Columbus, Fabian, Rizzo and Me

Philadelphia and Italians — Perfect together. A new book explains why

Even in the democratic arena of politics, Philadelphia’s Italians had to dance an Irish jig. Varbero explains that because the hated Hibernians were Democrats, Italians were driven into the arms of Edwin Vare’s corrupt Republican machine, through which city jobs (usually street-sweeping) were gotten in exchange for reliable performance at election time. Downtrodden Italo-Philadelphians didn’t see the wisdom of supporting FDR until his second term; even into the ‘5Os, they eyed the Democrats with suspicion. Great White Democratic Reformer Richardson Dilworth, dead since 1974, is to this day exuberantly cursed in certain districts — he was once pelted with stones by a South Philly crowd for questioning their right to park in patterns whose logic eluded his orderly Anglo mind.
Of course, for all their stubbornly Old World solutions to New World problems, Southern Italians had several things going for them in America — white skins, ferociously strong family ties, the expectation that life is toil, the highest personal savings rate in the Western world, and, most important, centuries of experience at surviving intact under hostile outsiders. They had manners by Darwin: In the language of sociology, they were "acculturated" rather than "assimilated," able to adopt the habits of the mainstream while remaining immune to its underlying beliefs. It was cynicism as survival mechanism: A historian of the time quoted an immigrant who said that to succeed here, Italians had to show "a great interest in whatever is American and a high disdain for all that is Latin or glorifies the Latin life." In those days before "multiculturism" was a gleam in any lexicographer’s eye, there was no desire, especially not in the immigrants or their children, to preserve Old World "culture" for the sake of "self-esteem," or to ennoble or examine (or even acknowledge) the great emigration’s violent disruptions. Instead, the opposite happened: As author Leonard Covello wrote, “We were becoming American by learning to be ashamed of our parents."
So that’s the big secret — we’re in denial!

When my father was a kid, he and his iron-willed grandmother would argue this very duality: He would insist, defiantly, "I’m an American!" to which she would slyly reply, "Americano — merde di cane," a profane pun meaning that to her mind, American equaled dogshit. He was one of millions of men and women who strove all their lives, with a purity of purpose I now find moving, to prove themselves "good Americans." It was a bruising but efficient way to turn uneasy strangers into fervent citizens: First America shamed them, then it offered them a new way to be proud.
That’s what my father was trying to tell me, I realize now — that he and his father had quietly labored in the American way so that I, unlike them, could sail through life ignorant of just how many people would, in fact, use that slur to define me. So screw Dick Dilworth, too — I’m no dago.