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Italian Folk

Vernacular Culture in Italian-American Lives

Joseph Sciorra

Publication Year: 2010

Sunday dinners, basement kitchens, and backyard gardens are everyday cultural entities long associated with Italian Americans, yet the general perception of them remains superficial and stereotypical at best. For many people, these scenarios trigger ingrained assumptions about individuals' beliefs, politics, aesthetics, values, and behaviors that leave little room for nuance and elaboration. This collection of essays explores local knowledge and aesthetic practices, often marked as folklore,as sources for creativity and meaning in Italian-American lives. As the contributors demonstrate, folklore provides contemporary scholars with occasions for observingand interpreting behaviors and objects as part of lived experiences. Its study provides new ways of understanding how individuals and groups reproduce and contest identities and ideologies through expressive means.Italian Folk offers an opportunity to reexamine and rethink what we know about Italian Americans. The contributors to this unique book discuss historic and contemporary cultural expressions and religious practices from various parts of the United States and Canada to examine how they operate at local, national, and transnational levels. The essays attest to people's ability and willingness to create and reproduce certaincultural modes that connect them to social entities such as the family, the neighborhood, and the amorphous and fleeting communities that emerge in large-scale festivals and now on the Internet. Italian Americans abandon, reproduce, and/or revive various cultural elements in relationship to ever-shifting political, economic, and social conditions. The results are dynamic, hybrid cultural forms such as valtaro accordion music,Sicilian oral poetry, a Columbus Day parade, and witchcraft (stregheria). By taking a closer look and an ethnographic approach to expressive behavior, we see that Italian-American identity is far from being a linear path of assimilation from Italian immigrant to American of Italian descent but is instead fraught with conflict, negotiation, and creative solutions. Together, these essays illustrate how folklore is evoked in the continual process of identity revaluation and reformation.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ix

This collection began as a special issue of the social science journal Italian American Review, and I would like to thank those at Queens College’s John D. Calandra Italian American Institute who helped make that publication a reality at the time: the late Philip Cannistraro, Francisca Viera, Carmine Pizzirusso, David Aliano, and Rosaria Musco....

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Introduction: Listening with an Accent

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pp. 1-10

In March 1985, a parish priest had introduced me to Vincenza after I contacted him about my research on yard shrines and domestic altars among New York City’s Italian Americans. As a young ‘‘urban folklorist’’ at the onset of my career and new to the practice of fieldwork—ethnographic...

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‘‘Sunday Dinner? You Had to Be There!’’: The Social Significance of Food in Italian Harlem, 1920–40

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pp. 11-29

Many immigration historians have emphasized that the family has been socially and psychologically central to the Italian-American experience. Accordingly, different scholars and observers pointed out that the relevance of food habits and food rituals in Italian-American culture is related to a strong family ethos. The private ideal of a rich family life, symbolically represented by the familial consumption of food, is portrayed as lying at the core of the Italian-American...

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Cuscuszu in Detroit, July 18, 1993: Memory, Conflict, and Bella Figura During a Sicilian-American Meal

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pp. 31-48

I have always known about cuscuszu. A unique and difficult-to-prepare ceremonial dish found on the coastal province of Trapani in northwest Sicily, cuscuszu is a version of the North African grain delicacy couscous. Brought to the island in the ninth century by the Saracens1 who ruled for more than two hundred and fifty years, couscous became localized as...

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The Italian Immigrant Basement Kitchen in North America

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pp. 49-61

For many Italian North Americans, the basement kitchen is the social center of the home. Less formal and often more spacious than the rooms upstairs, this is where Italian women typically prepare food, families gather for dinner, entertain guests, and celebrate holidays. The basement is also where Italians make tomato sauce, preserves, and sausages: a workplace where...

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Creative Responses to the Italian Immigrant Experience in California: Baldassare Forestiere’s Underground Gardens and Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers

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pp. 63-81

Baldassare Forestiere’s Underground Gardens and Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers are two works of ‘‘grassroots art’’ that express the conflicted and often bifurcating experience of Italian immigration to America. Under a ten-acre parcel of land in rural north Fresno, California, Baldassare Forestiere (1879–1946) dug more...

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Landscapes of Order, Landscapes of Memory: Italian-American Residential Landscapes of the New York Metropolitan Region

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pp. 83-160

In June of 2004, The New York Times reported that the fig trees in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn were dying.1 Accompanying this horticultural death was another transition. Like the fig trees, the elderly Italian-American people who tended them were also gradually disappearing from the neighborhood. The article demonstrated what most residents of the New York tri-state area...

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Locating Memory: Longing, Place, and Autobiography in Vincenzo Ancona’s Sicilian Poetry

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pp. 107-131

In his Sicilian language poem ‘‘Chi vita fazzu’’ (‘‘The Life I Lead’’), the late Vincenzo Ancona contemplated his retirement in Brooklyn, New York after two decades of working in America. In particular, he reflected on the miniature tableaux he had created by weaving multicolored telephone wires into...

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Valtaro Musette: Cross-Cultural Musical Performance and Repertoire Among Northern Italians in New York

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pp. 133-152

In 1936, an immigrant from the town of Borgotaro in Italy’s Emilia region opened the Val-Taro Restaurant and Bar at 869 Second Avenue, between 46th and 47th Streets, New York.1 The club was located in the heart of a tight-knit Northern-Italian community in Manhattan’s Turtle Bay neighborhood. The club...

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Italians in Public Memory: Pageantry, Power, and Imagining the ‘‘Italian American’’ in Reading, Pennsylvania

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pp. 153-169

‘‘Two-Ton Tony Likes Berks Spaghetti’’ headlines a photograph of national boxing champion Tony Galento in a 1939 issue of the Reading Times (Berks County, Pennsylvania) newspaper. A local girl, holding a banner advertising ‘‘Holy Rosary Greater Italian Day’’ stands beside him, while Galento stuffs a huge forkful of pasta into his mouth.1 How was it that 50 years after the mass immigration...

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Changing St. Gerard’s Clothes: An Exercise in Italian-American Catholic Devotion and Material Culture

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pp. 171-187

Devotion to St. Gerard Maiella in Newark, New Jersey is more than 100 years old. It was first brought to Newark during the great migration of 1880–19241 when large numbers of Southern Italians, my own ancestors among them, came to Newark from the regions and provinces in which St. Gerard lived his life. Places such as Potenza province in the region of Basilicata,...

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Cursed Flesh: Faith Healers, Black Magic, and (Re-Membering) Death in a Central Italian Town

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pp. 189-196

This chapter is equal parts: commemoration of a deceased brother-in-law, Giuseppe (Pep) Poldi; personal journal; and ethnographic voyage into death and cultural darkness. Although I turned to the theme of death with dread—approaching the coffin with great caution, so to speak—I also knew I could not avoid the topic indefinitely. It required understanding and closure. This...

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Imagining the Strega: Folklore Reclamation and the Construction of Italian-American Witchcraft

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pp. 197-214

The expansion of Neo-Paganism and revival Witchcraft1 in North America is among the most interesting outgrowths of the contemporary ‘‘New Age’’ movement.2 Italian folk magic is among those which have received considerable attention, spawning a proliferation of books, Web sites, and small groups of practitioners. Still, these reclaimed magical practices bear only...


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pp. 215-246


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pp. 247-248


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pp. 249-257

E-ISBN-13: 9780823249114
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823232659
Print-ISBN-10: 0823232654

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2010