Sunday, September 08, 2013

Little Tony of Italy, Bressan of Friuli and the chasm of cultural chauvinism

A woman ventures out from her familiar surroundings with her daughter and her camera. The era is the 1930’s. An unusual act in those days. Or so the story goes. A series of books ensued, covering stories of children in different countries, from Mexico to Canada, Sweden to Italy, comprising the "Children of America" and "Children of All Lands" series. A friend and a mentor left me a copy of one of the books when he died, one “Little Tony of Italy.”

I put “Little Tony of Italy” on the bookshelf and there it sat. And then last month when the mess in Friuli with Fulvio Bressan hit the internets this book fell into my lap. I thumbed through it and started thinking about racism.

When I was young I lived in a neighborhood mainly of Anglos, Italians and Jews. The Italian kids were older. So I grew up playing with Anglos and Jews in my neighborhood.

As I grew up, I wondered where I fit. I didn’t feel quite white. The black kids I played baseball with lived in an unofficially segregated neighborhood at the far end of town. So other than school and baseball and the boys club, I wasn’t able to get any deeper into the African-American community.

I got the sense from my grandparents that we had to be careful in America not to show our ethnicity too much, to fit in, pursue the American dream, vote Republican (my grandfather ) or Democrat (my grandmother). It seemed, indeed, we weren’t "quite white.” When I was compelled to fill out forms in college they always asked for my ethnicity. There was never a spot for Italian. I was either Caucasian (white?) or something else. For a time I was identified as Mexican-American because of my first name, Alfonso. I assumed some bureaucrat labeled me as such to get special federal or state funding for the number of minorities they had in their institution. I never benefitted from being a minority, and didn’t want to. But nonetheless, I did feel like I was in a minority.

Madeline Brandeis' book, “Little Tony of Italy” conveys something of the shadow that I think Italian Americans dodged for years before they were “lifted up” and became Americans. Nothing wrong with that in the abstract. I enjoy where I come from and would find it hard living somewhere else. But that doesn’t mean folks living in other places are inferior because of it.

When I finished college and entered the work force, eventually finding my way into the wine business, and specifically Italian wine, it was like déjà vu all over again. And the residues from those years are still dogging us.

In the daily work of presenting Italian wine to clients with Italian restaurants, it was a huge battle to get them to put together an Italian wine list that represented all the good of Italy. I remember selling more Chateauneuf du Pape, Pouilly-Fuisse and Champagne into some of the accounts than Barolo, Gavi or Franciacorta. For some reason, many Italian-American restaurateurs equated “becoming American” with Americanizing their wine lists to what they thought their client wanted. That practice escalated when Californian wine quality and popularity ascended in the late 1980’s. All of a sudden we saw scads of Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot, California “Champagne” and, of course, White Zinfandel taking the place of Soave, Chianti, Valpolicella and other Italian staples. I’d talk to these folks, asking them to recognize their country’s great products and would get hit with the stock answer “This is what the people are looking for, this is what they want. I have to have these wines on the list.” Never once did any of these folks put a “Big Mac” or a “Whopper” on their menu, which were and still are immensely popular.

But for some reason, Italian wine never quite made it to the top of their list of priorities. French, they all thought this was the height of great wine. And then California showed up and dazzled them again with her youth and her beauty. And Italy stayed behind the curtain, like a cobbler in the back room making the great shoes for the royalty, but never stepping out in front.

I think “Little Tony of Italy” is emblematic of the shame many felt to be Italian when they came to the New World. They changed their names from Gaetano to Sam, from Massimo to Max and from Felice to Phil. They became closet Italians. Their kids didn’t learn to speak the language as the adults kept their Italian speaking time for private conversations from them. They were assimilating into the American dream. And restaurants and wine lists followed suit.

Is “Little Tony of Italy” a racist tome? Or is it painfully naive? Did the author intend to show to her little readers the other children and their cultures around the world? Of that I’m sure. Did she do so in a way that we now look at and see the cultural biases? Oh yes, that she did, but did she do so with malice?

We’re in a different time than the 1930’s. Now when a winemaker in Friuli uses racist and demeaning language of a person of another color, the internets spread the word with a viral efficiency. And even when he apologizes, winemakers like Fulvio Bressan brand themselves and their wine with an indelible mark. And folks take sides. And the dialogue changes to a series of shouts across a very long virtual town hall. Or a war.

I remember, when I was very young, calling across a ball field to a team member. His name was Johnny, but this time I called out to him “Hey nigger.” He immediately rushed to me. He was going to beat the crap out of me. Fortunately I had a friend with me (who knew us both well) and explained to him I didn’t know what I was saying. They asked me why I called him that. I explained that I thought it was his nickname, because all the other black guys called him that. I didn’t know. But I learned never to call a black person that again.

Years later I was in the home of a classmate, whose family lived on the edge of Watts in Los Angeles. His mother was an opera singer and his dad had a great baritone voice. They worked for the postal service and sent their kids to Loyola, MIT, Harvard and Yale. One day my friend’s sister came in and called one of her sibling’s nigger. I looked to her and asked her why she would do that, me a skinny white kid with an afro. She looked at me as if it wasn’t any of my business and she told me as much. I remarked that a lot of people died not too far from here in riots and Martin Luther King and many other black and white folks marched and fought so that words like nigger would be rendered meaningless. Was I out of order? Out of place? I still don’t know. I know it didn’t stop her from calling her siblings with that name. And I’ve since realized it’s not up to me to tell folks, white or black, what words they should use or not use. But it is up to me to make sure what I say and how I think are the best use of my mind and my heart.

Being of Italian heritage in the year 2013, whether I speak fluently or not, is light years from the conditions of 100 years ago what my nonno and nonna experienced here in North Texas. They weren’t “quite white” and they worked hard to pull themselves up from those perceptions. Trying to get a Vermentino on a wine list seems a little silly compared to the challenges that my grandparents faced, when they were most likely more often compared to little Tony of Italy.

Is racism spiraling out of control in Italy in 2013? Or was it always there, in the back rooms filled with smoke and cheap Gambellara? And America, are we better off than we were 50 years ago? Ask your black friends, your Mexican, Vietnamese, your Iraqi friends. Better yet, ask a Native American; the answer might shock you.

Yes, Italy has many problems, with the economy, with the malaise and with the cultural shift from the changing color of the skins of folks who now call themselves Italians.

I remember a story one of my Sicilian uncles once told me about relatives of ours in New Orleans. Two of them walking down the street in the French Quarter and in front of them was a black woman who had been graced with an ample posterior. They spoke in their enthnolect, Arbëresh, and were commenting on her plentiful endowment. Upon hearing enough, the black woman turned around and confronted them, speaking in perfect Arbëresh, “You both need to turn around, go home and look at your wives' asses, which are much bigger than mine.” She looked black, but she wasn’t 100% African-American. It seemed part of her also came from a little village in Sicily.

Yes, racism is still very much a problem, whether it is ethnocentric or econocentric, in Italy, America and the world. And while the attitudes of the day when “Little Tony of Italy” was written have evolved, and while we see a surge of the narrowing of cultural tolerance in Italy and in events like the Bressan episode, I think back to the words of the “black” woman in New Orleans, who advised my loutish cousins. I think her advice is good for many of us, to “turn around and go” look at one’s own life before seeing this as a problem outside of one’s “home.”

written by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy

Access to the images and the book "Little Tony of Italy" made available through Project Gutenberg
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