By Presidential Proclamation, October is National Italian- American Heritage Month, a time set aside to recognize the many achievements and contributions of Americans of Italian descent as well as of Italians in America.
Undoubtedly, the Italian with the greatest impact on America was the man commonly (if incorrectly) credited with discovering America, Christopher Columbus. Although he sailed under a Spanish flag, Columbus was born in the Republic of Genoa in present-day Italy. (In his native dialect his name was Christoffa Corombo. In Italian, the name translates to Christoforo Colombo).
Another Italian, this one from Florence, gave America its name. Amerigo Vespucci was a navigator, a cartographer, and an explorer in his own right. He was actually well acquainted with Columbus and was familiar with his voyages of discovery. At the behest of Manuel I, King of Portugal, Vespucci traveled as an observer on several voyages to the newly discovered continents conducted between 1499 and 1502. As a result of the publication of his observations, the American continents were named for him by a German cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller, who first used the name “America” on the 1507 map “Universalis Cosmographia” in honor of the Florentine explorer.
Today, many Italian-Americans observe Columbus Day as a celebration of their heritage. The Italian population of New York City organized the first such celebration on October 12, 1866. A few years later, in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation recognizing the 400th anniversary of the “discovery” of America. Colorado became the first state to officially observe Columbus Day in 1905. And in 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt declared October 12 to be a federal holiday, designated as Columbus Day. (The Uniform Monday Holiday Act, signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1968, moved the date to its current second Monday in October.) The day is often designated in many communities as Italian-American Day or Italian-American Heritage Day.
Nearly 4 million Italians entered the United States between 1899 and 1924. A million more came after the close of World War II in 1945. As a result, “Little Italys” sprang up in cities all over the country. In New York City, “Little Italys” were located along Arthur Avenue in the Bronx as well as in lower Manhattan and on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, known as “Italian Harlem. “Little Italys” can be found on Boston’s North End and Chicago’s Taylor Street on the Near West Side. The Hill section of St. Louis is one of the most popular “Little Italy” neighborhoods in the country. And it was at Il Giardino d’Italia, or “The Garden of Italy,” located at the corner of East 9th Street and Woodland Avenue in Cleveland’s “Little Italy,” that an Italian immigrant named Ettore Boiardi – known as “Chef Boyardee” – introduced America to his brand of Italian food.
Today, more than 15.7 million people in the United States identify themselves as Italian-Americans. They make up nearly six percent of the U.S. population and represent the country’s fourth largest European ethnic group.
Recent (2000) Census figures show that populations in six states are more than ten percent Italian-American: Rhode Island (19%), Connecticut (18.6%), New Jersey (17.9%), New York (14.4%), Massachusetts (13.5%), and Pennsylvania (11.6%). Six other states have ratios ranging between five and ten percent.
Much is heard these days about the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Often forgotten in modern times, however, is the plight of Italian-Americans during the war years when nearly 600,000 Italian-American citizens were branded as “enemy aliens.” They were required to register with authorities and carry cards identifying them as such. They were prohibited from traveling more than five miles from their homes without permission. They were not permitted to own firearms, radios, cameras, or even flashlights – considered to be “signaling devices.” And on the West Coast, they were subjected to an 8 PM to 6 AM curfew. The FBI arrested around 1,500 Italian-Americans between December 1941 and June 1942. Most were quickly released, but about 250 spent up to two years in internment camps.
In odd contrast, an estimated 1.2 million Italian-Americans served in the U.S. military during WWII. The only enlisted Marine in U.S. history to win the nation’s two highest military honors — the Navy Cross and the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor – was Italian-American John Basilone, a U.S. Marine sergeant, who died at the Battle of Iwo Jima.
These wartime conditions left indelible marks in the Italian-American community. Signs and flyers were posted directing “enemy aliens” to “Speak American.” As a result many, Italian-Americans stopped speaking their mother language. Others Americanized their names or otherwise attempted to distance themselves from their heritage.
Overcoming generations of hardship and cultural prejudice, Italian-Americans have made substantial contributions to all aspects of American life, including food, entertainment, popular culture, law, politics, education, science, and sports. The following is a brief list of Italians and Italian-Americans who have made significant contributions to American society:
In the world of finance, Amadeo Pietro Giannini founded the Bank of America and instituted the practice of branch banking in the United States.
Although not an Italian-American immigrant, few can dispute the impact Guglielmo Marconi, “the Father of Radio,” had on America and on the world.
Scientist Enrico Fermi discovered radioactive elements that led to the nuclear age.
Italian-American inventors made many contributions to ordinary life. Did you have a “Radio Flyer” wagon when you were a kid? Antonio Pasin made it possible. Alessandro Dandini invented the three-way lightbulb. Bernard Cousino was the inventor of the eight-track tape player and of the automobile tape deck. Think of the Jacuzzi family, developers of the jet water pump, as you soak in your hot tub. Thank Vince Marotta for your morning coffee. He invented “Mr. Coffee.” And when overnight guests arrive, be grateful to Bernard Castro for inventing the sofa bed.
When it comes to social work, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, spent her life in Italy and later in America working to build schools, orphanages, and hospitals. As the first American citizen to be canonized as a saint (Saint Francesa Saveria Cabrini), she is the patroness of immigrants.
Lido “Lee” Iacocca looms large as an American business icon. Another guy who did well in business was Anthony Rossi, founder of Tropicana and pioneer in the pasteurization of orange juice.
In politics, Fiorella H. La Guardia and Rudolph W. Giuliani stand out as Mayors of New York City, while Mario Cuomo served as Governor of New York. Alfred E. Smith was defeated by Herbert Hoover in the 1928 Presidential election. (By the way, he was the first Italian-American Presidential candidate, born Alfred Emanuele Ferrara). Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito were both appointed to the United States Supreme Court.
Where would we be without Italian food and wine? Besides the aforementioned “Chef Boyardee,” Mario Batali, Michael Chiarello, Rachael Ray, Giada De Laurentiis, Lidia Bastianich, Guy Fieri, Tom Colicchio, and Rocco DiSpirito are just a few of the celebrity chefs who enrich our lives. And we can thank Ernest and Julio Gallo and Robert Mondavi for many of the wines that accompany our meals. And let’s not forget Domenico Ghirardelli and his fine chocolates for dessert.
Still in a food mode, Jim Delligatti was the franchise operator responsible for the creation of McDonald’s “Big Mac.” Amedeo Obici and Mario Peruzzi founded the “Planters Peanut” company. Vincent R. Ciccone started out as a janitor for the “Charms Candy Company, but he retired as President and CEO after patenting the “Blow Pop.” And it was Italo Marcioni who patented the ice cream cone.
Italians have been foremost in the arts since the Renaissance. In America, Constantino Brumidi has been called “The Michelangelo of the U.S. Capitol.”
The world of opera was graced by tenors Enrico Caruso and Alfred Arnold Cocozza, better known as Mario Lanza. Combining opera and food, we have coloratura soprano Luisa Tetrazzini – also the namesake of “Turkey Tetrazzini”.
Award-winning composer Henry Mancini and world renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini dominated their fields.
In popular American music we find: James Francis (Jimmy) Durante, Francis Albert (Frank) Sinatra, Dino Paul Crocetti (Dean Martin), Vito Rocco Farinola (Vic Damone), Anthony Dominick Benedetto (Tony Bennett), Gennaro Luigi Vitaliano (Jerry Vale), Alfred Cini (Al Martino), Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero (Connie Francis), Walden Robert Cassotto (Bobby Darin), Francis Thomas Avallone (Frankie Avalon), James William Ercolani (James Darren), Francis Stephen Castelluccio (Frankie Valli), Salvatore Phillip (Sonny) Bono, Dion Francis DiMucci (Dion), Fabiano Anthony Forte (Fabian), Madonna Louise Ciccone (Madonna), and Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (Lady Gaga).
On the big and small screens: Rodolfo Guglielmi (Rudolph Valentino), Dominic Felix Amici (Don Ameche), Louis Francis (Lou) Costello, Ermes Effron Borgnino (Ernest Borgnine), Alfonso Roberto D’Abruzzo (Robert Alda, also father of Alan Alda), Armand Joseph Catalano (Guy Williams), Harry Guardino, Vincenzo Scognamiglio (Vincent Gardenia), Anthony George Papaleo (Anthony/Tony Franciosa), Vincent Edward Zoino III (Vince Edwards), Joseph Campanella, Catherine Gloria Balotta (Kaye Ballard), Paul Sorvino (also father of Mira Sorvino), Salvatore Mineo, Jr. (Sal Mineo), Dominick (Dom) DeLuise, Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone, Joe Pesci, Alfredo (Al) Pacino, Susan Lucci, Danny DeVito, John Travolta, Ray Romano, Tony Danza, Stanley Tucci, Marisa Tomei, James Gandolfini, Mark Sinclair Vincent (Vin Diesel), Nicolas Kim Coppola (Nicholas Cage), Scott Baio, and Alyssa Milano, just to name a few.
Italians are big on family, perhaps explaining these artistic duos: Robert De Niro – the father – has paintings on display in the Metropolitan Museum, while Robert De Niro – the son – displays a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Carmine Coppola was a renowned flautist and composer. His son, Francis Ford Coppola, gained fame as an award-winning film director.
Vincent Minnelli was a well-known film director. Daughter Liza Minnelli may be even better known as a singer/actress/entertainer.
Garry and Penny Marshall are brother and sister actors and directors. The family name “Masciarelli” was Americanized before they were born.
Elsewhere in “showbiz,” Frank Capra was an Academy Award-winning director. Animator/cartoonist Joseph Barbera formed half of the team of Hanna-Barbera and gave us “Yogi Bear” and so many other beloved characters.
Speaking of cartoons, Walter Lanza (Walter Lantz) was the creator of “Woody Woodpecker,” and Adriana Caselotti provided the voice of Disney’s original “Snow White.”
Speaking of Disney, Annette Funicello and Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli were original Mickey Mouse “Mouseketeers.” Both went on to film careers, she as an actress and he as producer of the “James Bond” series. (And, yes, his ancestors developed the vegetable that bears their name.)
The world of sports would be a very different place without these baseball legends: Joseph Paul “Joe” DiMaggio, Ernie Lombardi, Tommy Lasorda, Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Roy Campanella, Joe Garagiola, Tony LaRussa, and Joe Torre. Mention, too, of A. Bartlett Giamatti, the youngest President of Yale University and later Commissioner of Baseball.
On the gridiron: Vince Lombardi and Joe Paterno called the plays, while Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and Brian Piccolo executed them.
Rocky Marciano, Rocky Graziano, and Jake LaMotta were all boxing champions. And while wrestler and TV personality Hulk Hogan was tops in his profession, his mama called him Terry Gene Bollea.
Finally, if you were ever a 98-pound weakling always getting sand kicked in your face by bullies at the beach, you probably dreamed of being just like body builder Angelo Siciliano. Except you called him “Charles Atlas.”
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