Were You Always an Italian? , by Maria Laurino

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Were You Always an Italian? , by Maria Laurino

Hardcover - 219 pages
First Edition, July 2000
ISBN 0-393-04930-2

            The story starts several generations ago in Avellino, Italy, with the account of a marriage and an immigration to America. After three pages the story jumps to 1973 -- Maria Laurino is in junior high gym class in Short Hills, New Jersey, and she is uncomfortably aware that the other girls are staring at her because she has hairy legs. This ironic transition invites us into the personal thoughts of an adolescent embarking on "the elusive search for the past, the journey to understand the self" [30] while she remains resolute not to forget "the dangers of selective nostalgia." [31]

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The complete title of the book is
Were You Always An Italian? -- Ancestors and Other Icons of Italian America

            The Laurino family lived literally on the "wrong" side of the tracks in a town where the socioeconomic classes happened to be separated where the railroad passes through. When Maria wandered to the other side, she would soon overhear conversations about "those smelly Italians", after which she would rush home and splash lemon-scented perfume all over herself. She resorted defensively to trying to take some comfort in the fact that the nearby town of Millburn had an Italian-American ghetto where there lived people who were even worse off.

            It was years later, when Laurino took as job as a reporter and political speech writer, that she had the opportunity to meet New York Governor Mario Cuomo . Contributing the title for the book, Cuomo asked her, "Were you always an Italian?" -- "With childlike guilt, I shook my head no." [37] The Governor lectured her about ethnic self-hate, helping her to make the leap toward reconnecting proudly with her family's heritage.

            Maria Laurino began vacationing in Italy every year and imbuing herself with Italian culture. She had a one-year "silly youthful romance" [88] with a lawyer she met there. Her mother would say, "I'm embassassed to tell my friends that my daughter is dating someone named Fabrizio." [77] The daughter became wiser, however -- not only in finally recognizing her gentleman as an egocentric mama's boy who complained about her cooking, but also wiser in completely embracing her other national heritage with deep sincerity as well as intellectual comprehension.

Table of Contents

Were You Always An Italian?
by Maria Laurino

     Beginnings 	 13
     Scents		 16
     Tainted Soil	 30
     Clothes		 54
     Rome		 77
     Words		100
     Bensonhurst	121
     Faith		156
     Work		175
     Ancestors		188
     Beginnings 	215

     Acknowledgments	217

            Now Laurino is able to enlighten us about the tactics of bigotry and how it takes root. She criticizes certain sociologists who generalize that Italian-Americans are "amoral familists", invoking the word family as "a euphemism for the Mafia." [40] Laurino tears apart the claims of Edward Banfield , chairman of a government committee on urban affairs during the Nixon administration, whose books promoted the stereotype of Anglo-Saxon morality versus the "amorality" of other population groups, and which blamed the problems of black communities on the residents' personality characteristics rather than poverty and discrimination. [42-43] She exposes the damage done by the entertainment business, such as the idiotic role of Vinnie Barbarino played by John Travolta in the 1970s TV show, Welcome Back, Kotter. [153] The author quotes and confirms the observations made by Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb in their book The Hidden Injuries of Class , that people disadvantaged by an unjust system of class division often fail to blame the system itself, but instead attempt to achieve relative status by judging or blaming one another. [145]

Reviewed by Mike Lepore for
crimsonbird.com

            Most other sections of Were You Always an Italian? are less polemic, and humor lightens the matters of serious weight. By the time you finish the book, you will know, when you want to insult someone in Italian, whether the word stunod or gabbadotz is more appropriate to the situation, and you will know whether you are pronouncing the word with the northern or southern dialect. One of the funny anecdotes relates the story of an Italian citizen who used a regional derogatory term for black people while visiting another province, causing a confused police officer to take a written complaint against an eggplant. [113]

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Were You Always an Italian? , by Maria Laurino

            The book is as candid as a personal journal, occasionally as sharp as an investigative reporter's exposé, and always warm towards the humanity in us which we should always cherish.


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Book Description from the Paper Cover

"Were you always an Italian?" was the question with which then-governor Mario Cuomo greeted journalist Maria Laurino. The question struck home. Laurino was exploring the governor's ethnic roots, yet only a few years earlier she had contemplated chopping the vowels off her name.

In this thoughtful, penetrating, and hilarious examination of third-generation ethnic identity, Laurino dismantles the stereotypes bedeviling Italian-Americans. With a sympathetic but clear eye, she writes about guidos, bimbettes, and mammoni (mama's boys in Italy). She examines the clashing aesthetics of Giorgio Armani and Gianni Versace, and unravels the etymology of southern Italian dialect words like gavone or bubidabetz. And, careful to avoid the perils of nostalgia, she explores the pungent influence on her life of Italian attitudes towards family work and faith.

Maria Laurino is a journalist and essayist living in New York City. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including the New York Times and the Village Voice.

"Laurino takes us on a journey of exploration of the Italian American experience with intelligence and love."
-- Helen Barolini

"Finally, someone has had the intelligence and the honesty to go beyond the stereotypes, not only the usual negative ones (Godfather, angry guido) but the too-easily-accepted sickly sweet positive stereotypes -- earthliness, the Renaissance, wonderfulness of family. Ms. Laurino's book is so completely original and informative."
-- David Chase, creater/executive producer, The Sopranos

"This absorbing book explores the emotional markers of an Italian-American heritage. One of the powers of Italy is the magnetic pull toward home felt by anyone with a drop of Italian blood. Equally strong can be the desire to escape 'the black-cloaked peasant' past. Maria Laurino navigates between these forces with humor and wisdom."
-- Frances Mayes

"In the best essayistic tradition, this is a delightfully companionable book: warm, skeptical, intelligent, and gracefully written. Maria Laurino has made a fine contribution to the literature of American ethnicity."
-- Phillip Lopate

"Maria Laurino is a lovely writer, full of wit and grace, often sharply funny, and brilliant on the contradictory aesthetics of Italian culture and its impact on American -- especially Italian-American -- life. This book offers a unique and pleasing synthesis of autobiography and cultural history, taking on the concept of ethnicity with irreverent bravura. It will delight, inform, and amuse readers on many levels."
-- Jay Parini

"Maria Laurino writes with intelligence, authority, and passion on a subject that has been all too often mispresented -- namely what it means, in a host of ways, to be an Italian-American."
-- Sandra (Mortola) Gilbert


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