If you could not open the Beacon link…the story below
While most people were celebrating St. Patrick’s Day and their Irish heritage last week they may have missed that St. Joseph was also celebrated on March 19 and for the lucky folks who gathered at the Warwick Art Museum Friday night, it was a great day for the Italians.
Retired doctor, author and raconteur, Ed Iannuccilli was there to regale the group with tales of growing up on Federal Hill, visiting ancestral villages and sharing the lore and legend of Italians in America. Wisely, Iannuccilli anchored his lecture, and his book, Growing Up Italian, on his grandfather and the extended family that still reaches across the Atlantic.
“As you can see, my grandfather always wore a shirt and tie, even when he was out working in the yard,” said Iannuccilli, as he presented a slide of his grandfather with a stiff collar and an equally stiff pose with a slide of himself, in baggy shorts and a loose polo shirt. “He would have been appalled to see how I dress in my yard.”
Ed Iannuccilli is a retired gastroenterologist and has had extensive experience in academics, management, governance and business. He is the former Chairman of the Board at Rhode Island Hospital and a Clinical Professor Emeritus at the Warren Alpert School of Medicine at Brown University. He is a founder of the Ocean State Physicians Health Plan (United Health Care) and was their third chairman of its Board. All of which, we may assume, he dressed appropriately for.
But there were more examples of vintage clothing Friday night as Iannuccilli showed pictures of adults and children from the early 1900s, the 1940s and the 1950s. What the pictures do, in addition to make you a little homesick for the old ethnic neighborhoods of our cities, is show you how the Italian-Americans portrayed the various stages of their integration into the United States.
The earliest pictures show the well-worn clothes of working people, even on Sundays, while the later pictures demonstrate the way clothing no longer spoke of the immigrant experience by the time the second generation was dressing up. The earlier pictures showed how first generation Italians in this country were so meticulous about the way they dressed their children.
“Just look at how well these children are dressed,” said Iannuccilli, as he showed street scenes from New York’s old Italian neighborhoods. “They look so clean and well cared for.”
An old picture of Spruce Street from the turn of the last century shows three boys playing dice in the middle of the street – at night. Another picture from the Federal Hill of the same era shows a busy little Italian girl virtuously running errands for the family and the contrast is not wasted on Iannuccilli.
“Yes, they are playing dice under a streetlight and she is doing the chores for the family,” he said, with some resignation.
Like many other Italian-Americans, Iannuccilli gets annoyed at the stereotypical portrayal of Italians as gangsters, but he is equally quick to defend all immigrant groups from prejudice.
“I think it is important that we not treat new arrivals in this country the way we were treated,” he said. “We should never judge people by where they are from or their language or culture.”
He explained that the term “wop” as a dismissive way to refer to Italians comes from dialects so diverse that northern Italians and southern Italians frequently could not understand each other when they arrived here.
“They would meet Italians from other parts of their own country and ask, ‘What country are you from?’ because they did not understand the dialects,” said Iannuccilli.
Iannuccilli said ‘wop’ was a shortening of the Italian word for the French word for boy. Garcon became Italianized and was mangled by bigots into “wop,” which made calling an Italian man a “wop” the same as calling an African-American man “boy,” which is an equal opportunity put-down for any group.
But it would be a mistake to think that Iannuccilli doesn’t have a sense of humor about the collision of English and Italian and other languages. The St. Joseph’s Day treat ‘zeppoles’ actually comes from Zeppelin, the aircraft created by the man of the same name.
“The claim, of course, is that the pastry is lighter than air,” said Iannuccelli.
You will see more of these “Italian as a Second Language” examples in subsequent publications, but the one he related Friday night is great fun.
“Italians used to spell English words phonetically in Italian,” he said. “For instance, ‘spoil’ would be spelt ‘spoglia’ phonetically, so it was amusing to Italian readers when a sign on a lawn said, ‘Non spoglia la grassa,’ which meant to say, ‘Don’t spoil the lawn.’ But ‘spoligia’ in Italian means without clothes, or naked, so ‘Non spoglia la grassa’ said ‘Don’t get naked on the grass.’”
For more about Dr. Iannuccilli or Growing Up Italian, visit www.growingupitalian.wordpress.com.