Friday, October 1, 2010

An Offer I Could Refuse

I just received my renewal for my Sons-of-Italy membership, and along with the regular paperwork was a plea for donations. The substance of this letter was rather odd. It stated that historically Italian-Americans were treated poorly, second only to African Americans, but thanks to the efforts of the Sons of Italy they weren't lynching Italians anymore, which I suppose is a good thing, though I really wasn't living in fear of, nor had I even considered taking precautions against that possibility. According to this letter we Italian-Americans owe our lynch-free existence to the efforts of the Sons of Italy and their on-going efforts to eliminate the association of Italian Americans with the Mafia, Cosa Nostra, and or organized crime, and quelling this association is something we Italian-Americans should be passionate about. It was an ill-conceived letter that trivialized the actual historical significance of the Sons of Italy.

I have to say that my passions are infinitely more stirred at the thought of revisionism and the dilution of historical facts in the name of political-correctness, than they are by the fear that someone might incorrectly identify me as the descendant of a mobster. As far as I know, most of my family was not involved in organized crime, but I feel pretty certain that organized mafia-like activity had a great deal to do with my family's entrance into the United States in that they had the help of a godfather-like figure known as a padrone who secured my Great-Grandfather a position with a bakery, and provided him with information so that he could book passage and enter the United States.

A padrone, though not necessarily connected with a particular family or "syndicate" was a man who helped laborers or tradesmen and their entire families to come to the United States. The padrone would act as banker, loan office, travel agent, interpreter, and legal counselor for these immigrants. Often dishonest, he rented out the immigrant's services to line his pockets, and paid the immigrant a mere pittance. The padrone might also take advantage of the ignorance of his immigrants by selling them groceries at grossly inflated prices. If an immigrant had a skill, other than a laborer, or was of an entrepreneurial-bent the padrone might help the immigrant land a position or start a business with the expectation of an on-going percentage of the profits.

The Sicilian Mafia certainly was a large part of the Italian-American lifestyle in all of the major cities, along with similar organizations like the Neapolitan Camorra gangs, the thing is, the bulk of the Italian population was made up of victims of these groups, rather than members. Though organized crime may have provided resources to immigrants that otherwise would have been completely unavailable to them, and so-called mobsters put themselves in the position to do favors for otherwise law-abiding Italian businesses that enabled them to thrive in the repressive anti-Italian, anti-immigrant climate of the time, the kickbacks and protection money placed a crippling burden upon them. Those Italian-American businesses that succeeded did so in spite of, rather than because of these organizations. Fortunately legitimate institutions such as the Sons of Italy also began to spring up around the turn of the last century to work to better the life of the early Italian immigrants by providing them with articulate leadership, responsible representation in civic matters.

The Order of the Sons of Italy in America (OSIA) was founded in 1905 by Dr. Vincent Sellaro, its principal organizer; Giuseppe Carlino, a sculptor; Pietro Viscardi and Roberto Merlo, two barbers; Ludovico Ferrari, a pharmacist; and Antonio Marzullo, an attorney at law. Their aim was to create a support system for all Italian immigrants that would assist them with becoming U.S. citizens, provide health/death benefits and educational opportunities and offer assistance with assimilation in America. They established free schools to teach immigrants English and centers to help them become U.S. citizens. They established orphanages and homes for the elderly, life insurance and mortuary funds, credit unions, welfare societies and scholarship funds to aid members in need. During World Wars I and II, OSIA members bought war bonds and war stamps to support the war effort, and lodges competed with each other to contribute the most money to the Red Cross. In World War II, the OSIA Supreme Council (national officers) issued a resolution urging members to donate one day's salary to the national defense, and to date, OSIA members have given more than $93 million to educational programs, disaster relief, cultural advancement and medical research.

There are certainly many reasons to give generously to the OSIA, but I don't think that anti-defamation efforts against mafia-stereotypes and boycotting "The Soprano's" have kept my neck out of the noose. And though it is true that very few Italian-Americans have any connection at all to the Mafia or Organized crime, it is still part of our heritage, and I embrace it, after all, it's Italian.

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