Italian Folk: Vernacular Culture in Italian-American Lives

Italian Folk: Vernacular Culture in Italian-American Lives

Italian Folk: Vernacular Culture in Italian-American Lives

Italian Folk: Vernacular Culture in Italian-American Lives

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

Folklore must not be considered an eccentricity, an oddity or a picturesque element, but as
something which is very serious and is to be taken seriously
.

ANTONIO GRAMSCI, “OBSERVATIONS ON FOLKLORE”

Their [the descendants of Italian immigrants] italianità—where it has persisted at all—resides in
the humble details of everyday life, not in the glories of any nation or its state.

DONNA GABACCIA, ITALY’S MANY DIASPORAS

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 research with living people—Vincenza was everything I could have hoped for. A diminutive septuagenarian wearing a floral house dress and slippers graciously greeted me at the door of her finished basement kitchen in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where she spent most of her days. At first blush, I couldn’t help but view her as “a little, old Italian lady.” She was classic, I thought.

Vincenza was the perfect person to interview for my documentation on religious material culture. She had assembled and maintained an altar in her bedroom, complete with embroidered cloth and photographs of her extended family tucked in the crooks of the multiple plaster statues of the Virgin Mary and the saints. She had told me on the telephone that she had “received the grace,” a miraculous intervention that had saved her young son’s life several decades ago.

It was too good to be true. I felt as if I had hit the jackpot by arranging this interview. I gloated. I knew exactly what to expect.

As I sat at the kitchen table and began setting up my tape recorder, Vincenza shuffled toward me, asking in her pronounced Brooklyn accent, “Do you want some coffee? I made these cookies this morning.” Ah, I thought, I know the routine, the cultural script I had learned as a child: Say no to be polite, and then she’ll ask again. The norm for this obligatory ritual was an exchange in triplicate: offer-decline, offer-decline, offeraccept. My God, I thought, this is like “Italian-American Folkways 101.”

“No, thank you. I’m good,” I answered.

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