown told the stories of Desi and Cici’s encounters with the nuns and their classmates. I was immediately brought back to my Catholic grade school days in the 1990s and easily related to invoking the saints, problems with uniforms, and the all-around experience that it is to be a young woman coming of age in a world where sexuality is seen as something to be confessed to your priest. This, to me, was one of the book’s greatest strengths as I was able to see myself hanging out with Cici and Desi gossiping about the nuns who taught us and lamenting how hard it was to relate to them.
Overall, “Better than Sisters” is an excellent reminder that the friends we make in our youth are still the ones we run to as adults, no matter how much time has passed since our last meeting or conversation. These are the memories that fill our hearts and that keep us warm at night. As a result of this book, I made it a point to get together with my “tribe” as it has been too long and I did not want contact to further deteriorate as time went on. Perhaps, that is this book’s greatest gift to its readers– it reminds us that life is fleeting and short and that some connections are meant to be cherished as much as possible.
Bitter Trades: A Memoir
By Giovanna Miceli Jeffries, Legas, 2018
Review by Theodora D. Patrona
In their Introduction to Personal Effects, Nancy Caronia and Edvige Giunta state that “[m]emoir offers not a complete picture, but instead a fractal of an experience or related experiences that shape a life” (1). Recording in Bitter Trades: A Memoir important pre- and post- migration experiences that were catalytic for her own life and self-perception, Giovanna Miceli Jeffries brings to the fore a lesser known migration, that of literate Italians at the aftermath of the Second World War in a gripping account of Sicilian women’s lives on both sides of the Atlantic.
For the memoirist, life seems to be uniquely shaped by the migratory experience. As a child she is the offspring of a migrant male worker who left for Venezuela. She senses the weight of the fatherly absence in a strict patriarchal society and the social restrictions imposed upon her mother and the entire family. As a young adult, barely out of school, the author has to grudgingly accept her parents’ decision to migrate to French-speaking Canada for seven challenging years. Instead of the classroom and a teaching post she has been struggling to obtain for most of her young life, the author lands in the harsh and long Canadian winters. There, as a blue collar worker she has to contribute to the family income while facing prejudice and nostalgia.
In beautiful, almost poetic diction, Miceli Jeffries reveals the bathos of her emotions upon returning to visit the homeland after five long years:
I had not seen and felt anything like that for five years, and I told myself
that I was not going to leave again. I started to cry, mostly because I
realized that during those five years I had forgotten the chromatic in
tensity of light and colors, and it was only then I became reacquainted
with it, as if I had lost a tangible, living space and had just found it.
The intensity of that experience, the emotional melee that contributed
to my uncontainable happiness, pure nostalgia, longing, overcharged,
inexhaustible desire, brewed a tonic I never tasted again. (99)
Vibrant with Mediterranean flair and thriving in complexity and lengthy periods, the language of Bitter Trades resonates Sicilianness, especially when the overwhelmed memoirist recollects trying and painful times. Inspired by Dante’s “bitter taste of other’s bread” (191-192), the bread of the exile, the author resorts to this adjective for the title of her work. In a most bitter and strenuous period of her life, just when she has managed to improve her living conditions in Montreal, Miceli Jeffries has to be doubly uprooted: she must relocate again to New Jersey so as to be reunited with her sister and the young family the latter has made there. Resilient and persistent, however, the author succeeds in having a postgraduate degree and a career in teaching thus acquiring her own taste of the American Dream.
As a feminist scholar and a writer Miceli Jeffries, now Professor Emerita from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, bases most of her oeuvre on influential female figures in her life: in her earliest memories her great-grandmother Francisca, in her childhood and teenage years her mother and grandmother as well as several other female neighbors and companions that patched the gaping void of the absentee father. Inevitably, Miceli Jeffries’ memories fill the air with the smells of home-made cooking, the murmurs of the neighbors’ gossiping, the touch of fine biancheria, the warmth of the grandmother’s bed, the darkness of spells and cursing, and inevitably the painful love for one’s lost homeland and small treasures. Of special interest are the ‘female’ stories of menstruation, crowned by the surrounding lore and ignorance, the traumatic experiences of abortion as seen through the author’s mother and grandmother, the total lack of sexual education for the bride to be, the memoirist herself, and her unfailing support of a severely ill young husband. It is these often harsh yet heartfelt stories of the memoirist’s coming-of –age, stories of female struggle and thirst for life, that come to unearth genuine and noteworthy aspects of women’s lives of all ages in both traditional Sicily, the U.S. and Canada. These portraits stitch a world of utter beauty and wisdom, and ultimately, contrasting the adjective in the title of the memoir, manage to offer a taste of mere sweetness.
A Space Between
By Anna Citrino, Bordighera Press, 2019
Review by MaryAnn L. Miller
In her book of poems A Space Between Anna Citrino has illuminated the void Italians have felt after leaving home for the storied American world beyond the sea. She clearly articulates the lament of being uprooted and not being firmly re-planted in new soil. Distilled within family is also a deftly compressed history of Italian American life in San Francisco and the diaspora. The section titled “III History” gives evidence of little-known atrocities suffered by Italian immigrants, like the lynching of eleven men for the murder of the Chief of Police in New Orleans. (70)
Grandfather Gaetano tried to escape the violence of Calabria and yet met his end at the hands of California’s Camorra, the protection men he refused to pay, as he became a successful barber. In the poem DECEMBER Arduino’s Discovery, his eldest son went looking for him and brought him home to die.
‘Arduino,’ he said, his breath ragged,
his mouth opening into the darkest
hole as I knelt beside him, ‘Casa.’
And I took him home to mama
as he asked. It was too late
for a doctor, too far.
His battered body hefted across my shoulder,
we stumbled and staggered through the streets
to stand trembling and broken at our door, the bruises
on his face giant blue roses opening,
their terrible blossoms swollen with dark blood. (59)
When I read these lines I thought of Emmet Till’s mother taking him home to Chicago after his battered body had been pulled from that Mississippi river.
It had taken 10 years of hard work before Gaetano could send for his wife Luisa to sail from Calabria to San Francisco. They now had five children after losing their first, who had fallen from a chair and broken his neck. Without Gaetano’s income, the children would be put into care and Luisa would have to work at a cannery. She had been a spinner, but she could do this automatic work. In the poem Dream Citrino voices Luisa’s grief.
I lost myself when they took them from me––
to St. Vincent’s orphanage, and I, left alone, without English, without
skill. Beaten. That is how Arduino found my Gaetano that wet
December night–– discarded like cut hair or loose threads. Thieves––
they carried off his years of hard work–– our dream…
…Without family, I’m
a stone, tossed down, rolled over by water. (79-80)
Luisa is bereft and Citrino moves her into the space between her homeland and the land of dreams now dead. She weaves Luisa’s identity as a spinner into the language of the poem.
…Oh mother, father,
lost in the skeins of the world I left long ago, I see you now
standing in the yellow heat beaten down by sun and cloudless skies,
by the hard, hard land. Here I am, your broken child, left alone…
I reach for your love’s threads. (79-80)
This poem is the pivotal point in the narrative. All life that comes after is without the father, only memory of him. As in the title of this section, they are “ Starting Again.”
Citrino changes point of view to Luisa’s other sons as the narrative continues. This device shows the growing distance between the old lives and the new until the break with the past is finally complete. In OLD VERSUS NEW, GIOVANNI’S EDUCATION The Second Son’s Story, Giovanni remembers how Gaetano navigated the space between worlds.
I’ve always walked between my parents’ world,
and the world outside. Papa believed in the via vecchia,
the old way. For him, good education meant respecting
traditions. He complained about the lines
he had to step between. For him, life was a ball of knotted string…
…What was he doing in that Irish club the night he died?
Italians must be careful if crossing neighborhood lines. (81)
As an Italian American myself, I read A Space Between in awful recognition, because I could have inserted my own grandparents names where Gaetano and Luisa appeared. My mother’s parents, Giuseppe and Annunziata, had five sons and one daughter. They had lost a daughter previously who had fallen off a chair and broken her neck. Their sons enlisted in the Army and Navy in WWII to prove their patriotism. Luisa’s sons also fought because, if they hadn’t, they and their mother would be suspect. In GOFFREDO’S MUSIC this son explains:
I didn’t want to carry a gun. I loved music, singing, dancing––
the whirl of a radio melody, but there I stood with my brothers
on Mama’s steps shuffling our feet the last night before leaving
for the war. Mr. Battistessa, twenty years a locksmith here,
and they forced him to give up his business, lose his home.
A sixty-five year old man was suddenly a threat–– (93)
Italians on the West Coast were sent to internment camps in Montana and other places, just as Japanese Americans were rounded up and imprisoned. Son Gregorio says in RECLUSE––GREGORIO EXPLAINS
We joined to protect Mama.
With papa dead, she was all we had.
No government man––no one could question
the family’s loyalty, send her
to an internment camp if three of us
joined the army… (97)
The experience of Citrino’s family becomes universal and connected to present-day immigrants. When we hear the term “walling out” we get the message. Americans of Italian heritage should know about the history packed into this book; we are in danger of forgetting the sacrifices as we have become more privileged.
The last poem in A Space Between is PETER LEARNING A Grandson’s Story in which Peter summarizes the advantages he has because of his grandparents’ hardships. Finally, the root has taken a firm hold in the new soil.
California is my home. My grandparents braved
much to make this world their home. I doubt I’ll ever leave. (112)
By Mary Bonina, Cervena Barva Press, 2013
Review by Matthew M. Cariello
Midway through Mary Bonina’s My Father’s Eyes, we’re led through a long and wonderful description of Sunday dinner at her paternal grandparents’ home in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Generally, all fifteen grandchildren were present and two sets of grandparents, five aunts and four uncles, at least one grand uncle, and my mother and father. All of us were crowded into the small upstairs apartment in what looked like an old farmhouse. We had a party every week, or so it seemed to me then. (157)
How many times has this ritual been repeated through the years, in how many small apartments? How many Sundays, how many kids, how much soup and macaroni and cookies? Time after time while reading My Father’s Eyes, I found myself walking into a familiar world, hearing the loud back-and-forth of families, tasting a panoply of flavors, getting lost in the intimate details of ordinary life. I found myself at home and it made me happy, but I also wondered about what’s missing. How many stories have been lost? How many of them are half told, half remembered? And when that day in that apartment is gone, where does it go? Where do they all go?
Memoir is an act of recuperation, a way to heal, a way to capture and keep what would otherwise be lost to time. Mary Bonina takes her task seriously, and with great love. Her beautifully detailed memoir centers on her father, Biagio John Bonina, and the incipient blindness that manifests in his middle age. But it’s also about the minutiae of growing up in an Italian/Irish household in and around Boston in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Memoir, yes, but also a portrait of the peculiar dynamics of family life.
At the center of the book lies the semantic ambiguity of the phrase “my father’s eyes,” which Bonina uses to great effect, and which reminds me of a short poem from Antonio Machado: “The eye you see is not / an eye because you see it; / it is because it sees you.” At first, she sees her father’s eyes, which no longer can see her. At last, she becomes her father’s eyes, seeing for him and recording for him and therefore showing us his world in great detail. Writing is an act of recovery.
And Bonina never stints on detail: the book is overflowing with rich, evocative reminiscence – enough for several volumes. The book is divided into two parallel narratives: one, called “Memorial Days,” leading up to and immediately after her father’s death in 1993; and the other a series of remembered moments from her life stretching over forty years. The two narratives are woven together and clearly marked with dates, so it’s easy to keep track of the chronology. Within each of these narratives are frequent divagations, which are less easy to keep track of, since they refer to moments apparently outside of the frame of either of the two main narratives. At times I felt that these digressions, while clearly important to Bonina’s sense of her family’s story, were superfluous, and detracted from the book’s narrative progress. In short, although the book’s strength lies in the depth and breadth of detail, the narratives as a whole could have been improved with editing.
That said, there are passages in the book that are nearly perfect. In the early “Chapter 7 Cataracts (1959),” Bonina describes looking through a stack of cards bearing the names and prayers of saints. Contemplating her father’s imminent eye surgery, she shuffles these into a deck of playing cards, in the hope that “I would deal a lucky hand, one thick with saints – the queen next to St. Theresa, the Little Flower,” or St Anthony or “St. Jude, Saint of the Impossible” (the italics are hers). The moment is transformative, and marks the beginning of a writer’s life, seen in retrospect. The miracle isn’t in the cards at all:
I didn’t realize then that words are magic, that the cards themselves were useless. The words in the prayers were pleas for help, a rescue, mercy. Reading them over and over, as my mother did, was a way of believing, even when there was little hope. (99)
Sometimes, words are all the hope we have.